It’s a bit ironic that Leung Chi-wo couldn’t wait for the opening of The Mills Gallery to mount his new exhibition, Tracing Some Places. Instead of a site-specific show that uses the former textile mile to speak of Hong Kong’s industrial history, Leung and curator Angelika Li have created a new space in Sheung Wan that seeks to foretell.
For Li, the textile industry is an inalienable part of Hong Kong’s development. Community and a sense thereof, its redevelopment and its nourishment, will be the beating heart of The Mills Gallery. It’s a good match for Leung’s work, which explores themes like history, memory, temporality, movement, paradox and identity. Li commissioned two new works for the solo exhibition: Frater and Untitled (Roses), both of which tie back to Hong Kong’s industrial past.
Tracing Some Places references Hong Kong’s history and touches on politics; it’s very much about the city’s identity. It neatly encompasses the gallery’s mission and dedication to preserving the cultural identity of Hong Kong and in so doing, generating new meanings and understandings. Leung himself represents an important part of Hong Kong’s art history. He is one of the co-founders of Para/Site, Hong Kong’s first contemporary art institution, and in 2001 he became the first artist to represent Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale. He is likely an important part of Hong Kong’s artistic future, too.
The varied body of the 14 works that make up Tracing Some Places includes photographs, videos and multi-media sculptures as well as oil rubbings and wooden engravings that date back to 1996. Leung appropriates his medium accordingly for each project, reminding us both of the rapidly changing landscape and the things within it that never change. Li describes him as both a historian and an artist. While the two commissioned pieces call upon memories and histories of the textile and manufacturing industry, histories in the exhibition are manifold – within each work and in reflecting Leung’s oeuvre.
Despite growing up and receiving most of his education in Hong Kong, it was in Europe that Leung developed his interest in contemporary art. “I place an importance on learning, developing and absorbing my surrounding space,” he says, explaining the focus on Hong Kong. “Maturity has provided a sense of awareness, on how to deal with my creative interest within the changing environment,” he adds.
The most impressive piece, “Frater,” is a modified Brother DB2755 sewing machine – the same model once possessed by Leung’s parents, who worked in garment factories when he was a child. “I was not interested in it as a child,” he says. “I saw it as a piece of furniture, but later I came to understand how expensive it was.” In this exhibition, it has another role. “It forms a connection with the heritage of the old cotton mill and my personal history,” he says.
The search for the machine was difficult. Leung eventually found it on Tai Yau Street, which is coincidentally where his father worked in 1967, during a series of leftist riots sparked by labour disputes. In Frater, the machine becomes both a timekeeper, sewing holes once a minute, and a kind of tribute – the holes go through a reel of 35mm film depicting flowers. The mindless punching through film slowed to a safe pace demarks a repetitive and thoughtless action perhaps highlighting the repetitive pains of manufacturing. “I noticed that although the sewing machine was a productive tool, it could be violent when operated at full speed,” says Leung, noting that when the machine is slowed, this strength is completely hidden. “The notion of violence and conflict is something that I have been interested to explore in my art,” he says.
Several works in the exhibition refer to political incidents in history, implicitly touching on violence and conflict. In discussion, however, Leung reveals another personal dimension to the history. “My mother’s recollection of the events was surprisingly calm,” he says. “She simply recalls bus strikes and that my father had to spend an hour walking to work.”
Small details like this bring home the concepts in each work, allowing the viewer to engage and interact with history. Coins with significant mint dates act as buttons on interactive works, triggering lights, sound and action. “Bright light has much the same effect as ice” centres around historical records of Hong Kong’s coldest weather spell, in 1893, when temperatures at the Hong Kong Observatory fell to the freezing mark. A refrigerated button made from a coin minted in 1893 is icy cold to the touch and the frost that forms on its surface gives an alien sensation for those who engage with it.
For Leung, it’s a way to bring Hong Kong’s many overlapping histories to life. “I guess a sense of helplessness and loss has been prevalent for a lot of people in Hong Kong, particularly when we see how little has been done to save our heritage,” he says. “Culture is formed by means of accumulation and that takes time and effort. I think we have a long way to go.”
Leung Chi Wo: Tracing Some Places runs until January 9, 2016 at The Mills Gallery’s pop-up space in The Annex, 2/F, Nan Fung Place, 173 Des Voeux Road Central. Click here for more information.