In his later years, the Sui-dynasty Emperor Yang built a labyrinthine palace (“mi lou”), with “winding yards and twisting halls, each one leading to the next; hearths and rooms in the tens of thousands, all adorned with shining jade.” A place this beautiful was also a place meant to render its guests lost within its walls. Legend has it that those who lost their way were not permitted to leave for the rest of the day, and that among these visitors thousands of beauties were carefully selected for the Emperor’s own personal enjoyment. Eroticism, desire, and the experience of displacement thereafter formed a major motif within the Chinese artistic tradition. Hong Lei’s exhibition takes “mi lou” as its name, as if to activate the necromancy of the ancient story itself.
The exhibition is composed of two parts: the “bright room” and the “dark room.” Upon entering the dark room, visitors find an apparently hermetically-sealed, pitch-black vestibule; only after their eyes adjust can they make out an image, projected onto a cinema screen: the wooden model of a labyrinthine palace. A projection of thwarted desire billows across the darkness, taking shape at last upon the veil of reality, almost as if to remind us that material substance is truly just material substance— only by arousing our senses may it transform into irresistible temptation.
The bright room takes sensual beauty and endows it with a visual counterpart. Video, sculpture, embroidery, photographs, and paintings paintings that at first glance seem entirely unrelated to one another ultimately find their connection in the erotic life of their labyrinthine home. Three juxtaposed short films simulate the cloudy mist of Mi Youren’s Spectacular Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers, which Hong Lei collectively names Yun Yu, a phrase that translates literally as “clouds and rain” but is used in Chinese to refer to the act of love-making. Next, a set of photographs, titled Blossoming Pear Tree—Sadness, engage with traditional themes of innocence and tranquility— pear and peach blossoms, the “fairy caves” of youthful nymphs— while the last character in its title, along with referring to springtime, is also synonymous with sexual desire. In the double-sided embroidery Water Polished Mirror, Hong Lei substitutes the body of a butterfly with the intertwining thighs of a pair of lesbian lovers; at the bottom border, a snake reaches out its feeler tongue in susurrant investigation. The most eye-catching wall beholds the “illicit union” of two dogs by the seaside, opposite of which is a magnified replica of the genitals of a certain Japanese actress. Sex, or sexual desire, is the constant underlying pulse throughout Hong Lei’s work; that which was buried under the weight of history in his earlier works emerges here fully exposed. In a sense, sex and desire are the unarticulated— and indeed, ineffable forces driving life’s many vicissitudes.
The ultimate allure of Hong Lei’s early works lay in their strong contrast between historical imagery and modern attitude. Though they make use of a breadth of canonical scenes from classical paintings, Suzhou gardens, and the like, they clearly express Hong Lei’s own disposition towards history through the use of parody. Criticality wins out over fascination; dead birds, dripping blood, and insects stir up interference and discord in the face of classical conceit. Through these elements, Hong Lei expresses a sort of modern actuality through a traditional vocabulary. Though the new work shown here still incorporates these familiar characters, the dramatic contrast that used to accompany them is no longer present. Instead, they appear in the form of the “residue” that our hearts have so much difficulty digesting.
In these new works, it seems as if “tradition” is no longer just a materiality or an expressive object. The historical and the modern, criticality and infatuation, once separated by pointed distances, have begun to fuse tentatively into one. “Desire” has the capacity to transcend the ancient-modern divide; it is timeless. Duan Lingyu (Translated by Katy Pinke)