WHAT: Before the Rain
WHERE: 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
WHEN: Closes 19th March
Before the Rain, a free introduction to the art of Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement, sets its sights admirably high. Its gallery copy assures the reader not only that the exhibition ‘examines the 79 days Hong Kong stood at a standstill in 2014 and reflects upon the 190 years that proceeded its occurrence’ but also addresses the city’s future and deals with ‘the more complex wider debate of the region.’ This would be a tough enough ask for, say, an entire floor of the MCA, so it’s certainly a challenge for a small split-level gallery in Haymarket.
The exhibition’s ambitions are let down by its inconsistent voice that abruptly shifts from the highly concrete to the highly conceptual midway through the exhibition. The ground floor is impressively furnished with a full-sized market stall of the type Umbrella protesters organised under, as well as a sprawling series of line drawings reproducing, categorising and locating the many temporary structures built during the occupation. However, the austere top level signals a return to a more traditional, cerebral gallery experience. Most of the artworks on display here step away from the protests themselves and deal with broader ideas surrounding law and bureaucracy in Hong Kong.
The tension between abstraction and contextualisation wouldn’t be a problem in and of itself, but there just aren’t enough artworks for the exhibition to fuse the styles of representation, so its attempts to both tell the story of the protests and engage in wider thematic questions remain disappointingly incomplete. Before the Rain’s conceptual pieces are too oblique and lengthy, their descriptions often so overwrought that they serve as a crutch rather than an explanation. If you don’t know very much about the Umbrella Movement and Hong Kong going in, you will probably learn more from what the curators have written than from what the artists have produced.
There are nevertheless some highlights. Yuan Goang-Ming’s video piece The 561st Hour of Occupation records the student occupation of Taiwan’s parliament in their related Sunflower Movement. With two long, slow camera movements he eerily, poignantly captures the occupation and its aftermath. Sarah Lai’s dual installation/performance piece Demarcated area forces viewers to navigate security guards with crowd-control bollards, cleverly transforming the gallery space to recreate a restriction of movement by government forces.
Many of the other artworks have their moments too, but the exhibition would have been better served by a considerably tighter focus and a firm commitment to either the visceral, documentary side of the artmaking or the more conceptual, theoretical side. It’s interesting to see the range of ways regional artists have responded to the 79 days of occupation. But their voices never end up coming together; they are too few in number, too disparate in their concerns, and too difficult for an uninformed viewer to understand. They do not speak boldly enough about the reasons they’re all under the same banner.
It’s strange that this exhibition, ostensibly about a highly successful, highly important protest, has all the hallmarks of a failed one instead.