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Art

Hong Kong Artist Andrew Luk Finds Hope amid Upheaval

Andrew Luk, Untitled Écorché (single life vest) 2, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and de Sarthe.

Andrew Luk, Untitled Écorché (single life vest) 2, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and de Sarthe.

Portrait of Andrew Luk. Courtesy of the artist and de Sarthe.

Portrait of Andrew Luk. Courtesy of the artist and de Sarthe.

When I met at his studio in mid-February, it was nine hours after robbers stole 600 rolls of toilet paper (worth over $200 USD) from a supermarket at knifepoint. The heist happened just a few blocks away from the industrial building where the artist lives and works. It’s fair to say that things in Hong Kong were taking strange turns.
Anti-government protests have rocked the city. The pro-democracy movement reached a massive scale in June 2019, with nearly 2 million people taking to the street at its peak. In July, the Legislative Council building was briefly overrun and occupied; November brought sieges by riot police on university campuses. Now, there are still occasional clashes with police, and the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated strained social and economic conditions.
Portrait of Andrew Luk. Courtesy of the artist and de Sarthe.

Portrait of Andrew Luk. Courtesy of the artist and de Sarthe.

This series of events has changed the outward appearance of Hong Kong. For Luk, the occasional upheaval happening around him is a form of art, one that expresses the aspirations and appeals of people who live in the city. “I think art comes from a place of desire or anger,” Luk said. “You create the world you want to see—what you think could be or what you wish should be; what you think doesn’t get enough attention.”
Born in the U.S. and raised in Hong Kong, Luk studied art and European history as an undergraduate in Boston. After school, he spent a year working as a copywriter in the States, then returned to Hong Kong to devote himself to his art practice. Through his work, he contemplates the false notion that there is a difference between humanity and nature, and looks at what happens when new and old things are pushed up against each other. He also considers how some fundamental elements of daily life remain the same—like how ventilation and waste management are necessary whether we are living in caves or high-rise buildings—even though we constantly invent new systems, languages, and structures to define and modify the world around us.
Luk draws heavily from urban environments, often incorporating found objects and detritus in his sculptures, installations, and mixed-media creations. One of his artworks that strings together these qualities is Black Square Problem Setting (we’re talking about practice) (2017), an installation that is a functional climbing wall. It was the result of an artist residency at de Sarthe Gallery in Hong Kong during the summer of 2017. Luk recalls his first meeting with Willem Molesworth, the gallery’s director, who said to him, “I want you to write a proposal that’s going to make me cry.”
Tears probably weren’t shed, but Luk expended plenty of sweat and elbow grease after he was selected as de Sarthe’s first artist-in-residence. For about eight weeks, he made preparations to mount an exhibition called “PRACTICE.”
The show’s centerpiece was Black Square Problem Setting; its title references Russian avant-garde artist ’s iconic painting and the process of creating bouldering problems—the routes that people pursue on the walls of climbing gyms. When Luk was studying and working in Boston, he frequently used an indoor bouldering wall on MIT’s campus, where advanced climbers and novices shared a cramped, sweaty space. He likens the experience to the exchanges between expert and newcomer in the art world—between curator and artist, or two artists at differing career stages.
The installation is made up of black wood panels secured around one of the gallery’s columns, with hand and foot holds bolted into the surfaces. Made from sand, resin, and fiberglass, the holds were cast from objects found in the gallery and the neighborhood—a water bottle, part of a car bumper, a piece of a fire hydrant, an electrical outlet, and more. The artist invited seasoned climbers to set actual bouldering problems on the work. At the show’s opening, they taught visitors how to move their bodies up the forms.
The idea, Luk said, was to get people to interact with art in the same way that an artist does—touch it, shape it, leave your mark.
His impulse to mimic nature continues in “Horizon Scan” (2017–present), an ongoing series of painted canvases and found materials that have been scorched by homemade napalm Luk creates; he then reassembles the pieces and encases them in clear resin and illuminates them with LED lights. Looking at the works, we see layers that resemble undulating landscapes under changing lights—perhaps a lunar spectacle, or something meteoric, tectonic, shaped under protracted pressure over geologic ages.
Luk revisits that strain—whether natural or via human conflict—again and again in his work. In “Distilled of Fired Leaves” (2017), the artist torched and warped plastic air-conditioner registers—objects that help humans customize temperature and humidity—and uses the forms to highlight the contradictions in our relationship with the world around us. That the works in the series resemble skeletal fragments or molted reptilian skin drives home a sense of deterioration; time and torture change artificial objects, allowing nature to break down and assimilate them.
Andrew Luk, installation view of “Distilled of Fired Leaves,” 2017, in chi K11 art museum, Shanghai, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and de Sarthe.

