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* Solace in a Refuge Island

Chan Lok Yiu

Only at the ungodly hours of the day can a bustling city breathe a temporary sigh of relief from all the hubbub. As the city finally subsides into tranquillity, the scene is set for artist Kevin Ling to buckle down to his artwork revolving around a pedestrian island in Shatin. 


Featured in Unfinished: The Invisible Condition, an exhibition in WURE AREA, Safety Island (2022) is an installation comprising largely of two objects. Here, on the concrete pedestrian island sits a padded steel chair opposite a window. Reduced to a colour spectrum of greys, beiges and whites, the combination of objects exudes a sense of calmness.  


Indeed, it is within the bounds of possibility that the installation, owing to the materials of both the chair and the refuge island, together with the choices of colours, is left with an abiding aura of detachment when situated in a white cube gallery. After all, placing an artwork in a white-walled gallery, as asserted by art critic Jonathan Jones, risks stripping the piece of resonance, which also remains one of the prime reasons behind the criticism against this particular gallery style. However, the artist strives to eliminate the chance by giving the window’s handle a turn and a push. With the window slightly opened, the constant sound of traffic drifts into the gallery from nearby streets, letting in an air of reality to counteract the whiteness of the space. 


The installation is also accompanied by an aerial photo of the pedestrian island in Lek Yuen, together with a projection of the bird’s eye view of the Shatin neighbourhood. The photo attached to the wall, due to its diminutive size, entices the audience to stand within arm's reach to take a closer look at it. After scrutinizing the photo, the uncanny resemblance between the pedestrian island in the photo and the installation in the gallery becomes immediately noticeable. What appears to be more entrancing is the mere presence of a chair hinted by its shadow in the photo, which stands in startling contrast with the actual existence of the chair in the installation. Aligning with the running theme of shadow about the absence of body and presence of projection, its duality provides clues about the missing object, and thereby, conjures up the spectators’ fertile imagination of it. Likewise, with the shadow of the chair lying flat on the grey cement, the chair, despite its intangibility, can still be perceived by the audience, and thus becomes present in the eyes of theirs.  


Living in a time where tech-savvy individuals are too numerous to mention, it is instinctual to assume that the shadow is made with the aid of computer software — Photoshop perhaps. Believe it or not, the silhouette of the chair is in fact created by the artist with a pressure washer. By brushing off the filth of the raised section of pavement, the traces of people are obliterated whereas the positive space of the island, which is the shape of the chair, is made up of all sorts of dirt acuminated over time such as footprints, dust, soil, to mention but a few. As an item of furniture which cleaves intimately to the bodies of mankind, the chair in the photo is placed on a refuge island with most of its vestiges dispelled, implying that the presence of other people is expelled from the protected area. The pedestrian island is then turned into a restful place made exclusively for the person sitting on the chair, and thereby, a place which epitomizes the literal meaning of the work, a safe island for some me time.      


The artist, alongside his usual art practice which clings tenaciously to the minutiae of life, makes a decision to recreate the scene recorded by the aerial photo. And there it is — a chair and a pedestrian island in the art gallery. Visitors to the art space are welcome to lean back in the chair and take in the scenery from outside. Sadly, what is offered by a glaze through the window are the cold exterior walls of high-rises presented at eye level. It is somewhat lacking compared to a bird’s eye view of a neighbourhood as demonstrated by the aerial photo since it neither provides the audience with a fresh outlook of the landscape different from what the commonplace offers, nor allows us to take sanctuary in the pedestrian island by creating a considerable distance from familiar scenes. And it pretty much explains the existence of the projection next to the installation. Maybe the video capturing Lek Yuen from a high angle is an effective remedy for the inadequacies of the view despite being spatially separated from the installation. But if not, it at least complements the bland scenery which is rife with skyscrapers alone.  


Safety Island leaves the audience never perceiving pedestrian islands with the same nonchalance. By no means does the work endeavour to transform the ordinary into something extraordinary. Instead, it, in accordance with many other of the artist’s works, aims to provide an alternative perspective on objects found in ordinary neighbourhoods. As we step onto the pedestrian island in the gallery, we step onto that in Lek Yuen, and the small pavement in public space points towards a comfort zone made exclusively not for the artist, the only one who has personally experienced the exact moment caught in the photo, but for every single individual who is in need for a refuge island. 


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