A voice soars in scaled legato; an 'ah-ah-ah' that makes the exhibition entrance feel like a sonant mouth. The refrain comes from Philippine artist Eisa Jocson's Zoo (2020), a durational performance commissioned by Hong Kong's Tai Kwun Contemporary for curator Xue Tan's exhibition My Body Holds Its Shape (25 May–20 September 2020), which lures visitors into the museum's F Hall.
Some might recognise this siren's call from Disney's film The Little Mermaid (1989)—the song that the mermaid Ariel sings when she surrenders her voice to sea witch Ursula in exchange for human legs. As I approach, listening, the body that sings drags itself near me. As I write, they stop, mouth agape, head tilted, eyes large. 'Are you making a drawing?' they inquire in a cartoonish pitch. The gaze returned, disquiets.
In her 1968 work Sleepwalkers (aka Zoo Mantras), Italian-American artist Simone Forti worked with movements based on studies of animals in captivity at a Rome zoo. Jocson's Zoo, as she describes it in an interview with Tan published in the show's pamphlet, centres instead on observations of Hong Kong's Disneyland, where racialised 'Philippine performers are usually hired to fill in supporting character roles like a zebra in Lion King or a monkey in Tarzan.'
Art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson has written about the 'striking' connections that Forti's Sleepwalkers makes with other minimalist dances in its milieu, which focus on the task-based movements of workers. By association, Forti's choreography connects these factory movements for efficient production with the way zoos habituate animals to certain behaviours for human entertainment. Jocson reinvigorates this connection by combining the movements of zoo animals and theme park animal performers in a Disney-like spectacle, while reflecting on human confinement caused by Covid-19.
A large, flat screen shows visitors two different perspectives of Jocson streamed live from a small room in Manila where, while still under one of the strictest Covid-19 lockdowns in the world, residents learned of presidential approval given to an anti-terror law many fear will be used to attack opposition activists. In simultaneous resistance and resignation, Jocson sings and speaks in the manner of Disney characters, acknowledging visitors who pass in front of a camera that streams back to her.
Jocson's work with live physical and virtual bodies activates F Hall, itself a space of in-betweenness that connects the Herzog and de Meuron addition for Tai Kwun's JC Contemporary to the heritage space of the former British colonial-era Victoria Prison. It is important to Tan that visitors are not only made aware of F Hall's past, but attuned to its historical charge. Her curatorial text writes poetically about the 'metaphorical shape of a body' she sought in curation and the transformation of the space from a printing house in 1900 to a confinement space for female inmates.
.pullherawaypull. (2020), a commission by Berlin-based Georgian artist Thea Djordjadze, is an architectural subtraction that cuts a wide section from the wall perpendicular to that hosting the entryway. Covered with tempered glass and framed by polished steel panels, the puncturing niche opens the large room onto a narrow corridor where barred windows look out onto the former prison yard, now a highly surveilled public space. In Needle (2020), Djordjadze uses a series of nested cylinders hung from the ceiling to create a 12-metre-long pointer that directs visitors from F Hall's entry to this new observation window, rendering passers-by captive for someone else's entertainment.
It is important to Tan that visitors are not only made aware of F Hall's past, but attuned to its historical charge.
'You would stare at all these movements, fall into a daze, and time would seem to drag out,' Tap Chan recounts in an interview with Tan describing her behaviour during a period of persistent insomnia provoked by pressures at work. In Speed of Night (2020), two Jesmonite cylinders cut across respective corners of the room like the beams of light that Chan says she fixated on in restless nights. Each is painted with a black line that spirals around the cylinder as it spins on itself. The deep hum of the motors is both soothing and unsettling.
Similarly self-contradicting, a flat screen propped vertically against a column rests in electric death in American artist Jason Dodge's collection of objects for Darkness falls on the house at the end of Mang Kung Wo Road, in Hong Kong (2020). A series of potentially luminous, but not operating, elements include bulbs of various sizes, form, and wattage; industrial halogens, tube lights, string lights; cigarette and gas lighters, candles, tea lights; a large flat screen TV, and an electric kettle, the odd one out among the group for its suggestion of ingestion—the gut rather than the eye.
Dodge's installation folds space and time between Tai Kwun Contemporary's monumental location in Central district and a house in Sai Kung at the end of a remote road that winds from a harbour into the hill. That distant site, which the artist invites visitors to imagine, both contrasts with and complements this former ceremonial and carceral space: domestic isolation rather than institutional seclusion; dense vegetation instead of concrete conduits crowded with bodies.
The summoning of other spaces that feel like they could be here but are elsewhere, is a conjuring that Tan repeats with Pratchaya Phinthong's Who will guard the guards themselves? (2015), which includes a surveillance video installed on a wall directly outside the exhibition entry. The small black-and-white video shows an empty plinth in a gallery space that visitors expect to encounter once they venture into F Hall. The empty plinth, viewers discover by reading the wall label or the show's pamphlet, is the location where Phinthong first exhibited the light box, at a gallery in Thailand.
A light box mounted in front of Dodge's objects shows a night-time photograph of the iconic Japanese-owned American-brand 7-Eleven, closed for business but lit up in the dark under bundled stretches of electric cable on an empty street in Bangkok. The photograph was taken by Phinthong the month the Thai military seized control of the country in its twelfth takeover: May 2014, when the 2007 constitution, drafted by the military and contested for giving too much power to extra-parliamentary actors, was suspended. The desolation feels fixed, indicative of a static despondency that feels familiar.
The resonances of seismic events, whose reverberations are both felt and mirrored from context to context, is centred in Phinthong's Fork (2020), commissioned for Tai Kwun Contemporary. Supported in the middle of the space by a metal wire, a 1.5-centimetre-thick panel of melted lead from dismantled, unexploded American bombs found in Laos stands upright. International media have circulated stories about the repurposing of these bombs, in particular as jewellery and as supports for stilt houses. Phinthong's panel neither transforms the material into an accessory nor appropriates it for architecture. Instead, it is presented in a state of its impact: a skin of pock-marked metal that puckers, undulates, and peels onto the floor.
As Hong Kong struggles with the threat of Covid-19 while trying to understand its future in relation to the new national security law passed in Beijing, My Body Holds Its Shape encourages empathetic connections between places and bodies by occupying space and interacting with visitors responsively. Tan's experiential approach is an important experiment for Tai Kwun Contemporary, and for the heritage complex as a whole, as it develops new cultures of care for its city through curation.—[O]