“Field notes” series (2022) Look at That Picture begins with graduate researcher Tse Lam-hei’s close study of a drawing by local artist Ho Sin-tung, which Tse turns into a found archaeological object, tackled with rich descriptions. 研究員筆記「定睛看」系列的首篇。謝琳禧鑽進本地藝術家何倩彤的一張手繪,用考古的態度、方法,和精細調理歷史的精神,把何的圖像層層剝開。(editor)

 

HO SIN-TUNG
Miss Dong Quartet: Miss Tung (Tung)
2014
Colour pencil and ink on paper mounted on board
120 x 95 cm

 

 

Painting magnifier 

[1][2][3]

Text on the guitar score —

Text and images at the bottom right-hand corner [4] [5] —

Text on the labels —

PLACE
Johnson, Vermont

WEATHER
Sunny                      Cloudy                     Wind                       ☑Snow                     Thunder
MONTH: December
DAY: Fifth 
YEAR: 2014, 8pm

Prelude — the encounter

In answering to the assignment of finding a single image to develop rich descriptions with a historiographic function after an archaeological principle, I have decided to key in on Hong Kong contemporary artists who may not have been written about extensively for the time being. Browsing through their online portfolios, I was struck immediately by this drawing of Ho Sin Tung’s, titled Miss Tung Quartet: Miss Tung (Tung) (2014) for its direct reference to a song Miss Dong (2012) by a Chinese underground folk music artist Song Dongye [6], whom I have been following for years. Yet, Ho’s dark painting seems to be heavily codified, which invokes my curiosity leading the way…

Here lies a wordplay that apparently refers to both the artist’s name as well as the title of a song 《董小姐》 Miss Dong written by Mainland singer-songwriter Song Dongye in 2012. Dong and Tung pronounce the same in Cantonese though written and spelt differently in Chinese and English respectively. Interestingly, the red colour and Serif font type employed allude to the red album cover of Ann Northbound (2013) which contains the song. Echoed by the placement of a guitar score and Chinese-English lyrics of Miss Dong (2012) which occupies the bottom half of the work, it strongly implies the artist’s association between the Miss Dong depicted in the song and the Miss Tung outside of the picture frame, perhaps even Miss Tung in reality?

Indeed, in one of the interviews (Findlay, 2015), the artist admitted, “Originally I chose to talk about stories in films and literature in order to avoid talking about my own. And then at some point those ‘fictional’ characters became so real and heavy that they also became personal.”

So, how, if any, are the fictional characters depicted in the drawing?

 

Against a dark background, there are two animate beings at the centre, posing almost like still life objects with each of their bodies twisted and reversed and looking into each other, showing a sense of awkwardness and unease.

When scrutinised closely, one may find on the left a girl with the pale and serious face in her fallen yellow dotted dress is holding her body upright with a single hand on the ground, her three stiff legs spreading in the air like a windmill, each with a red bruised knee. Light seems to be shining on her from the window, only that her hair blocks the way. One may wonder: did she choose to hold herself by just one hand? Or is it because she finds her “imperfect” and “abnormal” legs difficult to stand on ground? What kind of struggle is she having?

 

:

 

According to LEE Chi-leung (2015), the letters are a direct reference to another set of work, That Something Out Of Something Out Of Nothing (2013), which was made by the artist during her residency in Vermont in 2013. It consists of 9 framed letters, and was featured in the same solo exhibition “Icarus Shrugged” in 2015 at Hanart TZ Gallery Hong Kong. The letters-work were handwritten and copied from Zong Ling-ling’s autobiographical fiction Ode to a Lotus (1991), which composes letter exchange between a pair of separated lovers in Hong Kong and Boston. They had participated in the Defend Diaoyutai Islands movement in 1971 Hong Kong, but were then separated and displaced. 17 years later, the two met again and started writing letters to each other, one examining her own sentiments to the brewing political turmoil taking place in 1989. In a letter to the ex-lover in Boston written on 1st June 1989, she expressed, “I don’t know how to describe the past five months of this year. There is still June, July and August, but I have no idea what the future will bring. I am filled with fear and my heart cannot rest, even though it does not look like it at the surface. When I opened my door and went out on the street again, it was not what I had expected. What a year would 1989 be?”

The intertextuality here encourages multiple readings. Within the literary world of the two ex-lovers, it reveals the void of love in the norms of everyday life, but also the feeling of powerlessness and anxiety of human beings in the midst of historical and transitional periods.

Ho the artist selected this piece of literary text that depicts a relationship across Hong Kong and Boston (East Coast of the U.S.) in 1989, then appropriated it by hand-writing during her visit in Vermont (also East Coast of the U.S.) in 2013. This could suggest a personal, yet distant, connection with her homeland, Hong Kong.

The pictorial work’s literary and artistic-biographic contexts aside, my intention here is to further explore the relationship between Miss Tung and the entangled horse. Is it Ho’s personal resonance of the void of love, or a sense of desperation for a deep historical trauma that transcends the suffering of an individual?

 

Strange enough, from Ho’s statement of another work, she should have finished her art residency programme in Vermont in November 2013 whereas she specified on her website 2014 to be the completion year of Miss Tung Quartet: Miss Tung (Tung). It is possible, then, that what took place in “2014 Vermont” could be the artist’s imagined, inner landscape instead of her actual experience. Could the inconsistency suggest a mental re-visit in 2014 of her Vermont journey as well as this letter produced in 2013? Perhaps 2014 was when the work of Something Out Of Something Out of Nothing which was produced?

So what has triggered Ho to revisit the letter-work in 2014? Why would she want to reconnect with the feeling of restlessness before the political turbulence she had addressed in 2013?

