View of “Leung Chi Wo,” 2015. Photo: Zhuo Muxi.

View of “Leung Chi Wo,” 2015. Photo: Zhuo Muxi.

Leung Chi Wo

View of “Leung Chi Wo,” 2015. Photo: Zhuo Muxi.

When nine works slated to appear in Leung Chi Wo’s retrospective in Shenzhen (the Chinese border city to Hong Kong) were held up in Chinese customs, the artist decided instead to display vinyl outlines of the missing works, identified by accompanying captions. While the incident was adventitious, Leung’s ensuing reaction was not; it resonates with his long-standing interest in the fissures of Hong Kong’s sociopolitical structures and the city’s fraught relationship with mainland China. The staging by OCT Contemporary Art Terminal (OCAT) of the Hong Kong native’s survey show beyond the city’s borders was an important and productive gesture, as it reframed Leung’s three-decade-long reflection on the construction of Hong Kong’s cultural narratives within the setting of the mainland. In this context, two aspirational slogans featured in Leung’s 2008 piece Asia World City—a tongue-in-cheek take on Hong Kong’s city-branding, the work was originally composed of twelve vinyl banners sporting taglines, or “wishes,” collected from among online submissions, but was here presented as a wall work—were “considered inappropriate” and removed from the installation. In response, Leung rearranged the censored vinyl letters to produce a new text work: Fine sky with white clouds!, 2015. This sentence, shown with two crumpled forms—one blue and one white, each made up of the remaining letters from the bowdlerized banners—is a placeholder for the unspeakable; it’s a poetic and, for some, polite acknowledgment of political interference.

Curated by OCAT’s outgoing director, Carol Yinghua Lu, Leung’s first mainland retrospective, featuring sixty-seven works produced between 1993 and 2015, was titled “Press the Button . . . Leung Chi Wo: A Survey Exhibition.” The instruction was directed at viewers of the artist’s new work Shenzhen Mine 1973, 2015, an installation comprising photos, audio, and a projection of Shenzhen’s skyline that was activated by the press of a button fashioned from a one-fen coin. This rare personal work references Leung’s childhood medical visits to Shenzhen, and though the installation’s complex machinations might deter the audience’s associations with their own experiences traversing the Hong Kong border, the piece could be seen as a synthesis of the artist’s varied artistic strategies.

The exhibition’s title also referred to Leung’s training in photography, a medium through which he aims to visualize the contingent nature of Hong Kong’s identity and spatial politics. In his iconic “Colour Photo” series, 1999–2003, Leung captured fragments of sky contoured by the tops of high-rise buildings as he looked up from various street intersections in Hong Kong and New York. He employed color filters to produce monochromatic images, so that the sky, a tinted, empty space, becomes in each picture a play on perspective and urban experience. The shapes of these enclosed skylines were later appropriated by the artist and his longtime collaborator Sara Wong to form cookie cutters, and in the work Making City Cookies, 1999, the duo distributed the sky-shaped biscuits to gallery visitors. The project marked a pivotal point in the development of Leung’s practice, as he began experimenting with the ways in which images might be transposed onto latent interfaces capable of generating social relations and narratives. In what seemed like a missed opportunity to capture the work’s full potential of social engagement, the Shenzhen presentation, instead of including baked goods being served up, featured City Cookie of Shanghai, 2000—video documentation of Wong eating the treats, along with a display of the custom-made molds.

Also on view were the results of Leung’s forays into research-based work, which remain deeply grounded in photography. In these efforts, images function as blueprints and points of departure. “Domestica Invisible,” 2004–2007, a series of photographs taken during visits to the homes of some eighty strangers and friends in Hong Kong; Sapporo, Japan; Canberra, Australia; and Plymouth, UK, probes the relationship between bodies and domestic environments in these space-strapped cities. Residing in these images of interior nooks and crannies and anonymous personal effects are uncanny stories that inhabit an in-between space of familiarity and opacity.

Two conversations recorded during these meetings are featured in Leung’s series “Jonathan & Muragishi,” 2005–13, which commemorates the artist’s late friends the American art writer Jonathan Napack and the Japanese artist Hiroaki Muragishi. Translated, respectively, into Mandarin and English, and dubbed, respectively, by American and Japanese speakers with similar accents, Napack’s and Hiroaki’s personal anecdotes play from two sound sculptures crafted from items found in their individual homes. In spite of the complex lengths to which Leung went in an effort to recast the voices of the protagonists, his apparent closeness with his subjects brings forth an intimacy not made palpable in “Domestica Invisible.” As Leung continues his itinerant search for maneuvering room within Hong Kong’s physical and political architectures, it may in fact be his own thoughtful endeavors, and their unforeseen effects, that will pry open cracks where his home city’s alternative realities can settle.

Christina Li