Pain and Peace in Michele Chu's Installation Art
Michele Chu's immersive solo exhibition you, trickling (20 March–27 May 2023) at PHD Group, a gallery housed within a repurposed rooftop clubhouse in Hong Kong, is a meditative and emotional journey.
Michele Chu, twisting, turning belly button (2022). Cast bronze, handmade copper, jump rings, lace, ribbon, safety pins, freshwater pearls, salt. Dimensions variable. Exhibition view: you, trickling, PHD Group, Hong Kong (20 March–27 May 2023). Courtesy the artist and PHD Group, Hong Kong. Photo: Felix SC Wong.
Documenting the artist's grief surrounding her mother's terminal illness, you, trickling threads emotions of anxiety and serenity with acts of destruction and repair. The exhibition unfolds a series of rituals not unlike those experienced at a Japanese bathhouse.
Entering the space, viewers can pull back a flesh-coloured curtain, walk through a misty corridor, light an incense stick with candlelight, and carry it into a tunnel formed of dark orange gauze.
From behind the gauze, a recording of the artist reading a self-written poem can be heard. Words describe the passage of time between birth and death, the exchange of roles between the caregiver and cared for, and the pain and reluctance of letting go.
Lines from the poem double as titles for exhibited works, which, along with the artist's heavy-hearted feelings, are scattered across the exhibition space.
Among them is glimmer in your eye (2023), Chu's mother's favourite work. The installation includes emulsion lifts of family photographs and close-ups of skin on broken glass pieces, with the artist's hair, menstrual blood, nails, and cigarette butts sealed in chunks of resin.
The edges of these glass shards are soldered, alluding to a repairing process that recalls the Japanese craft of kintsugi. Hung with pearl-threaded chains to create an exquisite curtain, the shards cast ethereal shadows on the wall.
Similar objects appear in wooden drawers appended to a wall in into tears, into salt I and into tears, into salt II (both 2023). Here, they are dusted in a sheen of white salt, symbolising evaporated tears. This work seems to depict a scene many years on, perhaps referencing the serenity that might come over time with the acceptance of pain and grief.
Chu's PHD Group installation represents the artist's attempt to reckon with her personal life...
Alongside works focusing on repaired fragments and family memories are those that explore the concepts of birth and origin. Placed in a corner of the room is twisting, turning belly button (2022), a bronze cast of Chu's navel suspended by copper chains with a pyramid-shaped mountain of fine white salt resting underneath.
Lace, pearls, and safety pins attached to the chains metaphorically reunite the navel and umbilical cord. The artist says the work speaks to the initial separation from our mother after birth—the cutting of the umbilical cord—while reminding us of the imminent second separation, prompting us to repair the bond.
At the centre of the interactive installation seeping (2023), a massage bed invites viewers to lie face down and release their emotions. A structure of copper pipes crawls up the walls around the bed with taps connected at various heights. Water drops splash into buckets, the sound creating a composition that is both meditative and clinical.
The massage bed can also function as an operating table, while the water drops echo an intravenous drip. In this sense, seeping dramatically turns the rituals undertaken upon entering the exhibition into those performed in hospital spaces. This is reinforced by a series of nickel repoussé hanging in the corridor that trace the artist's mother's blisters, rashes, veins, and scarring from medical treatments.
Chu's installation recalls her previous large-scale work inti-gym (2021), included in the group show emo gym (2022) at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong. There, skin-coloured fabric was used to construct a passageway that people could enter from either side and meet at a midway point, where a thin layer of fabric formed a dividing screen, with prompts provided for them to connect.
Contrasting the social nature of inti-gym, Chu's PHD Group installation represents the artist's attempt to reckon with her personal life—what amounts to an intense, cathartic release in her art-making process that foregrounds the artist's loneliness while providing a space for her emotions to rest.
That said, while Chu's previous interactive installations favoured one-to-one connections, you, trickling is accessible to a larger group of viewers, offering a communal experience that invites healing and empathy. —[O]