Don't leave the dark alone | 不要讓黑暗獨自留下
Exhibition Guide | 展覽導讀
Don’t leave the dark alone
Oscar Chan Yik Long
Solo exhibition at Gallery EXIT, Hong Kong
14 August – 18 September 2021
Oscar Chan Yik Long’s first solo exhibition at Gallery EXIT, with which he has collaborated for some time, is so comprehensive that it almost becomes a survey of his work of the last three years. It might even be considered a first retrospective of his practice – at least if the Hong Kong audience would agree to a little thought experiment.
Imagine, along with what you see on these walls, two other works by Chan from 2021: the limited-edition figurine The King of Ghosts, already shown as a prototype at Gallery EXIT and at Art Basel Hong Kong, and an immersive installation for Kunsthalle Kohta in Helsinki, an artist-initiated institution that I direct, consisting of Pun-Gu, a wall painting executed in Chinese ink, and Cosmic Egg, a black-and-white woollen rug.
My curatorial interest in Chan’s practice led to the ongoing project in Finland, which is the direct reason why I was asked to write this introduction to his solo exhibition. I often find it interesting to follow the work of artists who stay loyal to a particular mode of articulation or thematic field. Within voluntary restraints, the most open-minded and critically acute of them will find renewable sources of artistic freedom and multiple avenues for development.
The works in Chan’s exhibition share some characteristics. They are black-and-white, figurative and reference both Oriental myths and Occidental art, but mainly twentieth-century cinema from all over the world. Yet none of this should deter viewers from approaching each work by Chan as an individual entity: a window into a parallel reality, a mirror reflecting its environment or just a surface revealing itself.
A skilled artist understands how to play these three operative modes against each other, and an informed audience understands that any successful exhibition is both the sum of the works on show and something ‘extra’, in excess of or beyond what meets the eye. Telegraphing messages from that ‘beyond’ is one of the many purposes served by titles in visual art.
‘Don’t leave the dark alone’ is a phrase taken out of its original context (something to do with managing laundry) and redeployed for managing darkness itself, or at least the fear of darkness and the anxiety or damage it may cause. Used as an exhibition title, the phrase gives us license to equate artistic strategies employing a metaphorical darkness (ink, graphite) with the real thing (how we respond to the dark outside and inside).
The actual exhibition is set up both to encourage and discourage such ‘unreflective’ understanding by offering a variety of surfaces for reflection. Chan’s installation opens with four paintings in ink on stretched canvas, continues with ambiguous use-objects – ink drawings turned into a manufactured rug or executed on cigarettes emptied of their intoxicating content, painted curtains meant to be back-lit by the sun – and ends with a series of glazed and framed drawings in graphite on not-quite-white paper.
Since Chan also works with a variety of iconographies, it seems worthwhile to briefly annotate all the exhibited works for the benefit of two kinds of viewers: those who have already guessed the references and those who haven’t.
The four paintings that open the exhibition are all from 2021 and based on film frames representing different traditions or schools of 1960s and ’70s cinema: psychological entertainment, social critique and mythological parables by American, British, German and Japanese authors. The finished works reflect individual and societal tensions experienced and understood by cinema goers in the past, but Chan’s translation of cinema into painting also introduces alterations and additions that speak to the fears and worries of the present age and our attempts at overcoming them.
Where is Your Costume? (112 × 150 cm) uses a freeze-frame from Walter Grauman’s Lady in a Cage (1964) featuring the lead actress Olivia de Havilland stuck in a lift with a band of burglars in disguise. Don’t Look Now (160 × 108.5 cm) references Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film with the same title and reinterprets the scene where Donald Sutherland’s character tries, in vain, to revive his drowned daughter. Not Even God or the Devil Know How to Handle This (147 × 150 cm) replaces Rainer Werner Fassbinder's head, in a shot from his film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), with that of a goat. Unfavourable Extermination (185 × 150 cm), finally, reframes a central frame from the episode ‘Hoichi the Earless’ in Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (‘Ghost Stories’, 1965). To protect the protagonist by making him invisible, a priest covers his body and face with the text of the Buddhist Heart Sutra (‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is form’), but inadvertently leaves his ears uncovered. The painting’s title reinterprets the four central calligraphic characters visible on Hoichi’s face.
