“Feelings of anxiety and dreams of escape”: Eason Tsang Ka Wai’s A Look At Looking

Ashley McGovern speaks to artist and “daring voyeur” Eason Tsang ka wai about trespassing in order to take photographs, boredom, and getting some respite from the suffocating crowds of Hong Kong…

We look down, drone-like, at a rooftop full of discarded items. Old furniture, buckets, and tarpaulin are littered across the surface. Though the scene is grubby – the towering scrub of a high-rise apartment in Hong Kong – the images have an abstract geometry. These architectural oblongs fit neatly together. The depth of the pictures can be dizzying. Sometimes the side of a building plunges down to a corrugated sheet crossing an alleyway, or to a deserted platform, or straight to the street many storeys below.

Shortlisted for the Hong Kong Contemporary Arts Award 2012, Eason Tsang ka wai’s Rooftop series (2011) is an example of street photography dragged upwards by urban geography. All taken from great heights, Tsang’s fascinating rooftops reveal the living conditions of a hyper-dense  21st-century city, and form part of his new solo exhibition, A Look at Looking, at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA), Manchester.

“Living in such crowded quarters gives way to feelings of anxiety and dreams of escape”

The series covers a range of implied class structures, from elegant rooftop restaurants to ignored ersatz rubbish tips. When asked about this fascination, Tsang tells me: “I think rooftops are special for me because a rooftop is both semi-public or semi-private space; you can access it if you are a resident there, but you can also see it very clearly from above.”

Rooftops are open to close observation, but not many people would think of exploring them. In fact, not many people dare explore them. “I go to different buildings without any permission”, admits Tsang; and once inside the forbidden structures, leaning over the edges, he took these new perspectives of the city. They are not the work of subversive drones, but rather a daring voyeur.

Eason Tsang ka wai , Rooftop series, shown at A Look at Looking exhibition, CFCCA, Manchester, 2017. All rights reserved © Eason Tsang ka wai 2014

Rooftops are contested spaces; they are part of your home and yet, in another sense, are merely the flat summit of a certain style of cramped, cellular architecture. And amid Tsang’s calm orderly zoom, there are darker subtexts. As Ying Tan, the curator of CFCCA, explains: “In Hong Kong, space comes at a premium; apartments are very expensive and communal spaces are used by everybody.”

Living in such crowded quarters gives way to feelings of anxiety and dreams of escape in city-dwellers. The need for some extra space, and by extension freedom, is physically felt. When I ask Tsang about how he experiences life in such a crowded metropolis, the artist replied: “Sometimes I feel quite exhausted; there are so many people and it’s so crowded. You’re surrounded by different people every day.”

“Passers-by are teased by this deliberately unrevealing, imaginary viewpoint”

This physical tension between confinement and escape is evident in the other works on display in A Look at Looking, including site-specific video installations and a newly commissioned “digital window”. On entering the gallery, a door on the right beckons us to look through its two peep holes. Inside, a projector hums away as it plays a video of perfect blue sky and floating clouds, which is screened onto a wall. A thin strip of material blocks the clear projection path so we get two disjointed, overlapping frames of sky. The effect is calming, even as the title of the work, 52.404705, -1.497604 (the exact longitude and latitude of the sky), provides another feeling of dislocation. We are there, and we are not there. We look at the drifting skyscape through a locked door.

Eason Tsang ka wai, installation view, shown at A Look at Looking exhibition, CFCCA, Manchester, 2017. Image courtesy Chelsie Southern

“I like the sky”, Tsang shares. “In Hong Kong, it’s so difficult to see. The clouds just passing by are like the changing of TV channels, it’s the way I pass, or you could say, waste, my time”. His TV reference alludes to the piece on the floor to the left, Boring 30 Seconds (2016, clip, top), which features zoomed-in channel numbers from an old-fashioned set.  The channels switch every 30 seconds on a loop. The sound is wrenching; a harsh, intermittent white noise emphasising the futility of modern living. The programmes flash by so rapidly that only snatches of dialogues – news announcements? Ad breaks? Soap opera snippits? – are heard. Even the experiential media space of a TV isn’t working as it should.

These feelings of urban alienation in Tsang’s work finds a close spiritual partner in the accompanying exhibition of German photographer Michael Wolf’s A Private Public (on show at CFFCA until 18 June only). Wolf’s photographs of Hong Kong focus on the detritus of alleyways, which he then reconfigures into new still life arrangements. Discarded mops and worker’s gloves are rearranged into readymades. This is the street level of Hong Kong: the counterpart to Tsang’s multi-storey perspectives.

In his new commission, Tsang returns to the frustrations involved in the desire for privacy. Window (2017) is a 10 minute video screened on the gallery’s street-facing entrance, which shows a curtain gently blowing in the wind. Passers-by are teased by this deliberately unrevealing, imaginary viewpoint; they will see nothing except the shimmering video repeating itself. Yet the piece, it occurred to me as I walked out, has a situational irony that deepens Tsang’s practice. The digital frame is positioned on the far wall of CFCCA’s residency studio; the space where visiting Chinese artists can live and work at their own leisure.

Like Tsang’s Rooftop series, we are faced with the nuances of private time and public display.

Ashley McGovern

See Eason Tsang ka wai’s A Look at Looking exhibition at CFCCA, Manchester, Gallery One, until 25 June 2017 — FREE

See more on the artist’s website

Images: Centre: Eason Tsang ka wai, Rooftop series (2011), shown at A Look at Looking exhibition, CFCCA, Manchester, 2017. All rights reserved © Eason Tsang ka wai. Above, installation view, of A Look at Looking exhibition, CFCCA, Manchester, 2017. Main image: Boring 30 Seconds (2016), installation shot. Both images courtesy Chelsie Southern

Posted on 23/06/2017 by thedoublenegative