As you enter Empty Gallery’s pitch-black space you first encounter spot lit postcards strewn across a plinth. They serve as repetitive mementos of C. Spencer Yeh’s trip abroad via Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore and Malaysia. Scattered between the images lay fruits native to the Southeast Asian destinations such as dragon fruit, durian, mangosteens—souvenirs from the other side of the world. New York-based Yeh travelogues document his encounters from a tourist’s point of view. The first floor of the exhibition takes the audience on a journey with the artist in an immersive, large scale presentation shot on mobile phone.
Situated in the single room to the side, Rolf Olsen’s Shocking Asia (1976) plays on a small television in front of three posters. Yeh’s exhibition title is taken from this “mondo” film, known for its abrupt confrontation with reality and its explicit peek into hidden and taboo realities in Asia. These 1970s films were seen as sensationalist quasi-documentaries that cynically looked at foreign cultures from a Eurocentric point of view. They usually exploited archival footage of acts that existed in reality, and some staged, to maximise the shock factor. Drawing upon this artificial ethnographic study, Yeh uses his vacation documentation to investigate the tourism industry and the complexity of the activity in a globalized world.
"Shocking Asia Poster," 2017. Image courtesy of Empty Gallery. Photographer credit: Michael Yu
The top floor is further divided into 5 chambers with each of the dark interiors hosting a floor-to-ceiling video projected onto the wall. Bean bags and benches are positioned in each room, fabricated out of digitally printed material. The images display various local food and ingredients known in the region, enhancing to the collection of fruit at the beginning as bizarre symbols of distant places. Items range from pig skin and meat, mustard greens and okra to Prik Nam Pla and papaya salad with catfish roe.
Furthermore, asking the audience to sit encourages active watching and they become side-line participants in tourism, as innocent or as unethical some experiences observed may be. The films themselves feel familiar, as tourism is a practice undertaken around the world; friends and loved ones come home after adventures exploring, they share photos and videos taken overseas and tell stories of new cultures and customs they’ve encountered. However, the large-scale format of the projection removes us from our comfort zone and forces us to look deeper into what activities are tourists engage in. It takes the event from superficial looking into truly seeing and understanding the locations and experiences.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the industry heavily impacts GDP and employment in many Southeast Asian countries, with figures expected to continually increase. Yeh’s glimpse into tourism raises notions of privileged lifestyles and support, knowingly or unknowingly, of the exploitation of countries, resources, people and nature. It poses the questions; how much power do tourists hold as countries become increasingly economically impacted by the industry?
(R) "Shocking Asia", 2017 /
(L) "Shocking Asia Beanbags,", 2017. Image courtesy of Empty Gallery. Photographer credit: Michael Yu
Videos merge together as days seem to on holiday. The streets blur outside the car window as the vehicle takes Yeh and his wife to their destination and the world passes by the bus windows on a journey between cities. More footage reveals a multitude of places such as Yangon’s Drug Elimination Museum which serves as propaganda, drug condemnation and military glorification institution against the setting of Myanmar’s former capital, a country that is the second highest opium producer in the world. Various nightlife videos linger on screen, we watch as the karaoke music video plays behind a bar; we listen as a band covers Prince’s Purple Rain at the 'Thai European Food & Bar;' we witness a burlesque show with an audience of young westerners. Though these images have a familiarity to them, the format and drawn out visuals emphasize the absurdity. Is it possible that in a globalised world that we can still be removed and shocked by these events, or have we become desensitized to the experiences portrayed?
One must also wonder what the reception would be were this to be shown somewhere like New York or London. How would it be received if it were shown in the countries subject to documentation, such as Thailand or Myanmar? Hong Kong’s unique location makes an interesting choice for the exhibition. The city has close immediate connections to the region and, given its extremely recent colonial past, maintains some remnants from the bygone era while preserving and blending its unique culture.
"Shocking Asia (Driving Around Yangon Part Two)," 2017. Image courtesy of Empty Gallery. Photographer credit: Michael Yu
The lower floor of the gallery hosts Yeh’s earlier practice of sound and moving image. They explore the artist’s selt-taught vocal improvisations and probe language and identity constructs. The multi-channel installation features a face, mouths and throats in a raw manner. Confronting the viewer immediately as you descend the stairs is Baby Birds (2009/2017). The projection displays the insides of 5 mouths from the internal viewpoint of a bamboo instrument. The sucking, sapping and blowing sounds mimic baby birds gasping for sustenance, potentially alluding to desire to communicate from an early age.
"Baby Birds HD," 2009/2017. Image courtesy of Empty Gallery. Photographer credit: Michael Yu
In ‘Shocking Asia,’ old and new works are juxtaposed through different aesthetics and content, but together they raise questions about our society and its basic framework to function. They investigate our desire to explore and connect with each other across cultural boundaries. They pose questions about exploitation verses tourism and look into how our globalised world has shaped how we now view it.
C. Spencer Yeh's 'Shocking Asia' is on view at Empty Gallery, Hong Kong until Feb 10. For more information, click here.
Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.
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