The Fertile World of Dominique Fung

The artist’s personal and artistic roots are intertwined within a primordial landscape at MASSIMODECARLO in London

BY Phin Jennings in Exhibition Reviews | 04 DEC 23

Like splatters of primordial soup on the walls of a well-to-do home, the organic forms and colours of Dominique Fung’s works sit incongruously alongside the chandeliered ceilings and ornate fixtures of MASSIMODECARLO’s London space. At the gallery entrance, To Pull Out Ancestral Memories (all works 2023) is a large painting of a soft-edged platform the colour of girolle mushrooms, which floats above two seaweed-green, perforated rocks. Flowers, seashells, ammonites and pearl-bearing oysters grow from it on thin stems, their delicate roots held in place by hands that emerge from holes in the rocks. The scene is suspended in a shiny slick of black oil paint that makes it look like it’s taking place at the bottom of the ocean.

Wherever it is, Fung’s is a fertile land. The wiry-stemmed, various-headed plants grow on almost every available surface, including from the face of an anonymous character who appears – always partially obscured – in several paintings, including Blooming Sadness. The ceramic sculptures, such as Scholar Rock, either hold rudimentary fishing lines – all of which have a bite on the end – or have more spindly plants growing through them. Nascent and fragile as they may be, we are surrounded by signs of life.

Dominique Fung
Dominique Fung, ‘(Up)Rooted’, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and MASSIMODECARLO

Making the sculptures, Fung was inspired by gongshi: ornamental rocks once popular among the scholar-officials of imperial China and still collected today. Harvested from caves, mountains and riverbeds, scholars’ rocks are literal chunks of the Earth’s bedrock. Surrounded by green shoots growing into the darkness, Fung’s prehistoric-looking rockery feels of a piece with what she appears to be exploring: the delicate set of conditions from which all life once emerged.

Fung’s personal and artistic roots are also tangled within this primordial landscape. The scholars’ rocks nod to her Chinese heritage. Elsewhere, To Leave a Place/Memory features an interpretation of a maypole she saw in a woodblock print at the British Museum. In her version, more disembodied hands dance around the pole, most gripping its ropes, others grasping for one but just missing.

Dominique Fung
Dominique Fung, Life is Fraught with Grief, 2023, 1.8 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and MASSIMODECARLO

Some of Fung’s plants fail to grow upwards, instead withering. It’s no wonder, really; they are so spindly and top-heavy that it’s a miracle any of them manage to stand straight. This sense of contingency, the feeling that everything could so easily have been otherwise, is omnipresent. Where some hands catch, others miss; where some plants grow, others die. Even the clay fish caught on the rocks’ lines are literally hanging by a thread.

Fung’s primordial soup is dense with a sense of the fragility of things. It shows how the artist’s own identity – and human life more generally – are products of a deeply unlikely and fortuitous set of circumstances. It’s hard not to believe that there is some benevolent force at play, helping things along. Perhaps that’s the role of the hands, which tend to appear where they are needed. In Life Is Fraught with Grief, one rests on a weeping figure’s shoulder whilst another supports the head of a wilting flower. Fung told me that she thinks of the hands as belonging to her ancestors, reaching through history to keep things on track.

Dominique Fung
Dominique Fung, Bones of the Earth, 2023, 100 × 97 × 90 cm. Courtesy: the artist and MASSIMODECARLO

And they have succeeded. These paintings and sculptures are glimpses of the prehistoric beginnings of the world and the artist’s identity. In a circular kind of way, the existence of the work itself is evidence that the beginnings it depicts were strong enough to come to something. Fragile and contingent as it may seem, the deep-sea, deep-time life that Fung paints and sculpts flourished into the present as she knows it. As a result, she is around to paint it now.

Dominique Fung’s ‘(Up)Rooted’ is at Massimo De Carlo, London, until 20 December 

Main image: Dominique Fung, To Pull out Ancestral Memories (detail), 2023, oil on linen, 1.8 × 2.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and MASSIMODECARLO

Phin Jennings is a curator, researcher and writer based in London, UK.