The Traces on the Wall

“Writings without Borders”

Lehmann Maupin Gallery (Hong Kong) (407 Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, Hong Kong) May 22–Aug 24, 2012.

After being scoured by the waves of humid, hot air and the routine rush of exiled office workers outside the Pedder Building, one finds the rainbow-hued print by Barbara Kruger printed with “When was the last time you laughed?” timely. With a resistance to falling into a chicken-soup-for-the-soul reflection moment, the gaze switches to Tracey Emin’s embroidery work “Is This Love” (2012) where the interweaving of zaffer and navy blue on calico and the phrase “so what” grasps the most attention. In contrast, rather inconspicuously at one end, keywords of porn genres and sexual contents in the doodling of public bathrooms construct the wall-paper-like floral patterns of Tseng Kin Wah’s work, “MomnFDad” (2013), a black-and-grey flower field filled with a semantic flux of sexual desire, conjuring the form of botanical sexual organs.

The viewer cannot help but notice “Hong Kong 2009, No. 1” (2009), in which Zheng Guogu depicts the busy intersection between Des Voeux Road and Pedder Street — where the gallery is located. At this boisterous junction in Hong Kong, people pass each other like bubbles, the velocity minimizing their attention span, while on top of the bustling street are colorful texts revolving around celebrity chatter and astrology forecasts from gossip magazines. All these spectacles of personal fates — the main concerns for a lot of people — are accentuated in bright colors, waiting for a cognitive knee-jerk: this is what builds the tabloid industry and its visual identities in the form of font styles and colors.

Zheng Guogu, “Hong Kong 2009, No.1″ oil on canvas, 185 x 316 cm, 2009 (Photos courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong)

Higher up on another wall, He An continues his work with neon light where names and slogans are highlighted by illumination. “I Hate Owning and to be Owned” (2013) is a LED light-box installation resembling a neon sign formed by lines and angular turns that are unintelligible at first glance. When looking closer, you will see it is a mutilated, textual form of the work’s title in Chinese. The line may come from the film The English Patient (1996) or is perhaps a slice of his own personal enlightenment.

Pak Sheung Chuen’s piece is too easy to miss: it is made up of a line of text in black, in English and Chinese, on a beam within the space. The work attempts to build a Borromean knot between signifiers: the word “moon” shares a phonetic likeness with “fullness” in Cantonese, while the image of “O” in “moon” coincides with the pictorial concept of a full moon.

Some works are phototropic, while some face towards the dark. Teresita Fernandez’s “Night Writing (Tropic of Capricorn)” (2011) is a inkjet print of a night sky infused with purple aurora (which happens to looks like many computer screensavers). The constellations are replaced by orderly round holes based on night writing — a system of codes which is a the predecessor of Braille. The repetition of white symbols forms a fog on Shirazeh Houshiary’s “Chasm” (2012), a bluish painting with painted marks that look like a fissure . Machine-embroidered images in “The World Word Series (Religion as Weapon)” (2012) depict scenes with short phrases that look like proverbs or slogans. “Four Plays” (2012-2013) is a set of photographs by Robin Rhode. With street wall spaces as his canvas, the artist draws illusionistic images imitating movements of an abstract basketball-like shape in the air.

Robin Rhode, “Four Plays,” black & white print, 16 parts, each: 41.6 x 61.6 x 3.8 cm overall dimensions: 182.4 x 262.4 x 3.8 cm, edition of 5, 2012-2013 (Photos courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong)

For an exhibition with “writing” in its title, works with text are expected – especially when we know that, just like death, language is a participant in contemporary art, just as we are speaking beings defined by death. Language is staged in the exhibition as a medium of ideas and expression — the material of conceptual art. Apart from direct interrogation or provocation of the audience through text as in Kruger and Tseng’s works, most of the works have their own linguistic agenda: the work by Shirazeh Houshiary focuses on the accumulative materiality of language manifested by the repetitive difference in visual and tonal forms; the strata formed by the eye-catching texts and painted scene on Zheng Guogu’s work stage a material vision which makes reading a form of seeing; looking at the fragments of ourselves through the holes of Teresita Fernandez’s écriture nocturne may remind people of the imaginary order (where our desires is linked to a lack of being), which is related to the mirror stage and structured by the symbolic — a linguistic dimension.

The overexposure of text in this exhibition is anticipated and inherits some ideas from the linguistic turn, responding to the theme of writing and inscription denoted in the exhibition title while interweaving a nice visual dialogue. The play between different languages (Chinese, Arabic, English…) and the materiality and sense data in the exhibited works attempt to form a multitude of voices in order to break the limitation of writings, at least to shatter the wall of language. Although an investigation into a plurality of language games seems to be taking place in this exhibition, the contemplation of “writing” in the show is reduced to texts and words. Humans are already spoken by language when they speak, as their possibility of enunciation is always restricted by a codification of the linguistic machine, and subjects (at least in the Lacanian sense) are subordinated by the absolute alterity of the Other; some even tell us there is no prelinguistic “reality,” as language is always one of the boundaries of thinking and writing. Rethinking writing by staying with texts probably will not bring about its deterritorialization, as text-based works are not immune to the economics of negativity in language, but are instead part of it. The borders of writing are fortified by the walls of texts.

Borders to a certain extent bring up a sense of space – though this is not physical, the borders being manifested in the physical space of the exhibition site. All the exhibited works in this exhibition are two-dimensional pieces on walls — which sounds like a direct transference of the writing surfaces to an exhibition space. The imaginary neutrality propped up by the physical flatness acts as a smooth space which provides an illusion of freedom. However, this universal grammar of space raises a red flag to what Brian O’Doherty criticized about white cube spaces, in that they actually override and predetermine writing in a spatial sense.

Yes, “we feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom”. (Slavoj Zizek, transcript of his talk at Occupy Wall Street,

Kin-Wah Tsang, “MomFDad (Black & grey on white),” silkscreen and acrylic on canvas, 122 x 122 cm, 2013 (Photos courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong)
Tracey Emin, “Is This Love,” embroidered calico, 126 x 143 cm LM16883 © Tracey Emin 2012 (Photos courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong)
Shirazeh Houshiary, “Chasm,” pencil and pigments with black and white aquacryl on canvas and aluminum, 190 x 190 cm, 2012 (Photos courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong)

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