How do we know if the dead would not regret their efforts to survive? is the title Chan has given to his circular woollen rug, measuring three metres across and manufactured in 2020 for ‘Tongueless’, a group exhibition at the Goethe-Institut in Hong Kong themed around mental health. The rug was woven after a densely dramatic ink drawing by Chan, featuring some of the monstrous and ‘pessimistic’ visual elements viewers have come to expect from him, especially in his murals. Yet its title is a quote from The Adjustment of Controversies by Zhuangzi, a fourth-century BC classic of Chinese philosophy who, much like his near-contemporary Plato, favoured dialogue as a format for ventilating controversial and irresolvable issues – arguably an ‘optimistic’ stance. At face level, the phrase expresses disenchantment with life as it is lived, but Zhuangzi uses it to discuss the difficulties of ‘harmonising of conflicting opinions’ when no authoritative truth can be relied upon to accept or reject them. To Chan, Zhuangzi’s words encapsulate both speculative and embodied reason and may therefore help the eye through the intricate darkness of his own design.
Rather than being a series of drawings, The Most Misplaced Worry (2018/20) is an object representing a repeated act of drawing: a transparent plastic box filled with the empty shells of 20 Marlboro cigarettes. Chan appropriated them from someone who, he thought, wasn’t supposed to smoke them. With a fine-tipped pen he applied floating, disembodied elements from his drawing repertoire – toothy grins, staring eyes, hair standing on end – onto the thin white cigarette papers before removing all their tobacco content. Thus the act of drawing became doubly disembodied.
The eight painted cotton curtains titled 120 Judge John Aiso Street were made for a group exhibition at Pougues-les-Eaux in France in 2020, where they covered as many windows. The work stages a sensation of seamless, and therefore all the more frightening, identity between the inside and the outside, as if a ragtag patrol of undead creatures was surrounding and invading the exhibition space. The title is the address of the church assaulted by a similarly menacing crowd in John Carpenter’s 1987 horror film Prince of Darkness, the middle part of his Apocalypse Trilogy. Some of the imagery, featuring the singer-turned-actor Alice Cooper, was lifted from the same source, but there are also filtered influences from classical painters like Francisco Goya or James Ensor. In this series Chan exploits a darker undercurrent of carnivalesque Europe tradition, the residue of pre-Christian beliefs and practices. The aesthetic and psychological effects are similar to those he achieved elsewhere with visual quotes from East Asian mythology and ghost stories.
The concluding element of ‘Don’t leave the dark alone’ is a series of 16 graphite drawings on paper (all 42 × 29.7 cm), individually titled and installed in smaller groups. They form a library of his references and interests in 2020 and early 2021, the time of the Parisian confinement and of second-wave Covid-19 restrictions in Helsinki, where he spent time as an artist-in-residence on the island fortress of Suomenlinna last winter.
The first two drawings are grouped together on the wall without forming a distinct sub-series. Wake in Fright uses a still from an Australian film from 1971 with the same title, directed by Ted Kotcheff and starring Donald Pleasence, whom we observe during a saliva-sharing moment with a female fellow actor. The grinning theatrical masks are a typical addition by Chan, whose use of the graphite medium varies from a light, almost indifferent touch to the deepest and most intense blackness, sometimes in the same drawing. A Violent Yet Flammable World, titled after a song by the American indie band Au Revoir Simone, has no particular visual reference but testifies to Chan’s interest in Georges Méliès’s experiments with animated film at the turn of the twentieth century.
The next four drawings are united by Chan’s use of the human skull as a visual and, possibly, symbolic cue. Nevenka splices the image of a skull into a still from Mario Bava’s horror film The Whip and the Body (1963) so that it interjects itself between the abused girl and her mirror image. The result is reminiscent of ‘decadent’ late-nineteenth-century etchings by the likes of Max Klinger or Félicien Rops. An Act of Kindness juxtaposes imagery from one of the stories in the 1974 British horror film From Beyond the Grave with a variation on the skull theme involving black lace, while Supernova is Chan’s redevelopment of an old trick-photography postcard. Flight Attendant reuses a still from Wong Kar Wai’s well known 1994 film Chungking Express but erases the airplane model of the original and inserts a small skull that appears to hover against a corner in the protagonist’s flat, next to an old-school wall-mounted lamp.
