Vunkwan Tam’s Frustrated Ghosts

With simultaneously mournful and irreverent works, ‘F’ at Empty Gallery is haunted by our inability to process grief in the internet age

BY Cassie Kaixin Liu in Exhibition Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 16 SEP 22

At first glance, the room evokes a windowless morgue. Inside a dark gallery illuminated by a dim spotlight, a pair of empty body bags lie flat on the floor. Part of Vunkwan Tam’s installation Untitled (The traffic noise arched over a bubbling mass of public conversation and pattering footsteps on concrete) (2021), the black bags are an ominous greeting for visitors as they step into the artist’s debut solo exhibition, ‘F’, at Empty Gallery, hinting subtly at trauma and tragedy. Comprising ten installations, photographs and readymade sculptures, ‘F’ is haunted by the fractured, apathetic and frustrated cultural expressions of the internet age, which manifest most clearly in responses on social media to devastating events.

An image of a large expanse of black plastic sheeting on the floor in front of a sculpture hung on the wall which looks like giant matchsticks in criss cross formation
Vunkwan Tam, ‘F’, installation view, 2022. Courtesy: the artist and Empty Gallery; photograph: Michael Yu

Comprising a stack of straw hats painted with black enamel, Untitled (IIIII, a Quiet Life) (2021) brings to mind funeral attire. Modifying a common fashion item, the work has seemingly been casually tossed onto the floor, as though thrown down by someone who has reached their limit for grieving. Nearby, L.O. (2021), its main element a 1.5-metre-tall PVC half-pipe, stands upright on the floor and suggests a shrine. Hanging from the pipe’s interior surface, a dirty shirt is covered in machine oil. Devoid of any corporeal presence, the recycled shirt seems like the memento of a deceased mechanic, conjuring the imagined memory of an absent body. Complicated by the fact that Tam pilfered the objects from an actual (still living) mechanic, this funereal narrative calls to mind viral stories fabricated on the internet for sympathy or Likes.


In an almost completely dark room, a mechanic's jacket is suspended between two thin sheets of dark metal, a vague illuminated work of art in the background
Vunkwan Tam, ‘F’, installation view, 2022. Courtesy: the artist and Empty Gallery; photograph: Michael Yu

Paying homage to the late American artist Félix González-Torres, Tam often names his works using the word ‘Untitled’ followed by a descriptive text set in brackets. Like González-Torres, Tam is interested in the intricate process of the production of meaning in visual practice, particularly in found objects. Yet unlike the work of González-Torres (who died in 1996), Tam’s explores ideas relating to the internet age, which flattens culturally significant objects of all eras into a single consumable mass. Consisting of a rusty 19th-century ‘North African’ sword Tam purchased through an e-commerce platform, the readymade sculpture Untitled (00044 N.O.W.R.F.Y.H.) (2020) is balanced against the wall on its tip, right next to lest you-will-strike against-the-stone your-foot (2022) – a partially damaged puzzle featuring 1990s-era Madonna. While the former object implies a lost personal history, the latter conjures the mass-produced, omnipresent imagery of the cultural industry. Tam seems to suggest that these two seemingly unrelated objects are simultaneously undergoing a process of cultural decay, one that will eventually leave both as inscrutable ghosts of our history.

An image of a wooden sword leaning against a wall, tip against the floor, beside an incomplete puzzle bearing the visage of American pop idol Madonna
Vunkwan Tam, ‘F’, installation view, 2022. Courtesy: the artist and Empty Gallery; photograph: Michael Yu

The exhibition title, ‘F’, is taken from the phrase ‘Press F to pay respects’ – a popular internet meme commonly used both sincerely and sardonically in response to events that range from humorous typos to mass deaths. For Tam, this contemporary behaviour encapsulates the absurdity of the compression and contortion of (as well as disengagement from) feelings of sorrow and frustration – feelings that reached full expression in the failure to fully manifest a communal sense of mourning in the wake of the protests in Hong Kong in 2019 over encroachment by the mainland Chinese government and the way the region’s authorities were dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘F’ reflects, resurfaces and grieves those simmering, ineffable feelings with works that are simultaneously mournful and irreverent. In 78i78 (2022), a woollen blanket – an enduring symbol of human comfort – has been soaked with synthetic doe urine, a substance often used on deer hunts to target a stag seeking a mate. The work seems to function concurrently as a warning, memorial and trap for the imagined deer, a creature with the potential to symbolize both laudable earnestness and punishable vulnerability, and which as such might stand in for all of us.

Vunkwan Tam’s ‘F’ is on view at Empty Gallery, Hong Kong, until 19 November.

Main image: Vunkwan Tam, ‘F’, installation view, 2022. Courtesy: the artist and Empty Gallery; photograph: Michael Yu

Cassie Kaixin Liu is a writer, editor and translator based in Hong Kong.