Soil and Stones, Songs and Souls

An examination of the various infractions and refractions that shifts in global capital have wrought on landscapes

By Ming Lin

Li Ran, Beyond Geography, 2012, video installation, H D video, sound, colour, 23 min 9 sec. Courtesy the artist and Kadist, Paris and San Francisco Jimmie Durham, The Isle of Man, 2016, mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City


Para Site, Hong Kong 18 March – 11 June 

Para Site, one of Hong Kong’s oldest nonprofits, has evinced a sustained commitment to the East Asia region, often attempting a nuanced local–global dialogue and usually managing to skirt binaries with finesse. In signature fashion, Soil and Stones, Souls and Songs features artworks by both local and international artists spanning a wide date spectrum, alongside some objects – folkloric renderings, assembled propaganda pamphlets and other historical documents – that might otherwise be considered beyond the scope of artworks. Conceived as a ‘traveling and transforming exhibition based on several intertwined narratives found today in the realities, artistic and cultural production, and contemporary thought in the Asian sphere and beyond’, Soil and Stones... seeks to examine the various infractions and refractions that shifts in global capital have wrought on landscapes, both real and imagined. The exhibition unfolds as a series of case studies that sit neatly and obstinately within an essaylike framework.

A large shrine, complete with fake food offerings, sets the tone for an inquest into recent histories along the urban-rural fringe of the Pearl River Delta.

In addition to Para Site’s usual one-storey exhibition space, Soil and Stones... extends to a second floor and the building’s rooftop. The first of those three spaces is used to articulate the central thesis of the exhibition, namely that geopolitical transformations in East Asia have impacted traditional physical and mental geographies, and immediately confronts the viewer with works composed of materials that adhere to one’s expectations of what allusions to indigeneity and native land-use should look like. Jimmie Durham’s The Isle of Man (2016) appears as a totem with a sheep skull as its head, and Haegue Yang’s The Intermediate — Domestics of Double Eggy Swirls (2017) is an intricately crafted sphere that spirals inward on itself. Further along, Meschac Gaba’s braided hairpiece sits like an unearthed ceremonial relic, with metal coins dangling from each plait. These works trouble any notions of untouched cultural regimes; instead they invoke something closer to the hybrid. A car mirror juts out of the side of Durham’s sculpture, while Yang’s organic-looking woven orb is in fact made from plastic straws. Gaba’s headpiece too is a wig composed of artificial hair. Video artist Li Ran’s Beyond Geography (2012) further problematises any antiquated colonial perspectives of otherness as the artist himself, only thinly disguised, poses as an anthropologist observing a group of exotic natives against a blue screen.

Standing physically and aesthetically apart from the main exhibition, in the next room, ‘A Tale: The Land of Fish and Rice’, a case study curated by Qu Chang, serves as a proverbial footnote. A large shrine, complete with fake food offerings, sets the tone for an inquest into recent histories along the urban-rural fringe of the Pearl River Delta. Presented in various groupings, local artists’ works mingle with historic documents and YouTube videos that reference movements formed to resist private land-developers in Hong Kong’s New Territories over the past decade. The materials here are presented as tools for research. Their status, suspended between art object and artefact, however, renders the invitation somewhat disingenuous, assigning an overly factual status to the works. Hong Kong artist Lo Lai Lai’s Weather Girl – Halo Daisy (2016), however, evades the didacticism with a blithe and abstract video-tutorial on how to read the weather using Real Feel, a system that indicates what the temperature actually feels like on the body as opposed to abstract scientific measurements.

Neatly delineated case studies convey an empiricism that removes the fissions and fractures that such momentous changes in geopolitical landscapes bring. In reality, such splits are neither smooth nor rational. 

On the lower floor, the exhibition trails into the hallway with Hong Kong artist Ocean Leung’s untitled found object: the threadbare remains of a local pro-Beijing banner. Inside the second room are further ruminations on the struggles Asian countries have faced in anti- and postcolonial struggles, as well as their attempts to generate their own counter-mythologies from such spectres. Curator Yoonwoo Lee’s case study ‘The Phantom Modern’ traces the ways in which the ghosts of imperialism have worked their way into the contemporary imaginary with an assortment of propaganda materials alongside videoworks by contemporary artists who seek their own reflections in these mirages.

A consequence, perhaps, of the exhibition’s broad-strokes narrative (designating analogous movements sweeping the Asian region) is that the exhibition itself tends to feel broad, making the plot hard to follow. The attempts to grapple with different intersecting and diverging currents resulting from ideological change are a good start, but the essay format comprising various supporting sections curated by different curators reifies a hierarchical structure where certain forms of vernacular knowledge-making become mere footnotes. Neatly delineated case studies convey an empiricism that removes the fissions and fractures that such momentous changes in geopolitical landscapes bring. In reality, such splits are neither smooth nor rational. Nevertheless, Soil and Stones... has made important inroads in a city that is often lacking a more robust archival and pan-Asian discourse. The hope is that others can continue the process of writing and revision where it has left off. 


From the Summer 2017 issue of ArtReview Asia