Life in a Little Room

Karen Kedmey
Feb 9, 2014 5:01AM

Approaching Hong Kong Island from one of the many humming ferryboats that continually disgorge yet more human beings into its cheek by jowl streets is like seeing a vision. Its skyline rises from the water, skirting the base of the mounded island, then breaking apart into individual buildings that march up its lush, blue-green mountains. These buildings are sky-high needles. If New York is vertical, Hong Kong is stratospheric.

You don't enter Hong Kong, it swallows you into its teeming, intestinal interior. Space is interstitial here, and every inch of it is in use, or, perhaps, over-use, as Au Shek-yan so evocatively demonstrates in Live in Hong Kong (2010).

In this video work, Au concentrates on her living quarters while a university student: a speck of a dorm room shared by three people. She intercuts interviews with her own two roommates and other former occupants of the room with vignettes of their activities within it and panning shots seen as if through a peephole. In the first vignette, a woman works on her computer, at a desk pocketed between two walls. The shadow of a second woman appears against the far wall, merges momentarily with the first woman's darkened form, then disappears. Suddenly, the far wall, which is, in fact, not a wall at all but a sheet, is pulled back, and the hand of the second woman reaches out, waiting to receive the pair of scissors she has asked her roommate to borrow.

With this mundane opening scene, Au pulls viewers in to the startlingly claustrophobic space of the room. Everything, and everyone, seems to overlap. Individual (if that word even applies here) nooks, demarcated by bed sheets, furniture, and such non-physical things as noises, light, and darkness, are makeshift and puzzle-like. Au's video, like the room itself, is divided into blocks and strips.

Not once in the course of her filming does Au provide a straight-on view of the room. And rightly so. Such literal documentation would spoil the incredible effectiveness with which she's managed to convey the experience of how it feels. Here is Hong Kong turned inside-out, residents carving out space in a way that seems to defy the concrete logic of limits, in an infinitesimal room, slotted in, somewhere, along the skyline.

Karen Kedmey