Magdalen Wong is something of an enigmatic artist in Hong Kong, a voice always peripherally present but whose practice is rarely presented in a truly focused form. Fortunately observers have a prime opportunity to dissect her recent work in the current solo exhibition at the Goethe-Institut galleries, which present a selection of work produced in 2009 and 2010. Unfortunately, for this writer at least, this comprehensive view is both alluring and ultimately disappointing: by directing her studio labors at experiments in object transformation and perspective, Wong’s work seems best experienced in fragments and interventions, leading me to believe that the work included here might be more appropriately interpreted as the work of two distinct artists and two separate exhibitions.
Wong is most comfortable with photographic evocations of form, and she has now brought her mastery of this media practice to the point that her explorations in this direction are invariably visually seductive and conceptually revealing. In the most representative series, Peeled (2010), the artist has stripped ripe watermelons of their green exterior rinds, photographing the resulting object as if it were a thin layer of white membrane housing a pulsing red entity underneath. Simple but aesthetically stunning, this is a bold gesture that incorporates performative action into lens-based composition, describing several ways in which the perspective of the artist alters and positions the world around her. Also strong is the more extensive project Splash (2010), in which presumably digital photographs of splashes of milk are sutured onto backgrounds ranging from red carpet to smooth marble. A small video looping on a wall monitor, Portal (2009), depicts a balloon as it deflates, visually rhyming with Peeled while also recalling a breast through blurred abstraction; the conflation of action and form is nothing short of brilliant, and the short duration of the piece draws it just that much closer to these other photographic projects.
Then there is the other artist in the exhibition, marked by a body of work that appears altogether less confident in the role of the artist as a specially positioned observer. Sculptural projects, for instance, seem forced, as if they might be more powerful as properly composed photographs (indeed, documentation images present these works in the best light possible): in Cluster (2010) Wong has arranged several handfuls of star stickers on a horizontal mirror, creating interesting lines of perspective but failing to consider the role of space and the body in this process. Similarly, Shaved (2010) attempted to do something similar to the watermelons of Peeled by stripping the colored exterior of colored pencils in order to unify their flawed or distinct external appearances, presenting the finished tools next to a pile of their own shavings, but the rawness of the idea fails to live up to the crisp finish of the watermelon project--again, the viewer wonders if photographed pencil exteriors might be more effective. Two other video projects appear almost desperate to loudly proclaim their allegiances with performance in art: Lite (2010) follows a pair of high heels stomping on a mass of flickering, colorful Christmas lights, while Leaving U Leaving I (2010) documents a cake topped with candles spelling “CONGRATULATIONS,” of which “U” and “I” burn the longest. Wong’s attitude on form is admirable, but attempts as precious as this collapse under the sheer weight of their pretensions.
-- Robin Peckham
(All images courtesy of the Goethe-Institut Hong Kong and the artist.)