Be it a coincidence or not, 2014 has been a memorable year for many Hong Kong people.

Without a single direct reference, the drawing Miss Tung Quartet: Miss Tung breathes unspeakable responses to the experience of the year. Various interviews and reviews [7] suggest that Ho has often reflected her personal experience and thoughts on social events in her artwork; the work discussed here is consistent with other drawings in the series — Mrs Tung (Pain) 痛夫人, Mr. Tung (Winter) 冬先生 and Mx. Tung (Sorrow) 慟伯伯 — a total of four characters all alluding to fictional and political figures. This set of 4 drawings was featured in a solo exhibition of Ho’s in 2015, titled “Icarus Shrugged,” which refers to a tale in Greek mythology, whereby Icarus, the son of the maze maker, attempts to fly out of Labyrinth with a pair of waxed wings, but falls into the sea and dies for his ignorance of his father’s advice. In the artist statement, Ho mentioned that it was an exhibition about “defeat, failure, invalidation” on “an individual, but also a collective state” (Artron.net, 2015). The artist further stressed, “the overarching conclusion is the same as that for all of the characters contained within the works: We are all like Icarus — full of yearning, benighted, doomed.”

====

Interestingly, by the end of the song Miss Dong, lyrics revised by Miss Tung the artist, we read, “I want to be like you, ignoring all those things. So, be with me, Miss Tung. Let’s rock, Miss Tung.” With these words, the ending note seem to be cheering up the girl, Miss Tung, probably also everyone who has suffered like her.

— No matter how defeated we felt, let’s shrug, Icarus. Let it be.

 

So, how are these readings relevant to the work’s narrative? A dystopian novel by Ayn Rand, Altas Shrugged portrays an imagined American society in which many of the innovative citizens have started to disappear because of tightening taxation and regulations. As the story unfolds, their disappearance is found to be a strike initiated by Galt to stop the collectivist government from exploiting individuals for profit (Amazon, 2005). The book title points to another Greek mythical figure, Altas the Titan, who is punished and sent by Zeus to carry the weight of the heavens on his shoulders. Seemingly a handy metaphor for the author, Atlas is comparable with the innovators of her story, who have held the burden of the government and society and ask, “What happens if Altas shrugs?” At the end of the story, through revolutions, the protagonists shed their burden and retrieve freedom for themselves.

The hints described so far take us back to the naming of the exhibition. “Icarus shrugged” perhaps pronounces the boy’s death by ignoring father, but the emphasis is really how Icarus simply shrugs away the burden of failure.

— No matter how defeated we felt, let’s shrug, Icarus. Let it be.

As for Selected poems of Yu Xinqiao, there is not a lot of clues found online about the work despite the poet’s fame, domestic or abroad. Douban‘s archival entry spares no more than one sentence to describe the book — “a collection of over 100 important works, including the poet’s masterpiece ‘Epitaph’ [8] (1989).” (Douban, 2013).  With an online search, more information found associates the poem with the June 4th incident in 1989. It was a poem asking for an apology from “you” who is also from “my” homeland. Indeed, Yu the poet has written more than one poem for the incident. As an organiser of the Chinese Renaissance Party, he was arrested in 1995 before the incident’s 10th commemoration for an accusation of rape. He was put in jail for 7 years. (Apple Online, 2016).

The two texts, fifty years apart and geographically spanning the Pacific Ocean, have very different contexts yet with shared sentiments — they both speak of an individual’s disobedience, and aspire dignity and independence of mind, be it within a group of in the presence of authorities. How much is Ho the artist also thinking along these lines of thought? Careful readers may pick up more trajectories.

 

 

Postlude

Upon careful reading of a surreal but tangible depiction of an isolated and gloomy relationship between a woman and a horse, I gathered that Ho Sin-tung’s work leaves many dots with traceable linkages, making it a coded archive that invites excavation. To the rich assemblage of multi-level objects and inter-textual research across music, literature, arts, mythology and history, Ho applies a carefully thought out visual schema — juxtaposing light and dark, normal and abnormal, individual and collective, and trauma and hope. With subtle touches, she also points us to many deadlocks and many trajectories.

 

Bibliography

 

Notes

[1] Due to limited resolution of the digital image of the painting, the magnifier here tried to restore the text and images to a readable size.

[2] The guitar score and lyrics referenced a song Miss Dong by a Mainland songwriter Song Dongye, but replaced all the “董小姐 Miss Dong” in the original lyrics  to “彤小姐 Miss Tung”.

[3] 蘭州 “Lanzhou” is a cigarette brand in Mainland China.

[4] CD album cover of Ann Northbound (2013), by songwriter Song Dongye, details in bibliography..

[5] Book covers of Atlas Shrugged (1956) by Ayn Rand and Selected Poems of Yu Xinqiao by Yu Xinqiao (2013), details in bibliography.

[6] Song Dongye isa Chinese folk and ballad singer-songwriter. Born in 1987 Beijing and released his first album, Ann Northbound, in 2013, Song got attention immediately from the Mainland, Hong Kong and also Taiwan audience. However, he was later arrested by the Chinese police for smoking Cannabis in 2016 and was listed as “Tainted stars” by the National Radio and Television Administration in 2016.

[7] Art reviewer Leung Po-san has referred to Ho’s works in 2020 as a “post-movement emotional discharge” on ARTouch. In an interview with NEXT Taiwan (2017), Ho also comments on the violence that Hong Kong Police used in executing laws and has included it as a theme for her works.

[8] This is an epitaph in Chinese on Baike; English translation on Taylor & Francis Online.