An Ambitious Show in Hong Kong Plots Connections Between Nature and Indigeneity

In Back to Mu Village‘s Fairy Big Lake (2023), a two-channel video installation by Chengdu-based artists Cao Minghao and Chen Jianjun, a disembodied voice speaks over a rippling blue-gray lake, describing a Tibetan herder ritual meant to resolve illnesses and disasters caused by human environmental degradation. The lake in question has already fallen prey to these interventions: it is shrinking due to climate change. In the second channel, the herders meticulously enact the ritual against a lush grassy plain.

“Its purpose,” the voice explains of the ritual, “is to establish a relationship between humans and other non-human beings, visible or invisible to us, that transcends the present time and space.”

Related Articles

An Asian woman in a black blazer.

Munich’s Haus der Kunst Picks Xue Tan for Chief Curator Position

With Supper Club, Hong Kong Gallerists Try to Create the Anti-Art Basel

That sentiment might as well be a mission statement for “Green Snake: Women-Centered Ecologies,” an exhibition at Hong Kong’s Tai Kwun Contemporary. Drawing together over 30 artists and collectives from 20 countries, the exhibition, on view until April 1, explores the deep connections between Indigenous communities and the natural world.

While many of the cultures represented in these works live far apart, the show proposes that they actually are all bound across space and time. The pathway to a brighter future, this show proposes, lies in recognizing these links. (Although the exhibition places an emphasis on the value of Indigenous knowledge, not all of the artists included are themselves Indigenous.)

The blurring and blending of cultures and ecologies begins before you enter the main galleries. In the hallway, a commissioned mural by Indian artist Rohini Devasher, Genetic Drift: Symbiont III – Serpentes Parthenocissus (2023), stretches along a stairwell, reaching nearly to the galleries, like a vine overtaking the building. In a rich mixture of acrylic paint, dry pastel, charcoal, and colored pencil, the mural depicts various animals and plants bleeding into one another to form a single symbiont, or an organism made up of different living beings in a mutually beneficial relationship.

This hybridity recurs throughout the exhibition, which juxtaposes works by geographically distant artists to thought-provoking effect. Chilean-born phenom Cecilia Vicuña is showing Bike Serpent (2023), a sculpture that fashions disused bicycle tires into a coiling serpent. It’s set across from Nepalese artist Karan Shrestha’s cloud babies (2023), which was also newly commissioned for this show. Shreshta’s installation features a hanging hollowed-out wooden ring modeled on traditional water pipes in Nepal. The sculpture is beautifully carved in a fashion that recalls snake scales; water trickles along the ring, gently shifting its shape over time. Both works link human-made materials and nature, the former creating new beauty out of consumerist trash and the latter finding wisdom in extant human methods.

'Green Snake: women-centred ecologies', Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong, 2023
Rohini Devasher’s Genetic Drift: Symbiont III – Serpentes Parthenocissus (2023) at ‘Green Snake: women-centred ecologies’, Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong.
Kwan Sheung Chi

Rituals of redress form the core of “Green Snake,” as artists look to age-old traditions or create new ones in response to environmental damage and colonial extraction.

In Lost Shadows, a video by Gidree Bawlee, a Bangladeshi arts initiative founded by Kamruzzaman Shadhin and co-run by Salma Jamal Moushum, puppetry, shadow play, and live music depict mythical creatures and living beings returning to depleted rivers as ghosts. These specters mourn the destruction and attempt to guide the community to repair. Gidree Bawlee is among the many participants here who pair non-Indigenous contemporary artists with Indigenous ones for collaborative endeavors that cross cultural divides.

Playing opposite Lost Shadows is Mapuche artist Seba Calfuqueo’s TRAY TRAY KO (2022), a video that can also be seen in the current Whitney Biennial. In it, Calfuqueo pulls a long blue cloth, mimicking a waterfall, through a conservation forest in Chile. Waterfalls are sacred spaces to the Mapuche, the predominant indigenous group in the country, who have had repeatedly massacred and had their land seized by various Chilean governments. (This also forms the basis for a Vicuña work included in this show.) Calfuqueo’s video ends when they reach the pool beneath a waterfall, immersing themselves in the water, drawing the cloth around their body, and then standing under the rushing water, in effect reclaiming their place in the cordoned-off land.

So many biennials and exhibitions refer to Indigenous wisdom these days, often with few notable works to make these mentions seem anything other than superficial. But when they collaborate with or reference tribal groups, the artists in “Green Snake” find resonant ways of engaging with these forms of knowledge.

Back to Mu Village, the video by Ceo and Chen, is the result of years of collaboration and research involving Tibetan herders. In a companion sound piece, Elegy of Animals (2023), Cao and Chen create a black tent of woven yak hair called Water system refuge #4. Enter this space of contemplation, and one hears the traditional song “Elegy of Animals,” in which the herders use special singing techniques to mimic non-human sounds to connect with animals and nature. The lyrics, translated and then scrawled on the wall, speak to the experience of being reincarnated as animals ranging from a vulture to a dung-beetle.

'Green Snake: women-centred ecologies', Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong, 2023
Cao Minghao & Chen Jianjun’s Water system refuge #4 (2023) at ‘Green Snake: women-centred ecologies’, Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong.
Kwan Sheung Chi

The exhibition culminates with visions of the future guided by Indigenous voices. Filipina Canadian artist Stephanie Comilang and Ecuadorian German artist Simon Speiser collaborate on a video and a paired virtual-reality experience, Piña, Why is the Sky Blue? (2021). The video stitches together interviews with Palawan shamans in the Philippines and the Ecuadorian feminist activist collective Cyber Amazonas, and adds to them footage of a pineapple-shaped data collection tower and the character of Piña, who is seemingly depicted as either Indigenous AI or a transcendental being.

Comilang and Speiser use the VR to powerful effect, allowing the viewer to inhabit Piña, who addressing you by name. The character first invites you to your home and surrounding environment as music swells in the background. The VR then switches to beautiful vistas of the natural world, often with an Indigenous person centered in the frame. In one, a young boy stands directly in front of you, eyes up as he swipes at the air. In another, a woman wades in a pool, her eyes locked on yours, as she holds out a photo of another Indigenous woman.

Questions about survival, ancestral knowledge, and the natural world permeate the voice-over that guides you through Piña’s life. The sentiments are threaded with tech jargon—words about downloads, data, portals, and the like—which, the VR seems to suggest, need only to be remediated to find an Indigenous future. In the following room, a mostly first-person video game–like animation by Calfuqueo again inhabits an Indigenous subjectivity, situating the viewer as a Mapuche woman in a forest. This woman is shown gathering mushrooms, long a Mapuche symbol of resilience in the face of colonial violence.

As one exits the exhibition, the far edge of Devasher’s stunning mural reaches up, linking the show’s beginning with its conclusion. The boundaries in “Green Snake” are always blurred.

Munich’s Haus der Kunst Picks Xue Tan for Chief Curator Position

With Supper Club, Hong Kong Gallerists Try to Create the Anti-Art Basel


How Bovet’s Newest Watch Solves the Horological Conundrum of Daylight Savings Time


Eadem Scores Fable Investments Funding


The one British TV show above all others that I wish we could get here in the US


Another Ratings Record Falls as Iowa Advances to the Final Four


This Best-Selling Under-Desk Walking Pad Is Over $100 Off on Amazon Today

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *