The first thing you see when you step into Gordon Cheung’s new exhibition is a series of decorative window grilles. They resemble the kind found on Chinese homes for centuries, only these are slightly misshapen and organic in texture, as if they have emerged naturally from the earth. Closer inspection reveals they are handmade. But from what?
“I used bamboo and covered it in strips of the Financial Times,” says Cheung, a British artist who was born in London to parents from Hong Kong. The FT is one of Cheung’s favourite materials, from the days when he was an art student at Central Saint Martins in the 1990s and found himself fascinated by the paper’s stock listings, which seemed to distill so much of the world’s socio-economic condition into a code of numbers and letters. “It became my pigment and technology became my brush,” he says.
Cheung has been working on the screens for about five years, and this is the first time they are being shown in public. He likes the way they form a kind of permeable barrier, and he likes the contrast between the hard financial data that forms their structure and the weathered appearance, like “driftwood weathered by this meteorology of information.”
The screens are just one part of Cheung’s inaugural Hong Kong exhibition, Home, which explores questions of identity and belonging. In one corner of Galerie Huit’s expansive space in Ngau Tau Kok, Maoist propaganda posters are projected against a billowing sheet, their pixels deconstructed and rearranged according to an algorithm. A soundtrack plays of Cultural Revolution songs slowed down dramatically, in the style of vaporwave, the mock internet genre of music that turns recognisable songs into eerie soundscapes. “It becomes quite melancholic,” says Cheung.
Home also features a series of mixed-media paintings that focus on the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, often juxtaposed with the bucolic landscape of traditional Chinese landscape paintings, which were sometimes a critique of the shifting terrain of power in imperial China. These works are also made with strips of the FT, along with sand that Cheung mixed with paint to give his landscapes an ambiguous quality.
Although Cheung has never lived in Hong Kong, his parents both came from the New Territories — his mother is an indigenous villager — and he has always felt a strong connection to this place. “Hong Kong has always felt like home,” he says. He also felt pulled towards Chinese painting, and with China’s rise in economic and geopolitical clout, he felt compelled to explore his cultural heritage. “I feel like a witness to history,” he says.
That becomes clear in the paintings. One of them is an aerial view of Shenzhen based on imagery and maps from Google Earth — an unreliable source, given how China restricts access to geographic data by foreign companies — with the singular tower of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange rising from an otherwise flat terrain. “It looks like a sword,” he says. The sand makes the landscape appear as if it is shifting. “It’s almost got this sense that things will eventually collapse.”
China’s transition from a Maoist command economy to a kind of state-directed capitalism is another theme that keeps cropping up in Cheung’s work. That’s true even of a painting that depicts a vase of flowers, in the manner of a still life from the Dutch Golden Age – an era around 1600 that is generally considered to be birth of modern capitalism. In the painting, the vase sits on one of the artificial islands that China has built in the South China Sea in an attempt to assert its sovereignty over a vast stretch of ocean, a move that is motivated in large part by the prospect of oil, gas and mineral wealth.
One of the more poignant works in the show features a nail house of the sort owned by families that resist development in China. It’s a commentary on the precarious nature of belonging, but in general, Home raises more questions than it answers, its layers of meaning shaped and reshaped like sand in the tide.
It’s a bit like Cheung’s relationship to Hong Kong. Growing up, he often visited the city with his parents. “We used to come back during the really hot weather so I kind of hated it,” he says with a laugh. His parents have now retired and moved back to Hong Kong, so he visits regularly. It reminds him of the courage it took his parents to uproot themselves and move to the UK, in the hopes of offering their children a better life.
Cheung says he is not sure whether he would be willing to do the same – to move his practice to Hong Kong, for instance. “I’ve considered it,” he says. “But it would be a big decision.” Sometimes home is clearest when seen from afar.
Home runs at Galerie Hui until January 11, 2019. Click here for more information.