Hong Kong Funfair: Journey into Daphné Mandel’s Imaginary City

With two shows already under her belt, Daphné Mandel wants her third exhibition to pack an extra punch. Hong Kong Funfair continues Mandel’s ongoing enquiry into the Hong Kong cityscape, bringing together Mandel’s mixed media work with a new video by up-and-coming artist Thomas Tawanda Orbon.

Mandel has worked as an architect and landscape designer, so she interprets the city with a planner’s mind, focusing on history, geography and scale. But there’s a twist. “I started developing this work when I came to Hong Kong – when I was an outsider,” she says. “I saw a patchwork of buildings. There is no distance to step back and look from afar, so my work had a lot of front-on views. Mandel began imagining the interiors of those buildings, mashing up real life with make-believe, replacing people with animals for added whimsy.


Wonderland – Fun Fair Series by Daphne Mandel – 2016

The exhibition venue draws a parallel with Mandel’s work. Spanning nine repurposed warehouses on Connaught Road in Sai Ying Pun, Warehouses on West brings creative events to spaces that once housed bike repair workshops and coffee storerooms, reflecting the constantly-evolving faces of Hong Kong’s buildings and shops.

In order to round out the exhibition, Mandel invited Orbon to collaborate with her. She first encountered him when she was invited to visit the graduation show of the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Motion Media Design students. Orbon’s work, which centres around themes of decay, caught her eye. “He captured powerful images of derelict sites in Hong Kong and his videos explored them abundantly,” she says. With her own work taking into account the city’s many layers of construction, Orbon’s visual language was a good match.


Joy ride – Thomas Orbon’s vision of derelict Hong Kong

When Orbon talks about his work, it’s like hearing an echo of Mandel talking about hers. “I like my visuals to be familiar enough that the audience recognises what they are seeing, but with something weird or out of place, so that they can’t quite put their finger on what is wrong,” he says. Some of his favourite haunts include Kuk Po, a mostly abandoned Hakka village in the Plover Cove Country Park, which he captured in Joy Ride, the film he made for Hong Kong Funfair. 

Mandel describes Orbon’s film as “almost aggressive,” which matches the pace of change in Hong Kong. “[It’s] changing quickly without transition, brutal juxtapositions, no preparation – just like a joyride,” she says. Before working on the film, Orbon reviewed a number of Mandel’s finished works, but he also learned more about her creative process. Mandel collects photographs of the city to use as inspiration, organising them according to themes like “landscape” and “layers.” Being privy to this filing system revealed to Orbon the kinds of concerns and thoughts that Mandel filters through before she starts work.

“Her work is my main source of inspiration – it’s a starting point from which she let me go in any direction I chose,” says Orbon. “When I think of a funfair, I think about the motion of the ride. My work should add elements that paintings suggest but can’t execute because of the nature of the medium. It’s all about motion, how the shots move the audience, how the video itself moves.”

That proved to be Orbon’s biggest challenge. “I’m used to slicing things together,” he says, but he wanted this video to be a continuous loop without any evident transitions. That required long tracking shots in order to create a sense of seamlessness. Ideally, Orbon would have used a professional dolly, but instead he hacked together his own, using a trolley and some help from his girlfriend.

Timing was another challenge. Not only did Orbon graduate just a few weeks ago, he has already started a full time job, which limits the time he has to film in daylight, let alone work on post-production. Having so many constraints helped him focus. “I’ve enjoyed having a little direction instead of coming up with something out of the blue,” he says. The 23-year-old already knows that as a recent graduate, too much freedom could be his downfall.

For Mandel, it’s the passage of time that has given her artistic focus. “I think my work has a stronger relationship to the place now [that] I know it better,” she says. It also means she has a better understanding of the whimsical make-believe cityscape she has invented – and enough confidence to invite someone else to take part in it. But blink and you’ll miss it – the pop-up show is for one day only.

Hong Kong Funfair takes place on Thursday, 5 May 2016, from noon to 7pm at Warehouses on WestG/F Kwan Yick Building, 158A Connaught Road West, Sai Ying Pun. 

More about Daphne Mandel and Thomas Orbon


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