So was it the Best, or the Worst of Times?

Rachel Maclean, Lion and Unicorn

Words by Orla Foster

Both Sides Now: It Was The Best Of Times, It Was The Worst of Times? is a cross-continental exhibition which brings together artists from China, Hong Kong and the UK. The question mark in the exhibition’s title is no accident, but hints at the contrasting ways the same information can be represented and misrepresented, whether as a result of personal interpretation, or political bias.

In his video The Interviews (2015), Birdy Chu explores the 2014 Hong Kong protests in a direct, unembellished way simply by talking with people in the various occupied zones. The documentary does not focus on the tear gas and chaos usually associated with protest footage. Instead, its impact comes from seeing streets usually buzzing with commerce brought to a halt by people simply… sitting down, setting up barbecues and sharing ideas.

Hearing the protesters’ personal stories reveals a widely-felt disillusionment with the Hong Kong government, with many people overcoming their initial reservations in the knowledge that their future is at stake if they do not make themselves heard. Cammy, a kindergarten teacher, explains: “If I choose to be silent it will be harder for my students to fight for their rights.”

Meanwhile, another of the interviewees discusses the reluctance of the older generation to view the movement as anything more than a temporary inconvenience. It seems there is an embedded expectation that young people should find enough reward in their day-to-day lives, and that they should not ask for more, a view which deeply frustrates the protesters. “Does it really make sense to forsake our future for the sake of this very moment?” one asks. Yet the interviews suggest that strength can be found by coming together, and that there is an alternative to the narrative prescribed by the state.

The idea of togetherness takes on a different mantle in Rachel Maclean’s The Lion And The Unicorn (2012), which looks at “unity” as a political construction rather than an organically reached conclusion. Maclean takes topical soundbites, in this case speeches from the Queen, David Cameron and Alex Salmond during the Scottish Independence debate, and uses them to script a panoply of eccentric characters, all of which are played by herself.

The work takes up a whole wall of the gallery, and is loud, to the point that it drowns out the audio of some of the other pieces. Still, this seems appropriate – broadcasts from the government and monarchy tend to be overstated, and this work certainly draws attention to the cluelessness and hypocrisy of political bluster. Maclean’s characters wear powdered wigs and face-paint; they talk about the fluctuating value of gold, birth rates and national debt while guzzling down sickly pastries and goblets of gloop. They are almost nauseating to watch.

As a result, any attempts they make to unite the population actually have the reverse effect. When the queen invites the viewer to pore over a storybook filled with pictures of the lion and unicorn from the British coat of arms, the concept of a “United Kingdom” appears little more than a gaudy fairytale. And David Cameron’s shrill cry of “What planet are these people on?”, presumably in reference to the “YES” voters, sounds even more ridiculous when spat out by a prancing lion in tailcoats.

Birdy Chu, The Interviews
Birdy Chu, The Interviews

Ellen Pau’s True Colour (2014) explores similar notions about higher powers imposing a false or misleading reality onto their citizens. She does so by projecting social media footage from the umbrella movement onto dozens of different-coloured post-it notes. These, although blank, recall a stage of the movement when thousands of people mounted posts-it on the wall of the Hong Kong government compound in response to the question “Why are we here?”

The work also references “APEC blue”: the colour of the Beijing sky during the 2014 APEC China conference after the government deliberately reduced air pollution ahead of the event. By distorting social media footage through a canvas of lurid colours, Pau reflects the tendency for political candidates to manipulate information and disengage it from its original purpose.

Walk into the Residency Studio, however and the political seems to subside, at least temporarily, with Lu Yang’s Cancer Baby (2014). With its garish rainbow hues, flashing lights and pumping arcade music, the video appears at first to be one big cute overload. Until you realise the pixelated characters are in fact tumours, skulls and swollen testicles, and the slogans on screen? CANCER SUCKIE! SUCK SUCK! The video suggests that any subject can be manipulated, that even illness and death can be warped to fit a particular brief. Perhaps this is also a comment on the rapid pace of technological innovation, mutating at a faster rate than the human body can compete with.

Wong Ping’s cartoon An Emo Nose (2015), exhibited in the same space, takes an equally perverse route, telling the story of a man and his growing dissatisfaction with his own nose. After a lifetime of being smacked and berated before the bathroom mirror, the nose finally heads off on an odyssey of adventure around the world, abandoning its owner (still attached by a cord) to wallow in secondhand aromas (“Now it always smells of black truffles and women”). The child-like colour palette is deceptive; this is a juxtaposition of fairytale with the loneliness and malaise of adult life.

Wong Ping, An Emo Nose
Wong Ping, An Emo Nose

Another highlight of the exhibition is David Blandy’s Anjin 1600: Edo Wonderpark (2013), which takes a nostalgic journey through the artist’s relationship with Japan – or rather, “the myth of Japan”; as first encountered in comics and Final Fantasy. The video is taken from a larger installation inspired by the “Western Samurai” William Adams, who in 1600 was the first Englishman ever to set foot in Japan, and who is here represented as an animé character superimposed over video footage of Japanese streets.

Japan, in this context, exists as a simulated space onto which the artist cannot help but (knowingly) project his own assumptions. The mythmaking works both ways, of course: he also recalls a Japanese schoolmate whose mother would routinely make him tinned mushroom soup under the impression that this was what a British child would want to eat. While Blandy’s video focuses on the personal rather than political, it shares a common thread with the other works in that it examines the need to forge our own narrative in order to make sense of our surroundings – regardless of the “truth”.

This, it seems, is the dominant theme of the exhibition, transcending the various contexts seen in each of the videos. Given the vast geographical range covered here, it can be hard to find immediate links between each of the works. Regardless of their disparate subject matter, however, the artists share an impulse to construct realities and toy with the viewer’s idea of truth, which is of course a slippery concept. As we see with the Hong Kong protesters, angry at their government yet finding strength in each other, even the “worst of times” can be more nuanced than they initially appear.

Both Sides Now: It Was The Best Of Times, It Was The Worst of Times? continues at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, Manchester until 6 December 2015.

write_critical_logo_175This article has been commissioned by the Contemporary Visual Arts Network North West (CVAN NW), as part of a regional critical writing development programme supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England — see more here #WriteCritical