Isabella Tam, curator of the Sigg Prize 2023 exhibition, gives insight into the practices of the six shortlisted artists and their presented works.
The Sigg Prize is a biennial award recognising outstanding artistic practices in the Greater China region. In this second edition, the works by the six shortlisted artists—Jes Fan, Miao Ying, Wang Tuo, Xie Nanxing, Trevor Yeung, and Yu Ji—demonstrate their distinctive practices as they explore the spatio-temporal complexities of our lives in the past three years. From the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic to intensified ideological and geopolitical conflicts and the unstoppable growth of technology, artificial intelligence in particular, everyday life has been upended, revealing various hidden aspects of our society. This exhibition attempts to disentangle some of the threads underlying the approaches of the shortlisted artists as they discuss these issues and how contemporary art helps to navigate these tumultuous times.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, travelling was a normal part of life. One could hop on a plane on Friday evening for a weekend getaway. In the global art scene, artists, curators, and collectors are constantly travelling for exhibitions, biennales, and symposiums in different parts of the world, connecting and exchanging ideas. When the pandemic hit, borders closed and a global lockdown occurred, restricting social contact and economic activities. Gone was the free world where fluid interaction and migration were possible, and segregation became the new reality.
The works of Jes Fan and Trevor Yeung bring to light the systems behind segregation and the concept of cultural kinship. In Sites of Wounding: Chapter 2 (2023), Fan features Aquilaria sinensis, also known as agarwood, which is native to Hong Kong and prized for its fragrant resin secreted around wounds, like fungal infestation or trauma. It is said that the plant played a part in the naming of Hong Kong, which translates into ‘fragrant harbour’, for the city was once a trading post for incense. Fan traces agarwood’s cultural and economic linkages from Hong Kong to Vietnam, associating the notion of the wound with the landscape of the internal human body, or what he describes as interior trauma. On a deeper level, following the plant’s migratory path and transitory nature, the work addresses Hong Kong identity and how one relates to one’s own background and culture even in constant transit. Furthering Chapter 1, which features Pinctada fucata, the Akoya pearl oyster, Sites of Wounding: Chapter 2 demonstrates Fan’s continual attempts to build a narrative of belonging using non-human organisms to demonstrate social and cultural trauma.
With The Queue (2023) and three other works, Yeung simulates the experience of waiting in line at border control to get quarantined in a hotel room. The presentation is an open invitation for viewers to journey through a transitional yet highly controlled environment, filled with subtle details to create an emotional and behavioural experience. From the ‘red brighter’ poster to the restrained money tree and mushroom night light, Yeung exposes the paradox of seeking reassurance while feeling frustrated about being confined in the space. The experience offers an opportunity for us to review the control and segregation we were subject to during the pandemic, which made us far more aware of the minutiae of everyday life and our environment.
This awareness of everyday life can also be seen in Xie Nanxing and Yu Ji’s practices. Academically trained in painting and sculpture respectively, they honed their mediums while pushing their existing boundaries. Contrary to envisioning a work’s completion and accomplishing it steadily, Xie and Yu hold ongoing conversations with their materials and lived experience.
To Xie, painting is not solely built on the legacies of art history and the inertia of a common reality that resonates among viewers. In his paintings, objects are often inscrutable, and the image of the subject is suppressed, preventing clear narratives. The Ballad of Pieter Picking His Teeth (2022) is more than a reinterpretation of Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1568 work The Blind Leading the Blind (or The Parable of the Blind). Based on the parable from the Gospel of Mathew, The Blind Leading the Blind fuses Biblical tale with symbolism alluding to rapid social change in the sixteenth century. In The Ballad of Pieter Picking His Teeth, Xie fills the canvas with almost unidentifiable images of faces, monstrous beings, pipe systems, and a row of ducks falling into a cesspit. The work is ambiguous enough for viewers to derive their own conclusions, informed by everyday encounters and social contexts. With highly saturated colours of grey, purple, and red as well as violent, abrupt lines and contours, the work shows Xie’s reinvention of a canonical image while escaping from concrete representation to create visual drama and tension. His non-binary approach to painting communicates a sense of uncomforted frustration and psychological oppression that can no longer be contained.
Similarly, Yu revisits the language of sculpture to dissociate from formal categories of figuration and abstraction in Western and Eastern art history. Presented in the exhibition are three works, made between 2018 and 2021, from her ongoing series Flesh in Stone, in which she referenced traditional Buddhist sculptures and renounced orthodox sculptural approaches. Yu crafted fragmented bodies out of cement, their forms reminiscent of boulders affixed with metal armour and used rebar, placed on top of discarded furniture collected from the local sites where they were made. The ambiguous quality of her sculptures destabilises any reading of cultural, social, or political symbols. Instead, the bodies are in dialogue with the physical environments they inhabit.
Time is warped in the past three years as the pandemic draws our attention to the entanglement of past, present, and future, allowing us to evaluate the historic and the contemporary. While Wang Tuo puts forth the delicate interconnectedness of human life, myth, and history in Northeast Tetralogy (2018–2021), Miao Ying’s Pilgrimage into Walden XII (2019–2023) is a timely reflection on the coexistence of human and digital realities. Both present parallel worlds in evolving and unstable times as well as the desire to adapt to these challenging conditions.
A major production for Wang in the past four years, Northeast Tetralogy comprises four individual yet interconnected videos: Smoke and Fire (2018), Distorting Words (2019), Tungus (2021), and Wailing Requiem (2021). The project weaves a complex narrative about histories and ruptures in Northeast Asia in the past century and contemporary issues surrounding the experience of migrant workers. By juxtaposing locations, periods, and cultures, the videos guide us through archives, fictional narratives, and literary and filmic resonances. The recurring characters also reflect Wang’s idea of ‘pan-shamanisation’ based on his extensive study of shamanistic rituals and how bodies could enter an unconscious state to become historic reincarnations. Rather than a generalisation of histories and direct portrayals of current affairs, Wang’s work expresses the ineffable links of time, space, and nationalities, emphasising historical scars and real-life experiences that are very much enmeshed.
On the contrary, Miao looks to the now and future where reality and the digital world coexist. Pilgrimage into Walden XII (2019–2023) is a multi-chapter project situated in a medieval fantasy land. Referencing Walden Two, a utopian novel by behavioural psychologist B. F. Skinner, Miao’s work is a live simulation that uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to implement ideological doctrines and desirable behaviour, specifically through ‘social shepherds’, who guard and maintain order over citizens, depicted as cockroaches. The development of the work coincides with recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, particularly ChatGPT, a language-processing chatbot that harvests information across the internet and generates humanistic responses, from creative stories to concise answers for question prompts. Miao’s timely work speaks to the omnipresence of technology in our lives and looks critically at the social crediting system as a new form of societal control. The pandemic drastically accelerated our reliance on technology to cope with social distancing, a practice that will never fade away. Technology companies and public institutions are given wider access to information, harvesting data from our daily activities. In this sense, Miao’s work is no longer a hypothesis but a parallel, future reality, bringing the fundamental question of technology’s impact on human rights and humanity to the fore.
Curating this exhibition entails a consideration of how the distinct voices and practices of these artists relate to the here and now. Even though the borders have reopened, ripples of the pandemic continue to affect our psychology and everyday behaviour, and geopolitical tension and conflicts show no signs of being resolved anytime soon. Through their projects, the six artists convey a desire to comprehend these traumas to recapture the past and how people, technology, and culture may coexist. Rather than answers, contemporary art offers possible ways to face an uncertain future together. It is our hope that this exhibition will foster and bring these conversations from Greater China to a wider audience.