Andrew Luk, installation view of “Distilled of Fired Leaves,” 2017, in chi K11 art museum, Shanghai, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and de Sarthe.

Those ideas were meant to be carried forward and taken to their natural next step this year, when Luk made the roster for Art Basel in Hong Kong’s Encounters sector, the portion of the fair dedicated to large-scale works. His installation was conceived as what he describes as a “post-anthropogenic landscape,” made chiefly from steel and spray foam. Mobiles of polystyrene clusters, eroded and partially dissolved by thinner, exist as something unresolved hovering over us, something troubled and haunted by the distant past. But with the fair canceled due to logistical difficulties and travel limitations—visitors from mainland China to Hong Kong must undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine—Luk and Molesworth had to improvise to salvage the idea.
The installation, titled Haunted, Salvaged (2020), has been adapted for de Sarthe Gallery’s next exhibition, “Shifting Landscapes” (opening April 4th), where it will be staged alongside paintings by . The unsettled feeling unpacked via Luk’s work in the show gels with crucial questions in Hong Kong: When will the pandemic subside? How will the protests evolve? Where does all of this take the city’s people—and its culture? What would a future that we could live in look like? And who will be left?
Andrew Luk, Haunted, Salvaged (in progress), 2020. Courtesy of the artist and de Sarthe.

Andrew Luk, Haunted, Salvaged (in progress), 2020. Courtesy of the artist and de Sarthe.

Andrew Luk, Haunted, Salvaged (in progress), 2020. Courtesy of the artist and de Sarthe.

Andrew Luk, Haunted, Salvaged (in progress), 2020. Courtesy of the artist and de Sarthe.

Luk often needs to let his art sit as he makes it, letting gravity, chemistry, and time work their ways. “I can’t exert much power over it once it hits a certain point,” he told me. The artist has also been looking at new channels to express his ideas, and has been honing his ability to acclimate to new conditions and settings.
When he arrived at Manchester’s Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art as its artist-in-residence last July, Luk didn’t have access to the materials that he normally works with, so he decided to make a 10-minute video. The fake documentary links together the evolution of moths—which develop new physical features rapidly from generation to generation to fit their environments—with the peak athleticism, celebrity, marketability, and biological prestige of Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo. These threads came together in a moment during the Euro 2016 final, when France played Portugal, and a moth briefly kissed the captain’s eyebrow as he sat on the turf, possibly injured.
Andrew Luk, still from A Kiss Stolen Between Wounded Immortals, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and de Sarthe.

Andrew Luk, still from A Kiss Stolen Between Wounded Immortals, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and de Sarthe.

This March, with the cancelation of Art Basel in Hong Kong, international art figures won’t be flocking to the city like moths to a flame, but local stakeholders are venturing on to organize events as they normally would. Luk recalls that in the past, he’s been able to form genuine connections with art world figures from abroad because of the fair, an annual five-day affair. He used those opportunities to lead visitors to independent, nonprofit spaces that are often omitted from packed itineraries, like the now-shuttered Things That Can Happen, or the artist-run 100ft. Park, whose name describes its limited footprint. “As long as there are people who are into art for the right reasons,” Luk said to me, “artists have an avenue to make those connections and put Hong Kong on the map.”
There is understated, quiet strength in Luk’s outlook and creative temperament, like a plant eking out an existence within cracks in the pavement, or tree roots resisting gravity and human construction to break through foundations. Those obsessed with the order found within human designs imposed upon nature may see that as decay, degradation, or unwelcome interruption, but there is an intense optimism that cannot be overlooked. It’s literally bursting through concrete.
Brady Ng