Everyday Anomalies

by Eliza Tan
Ctrl+P, Journal of Contemporary Art, Issue No. July 2008. pp.18-20. 
1638 Phoenix Art Gallery, Brighton, UK
February 9 to March 22, 2008.


Infinities and indivisibles transcend our finite understanding, the former on account of their magnitude, the latter because of their smallness. Imagine what they are when combined. – Galileo Galilei, Two New Sciences, 1638 There is an alchemy that happens between the ordinary and sublime, the vast and minute, the infinite and the particular—the works in Everyday Anomalies come together to suggest.


For the artists Pak Sheung Chuen, Luke Ching, Kwan Sheung Chi and Kam Lai Wan, the racy spectacle of global day-to-day city life forms the commonplace context for their operations. Perhaps a certain “horror of the everyday” or sense of homogeneity subtly characterises these urban complexes in which we live; our anaesthetic habits, vague attention spans and contemptuously familiar environments. Nonetheless, in exposing the interchangeable nature of the quotidian, the four artists’ meticulous works pursue the enlargement of such experiences, evoking a quiet awe for beauty found in common places and virtue in little gestures.
Everyday Anomalies, an exhibition curated by Sally Lai, comprises an unextravagant but salient selection of about fifteen works including installations, videos and photographs. The artists’ materials are simple, even prudent; the physical scale of their works touchingly modest, ranging from shoelaces to a single strand of hair. From the outset, a viewer detects something uncannily homely and private, yet altogether public and transparent about the immersive layout of the gallery space. This sense of interiority, however, soon translates into an awareness of the wider socio-behavioural patterns and environments which the mostly interactive artworks reflexively engage.
Resembling a quasi living room arrangement, a cluster of Pak Sheung Chuen’s works located in the corner of the gallery underscores a perspectival shift in our often passive relationship with surrounding material realities, sights and objects. A component of Pak’s humour engaging Familiar Numbers, Unknown Telephone, an unoccupied chair sits invitingly opposite a television set. The screen displays a static image of a bus-stop along Tseng Lan Shue road in Hong Kong. An accompanying recording of a conversation between the artist and a baffled stranger explains that Pak had dialled a set of numbers of unknown function printed across the bus-stop’s awning. Otherwise of an unknown function, the numbers are coincidentally also somebody’s telephone number.
Installed in close proximity, Pak’s Love Letter for LC and Miracle of $136.70 reiterate the contingent meanings of usually ordinary articles by playing on the semantic configurations of words and numbers. Read vertically, the first words in the Mandarin titles of a selection of 4 books sitting on a nearby bookshelf unveil a tender message “I am thinking of you” Similarly, the second words of a receipt listing eight chosen items from a supermarket, including personal sundries such as toothpaste and a bar of fruit chews, all displayed in a glass cabinet, read as the biblical message of John 3:16. Despite the accelerated, sometimes confining pace of urbanity, room can still be reclaimed for personable meanings, Pak’s Breathing Space seems to propose. Mirroring the condition of typically limited living quarters in cities such as Hong Kong, the video shows Pak painstakingly filling up the entire area of a flat in Busan, Korea, with plastic bags containing his breath.
As an assertion of individual agency, performing small actions that may otherwise be perceived as random according to social conventions ignites potentially atypical interactions that could ensue between people, places and objects, as Luke Ching’s works also suggest. In Shoelace, a colourful bunch of shoelaces hang from ceiling to floor, disrupting the vertical-horizontal register of figure-ground relations and challenging the visual order of our usual line of sight. Rather than a reified and untouchable art work, Ching’s piece encourages viewers to participate in the process of art-making by exchanging one of their shoelaces for another in exhibit. A video document shows Ching walking around in various public spaces, most recognisably in a shopping mall, with an extraordinarily long shoelace trailing absurdly behind him. A bid to “enlarge the risk” of safe Hong Kong life, the gesture connotes a consciousness of established perimeters of social acceptability and the notion of expanding one’s experiential viewpoints by “risking” the unknown.
