Virtue Village, a Hong Kong-based artist duo formed in 2020, comprising Joseph Chen and Cas Wong, takes its name from Chun Seen Mei Chuen (zan1 sin6 mei5 cyun1 真善美村), where the two artists live. “We are a couple and we have been living together in one of the oldest housing estates in Hong Kong,” says Wong. “The English translation of the Chinese name of our community is ‘truth, kindness and beauty.’ These are virtues we are supposed to pursue in life.”
The notion of spirituality and cult intrigues the artist duo. “There are many religious symbols around the housing estate – many neighbours place statues of Chinese deities and altars outside their homes,” notes Chen. That informs Virtue Village’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong as the artist duo reimagines the idea of a village from a cultural perspective, rather than as simply a physical place – a timely reminder that there are diverse modes of existence, and any supposedly ideal way of living is a social construct.
“We are actually referencing the cult village in America in the 60s and 70s, and also the gay village, where a particular group of people belong to the same niche culture and they want to escape from mainstream civilisation,” says Wong. “We want to turn this exhibition space into a village that we imagine in post-human narratives in which we blur the lines between humans, animals and machines.”
The artists envision the visitor experience of this show as the process of one’s self-discovery and coming of age. It is a journey of exploring one’s fantasies in a safe space. “In this exhibition, we investigate different kinds of fetish, desire and pleasure among the queer community,” says Chen. “We are playing with imagination through practice-based research but we are not trying to be didactic. We try to relate our work to our ancestors and our community and try to reimagine how our desire can be re-fabricated in the context of Hong Kong now.”
The exhibition, titled Virtue Village: Village Porn, runs until July 2 at PHD Group. “We are entering an era [where] humans and animals and machines can be hybridised into cyborgs,” says Chen. Building on anthropological perspectives, the artists explore the idea of liminality and transition. The prefix “trans” in words such as “transformation,” “trans-human,” “transsexual,” “transgender” and “trans-species,” implies that there are various stages of rites of passage when something changes from one form to another.
In terms of gender and sexuality, Chen further notes that there are many types of lifestyle choices in LGBT communities. He points out that there are some people in the queer community who strive to be accepted by heterosexual society – something of which he is critical. “Their mindset turns normative, like they want to have one-on-one marriage, have babies like straight couples, but they sort of forgot that our ancestors seem to have more diversity in their lives,” says Chen. In a way, the artist duo’s work interrogates the ideologies inherent in perceived social norms, human relationships and biological essentialism.
Chen and Wong make the case that marginalised communities should reclaim the way they are represented and speak out for themselves. That’s particularly true in the art world, where for centuries women were subjected to the male gaze, and more recently, male curators still hold disproportionate power. Marginalisation exists even within marginalised communities: Chen and Wong note that some LGBT exhibitions focus mainly on gay male artists, while failing to include lesbian women or transgendered people.
But the artists are quick to note that they aren’t advocating for any particular kind of politics. “I think this exhibition can go beyond LGBT issues,” says Wong. “Most people who come to the show are straight. What they can take away is that fluidity is very important. In this village, we want to find a common ground for everybody and this is what all humans should think about instead of just focusing on their own selfish thoughts. The only way to do that is to escape from the current mindset of the binary. Once you realise and learn about queerness and fluidity, you won’t be stubborn any more.”
“We just want to show our lives to people,” adds Wong. “During our art practice, we collaborate with different people no matter their sexuality. We have collaborated with artists ranging from asexual to lesbian. Aesthetically, in our practice we use a lot of found materials and even garbage from the street.” Unconventional materials in the gallery include soil with live plants, which line the floor along the wall near the entrance of the exhibition.
One highlight of the show is “Machinal Dysphoria” (2022), an installation at the centre of the gallery that explores performative desire between humans and machines. Made in collaboration with artist Aka Chow, the work consists of a segment of a motorcycle tied up and suspended to the ceiling with a pink rope. It showcases the similarities between machines and humans, especially when the form of the machines resembles certain body parts. The motorcycle even seemed to have a life of its own: Wong recalls that during the installation, part of the motorcycle fell when Chow was tying knots to hoist it from the ceiling. The artists decided to treat the machine as if it were human and allow it to stay in its resting position on the ground.
The choice of the motorcycle is a tribute to biker culture, with its undercurrent of reclaiming masculinity, and a reference to car shows and the way they channel human desire towards machines. Chen notes the preponderance of female models at car shows, and how some men even refer to their car as their wife. All of this is subtext in “Machinal Dysphoria.”
Car culture plays a role in another work, “Amyl Volatility” (2022), an installation nearby consisting of two heart-shaped iron duct flanges with quilted black polyurethane car seat fabric on the surface. The shape is often associated with the kitsch, pop symbol for love, and the rusted texture of the metal gives the appearance of decay. By juxtaposing masculine and feminine elements, Virtue Village explore the dialogue between them.
This exploration continues in a painting named “Village Intruders” (2022). The work depicts an anthropomorphic figure with a human head and a braided pigtail, but a scorpion-like body with a locket around its neck. It is walking a dog. The background resembles blue sky and green grass. According to Virtue Village, the painting is the depiction of everyday life in the “village” – queer figures the artist duo created and imagined. Although these characters have no specific gender assigned to them, Wong reveals that, “We have a cat that’s biologically male but we gave it a girl’s name. We like to play with the gender mixture.”
Village Porn is the first solo exhibition at PHD Group, which opened earlier this year. Willem Molesworth, who co-founded the gallery with Ysabelle Cheung, says Virtue Village are “a perfect fit” for a few different reasons, including “how extremely community-oriented they are, particularly within the subculture scene and the performance art movement that’s happening now.”
Cheung says they also liked how Virtue Village are “rooted in the community context of Hong Kong.” With a relatively international programme—about half the gallery’s artists are from overseas—she and Molesworth thought it was important to start with a show that reflects the local scene. “Younger artists in Hong Kong are engaging in far more performance work these days than ever, and that will become more apparent towards the end of the show,” says Molesworth. Virtue Village will be doing a series of large, immersive performances with plenty of collaborators – truly living up to their name.
Virtue Village: Village Porn is on show at PHD Group until July 2, 2022. Click here for more information.