BY Alex Jen in Critic's Guides | 27 MAR 24

The Best Shows to See in Hong Kong

From Magdalen Wong’s theatre of stoic clowns at Current Plans to Jeff Koons’s early sculptures at Art Intelligence Global, these are the must-see exhibitions during Art Basel Hong Kong

BY Alex Jen in Critic's Guides | 27 MAR 24

Another Day in Hong Kong’ | Asia Art Archive | 18 March – 31 August

Ocean Leung, That’s Why You Go Away (28 Anniversaries), 2024, performance video, ‘Another Day in Hong Kong’, Asia Art Archive. Courtesy of the artist and Asia Art Archive; photograph: Kwan Sheung Chi

Via ephemera, interviews and commissioned artworks, ‘Another Day in Hong Kong’ looks to recontextualize 19 October 1996 – an unremarkable day other than being the median date of the works in Asia Art Archive’s collection – in an attempt to investigate what drives us to remember certain things and forget others. Clippings from that day, such as the politician Tung Chee-hwa’s campaign to be elected first Chief Executive of Hong Kong, are printed on clear labels and affixed to the windows so that gallery-goers view the city through old news headlines. One of eight commissioned artworks, KK Cheung’s Goodnight Beth (2024) is a narrow frame of twisted rebar with dangling folding blades evocative of windshield wipers or music stands. Positioned among the reference library shelves, its rudimentary helix form pays homage to Tropical Storm Beth, which passed by Hong Kong on 19 October 1996 with minimal impact.

Wucius Wong | Alisan Fine Arts | 22 March – 16 May

Wucius Wong, Autumn Mountain, 2006, Chinese ink & colour on rice paper, 66 × 66 cm. Courtesy: Alisan Fine Art

You might imagine ‘Wucius Wong: Water Thoughts and Mountain Visions’ to be an exhibition of landscapes directly emulating the traditional Chinese painting style of shan shui. But these works, which range from 1985 to date, are less about direct representation than about the observation and translation of time, of vastness and nothingness. A leader of the New Ink Movement in postwar Hong Kong, Wong studied with the prominent painter Lui Shou-Kwan before furthering his education in the US. His use of tonality and texture is remarkable, eliciting a range of emotions through varying saturation – from the wayward blots in early paintings of craggy peaks and breaking waves to more recent images detailing city matrices in blinking copper and cerulean lights. There is a tendency from critics and art viewers alike to confine contemporary ink painting to ‘tradition’ or ‘Chineseness’ but Wong’s deliberate, sinuous lines at times recall the works of Brice Marden or Ed Ruscha. Together, Purification 15 and Purification 16 (both 2011) act as a striking diptych in which water, captured flowing down sheer mountain peaks, breaks away at the very edges of the composition, where the paper is left unpainted, rendering visible the force of gravity itself.

Trevor Yeung | Para Site | 22 March – 26 May

Trevor Yeung, ‘Soft breath’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Para Site, Hong Kong; photograph: Ray Leung

It can be difficult to find a quiet spot in Hong Kong, so Trevor Yeung’s peaceful park installation at Para Site, ‘Soft breath’, is an appealing place to linger. Dark and musty but padded underfoot, the room features a pulsing, mushroom-shaped night light and a humidifier emitting a stream of eucalyptus-scented mist (The Helping Hand, 2018). Sit on a bench and you can almost hear yourself think. The main, monolithic event is Soapy Fuck Tree (2023), cast from a conveniently ergonomic oak tree situated on the historic cruising area of London’s Hampstead Heath. The bark is leathery – almost candied in the dim light – and sticky, undoubtedly a reference to cum and sweat. Yes, it is explicit, but so is desire. Yeung is an artist of slight modifications, using existing phenomena or common appliances – fish tanks and planters have occupied him for over a decade – to typify desire in ordinary yet intensely personal evocations. Co-commissioned by Gasworks, London, and Aranya Art Center, Qinhuangdao, ‘Soft breath’ also references the Lam Tsuen Wishing Trees where Hong Kongers go at New Year to pray for good luck. In the curious environment of ‘Soft breath’, getting what you want seems oddly plausible.

Jeff Koons | Art Intelligence Global | 23 March – 26 April

Jeff Koons, Inflatable Flowers (Tall Purple, Tall Orange), 1979, vinyl, mirrors, and acrylic, 41 × 64 × 48 cm. Courtesy: © Jeff Koons

While a Jeff Koons exhibition during Art Basel is cliché, the artist’s early works are polarizing and unmissable. The titular appliance in Nelson Automatic Cooker/Deep Fryer (1979), for instance, is screwed unceremoniously onto a parallel track of fluorescent lights. Its design is clean and pleasing, yet items from the consistently unhealthy American diet – fritters, doughnuts, etc. – are etched on its attached plaque. Inflatable Flowers (Tall Purple, Tall Orange) (1979), in which plastic blooms rest on a mirrored base, is a pretty double portrait that’s really an upskirt – a look at the botanicals’ anatomical undersides. Both works riff off 1960s minimalism – Dan Flavin and Robert Smithson, respectively – as did other neo-geo art of its time, in a semi- (and mostly hypo-) critical jab at the former’s commodity sleekness. Ushering in Banality (1988), for instance, which depicts a bow-wrapped pig flanked by two winged cherubs, portrays a seemingly idyllic scene, were it not for a third little boy whose face is buried in the sow’s behind. Nonetheless, the vigour of the work’s carving, done by Italian craftsmen, is expressive, almost earnest. Contrast that with Two Kids (1986) – a stainless-steel sculpture of children on the verge of starvation – and we see the full spectrum of American capitalism at its worse. When I visited the show, there was some dust atop the vitrines and the mirrors were dirty. Surprising that they’d let these commodities – the prices of which I’d rather not fathom – lose their lustre.

Magdalen Wong | Current Plans | 23 March – 26 April

Magdalen Wong, ‘Sour Punch’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Current Plans, Hong Kong

Hopping between galleries, one of the strangest shows that gave me pause was Magdalen Wong’s ‘Sour Punch’. Red curtains frame the provisional stage while a clown’s leg stuck in a metal vent and dripping with water sets the scene (Drip, 2024). However, absurdity abounds in the three videos that extend the work. In Spa (2024), we watch a clown getting his prosthetic nose soaped up, gently washed, then polished. It is caring, calming and does not carry the troubled overtones of other clown-centred artworks, such as Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture (1987). In Circles Rectangles and Parallel Lines (2024), we watch a clown watching a documentary on lost civilizations – or, rather, we see the screen’s reflection flickering across his partially painted face and dead eyes. That mankind stems from such dramatic histories of conquest, narrates the documentary host, is a fact ‘of endless fascination and relentless obsession’. At times, the clown’s eyes widen or his nostrils flair, as if this situation were entirely predictable. We never see the clowns in full in Wong’s videos: their image is always cropped. We watch the hands of one grasping drumsticks through floppy Mickey Mouse gloves. A drum roll ensues – ba dum tss! – and the clown keeps drumming. Maybe there is no punchline to his joke.

Main image: Magdalen Wong, TV Clown (detail), 2024, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Current Plans, Hong Kong

Alex Jen is a writer and curator based in Chicago.