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Oct 2019

We might consider the exhibition space a domestic space at Times Museum, whose exhibition hall has been intimately divided into open spaces, chambers, passageways, and labyrinths for its current show, Forget Sorrow Grass: An Archaeology of Feminine Time (14 September–17 November 2019). The title refers to a common online profile name among middle-aged women in China, in which the fragile ‘forget sorrow grass’—the Chinese interpretation of the orange daylily—describes those who are confined to their homes and forced to self-console.

With this reference in mind, the exhibition’s subtitle lays out a methodology through which to explore this condition. ‘Archaeology’ implies an excavation of historical narratives lost in the passage of time, with societies and civilisations understood through the artefacts that are uncovered amidst chronological layers. In keeping, feminine time—as measured by the relegation of bodies to the domestic space—is examined across broader contexts, including patriarchal time.

In a spacious entrance hall, Christopher K. Ho’s installation Blobfish (2019) consists of a huge carpet showing a giant, distorted print of a baby’s face, with an enlarged flesh-like silicone sculpture of a blobfish positioned next to it—a creature which has adapted to the pressure of the deep sea by developing gelatinous flesh and soft bones. Completing this grouping is a blown-glass tear-catcher and a set of imperial measuring rulers for the English foot resting on a pink pedestal. As the legend goes, King Henry I of England standardised the dimension of foot—a unit of measurement still widely used—from the length of his out-stretched forearm.

One of the notable features in the show is the absence of body. Curators Wu Jianru and Zhang Sirui have eschewed the radicalism in feminist art movements characterised by works using video, performance, and body to address patriarchal violence to foregrounded personal and family stories instead. Zhang Xiaogang’s oil and fibreglass on stainless-steel painting Pine & Medicine Bottle (2010) shows a room in the artist’s parents’ house with no one in the picture but a table. On the table sits a potted pine tree, a symbol of vitality in traditional Chinese culture, beside which the artist has embossed scattered medicine bottles using fibreglass. Peng Yi-Hsuan’s video Good Luck (2019) captures the moment after Peng’s mother placed an ornament with small glazed tangerines, a specific feng shui item expected to bring good fortune to the family, on the table—the fruit still quivering.

Ma Qiusha’s photographic series ‘“Story of Space” My Grandmother’s Living Room’ (2007–2008) renders every single item in her grandmother’s bedroom into an image that mirrors a floor plan, meticulously exposing personal items contained within a private domain. Inside becomes outside: a division the artist also explores in Fog No.9 (2012), which invokes the translucent lace window screen that marks a flimsy boundary in Hutong and low-rise flats in Beijing.

Patty Chang’s Letdown (Milk) (2017) is another study on spatial division with multiple plywood panels serving as a hindrance to a panoramic view. The panels display a series of photographs taken by Chang with a point-and-shoot camera during her trip to the Aral Sea. Having just given birth, the photographs document her daily ritual of pumping by capturing the containers with her breast milk in them. Chang uses her maternal body and its product to filter and measure the landscape, making the discarded breast milk an implication of her disappointment at the deprivation of her agency—while the Aral Sear has been shrinking in size, the political situation in Uzbekistan rendered filming the infrastructure almost impossible.

Videos tucked away in corners and rooms tap into specific historical and political contexts through inter-personal lenses. Hsu Che-Yu’s animated video No News From Home (2016) mixes home video, voiceover, and animation to trace the life story of the artist’s 37-year-old brother, illustrating how he was involved in drugs, fights, and illegal transactions at a young age before entering into marriage—a struggle that mirrors the clashes of values in Taiwanese society after the lifting of martial law in 1987.

In a chamber partitioned by a curtain, films and paintings by Wang Tuo create narratives based on well-known fictions and historical events. Meditation on Disappointing Reading (2016) uses Pearl S. Buck’s un-translated novel about the Cultural Revolution, Three Daughters of Madame Liang (1969), as a backdrop. Two women, one reading aloud the novel translated into Chinese via software and the other cooking silently, play the roles of mother and daughter who exist in the same space seemingly oblivious of one another. Symptomatic Silence of Complicit Forgetting (2019) departs from the ending of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. When the protagonist, Nora, leaves the house, she proceeds to explore her existence in the dreams or memories of a male writer, images of the violence of the Red Guard interwoven with her fading representation.

In other parts of the exhibition, space is converted into highly decorative sets. Ad Minolti’s Froggy (2019) recalls part of a kid’s room. One of the walls depicts a frog-like form painted in vibrant green, with two giant dices stacked on top of one another positioned in front of it. Each side of the dice is printed with childlike, cyborg scenes in which animal, feminist, and queer identities blend together—influenced by the writings of Donna Harroway and Judith Butler.

In another hall, museum windows showcase another kind of future fusion: a post-Anthropocene landscape recalling stained glass in churches, with printed images of android "Keana-35®" in standing and sitting gestures evocative of the Kwan Yin Bodhisattva. Keana and Wonderful Lives (1-3) (2019) by Zijie is part of a project exploring future for domestic androids in Hong Kong—a reflection on the limited rights of the city’s domestic workers, the ongoing evolution of automation, and how androids might rewrite domesticity in the age of the smart home. According to the detailed manual provided by Zijie and Yunyu "Ayo" Shih, the android is able to read and process domestic data, fully integral to family and even sex life.

As people move between private and public space, often becoming objectified in the process, so objects oscillate between mass-produced commercial good and personal belonging. In the series ‘Person’ (2019), Rose Salane attempts to profile the owners of an assortment of lost rings found throughout the New York City Subway with the aid of an intuitive reader, a bio lab, and a pawnshop. These objects are framed and lined together matter-of-factly on the wall like archaeological specimens.

By contrast, Cécile B. Evans’s video How Happy a Thing Can Be (2015) explores the human experience using computer-generated objects acting out a scenario in which a pair of scissors, a comb, and a screwdriver travel from bathroom to road. Returning to the theme of this show, which is anchored to the condition of domestic isolation, two women conversing in the voiceover casually discuss random topics from the weight of death to weather. As the dialogue proceeds, the objects start to bleed, scream in distress, their emotions gradually escalating from boredom to hysteria.

Like this exhibition, How Happy a Thing Can Be moves between reality and fantasy, often bringing both together in somewhat schizophrenic proximity. Similarly, Aki Sasamoto’s video Do Nut Diagram (2018), portrays a sequence of routine behaviours—including breaking, scrubbing and scouring glass sheets in a forest—with a sense of haunting and alienating unease. Both works respond to the way time has been measured in this exhibition according to sensual, mundane, and repetitive terms.

On the exterior wall of the video room is a poem by Sasamoto that echoes this exhibition’s intent:

Ghosts wander about in the kitchen and bedrooms, fueled by grudge.

They roll your vegetables off a cutting board and crumple your duvet inside its sack.

They dwell in the space of routines,

Trying to distract the myopic livings from seeming productivity.

Mindless domesticity recalls the time when they were alive, avoiding.

The domestic space is filled with phantoms that interfere with perceptions of daily life—as expressed through the artworks in this show, which have materialised from the depths of complex experiences. A strong thesis on what feminine time is within this attempted archaeology seems, however, insufficient—perhaps indicative of the curators’ efforts to detour from any overt political utterance considering the banning of various feminist and LGBT events in China recent years.

Times Museum: Work
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