(Hong Kong Gallery Guide November 2010)
Amelia Johnson Contemporary
Sept 18 to Oct 31
The unfolding of memories manifests through whirling paths. Award-winning British-Chinese visual artist Dinu Li examines the subtle workings of the memory lane in his solo show The Mother of All Journeys at Amelia Johnson Contemporary. Between old haunts, family histories and the photographer’s gaze, the pictures transcend time, space and individual perspectives in an encompassing narrative.
Initially commissioned by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the exhibition is a collection of Li’s snapshots that recapture his family’s voyage from China to Hong Kong and their emigration to England. The journey took place between 2001 and 2005, during which Li and his mother visited their former residences. The result is a silent merging of perspectives, where real landscapes of the mother’s childhood, oral histories, and Li’s imagination blend in images of the family’s ancestral homes in Guangdong. The mental journey is at once lyrical and fragmented, as Li closes in on details that reveal the essence of his mother’s early life: a figure by the river who reflects longingly on her youth in ‘Dai Hai Kaiping Mum’s Hangout’, or the floor tile in ‘Parents’ Martial Home’, accompanied by captions that feature Yeuk’s re-telling of past anecdotes. The viewers are lured into a world that shifts between reality and fantasy—the reliving of bygone times is filled with yearning, words and distinct pictures.
As a photographer Li has a wonderful sense of the duality—of time that becomes the past at every passing second, and of locales that are both personal and universal. In this sense, The Mother of All Journeys is an exploration of the distance between personal experience and histories that inhabit the artist’s subjects. In ‘First Home in Hong Kong’, Li and his mother return to the family’s rooftop house that has been passed down to several owners in the last three decades. Both the physical properties and emotional facets of the house have changed drastically, but Li’s remembrance of his childhood home dominates the image. Memories override the gap between past and present, against evidence of irretrievable changes in one’s personal histories. The sovereignty of memory is at work in ‘Local Portrait Studio’: the dusty display windows and stairways call out from an olden time, their voices vivid and immediate. Yet the echoes are proof of times past, of presences that have dwelled in and exited the scene.
In the transformation of locales Li finds another tool for narration. The image of the disused Kai Tak airport communicates the Li family’s move to England, and hints at the changes that took place in the city. The artist’s take is direct and succinct, while the lives of others form the backdrop of the work. In a similar vein, ‘Wasteland by Disused Railway Line, Manchester’ speaks of a forgotten realm. The sun shines on the snow-covered track that bore witness to the artist’s youth and his bond with his mother (‘It wasn’t long before you started showing me quicker routes to school,’ she said in the caption). The image astounds with its composition and lighting, and it strikes a deep emotional resonance that serves as an endnote to the show. In the passage through the past lies the promise of return—to the changing locales in life, and to the emotions that continue to shape the artist’s perception.
The additional slide show of family photos gives a thorough view on the chronology of Yeuk’s voyage and Li’s intentions in creating The Mother of All Journeys. For audience who value completeness in a visual narrative, the slide show sure fills in the gaps. Yet it takes away some of the intrigue of the show—for Li’s manipulation of time is delicate, and it works best as understatement.