Marfa’s Mysterious Lights Come to Hong Kong

Wong Kit-yi has always been fascinated with myths. Her previous works have ruminated on Chinese necromancy and ancient Greek healing. Her latest obsession is the Marfa lights: mysterious orbs of multi-coloured lights that dance across the Chinati Mountains near Marfa, a small desert town of less than 1,800 inhabitants in the Chihuahuan Desert of Texas, not far from the border with Mexico.

First observed by cowhand Robert Reed Ellison in 1883, the Marfa lights have long been weaved into local folklore. Some say they are Mexican ghosts, others UFOs, yet others radioactive jackrabbits. Now Wong is looking to put forward her own theory. The lights are “angels” and “messengers” that one can only see with their “third eye,” said to be located between our two eyes; it is a concept of enlightenment or higher consciousness shared by several Asian religions, including Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism.

 

That theory is posited in Dial 432 to See the Light (2024), a video essay inspired by her experience at the Chinati Foundation, a former US army base converted by famed American artist Donald Judd into an art space in 1986. (The title refers to 432, the area code for Texas.) Marfa’s mythical side was certainly bolstered by Judd’s arrival. “He was seen as this mythical figure coming here to make art,” says Wong. “People started to create myths around him, saying that he killed chickens in some sort of sacrificial ritual. I’m very drawn to the co-mingling of the place’s military history with minimalist art history.” 

This commingling is seen in Wong’s 32-minute video, which is on display at the artist’s solo exhibition +852 Ghost-JPG at PHD Group, which opens March 23. The artist ruminates on Judd’s love of bagpipes, such as those used in funerals and other ceremonies, including the handover of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997. If bagpipes are played at funerals, are they apparatuses to access another dimension? The artist tested this out by constructing her own bagpipes, which she used to attempt to “open her third eye.” The bagpipes are constructed out of white trash bags, a nice if not subtle tribute to Judd, who incorporated found objects such wood and baking pans into his works. 

Wong Kit-yi holding one of her white trash bags used for her own bagpipes,  at PHG Group, 2024 – Photo by Onn Sek for Zolima CityMag

Wong employs what she calls “speculative imagination,” and her goal isn’t to demand answers to the questions she raises; her works probe ideas with tongue-in-cheek wit and subversive humour. That gives them an air of accessibility despite their sometimes weighty content. In Marfa, one of Wong’s friends made a comment about his in-laws’ desire to find a final resting place, which inspired research into the town’s different cemeteries, leading to the discovery that they reflect decades of racial divisions. Her video also dives into the forgotten Chinese workers who built the Southern Pacific Railroad, as well as the migrant children who, forced to give up Spanish at school, organised a mock burial for their native tongue. It weaves together a long history of segregation and racism, but is also asking: is it still happening today? 

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Wong studied painting at the Chinese University of Hong Kong before doing an MFA in sculpture at Yale University. She now lives in New York City, where she has taught at the School of Visual Arts for the last six years. It is often difficult to classify her art. She makes videos, although her videos are often accompanied by live performances, by herself or others, which she dubs “karaoke lecture performances” – a vessel to hold her research, ideas and stories.  

Having seen a few of her works, one might consider her a video artist, or perhaps a performance artist, but she still sees herself as a sculptor. “Writing the video scripts is a way for me to really think [things] through,” she says. “I’m editing and cutting it like a sculptor.”

If classification isn’t necessary, there is one thing that underpins her approach: her works are often animated by, the unknown and unseen. Wong’s interest in the mythical perhaps stems from her childhood. Her parents were property developers who would consult a feng shui master before they began a project. When she was studying at Yale, she enlisted the help of a feng shui master to improve the design of her studio so she could become a better artist. Feng shui is a system based on the Taoist view of energy, and Wong’s has often explored such occult ways of thinking. 

So what about her “karaoke lecture performances”? One of her works, Inner Voice Transplant (2022) was made shortly after Wong’s mother was diagnosed with a rare lung disease. It is an example of the “karaoke lecture performances” that Wong likes to employ, using karaoke-style subtitl

es, where text changes from one colour to another as it accompanies a voiceover. “I want to inject information into somebody’s brain,” Wong quips, who says she is making viewers’ eyeballs “run.” At times, the text illustrates the visuals, but at times, they don’t, creating a kind of “dual narrative” that makes the viewer question: which narrative is the more important one? 

By turns deadpan informative and macabrely entertaining, Inner Voice Transplant pieces together mankind’s quests to heal themselves, including Timothy Heidler, the first ever person to get a voice box transplant in 1998, and healing temples in ancient Greece, where pilgrims are lulled into a hypnotic state and visited upon by Asclepius, the Greek God of Medicine. There is also a segment about her mum’s illness. It’s poignant but not excessively sentimental. Instead, that experience led the artist to question whether healing is always a “possible or an appropriate goal.”

“Sometimes I feel like the word healing is beginning to seem like a generic over-the-counter medication that can be thrown at any problem,” said Wong in a lecture. “It can make us get caught up in yearning for an idealised norm that never existed.”

In her videos, Wong’s narrators often speak English with “neither a British nor American” accent. “I want to challenge the hierarchy of accents,” she says, adding that she is proud that she still speaks English with a Cantonese accent. For Dial 432 to See the Light (2024), she enlisted a performer who speaks with a Chinese accent but also a slight Singaporean accent to do the narration for the video. 

Her exploration of different accents isn’t as much artistic as it is political. As a sculptor, she sees the human voice as a sort of sculpture – as it travels through our body, it is shaped by various organs of speech but also our individual accents and inflections, which ultimately sculpts the delivery of a message. 

The “+852” in the title of Wong’s latest work references the Hong Kong area code, and is a tribute to the city she grew up in. Despite having lived in the United States for the most part of the last 13 years, Wong says she is still a Hongkonger at heart, fascinated by its layers of histories that continue to haunt the city and its inhabitants today. It could even be that a show about the mysterious lights in a small Texan town could help illuminate histories and events nearly 13,000 kilometres away.


+852-GHOST-JPG opens at PHD Group with a special reception from 11:11am to 11:11pm on Saturday March 23, 2024. Daily performances featuring Wong Kit-yi and others will take place every day from Monday March 25 to 30. Visitors can make an appointment to visit through
PHD Group’s website.

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