A compelling enquiry into the concept of the “accident,” the scale of catastrophe and the sublime nature of beauty, Ching’s work partly recalls cultural theorist Paul Virilio’s call for a “Museum of Accidents” that would counter media-image simulated, social habituation to grand-scaled horror and violence. In his translation of the “accident,” the artist postulates that naturally occurring disasters seem almost minimised within the climate-controlled space of a white cube, an environment denoted by established structures of cultural discourse, power and artifice. By creating an intervening space made conducive for sleep, a naturally occurring “accident,” Ching approaches institutional critique through the works Minimal Accident and Dreams. The former comprises a life-size “stuffed” man in the image of the artist, who appears to be lying fast asleep in the gallery. An excavated floor panel beside him forms a fulllength bed for one in which viewers are welcomed to nap. In Dreams, small-format photographs of St. Peter’s Church in Brighton capture the idyllic beauty of its architectural facade. Juxtaposed with a video of a man nodding off in more commonplace locations including a furniture store’s showcase, Dreams contemplates both public and private ideals with reference to cultural-historical monoliths and contemporary habitats alike. Elsewhere in Shang Yue, meaning “moon gazing” in Mandarin, Ching transforms yet another “accident” into a question of observation and poetic perspective, where lost helium balloons afloat at the ceiling-level of shopping malls become indoor “moons.”
This compulsion to grasp at the uncontainable yet delicate order of the natural world from within the constructed perimeters of urban environments finds another form of articulation through Kam Lai Wan’s elegant Sound of Stars and Touching the Stars. Using the sound mechanism of music boxes, Wan illustrates the structural forms of stars not solely through the image but by appealing to our auditory and tactile senses. In Sound of Stars, Wan transposes the composition of stellar arrangements into the tiny, raised nodes of turn-by-hand music box mechanisms, thereby producing a corresponding melody for each constellation. Touching the Stars further exemplifies the conceptual dimension of Wan’s practice, where she transfers a map of the Northern Hemisphere into Braille script, favouring the mental construction of images over visually evidenced forms.
Parallel to Kam’s invisible stars, Kwan Sheung Chi’s rendition of Meteor Shower surprises a viewer by teasingly reiterating a fundamental question in the history of visual representation: “What do you see?” A small black cushion is provided for the viewer (or voyeur) willing to kneel in pursuit of this question, beside an almost unnoticeable peephole curiously installed not on a door, but on the floor. It turns out that the meteorites glimpsed zooming across the peephole view are not quite what they seem; the illusion of the meteor shower is in fact made up of abstracted images of car headlights. While he transforms moving traffic into a celestial event in Meteor Shower, Chi presents a view of a blue strip at a traffic junction in Kanagawa, Japan as body of water in Lake at the Crossroad. Its implications are semiotic; the colour blue becomes a sign or index encoded with meanings contingent upon a viewer’s interpretation of in-situ elements of a specific site. Chi’s Pocket Book of Sea, however, provides a different angle by which the artist distils locational components by encapsulating the uncontainable magnitude of the sea in a portable compilation of sea images sealed in a sachet of seawater.
Returning from his references to the natural sphere to that of the city and urban detritus, Chi crafts a discarded juice carton into a sculpture of an apple core in Vital Apple Juice, implying a re-consideration of reality and constructedness in art. More arresting, however, is Chi’s A Dead Mosquito, created out of the artist’s blood and a strand of his hair. This barely visible “insect” squashed against the farthest corner of the gallery walls resonates with questions pertaining not only to the aesthetic concept as process, but also to the application of make-do materials and the role of the artist. A Dead Mosquito comes across also as a microscopic, somewhat existential metaphor for the inarticulable metaphysics of a macrocosmic world.
It is indeed by such understated means rather than by overstatement that the works in Everyday Anomalies mediate functions of site, scale and material, bringing to fore the spatial dialectics of magnitude and smallness. By panning a long lens across urban spaces and activity, Everyday Anomalies is a refreshingly invitation to shift our gazes to the otherwise imperceptible details we tend to overlook in daily life. At the crux of its project is perhaps an unexpected encounter with an elusive beauty that exists alongside banality, and which remains ours to observe and to imagine.
(Original source: http://www.ctrlp-artjournal.org/pdfs/CtrlP_Issue12.pdf)