“Happy Together” Provides a Rambling View of Asian Identity

In the breakdown of the 1997 film Happy Together, the disconsolate Po-Wing pleads with his ex-lover: “We could start over.” In this cult film, directed by Hong Kong legend Wong Kar-Wai, phrase is repeated not so much as a singular petition for love but as a complex comment on the narratives that make up Asia’s histories, as well as a sign of the rapid social and political changes to come. The characters are tense, afraid, and aware of the drudgeries of the past. Yet they want to start over, even though they understand the futility of that objective.

The current group show of the same name that inaugurates the new Tina Kim Gallery outpost—a ground-level space on West 21st Street with a bespoke entryway by architect Florian Idenburg—considers these emotions and thoughts, both in public and private perspectives, and also takes its name from the film. 

But where the movie follows a narrative, the exhibition does not; in fact, as curator Clara M. Kim describes, the show is specifically unfocused in its presentation of Asia—or what that even means. “I wanted to do an exhibition that looked at Asia without announcing itself as an Asian exhibition,” says Kim. “There is a construct we have in the West in these kinds of shows that we should try and say something about Asia, but that for the most part is generalizing. I think the artists in this group say something that is very specific about the present moment in time, in a political and social context. What I hope this exhibition does is complicate the way we think about Asia.”  

The work—including pieces by Lee KitMinouk LimYang ZhenzhongKwan Sheung ChiPratchaya PhinthongMing Wong, Kim Beom, and Park Chan-kyong—is varied and intimate, some angling heavily on the politics, others only subtly so. In the back space of the gallery, Minouk Lim’s vertical sculptures hang from the ceiling, crafted from tactile materials such as beaded glue drops that form a web around a pole. Accompanying the sculptures is s video, in which Lim moves through a ravaged Seoul—the destruction a result of rapid gentrification—using these sculptural sticks to poke at things.

Ming Wong’s Four Malay Stories (2005) is comprised of a faux film poster and four television sets that show the artist appropriating characters from the famed Malay actor P. Ramlee’s iconic films. Ramlee’s work is a strong foundation for much of contemporary Malaysian pop culture, although at the time of his activity, the actor was regularly censored due to his sexually provocative roles. Perhaps the most obvious, although by no means superficial, example of the issues that arise from the region is in Kwan Sheung Chi’s video work, in which a man and woman (actually Kwan’s parents) are seen hanging horizontally and then pulling in the flags of Britain, China, and Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s national anthem blares noisily in the background as the sequence of flag-raising—and indeed the question of identity and rule—dissolves messily.

—Ysabelle Cheung


Happy Together” is on view at Tina Kim Gallery, New York, May 15–Jul. 3, 2015.


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