Spotlight: Exhibition

Neo Hua Ren: the diaspora of a postinternet era

© Yushi Li

A new exhibition in London presents the work of seven contemporary Chinese artists, raising questions about gender, beauty, censorship, and the concept of diaspora

Long before it became an exhibition space, The Crypt Gallery in London was a tomb. Built in 1822, it was, and still is, the final resting place of 557 people. After burials were discontinued in 1855, it was used as an air-raid shelter during both World Wars,, and now, since 2002, it has been operating as an art gallery. Neo Hua Ren is the latest exhibition to occupy the space, and brings together the work of seven contemporary artists from Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan to challenge the concept of Hua Ren (华人): a term employed to describe immigrants of Chinese descent.

Located at the back of St Pancras Parish Church, through heavy red doors and down a short stairwell, the crypt is dark and cool – a welcome break from the warm city smog. Wide corridors lead to each of the installations that inhabit the basement’s musty arches, as echoes from Whiskey Chow and ​Gong Yifei’s experimental video installations reverberate through the space.

All of the exhibiting artists are London-based, but originally from mainland China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong. The show aims to confront the stereotypes attached to Asian artists by platforming a variety of contemporary viewpoints and experimental mediums. Neo Hua Ren also seeks to confront what it means to be part of a diaspora in a postinternet world where we are all digitally connected, and the concept of a physical, ethnicity-based community is beginning to break apart.

Queer activist and artist Whiskey Chow’s video installation Look Like Myself Enough? explores identity and authenticity in the digital era © Whiskey Chow
In the video, the artist uses yoghurt to stick passport images onto her face, to represent how our identities have been flattened into a two-dimensional image © Whiskey Chow

“We wanted to question whether diaspora even exists today,” says Tina Maslakova, who curated the show with Stephanie Chen and Djenai Delerue, in collaboration with Shanghai-based agency V/COLLECTIVE. “We live in such a globalised world,” she continues. “A diaspora used to be more of a closed community, like Chinatown. But I think most young people now have trouble identifying with a specific culture or country and the idea of diaspora is shifting.”

The exhibition is multifaceted, encompassing photography, video, sculpture and painting. The first walkway presents a selection of ​Yushi Li’s playful photographs that question the female gaze and gender roles. In Your Reservation Is Confirmed, Li poses in ideal homes rented through Airbnb, with an ideal man, also hired through an internet service. Further down the crypt are two images from My Tinder Boys, for which Li used the dating app to scout men to pose naked in their kitchens.

Your Reservation is confirmed (Skipping), 2018 © Yushi Li

Tucked away in the back of the hall is Gong Yifei’s installation piece, which presents a stimulating montage of shopping malls in China and the UK, as well as family videos from her own childhood. Projected straight onto the brick wall, the video investigates the concept of private and public, and safety and surveillance; subjects that are complemented by the esoteric setting of an Anglican crypt. 

Alongside a selection of her analogue experiments and commissioned images, fashion photographer Yolanda Y. Liou exhibits a new series that confirms the invigorating potential of creative collaboration. Taiwanese photographer Yolanda Y. Liou grew up in a culture that relentlessly depicted skinny as beautiful. When Liou came across plus-size model and advocate Enam Asiama on Instagram, she was inspired by her confidence and activism. “That’s when it clicked,” says Liou. “I’m a fashion photographer: I create images, images don’t create me.”

Liou reached out to Asiama, who invited her best friend and fellow model Vanessa Russell. For the shoot, Liou gave them the freedom to style themselves. “I want them to show their most comfortable selves,” says Liou, who later titled the series Thank you for playing with me.

© Yolanda Y. Liou
© Yolanda Y. Liou

Neo Hua Ren is the first exhibition curated by Tina Maslakova, Stephanie Chen and Djenai Delerue, who met during their MA in Modern and Contemporary Asian Art at Sotheby’s Institute. Other artists on show include J​an Chan, who employs paint to create ironic and textured images, Yingming Chen, who employs techniques associated with contemporary Chinese culture; and Kitty Mai, whose ink-and-paper work on the post-digital era is similarly multifaceted. “It was a very organic curation process,” reflects Maslakova. “We wanted to bring in artists from different backgrounds, as well as bringing together contemporary Chinese artists with undiscovered perspectives on the diaspora.”

Neo Hua Ren will be on show at The Crypt Gallery, London, until 03 September 2019

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