Take Off That Garish “Garland”

Hiram To at Amelia Johnson Contemporary

“Garlands,” exhibition by Hiram To.

Amelia Johnson Contemporary (G/F 6-10 Shin Hing Street, Central, Hong Kong). Jun 28–Jul 28, 2012.

Hiram To’s exhibition “Garlands” was secretive: so exclusive that it had a private language of its own. As the starting point for the narrative, the artist interwove childhood memories of his mother with an outsider — 1960s Hollywood star Judy Garland.

Two series of works were on display on two floors of Amelia Johnson Contemporary, forming parallel narratives. Garlands focuses on photography. The artist photographed his mother striking various iconic Judy Garland poses from the 1954 classic A Star is Born. Before a Technicolor background she offers up various exaggerated guises, and though the make-up cannot hide her age, her eyes sparkle, betraying her enjoyment. This series of portraits was printed on glitter covered canvases, and has an indescribable lushness. Vessels was displayed on the top floor of the gallery. The artist printed images of his mother’s flower arrangements onto mirrors covered with a thin white layer of plaster, with the exposed slivers reflecting a silvery light.

The commonality between the two exhibits could be found in a group of glassware displayed on the lower level (which have all featured in Mrs. Lai’s flower arrangements in the past). The vessels were filled with dyes that are the same color as those in the Garland portraits. This installation was placed below eye level, and echoed the bright hues of the portraits in the distance.

Two small mixed-media collages that center on old black and white posters served as a “prologue” to the exhibit, but as they were relatively monochrome, they were not usually noticed by onlookers until the end, and were more of an “epilogue.” The images incorporated elements from the exhibit: Judy Garland, children, home, and ikebana.  Strings of tiny beads superimposed on the images map the coordinates of time passing. Tiny notations mark privately significant dates, like the artist’s birthday, or the month and year of Judy Garland’s visit to Hong Kong, and so forth.

Random visitors to the gallery would feel like strangers barging into the artist’s life. One requires intuition and investigative skills to understand the content and minutiae of the exhibit, turning the act of viewing the exhibition into an analysis of the artist’s emotions. With the loudness of the Garland pieces, the artist expresses his infatuation with the bygone golden years of Hollywood. At the same time, the excessively bright colors also serve as an indictment of his obsession.  Once the interwoven threads connecting Hiram To’s aesthetics are untangled, the incomprehensibility of the images gradually become readable. At a second glance, all that was left of Garland was a hoarse, fading melody.

Ed. After contact by the artist, this article was amended 12 November to state “glitter covered canvases” instead of “beaded canvases” and to change one of the work media descriptions from “plaster” to “gesso”.

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