Five drawings are mounted on the gallery’s rear wall. The first of these, Blood Moon, is solitary and another variation of an early-twentieth-century postcard, this one of two men kissing. They are surrounded by graphite versions of the monsters we usually encounter in Chan’s ink murals. This is followed by three drawings hung closely together because they share Gothic and homo-erotic sensibilities and a relation to the work of the early-twentieth-century German artist Sascha Schneider. For Minotaur and Bonding, Chan relied on his own visual material and compositional principles. This is also true about Predator, although the human head was copied from the zombie television series The Walking Dead.
Ashley, based on a photograph of one of Chan’s two nieces, is hung close to the right-hand corner of the rear wall, where it faces a similar drawing of her sister, titled Avery.
Drawings number 13 and 14 are marked by lighter pencil work and their overall appearance is therefore silvery rather than black-and-white. They Were Here was drawn after an old photograph of a Hong Kong interior in the 1960s, showing a young family in a small and cramped flat. Papillon combines two sinister-looking moths with a mask-like face shrieking in stylised horror.
The conclusion of the conclusion are two drawings further enhancing Chan’s already significant use of black-and-white contrast. McFayden is a reinterpretation of Cecil Beaton’s photographic portrait of the British actor Murray Melvin from 1965, and the title refers to the character he played in yet another British horror film from 1974, Ghost Story. In We Must Focus to See the Light darkness is not just the background for the active character, based on an old photograph of a girl lighting a match. It has also spawned its own ‘double’, a mask-like face sternly peering over her shoulder – as if watching us, the viewers, from behind.
In these drawings, Chan occasionally washes an area of intensely applied graphite over with turpentine, or uses white highlights to remind us that his paper is toned. We never know for sure when an artist’s black should be read as the symbolic counterpart to his white. Sometimes they have no poetic charge but are mere surfaces revealing nothing but themselves. An artist is not obliged to resolve such ambiguities in his drawings or paintings, nor to ‘harmonise’ any conflicts of interpretation that his work may get embroiled in, but he also cannot prevent it from being understood metaphorically, as symbol and allegory.
The alternative is, as so often, worse. Imagine that what you see on these gallery walls could only be understood literally, and that the only appropriate reaction to ‘frightening’ imagery would be to actually become afraid, to renounce everything dark and dangerous for fear of hurting yourself or others. When Oscar Chan Yik Long urges us not to leave the dark alone, he also urges us not to part ways with the pleasure we may wish to take from darkness in its refined forms.
