Far From Apart: Nicole Schoeni’s disConnect Brings Art from London to Hong Kong

“The pattern on the stairs – I love this!” 

Nicole Schoeni is marching down four floors of stairs in a 1950s tenement building in Causeway Bay, where her latest show, disConnect HK, is on display. She is in a cheerful mood. Having taken a break from the art world for seven years, the curator is now launching her latest venture, Schoeni Projects, with an ambitious exhibition spanning two continents. 

DisConnect HK follows disConnect LDN, which took place this summer in a sprawling Victorian townhouse in south London. Schoeni partnered with HKWalls for the exhibitions, which feature similar works between the two of them, although the Hong Kong edition has added four local artists: Jaffa Lam, Go Hung, Wong Ting-fung and Kacey Wong. 

Shelter by Isaac Cordal set in London (left) and Hong Kong (right) – Photos courtesy Schoeni Projects

The twin shows mark the grand debut of Schoeni Projects, which has been a year and a half in the making. If the Schoeni name is familiar, it’s because of Schoeni Art Gallery. Founded in 1993 by Nicole’s father, Manfred, it was one of Hong Kong’s contemporary art pioneers and one of the first galleries to work with now-established mainland Chinese artists such as Liu Ye and Zhang Xiaogang. Schoeni took over the gallery after a shocking tragedy in 2004, when Manfred was murdered at his villa in the Philippines. (Three others were also killed; the case was never solved.) She ran the gallery for another eight years but shut it down soon after celebrating its 20th anniversary. 

Schoeni may have taken a break from the art world but art was never too far from her mind. She knew she would eventually plunge back in, though not as a gallery owner. “Running a gallery is such a huge commitment,” she says. “It just wasn’t something I was prepared to take on anymore.” She remembers how, when she took over her father’s gallery, people felt intimidated to walk in. It’s a memory that stayed with her even as Hong Kong’s art scene has grown and evolved. “I wanted to do something that’s a bit more welcoming. Something different,” she says.

I so Late #11 by Go Hung (left), Nicole Schoeni standing in front of David Bray’s installation – Photos courtesy Schoeni Projects

Her opportunity came when Schoeni and her husband found the house in London, where they are planning to move. “It’s this beautiful Victorian house. I didn’t want it to only be a place of residence,” she says. That’s when disConnect was born.

Those in art circles will remark that the art shown at disConnect bears little semblance to the repertoire of the former Schoeni gallery. “I’m very grateful for the legacy that my father has left me, but I don’t want to be pigeonholed,” says Schoeni. Part of that meant showing the works in an unorthodox location. When she brought the show to Hong Kong, that led her to two spaces: the 1950s walkup building and the Sky Garden in the Hysan Place shopping mall, both owned by Hysan, the property developer that owns most of the former Lee Garden estate that occupied the central part of Causeway Bay.

Silent Battle, an installation by Hearakut (left & bottom right in London; upper right in Hong Kong) – Photos courtesy Schoeni Projects

Key to the exhibition is how it leverages the different spaces, including their limitations. In one case, Jaffa Lam’s mixed-media installation “Mini Zen Garden” takes over a bathroom in the building with a punked-up tropical landscape. Fluorescent rocks are placed around the cramped space, with tropical plants installed in one corner; a toilet paper “shower curtain” features some curious looking lines. The rocks were collected near Chun Yeung Estate, location of a Covid quarantine facility in northeast Hong Kong, while the lines on the curtain mimic sand markings in a Zen garden. Taking centre stage is a rocking chair where viewers are invited to relax and ease themselves into a meditative state. 

Go Hung’s “I So Late” depicts objects that we are discouraged from touching due to the pandemic, including doorknobs and basin taps. That they’re crafted from soap is a tongue in cheek reference to today’s attitude to sanitisation: the material makes these objects safe to touch, yet also renders them obsolete.

Kacey Wong’s neo-noir short film The Quarantine also tackles the pandemic, depicting a man meeting a dead fish on an island. It looks at first to be a bleak depiction of our loneliness in a year of social distancing, yet the end is ultimately about freedom. 

