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On Sediment and Seepage: Ho Sin Tung at Hanart TZ Gallery

Emily Verla Bovino
Hong Kong
31 January 2020

The metaphorical 'swamp' of corruption is often invoked in reports on Hong Kong property dealings; but the city's geography is known more for its rocks than its wetlands. The histories of some of its districts, however, tell tales of malarial swamps—life-threatening and valueless— transformed into profitable land deadened with infill for speculative development. Evocatively somnambulant and richly saturated, Hong Kong artist Ho Sin Tung's Swampland, a solo exhibition at Hanart TZ Gallery, quietly alludes to the city's concrete-surfaced wetlands amidst references to the boggy political slough that recent social unrest has struggled against.

Exhibition view: Ho Sin Tung, Swampland 沼澤地, Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong (9 January–29 February 2020). Courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery. Photo: South Ho Siu Nam.

A room of the artist's older works—not part of Swampland and not selected by Ho—posit her as a young established artist, known for intricate pencil drawings composed like one-sheet posters for imagined cinema classics. Saturnhouse-Five (2016), inspired by the 1972 Slaughterhouse-Five adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's sci-fi novel, is a drawing of the ringed planet surrounded by invented cinema 'stars'. Mounted inside a specially crafted movie-house frame that announces, 'Now Creating' instead of 'Now Showing', it hangs across from Thin Veiled World – Frankensticker (of the series 'Thin Veiled World', 2014), another fictitious classic. In this drawing, a female figure stands in a red, coffin-shaped frame with tiny drawings of facial features, fingers and nipples, fields of pixels, and an x-marks-the-spot, variously taped to her body like the colourful mosaics of sticky-notes associated with Hong Kong's 2014 Umbrella Movement. Cinema seeps into drawing, but in this older work the fantasy remains in pencil-on-paper. Swampland, on the other hand, expands notions of drawing beyond the page in its engagement with the ontology of swamps, escaping boundaries with thick imaginings.

Exhibition view: Ho Sin Tung, Swampland 沼澤地, Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong (9 January–29 February 2020). Courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery. Photo: South Ho Siu Nam.

This formal overflow creates a scenography of sorts: geometric designs inspired by the sets of murdered Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo (1975) and Arabian Nights (1974) are present in the form of heat-transfer prints on carpet (1000 Nights After, 2019; and 1000 Nights Before, 2019). But these are iterations of a previous installation, Last Party (2016), while Same Old Sweet (2019) is radically different for Ho: found containers—one in the shape of a human head—hold candies and pills the artist conserved after they were given to her as gifts. The long-expired consumables were melted and kneaded with clay to create fecal forms that—as Ho details in the exhibition catalogue—made her nauseous as she sculpted them. Like the carbon-sequestering swamp whose slow-moving waters and dense vegetation trap organic matter in decay, Same Old Sweet captures the affect of decomposing relationships within her.

Ho Sin Tung, Same Old Sweet (2019). Exhibition view: Swampland 沼澤地, Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong (9 January–29 February 2020). Courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery. Photo: South Ho Siu Nam.

The show is conceptually viscous, moving between the personal and the political, this world and the beyond. In the top half of three large-format pencil drawings—Futile Devices (2019); Death with Dignity (2019); Mystery of Love (2019)—the artist portrays the same smooth surface meticulously textured in graphite and ink wash, covering the ground with crackless paving. There are perturbing disruptions over these surfaces—a rush of roaches scurrying, the rubble of ruins, and a spectral brood of confused hens—but the ground underfoot is always still. The agitation portrayed in characters on a silent street corner, on the hill of a lonely homestead, and in fractured monuments, takes on the appearance of being the effect of musical notation and lyrics drawn by Ho in the lower half of the compositions. The arrangements, ballads of mourning by singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens after which these three drawings are titled, play the part of the covered swamp bubbling up from below.

Ho Sin Tung, Death with Dignity (2019); Dead Skin (2019); Mystery of Love (2019) (left to right). Exhibition view: Swampland 沼澤地, Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong (9 January–29 February 2020). Courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery. Photo: South Ho Siu Nam.

Swamps are dense with symbolic associations. 'My swamp is not heroic', artist Lara Favaretto wrote about the one she built for the Venice Biennale in 2009. Vanished geopolitical entities are the anti-heroes of Ho's Dead Skin (2019): nine 'ghosts' made from sheets hand-painted with designs from the flags of nine disappeared territorial claims, including Manchukuo and British Hong Kong. Positioned like trick-or-treating children interrupting the exhibition, their cut-out eyes supplicate. In Over (2019), a set of nine inkjet prints hung high on a gallery wall, other eyes peer down—they are the fixed gazes of nine 'last rulers' including the last emperor of Qing Dynasty China. A solitary eye in an oval frame, swollen and weary, belongs to Chris Patten, British Hong Kong's last governor.

Ho Sin Tung, Futile Devices (2019); 'Over' (2019); Dead Skin (2019) (left to right). Exhibition view: Swampland 沼澤地, Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong (9 January–29 February 2020). Courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery. Photo: South Ho Siu Nam.

Conceived for Hanart TZ Gallery's location in Central district's colonial-era Pedder Building, Swampland softly dredges historical sediment, summoning emotional seepage from within and delighting in shifts of perspective that require close-looking. The six small drawings that comprise Your Blood is Green and That's Okay (2019), for example, associate a sequence from the manga Sailor Moon (1992–1997) in which the female protagonist is wounded, with 16th-century paintings of Thomas the Apostle examining the resurrected Christ: fingers inspect vagina-like wounds that ooze green, blue, and pink. In Mystery of Love (2019), broken bodies of a sculpted lion and bull recall the iconic bronze lions (1935) and water buffaloes (1987 and 1988) commissioned for Central district by Hong Kong Shanghai Bank (HSBC) and Hongkong Land respectively. Finished at the end of 2019's anti-ELAB (Extradition Law Amendment Bill) unrest at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the drawing is a preemptive vision of the 2020 New Year's Day action when one lion was set on fire.

'Oh, to see without my eyes', Stevens' lyrics lament, notated in Ho's eponymously titled drawing. The red moon Ho draws to preside over the destruction of colonial emblems is actually the earth. —[O]

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