《Where is Your Costume?》（112 × 150 cm）挪用了沃爾特·格勞曼（Walter Grauman）的《電梯中的女士》（Lady in a Cage，1964年）中的定格畫面，當中女主角奧莉維亞·瑪麗·德·哈維蘭（Olivia de Havilland）與一群蒙面竊賊一同被困於電梯之中。《Don’t look now》（160 × 108.5 cm）引述了尼可拉斯·羅吉（Nicolas Roeg） 1973年的同名電影，並重新演譯了唐納·蘇德蘭（Donald Sutherland）的角色徒勞地試圖讓溺水的女兒復活的場景。在《Not Even God or the Devil Know How to Handle This》（147 × 150 cm），電影《恐懼蝕人心》（Ali: Fear Eats the Soul ，1974年）其中一個鏡頭中的寧那・華納・法斯賓達（Rainer Werner Fassbinder）的頭部給替換成一只山羊的頭。最後，《Unfavourable Extermination》（185 × 150 cm）重新建構了小林正樹的《怪談》（1964年）「無耳芳一」的中心一幕。一位僧侶為了讓男主角隱形以保護他，遂以佛教心經內「色即是空，空即是色」的文字覆蓋在他的身體和臉上，卻不意忘了遮蓋他的耳朵。這幅繪畫的標題重新詮釋了芳一臉上可見的四個主要書法字符（不利、滅子）。
《120 Judge John Aiso Street》的八面彩繪棉布簾子乃藝術家為2020年在法國普格萊索（Pougues-les-Eaux）的一次群展製作而成，用以覆蓋八面窗戶。作品營造了一種無縫因而更可怖、介乎內與外之間的身份，彷彿一隊襤褸喪屍隊列正在包圍繞並入侵展覽空間。作品標題為約翰·卡本特（John Carpenter）「啟示錄三部曲」第二部作品、恐怖電影《沉睡百萬年》（Prince of Darkness ，1987年）中被同樣來勢洶洶的人群襲擊的教堂的地址。當中部分唱而優則演的埃利斯·庫珀（Alice Cooper）的圖像摘取自同一電影，亦滲入了古典畫家如法蘭西斯科·哥雅（Francisco Goya）和詹姆斯・恩索（James Ensor）的影響。在這系列裏，陳氏利用了前基督教信仰與實踐留下來的歐洲嘉年華傳統的黑色暗湧。這些美學及心理效果近似陳氏在別的作品中所表達的，尤見於他帶有源自東亞神話及鬼故事的視覺引用的壁畫作品。
「不要讓黑暗獨自留下」展覽終章部分為一系列十六幅素描作品（全為42 × 29.7 cm），各有獨立標題並分成小組裝置。它們在2020年至2021年初成為藝術家的參考及興趣資料庫，那時正值巴黎封鎖以及赫爾辛基第二波新冠肺炎限制。上個冬天陳氏曾在後者的海上要塞芬蘭城堡作駐場藝術家。
首兩幅素描作為一組被裝置於牆上，但並不構成一個獨特的子系列。《Wake in Fright》使用了1971年澳洲同名電影劇照，電影由泰德·柯契夫（Ted Kotcheff）執導、當奴·派辛斯（Donald Pleasence）主演，我們可見到後者與一名女演員讓人垂涎欲滴的一刻。咧嘴而笑的戲劇面具是陳氏典型的添加，他對石墨媒材的使用從輕描淡寫的、幾乎漠不關心的筆觸，延展到最深邃最強烈的黑，有時在同一幅畫作出現。《A Violent Yet Flammable World》以美國獨立樂隊Au Revoir Simone的歌曲命名，沒有特別的視覺參考，但就見證了陳氏對喬治·梅里愛（Georges Méliès）於十九世纪末二十世纪初的動畫電影實驗的興趣。
接下來的四幅素描以陳氏的骷髗頭視覺甚或象徵線索組合在一塊。《Nevenka》將骷髗頭的圖像拼接在馬里奧·巴瓦（Mario Bava）的恐怖電影《鞭子與身體》（The Whip and the Body，1963年）的劇照中，加插到受虐女孩和她的鏡像之間。這效果讓人聯想到十九世紀後期馬克斯·克林格爾（Max Klinger）或費利西安·羅普斯（Félicien Rops）等人的「頹廢主義」蝕刻版畫。《An Act of Kindness》把1974年的英國恐怖片《自墳墓之外》（From Beyond the Grave）中一個故事的圖像與附有黑色蕾絲的骷髏主題並置，而《Supernova》則由陳氏把古老特技攝影明信片再造而成。《Flight Attendant》重用了王家衛1994年的著名電影《重慶森林》中的劇照，但就刪除了照片中的飛機模型，在老式掛牆燈旁邊加插一個細小的骷髗頭，驟眼看去彷彿懸浮在男主角住宅的角落。
五幅素描掛於畫廊後方牆上。第一幅的《Blood Moon》自成一角，是二十世紀早期明信片的另一種變奏，描繪了兩個正在接吻的男人。他們被陳氏的水墨壁畫中常見的怪物的石墨版本所包圍。緊隨其後的是三幅緊貼在一起的素描，它們都具有歌德式及同性戀色彩，並且與二十世紀初的德國藝術家薩沙·施奈德（Sascha Schneider）的作品有關。在《Minotaur》和《Bonding》中，陳氏採用了自己的視覺材料和構圖原則。《Predator》亦然， 唯一例外的是畫中人頭是複製自喪屍電視劇《陰屍路》（The Walking Dead）的。
素描13和14號標以較淺色調的鉛筆筆劃，整體外觀因而顯銀而非黑白。《They Were Here》謄模一張上世紀六十年代香港室內照片，顯示居於一所狹窄住宅裏的一個年輕家庭。《Papillon》結合了兩隻外貌惡毒的飛蛾和一張面具般的、樣版的恐怖尖叫中的臉。
作為終結的終結的是兩幅素描，一再推進陳氏早已顯著的黑白對比運用。《McFayden》重新詮釋了塞西爾·比頓（Cecil Beaton）於1965年拍攝的英國演員莫瑞·梅爾文（Murray Melvin）的肖像照，標題指向後者於1974年的另一部英國恐怖片《Ghost Story》中飾演的角色。《We Must Focus to See the Light》基於一張女孩點燃火柴的舊照片，而黑暗不僅僅作為活躍角色的背景，它也產生了自己的「替身」：一張面具般的臉正躲於女孩的肩膀後凝視著，彷彿從後方凝視我們這些觀眾。