Alexandre Farto aka VHILS, Omnipresence Series, Hand-carved old wooden doors (left in London; right, installation view in Hong Kong) – Photos courtesy Schoeni Projects

Featuring cut-outs of various creatures, a chessboard and an archery target, German art duo Herakut’s installation has a carnivalesque air about it. On the walls are various sayings, including “Who can remember a time when we as one species were physically so far apart while mentally so very connected?” There’s also a photo of the duo’s installation in London on the wall, revealing a setup that is markedly different. While the Hong Kong show is bathed in natural light, the London location had half-closed window shutters that filtered the light to cast dramatic shapes and angles on the artists’ cut-outs, giving the works a spooky edge.

This kind of site-specificity is also manifested in Issac Cordal’s works. In the London show, which you can visit thanks to a VR setup at the Hong Kong edition, the Spanish street artist’s mini sculptures are scattered in various locations around the house, with one in the basement, one in front of a cat flap. It’s almost like a treasure hunt as you try to figure out if you’ve found them all. In the Hong Kong show, Cordal’s “Turn everything off but wash your hands” is hung from an exposed drain pipe. It depicts a man lying on a hammock in the style of a face mask. One isn’t sure whether to feel amused or disgusted; it doesn’t help that the figure is lying on the outside, exposed layer of the mask.

The Quarantine by Kacey Wong, installation view in Hong Kong – Photo courtesy Schoeni Projects

Schoeni says one of her favourite pieces in the show is Cordal’s “Shelter,” which features six masked men sitting in a circle, their heads mostly cast down, on a tall pedestal. Cute they might be, the work is a critique of the drudgery of a capitalist lifestyle – apt, considering that it is displayed at Hysan Place, one of Causeway Bay’s tallest skyscrapers, filled to the brim with chain stores and Grade A offices. 

Also in Hysan Place is Adam Neate’s “The Show Must Go On” rug. The title of the work, which is printed on the rug, came from Schoeni’s email signature. “It was what I told myself,” she laughs. “When everything is difficult and nothing seems right. I say, ‘The show must go on.’” 

The show is as much a product of Covid as it was challenged by it. When Schoeni formulated the idea for a show, one of her requirements was that the art needs to respond to the exhibition space—the Victorian house, the Causeway Bay tenement or the high-rise shopping mall—in some way. But the pandemic presents a huge conundrum: how are the artists supposed to do that meaningfully given the restrictions on travel and daily activities? 

The length to which Schoeni and her team ensured that site-specificity was upheld is encapsulated in Vhils “Omnipresence” series of works. In London, the doors connecting the house’s library and formal reception room were dismantled and shipped to Portugal, where the graffiti artist transformed them into canvases on which he carved his signature bas-relief compositions. When he was finished, the door was shipped back to London. A few weeks later, it was in Hong Kong, mounted and blending in its supporting wall.

Isaac Cordal (upper left in Hong Kong; others in London) – Photos courtesy Schoeni Projects

Prior to seeing the show, one might think they’re in for a bleak ride about the state of the world. While there are more austere works, the show as a whole displays a kind of faith in humanity. Schoeni says the show is proof there are ways to remain connected even during a pandemic lockdown. “I call the exhibition disConnect, but in my mind, I was actually thinking of disConnect Connect,” she says, adding “I hope we learn something [from the pandemic]. I don’t know what, but I’d really like to think that. Or else, what had been the point of all of this?” And even though she notes the “world is as divided as ever,” she hopes disConnect will bring a bit of positivity to a dreary year. 

Looking ahead, the curator hopes to host one artist in residency every year, after which the artist’s works will be shown in the UK, her future abode, and “a city in Asia.” Why do the same show in Asia? “I say ‘an Asian city’ as I didn’t want to limit myself,” she says. “But Hong Kong will always be my first port of call. Hong Kong will always be home. It’s my root. That root is the significance.” 

disConnect runs till 29 November 2020 at Tenement 2-4/F 16 Pak Sha Road, and Hysan 9/F Urban Sky, Causeway Bay. For more information about tours and talks visit here.

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