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Leung Chi Wo.


What do you Sec when you look at images from the past? This question hovers over Bright Light Has Much the Same Effect as Ice, a body of work produced as a single installation by Leung Chi Wo for the 2012 Guangzhou Triennial in Hong Kong. The project was based on a news item published in the China Mail on January 18, 1893, the day after Hong Kong experienced its coldest day on record at zero degrees Celsius. A quote from this report--"Mr. Pun Lun, the well-known photographer, took a number of views in the Peak district during the two days that 'Jack Frost' was reigning supreme"--printed on white paper and box-framed, comprised one individual work. An adjacent box frame featured a Hong Kong carte de visite taken in 1870 (depicting a fleet of ships in Hong Kong's harbor), with the stamp PUN LUN visable on the back.

These two works set the conceptual frame around this exhibition's look into a recorded moment in the past. But the 1893 newspaper report was mistaken. There was never any "Mr. Pun Lun"; Pun Lun was a Hong Kong photography studio. When Leung went in search of Pun Lun studio images documenting that January I 893 day, he found none. However, he did notice a number of recurring figures in Pun LL111'S staged snapshots, presumably studio employees. Leung brought them to the fore in his Roles Series, 2013, an extension of the original 2012 installation consisting of four white Plexiglas surfaces, each laser-engraved with the image of a different figure: an opium smoker in one, men working with an abacus in two others, and a man standing over a table in the last. They were chosen for their likeness to four men who appear in the same backing photograph used for each etching--five men seated at a table (an equivalent image was not found for the fifth man). A light underscores the construction of these works as images that have literally been layered; each face appears as an apparition.

The same hacking photograph in the Roles Series was used for the largest work in the original 2012 installation. It was blown up and framed in steel and Plexiglas to produce four large LED boxes (the central figure of the image is cut out). A light switch was connected to this arrangement: an 1893 Hong Kong silver twenty-cent coin set into the wall, connected to a mechanism that kept the coin's temperature at freezing. As long as one kept a finger on the coin, the LED boxes remained alight, and a quote etched into the Plexiglas was legible--another report from January 1893: "It was a novel experience to the majority of the residents to be confronted by the white-capped hills on the mainland." The unexpected cold might have been a novelty for the colonialists in 1893, but for locals living in unheated homes, it would have been disastrous.

What is at stake in this accumulation of archival material is not so much the depiction--or the accuracy--of a reported event so much as the questions that surround the actors constituting the society preserved in these historical fragments. Though mere "extras" performing in a larger, grander historical narrative, the men in these photographs are presented as contemporary reflections: abstract, decontextualized figures inscribed by the lens of colonial and, by implication, economic occupation. By deconstructing the report of that cold January day, Leung transformed a moment in history into a site of metacontext, the projection of a narrative made up of gaps and what he calls "mythical facts."
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Title Annotation:Bright Light Has Much the Same Effect as Ice
Author:Bailey, Stephanie
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:9HONG
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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