Pick of the week: A beast, a god, a line at Para Site, Hong Kong

16 March 2018

By Mark Rappolt

Nguyen Trinh Thi, Letters from Panduranga (still), 2015, single-channel video. Courtesy of the artist

Curated by Para Site director Cosmin Costinas, A beast, a god, a line is a sprawling exhibition (containing work by no less than 55 artists and artist groups) that made its debut at this year’s Dhaka Art Summit and now comes back home to Hong Kong (where the not-for-profit has had to hire extra space to accommodate it). Its subject is sprawling too. On the one hand, the exhibition uses art to map the maritime circulation of objects of people in the (trade) region known as Asia-Pacific. On the other hand, it interrogates recent contemporary art as a symptom of a process of globalisation that is now crumbling (and asks what might replace that quasi-utopian drive). But perhaps, more importantly than that, for anyone wanting to quickly (if not always easily) bone up on the most current concerns of thinkers and artists in the region, it tracks many of today’s hottest topics: migration (forced and otherwise), decolonisation, the decline of liberal democracy and the (largely attendant) decentralisation of culture. 

Within all this, the trade in textiles plays a key role, not least in Austrian artist Ines Doujak’s ongoing work Loomshuttles/Warpaths (2010–18), which explores the links between textiles, colonialism, violence and exploitation. Other highlights include Paul Pfeiffer’s extraordinary video Incarnator (2018) in which Justin Bieber is placed in a lineage of Catholic saints venerated in the Philippines and traditionally ‘incarnated’ by local woodcarvers (when I was watching it in Dhaka, two young girls wandered in during a sequence featuring the carvers, exclaimed “it’s just some guys making sculptures” and left just before footage of Bieber in concert came on: sad); and Nguyen Trinh Thi’s single-channel video Letters from Panduranga (2015). Based around an exchange of letters between two filmmakers, the video investigates the history, people and culture – which, in the case of the matriarchal Cham Bani, includes burying the dead on the chests of their deceased mothers – of the last surviving territory of the ancient kingdom of Champa (conquered by Vietnam in 1832, Champa once occupied the central and southern areas of the country and its historic heartland, Ninh Thuan, is now threatened by the proposed construction of two nuclear power stations). ‘The more personally I get to know the Cham, the more confused I’m getting,’ one of narrators says of their engagement. That might also be a cipher for the experience of the show itself. But stick with it and you’ll learn more than you think, and be able to impress your neighbours with your knowledge of ‘the issues’ at one of the many dinners that will decorate your Art Basel Hong Kong experience in a little over ten-days-time. See this show and people will believe you’re an expert before you do yourself.

A beast, a god, a line runs from 17 March to 20 May at Para Site, Hong Kong

Online exclusive published on 16 March