HONG KONG – In a time of COVID-19, as we wait out the end of our quarantines in the safety and isolation of our own homes, the fundamental need for human contact has become more evident than ever before. While not designed specifically for this period, brand new art exhibition They Do Not Understand Each Other seems to come at a perfect time then, as it opens at Tai Kwun Contemporary, dealing with themes of human connectedness, relation and commonalities despite our differences and distances.
Co-presented by Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and The National Museum of Art, Osaka (NMAO), The Do Not Understand Each Other brings together 25 artworks, including 23 works from the permanent collections of SAM and NMAO, and two new commissions by Kohei Sekigawa and Akira Takayama. Together, the works consider what it means to engage with one another and looks at the potential of art in facilitating understanding.
Says Tobias Berger, Head of Arts at Tai Kwun: “This exhibition was originally planned to be launched during Art Basel, but was delayed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. We consider partnerships with other institutions very important, and we’re glad we’ll still be able to display it here at Tai Kwun for the next three months. Both SAM and NMAO are at the forefront of collecting Asian art, and having curators Ms Yuka Uematsu (Curator, NMAO) and June Yap (Director, Curatorial, Collections and Programmes, SAM) collaborating for the first time, we’ve produced a varied collection of works representative of multiple mediums and artists across Asia.”
The exhibition’s title is shared by one of its key works by Tsubasa Kato. In the video work, we view a Japanese and a Korean person on a small island that lies between Korea and Japan, attempting to perform a simple task together while not comprehending a word uttered by the other. Their eventual success at the task showcases how despite their differences, the two still share an understanding that exceeds the limitations of language.
Says co-curator Ms. Yuka Uematsu: “The Do Not Understand Each Other takes the premise of cultural representation, and considers questions such as what it takes for us to understand each other, and in turn, how art plays a part in facilitating this exchange. Artists should be able to intercede and act as a go-between in continuities between us, and make us part of each other in understanding and prolong the continuous entwining of material.”
Adds co-curator Dr. June Yap: “Much of the exhibition addresses the need for greater interrelation, and to bridge gaps. We all have a desire to be connected and familiarise ourselves, not just with each other, but also with the universe, and recognising that we are part of each other’s creation. They Do Not Understand Each Other then reflects upon the negotiations and expectations of culturem engaging with the themes of cultural understanding, the nature of relations and their assumptions, in art and beyond.”
Explaining the exhibition in detail, Dr. Yap continues: “While the exhibition features the artworks of two museum collections, they are connected visually or conceptually, speaking to and for each other, even across nationality and generation. Take for example the pairing of NMAO’s batik textile-dyed artwork by Saori Akutagawa (Madokoro), From a Myth “The Birth of Gods” with SAM’s film by Ho Tzu Nyen EARTH. Both works share a deeply visceral imagery and inter-cultural references, and depict the binary nature of being – of beginnings and ends, the banal and extraordinary.”
Other featured works include the commissioned McDonald’s Radio University (Hong Kong edition) by Akira Takayama, a roving lecture programme that takes place at various branches of McDonald’s fast food restaurants. The work reimagines the space of fast food restaurants, and its democratic potential as an oasis for individuals living on the margins of society, acting as a haven and meeting place for those lacking a secure space. These lectures are conducted by individuals considered to be “refugees” or “migrants” in their host countries as they engage in a collaborative process of writing and composing scripts based on their life experiences.
Many of the works chosen were also intended to go beyond the scope of ‘visual art’, tending towards the photographic, the filmic and the performative. Take for instance Wit Pimkanchanapong’s Not Quite A Total Eclipse, a kinetic sculpture that mimics a mimosa plant while weaving in ideas and imagery of an eclipse. Agnes Arrello’s sculpture Haliya Bathing turns to mythology for inspiration, features the Philippine moon goddess cast from parts of the artist’s own body, emerging from a ‘sacred spring’ made of crushed white marble.
With the limitations placed by COVID-19 however, certain works are unable to be presented in their intended form. Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadillo’s Lifespan was intended as a performative work, where three vocalists use whistling and breathing to communicate with a small rock, but as of now, cannot be performed due to health and safety concerns. Given the current travel restrictions on most countries, the organizers will also make a 360 degree online version of the exhibition available on the website, but stress that this is not an equal experience to seeing the exhibition in person.
Says Berger: “This is the first time Tai Kwun does a 360 degree exhibition, and we plan on improving that experience by adding an introductory video, along with supplementary videos and material on social media. We understand that an online exhibition does not replace a live one completely, and we’ve taken this as an opportunity to see the limitations of the moving image, and figure out new ways of displaying and archiving performance art, while emphasising how important the museum space is in experiencing such forms.”
He adds: “Here in Hong Kong, we’re slowly moving back to a ‘normal life’, with restaurants open for business again, along with museums and galleries. We’ve stepped up our cleaning and sanitising efforts, and while we did not hold an opening ceremony, it is completely possible to come in person and see the exhibition for yourself. Certain things will change, but we’re aware that people in Hong Kong are currently very eager to come out and see exhibitions, while we’ll also continue to engage them with more online talks and on social media.”
Eugene Tan, Director of SAM, adds: “While our buildings are closed for redevelopment, SAM has been working with international partners such as Tai Kwun, the National Museum of Art, Osaka and ILHAM Gallery to exhibit works from our collection. This collaboration continues SAM’s mission to profile contemporary artists from Southeast Asia internationally and to examine how artists from the region are contributing to the discourses of art globally.”
They Do Not Understand Each Other runs from 25th May to 13th September 2020 at Tai Kwun’s art galleries in JC Contemporary, Hong Kong. For more information, visit their website here
To battle the Covid-19 pandemic, people are staying home to avoid social distancing. Tai Kwun Contemporary is presenting “VR 360° Virtual Gallery” for the two exhibitions They Do Not Understand Each Other and My Body Holds Its Shape. See the virtual exhibition here
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