The artistic duo Zheng Mahler’s latest show at PHD Group invites audience members to become bats. Even if you adore the flying mammal, What is it like to be a (virtual) bat? isn’t for the faint of heart. As Royce Ng, one half of the duo, puts it, “to experience the ontology of another being is not going to be a walk in the park.”
He brings up the 1997 comedy horror An American Werewolf in Paris: “That transformation into a werewolf is violent, bodily horror, a transgressive experience. It’s not like, fun, ta da!” When What is it like to be a (virtual) bat? was first exhibited at Mainz, Germany, some viewers had to halt their experience due to dizziness.
First commissioned by Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (IFA) in Germany during the pandemic, the exhibition is inspired in part by Thomas Nagel’s 1974 paper “What is it like to be a bat?” in which he argues that consciousness isn’t replicable, and thus, one can never know the experience of another in its entirety. Three decades on, with the acceleration of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, one can’t be too sure.
There is also a personal dimension: bats populate Mui Wo, on Lantau, where Ng and Daisy Bisenieks — the other half of Zheng Mahler — live and work. In fact, they are a common sight outside their kitchen windows when evening falls.
Zheng Mahler make use of virtual reality technologies to explore if one could know what it is like for a bat to be a bat, to paraphrase Nagel. Bats navigate their environment by a process called echolocation, a process by which animals emit sounds to determine their location. Using ultrasonic microphones, the artists recorded sounds of various bats on the island and turned their research into a virtual reality experience. This will attempt to “instigate a sensory shift, from visual perception to a completely aural sense of the world,” says Bisenieks.
The artists also draw parallels between the “becoming” they are trying to instigate and deity practice in Tibetan Buddhism, where practitioners visualise the deity they want to embody. This is most apparent in the series of porcelain tiles that deck the walls of the gallery, featuring images from the VR work, which acts as visual aid in guiding the viewer during the process of becoming a bat.
These and a two-dimensional video serve as an introduction to the VR work, which visitors experience in a viewing room at the back of the gallery. Without revealing too much, the VR video is by turns magical, with the imagery doused in brilliant neon hues, and claustrophobic, as viewers are ogled at by flapping bats.
What is it like to be a (virtual) bat? will be the artists’ first exhibition at a commercial gallery. Zheng Mahler ’s projects are usually research-based, and lend themselves better to institutions, but they found kindred spirits in PHD founders Willem Molesworth and Ysabelle Cheung, who aim for the art space to serve as a platform for new ideas and paradigms, not simply a physical space to show art.
Bisenieks and Ng are both from Melbourne. While Ng studied art history and took “a few anthropology courses,” he says, Bisenieks read anthropology and philosophy but also dabbled in art history. They met through common friends around 2005. Their collaboration developed organically. “A lot of times, Daisy would go somewhere to do fieldwork for her anthropology studies, and I’d find a residency in that place. Things will cross-pollinate, which gradually evolved into a collaboration,” says Ng.
The last 15 years have brought them to Kenya, Korea and Thailand, before the duo landed in Hong Kong in 2013. Ng and Bisenieks would make for great dinner party guests, not least because their interests and research span everything from global trade and AI to architecture and inter-species empathy. In conversation, they are articulate but also inquisitive, often answering questions — and at times, reply to each other’s answers — with more questions.
Fieldwork anchors the majority of Zheng Mahler ’s practice, whether the topic is global trade, geopolitics or architecture. In 2013, the artists were commissioned by the Johann Jacobs Museum in Zurich to do an exhibition about economic relations between Asia and Africa. Bisenieks had previously done research into Kenyan traders, and Ng’s background also played a role: his maternal grandfathers migrated from Hong Kong to Mozambique in the 19th century. Their research led them to Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui, long known as a landing spot for migrants and foreign traders seeking their fortunes.
There, they shadowed a Somali trader seeking asylum status. He had discovered that abalone is considered a luxury food item in Hong Kong, but back in his hometown, they are referred to as “cockroaches of the sea.” He trained fishermen in Somaliland to farm abalone and imported buckets of the stuff to Hong Kong. The abalone’s journey doesn’t end in Hong Kong however. After the flesh is consumed, the shells are then shipped to mainland China, where they are cleaned and polished, before they continue their journey onwards to Switzerland, where they are used in ornamental watch parts.
At the Johann Jacobs Museum’s 2014 exhibition A Season in Shell, heaps of decaying abalone shells trace the abalone’s life cycle from Africa to Asia, then to Europe and back to Asia on the wrists of watch wearers. It’s a tale of global trade and the way we all contribute to it in some way. At the exhibition, the audience was invited to touch the shells, with some taking one or two home. For Bisenieks, the act simultaneously exposed the desire to connect with the object’s history, while also generating a sense of repulsion, “knowing that they are implicated in this trade route.” A Season in Shell epitomised Zheng Mahler ’s research-based practice, where rich sensorial experience reveals multiple layers of meanings about our world, the systems and cultures governing it.
Even the duo’s name, which they had to adopt due to the sensitive nature of their research into the abalone trade, points in a poetic way to the layered nature of their practice. While the first half of the name is inspired by Zheng He, the famed Ming dynasty explorer and admiral, Mahler was Bisieneks’ great-grandmother’s suspected Jewish maiden name, which she had to stop using during WWII to avoid persecution.
A Season in Shell also captured Zheng Mahler ’s interest in the non-human. When the artists first moved to Mui Wo, they were interested in how non-human entities have shaped local topography and biodiversity. “What was clear was the competing narratives and attitudes in the same space, and how the [different species] navigate and negotiate [the space and each other],” says Bisenieks. “And there is so much more going on that people deliberately look away from.”
“Or they literally cannot see, because they are so human-centric,” adds Ng.
That led to research into the island’s water buffalos, and turned it into an installation inviting the audience to visually experience the ultrasonic frequencies only buffalos can hear.
At the end of the day, Zheng Mahler ’s art is about shifting us to a perspective beyond what we know as humans. But as humans, is that even a possibility? When What is it like to be a (virtual) bat? was shown in Germany, an audience member asked how someone can possibly know what a bat is experiencing, given that it has an entirely different way of seeing compared to humans. “That’s the point – we cannot know,” says Ng.
“But the exercise of trying is the whole point. At least we can try to cultivate that empathetic imagination,” adds Bisenieks.
And one might just leave What is it like to be a (virtual) bat? feeling a little different than when they first entered. And hopefully, it won’t be due to motion sickness.
What is it like to be a (virtual) bat? runs until November 4, 2023 at PHD Group.
Photos in slider are by Onn Sek for Zolima CityMag and Felix SC Wong for PHD Group