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Issue 206

A Night at Doreen Chan’s Heartbreak Hotel

At HB Station in Guangzhou, the artist offers a shattered version of domestic bliss

BY Hera Chan in Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 30 JUL 19

‘Hard Cream’ is a breakup show. Comprising new works made by Hong Kong artist Doreen Chan Wing Yan during a month-long residency at HB Station in Guangzhou and curated by Para Site’s Qu Chang, the exhibition restages the experience of loss through a series of exercises performed with everyday objects. Consistent with Chan’s practice, the works are informed by inward research, delving into personal memory. 

Happy (We Never Need a Cake) (all works 2019) is a video screened on a small tablet atop an open notebook covered with obsessively repetitive scrawled circles. Looped footage depicting the artist tediously removing the fruit toppings and white cream from a two-tier cake is reversed to appear as though the layers are instead being added on, culminating in the insertion of two pink-and-white candles. The inane, repetitive action of un-making and re-making provides the underlying logic of this exhibition, which presents a search for the right questions to ask oneself after the end of a relationship, rather than the right answers. 

Doreen Chan, ‘Hard Cream’, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: South Ho and HB Station, Guangzhou, China

Each of the 11 works in the exhibition traces a particular moment in Chan’s former relationship, largely taking place in her ex’s family home. For instance, 1,000 Times is a white wax floor pouring that marks the route she walked from the entrance of the apartment to her boyfriend’s room – behind the couch when his father was sitting there; straight across when he wasn’t. Chan later told me that she found herself making that path in the street after they had broken up. In this deranged dance, she sought familiarity and found cruel optimism. 

Beyond the dimly lit main gallery lies a bright white room, as well as a bathroom and a mezzanine sleeping area, opening up the space the artist inhabited for the month of her residency. Through Chan’s subtle sculptural gestures, the collection of daily objects – door mats, towels, clingfilm, pillows – the presence of her ex becomes ambient, traces to be found in every material fragment. (The fact that these are generic objects leaves them poignantly open to be interpreted in relation to visitors’ own memories of heartbreak.) 

Doreen Chan, ‘Hard Cream’, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: South Ho and HB Station, Guangzhou, China

After a fight one night, Chan stayed awake crying in her ex’s pitch-black bedroom. Inching her body toward the foot of the bed to open the window just a crack, the warmth of the street light gave her a momentary sense of relief. Hung high in the space, Window is a to-scale sculpture made of pads of paper, laboriously cut to indicate where the flicker of light that Chan afforded herself that night passed in; a resin cast of the illuminated sliver itself lies nearby.

In the gallery, the spaces seem to melt into each other, too close for comfort. The divisions between the living areas feel insubstantial, the spaces collapsing into each other, reflecting typically tight Hong Kong living quarters. A testament to the ways in which all emotions are inherently shared, though not necessarily public, ‘Hard Cream’ depicts the attempt to make oneself small enough to fit inside an existing (social, spatial) mould. Although Chan and her ex failed to successfully foster certain domestic rituals, the exhibition allows us to experience her habits, unintentionally crafted over the course of her relationship and intentionally reenacted in the gallery. You feel Chan’s heart – the heart of someone who has loved and lost, made powerfully vulnerable. 

Doreen Chan, Window, 2019. Courtesy: South Ho and HB Station, Guangzhou, China

In the bathroom, a wide board and glass sheet have been fixed above the toilet seat (which had been left up when I visited), making it difficult to sit down. Those who use the toilet standing up are faced with a single toothbrush precariously resting against the rim of a hole cut into the glass. The work is called Stable, with the subtitle: ‘Just keep it standing.’ Chan’s former boyfriend remains unnamed.

Doreen Chan’s ‘Hard Cream’ is on view at HB Station, Guangzhou, China, until 18 August 2019. 

Main image: Doreen Chan, Happy (We Never Need A Cake), 2019, video still. Courtesy: HB Station, Guangzhou, China

Hera Chan is based in Amsterdam by way of Hong Kong. She is the Adjunct Curator of Greater China, Supported by the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation at Tate.