Critics’ Picks

Bernd Behr, Amoy Gardens (detail), 2003-07, 35mm slide projection and audio.

Bernd Behr, Amoy Gardens (detail), 2003-07, 35mm slide projection and audio.

Hong Kong

“A Journal of the Plague Year”

Para Site
22/F, 677 King's Road, Quarry Bay Wing Wah Industrial Building
May 16–July 20, 2013

“A Journal of the Plague Year. Fear, ghosts, rebels. SARS, Leslie and the Hong Kong Story” is a sprawling exhibition. It includes a permanent space and two offsite installations: Ai Weiwei’s Baby Formula, 2013, a powdered map of China made from milk tins (referring to the trend of mainlanders buying milk powder abroad to ensure quality over local, melamine-tainted versions) is presented at the Sheung Wan Civic Centre, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s video Morakot (Emerald), 2007, a tale of unrequited love told over specks of dust floating in an empty motel room is perfectly installed in a fifth-floor flat.

At Para Site, the exhibition is as dense and affecting as a wunderkammer filled with objects that instigate fear. There are historical artifacts, such as late-nineteenth-century to early-twentieth-century American anti-Chinese propaganda as well as archive images of the Bubonic plague in Hong Kong in 1894. Other references to infestations include James T. Hong’s Germ Warfare, Victim’s Peasant Shoes, 2013—a pair of slippers supposedly tainted with a virus unleashed in China by the Japanese during World War II—and a publicly funded full-page announcement in a local tabloid positioned against invading mainland Chinese “locusts.” In the context of SARS, the most chilling work is Bernd Behr’s Amoy Gardens, 2003–07, a slide show that showcases the residential block where alleged faulty plumbing caused the virus to circulate incessantly.

Local pop idol Leslie Cheung plays a key role in concluding this twenty-first-century Hong Kong narrative. Artist Lee Kit remembers him in a karaoke video installation, 1987–2003, 2013, recalling Cheung’s tragic death when he jumped off the Mandarin Oriental building in 2003. His funeral drew one of the largest public turnouts since the SARS crisis began and represented a collective moment for Hong Kong that would later inspire the widely attended protest against the state’s repressive Article 23. In this narrated history, death ultimately begets defiance.