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Being and Blankness: Zheng Mahler at PHD Group (Hong Kong)

Installation view.

By MIKE MAIZELS October 2023

“If we no longer believe in a being behind the appearance, then the appearance becomes full positivity; its essence is an ‘appearing' which is no longer opposed to being but on the contrary is the measure of it.”

—Jean Paul Sartre, 1943

Amid the ongoing crush of work scrutinizing the digital self, it is refreshing to artists cast their gaze towards the other pole of the intersubjective spectrum: the ways in which novel tools (as well as ancient approaches) permit us to rethink the fundamentals of otherhood. I mean not simply the alterity of other persons, other politics and other algorithms, but rather the atomic nature of “being in the world” as it might be experienced by radically alien modalities. Might be is important—who can ever say what it is like to be a bat, even with VR simulation mode?

This strange question derives from the title of “What Is It Like To Be a Virtual Bat?,” the latest exhibition from Zheng Mahler, a two person collective formed by Royce Ng and anthropologist Daisy Bisenieks in 2014. The pair have been staging ambitious exhibitions that are often inflected with questions deriving from the philosophies of science and technology. Previous projects have explored machine learning and soil ecology, as well as the population of wild water buffalo on Lantau, Hong Kong’s largest outlying island and home to their studio. Their work on bovids sparked an interest in the island’s native population of vesper bats, which gave way to the current show.

The inspiration may have been local but the impetus is much more conceptual. The show takes as its jumping off point the 50th anniversary of Thomas Nagel’s 1973 essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” a touchstone of mid-20th century philosophy of mind that requires a brief moment of contextualization.   Nagel’s piece was written as a kind of localization of the arguments in the monumental works of Sartre (Being and Nothingness) and Heidegger (Being and Time), who had themselves extended a line proposed by Emmanuel Kant—existence as such was not opposed to “appearance,” but rather the non-Being of inertness, or the Void.  Said differently, existence is inherently experiential. True now as ever, “you have to be there.”  The status of virtual being-there should be held in question, at least temporarily.

Installation view.

Nagel’s piece intervenes in this ponderous trajectory with a curious detour. If existence is experienced, how can different modes of being probe at the limits of being itself? I exist and you exist—we both absorb light rays of a certain wavelength and experience redness.  Is my red the same as yours? I’ll show you mine if you show me yours falls down here, but points to radically unfixed territory.  The furthest reaches of this zone of detachment come from “minds” and sensory apparatuses as different as possible from our own. Nagel’s essay trudges through this territory to arrive at a circular non-answer.  There must be something which it is “like to be a bat,” but that something is forever deferred behind an epistemological event horizon.  Because it is so different to be a bat than a person, persons can never know bat-hood. Is my insect echolocation the same as yours?  Again, who can ever say. 

Nagel’s essay, an epitome of analytic reductiveness, is set against a more expansive ontology by Zheng Mahler.  As laid out in an extended artist statement, their vision stems equally from the techno-poetics of virtuality and shamanic traditions (e.g. the Yanomami) that foreground the power to step into the experienced worlds of other forms. The crux of the installation is a video work, presented in both flat screen and immersive VR, that flits around Lantau from a bat-like POV.  The rapidly passing forms of the quasi-urban environment are rendered in the psychedelic colors of infrared and ultraviolet, and overlaid with mandala forms which the artists describe as hailing from traditions of Buddhist meditation that permit practitioners to perceive the otherwise invisible energy fields that permeate the everyday. 

In their essay, the Mahler duo charge Nagel’s essay for blinding itself to shamanic knowledge traditions like these, ones which emphasize not just the possibility, but the vital importance, of casting one’s consciousness beyond the limits of the born-in physical body. Depending on the tradition and ceremony, one might see through the eyes of an animal, commune with the spirits of the departed, or one simply float on the weightlessness of energy itself.  As an aside, these traditions are almost always coded was “non Western”—but for those interested, the historian Carlo Ginzburg has written a number of compelling books examining the repression and continuation of these indigenous traditions in rural enclaves in Europe. 

Installation view.

Elements of the film and VR simulation struck me as overly literal.  It should be noted that, as a Boston-based critic, my experience of these works in Hong Kong unfolded under additional layers of techno-mediation.  And yet, the video format seems baked into a kind of elision between approaching other minds—a key goal for the artists—and the related but distinct effect of “simulating” them. This literalness is however mitigated by a number of interesting tile mosaics that accompany the video pieces. These tile works, sourced with materials from the historical ceramic center of Jingdezhen, feature video stills re-rendered in the analog pixel of the color tile. But these motifs reach backward and outward too—they draw from traditional renderings of bats on temples, amulets and various other spiritual objects indigenous to the Lantau region.  Bat sightings, in the historical long view, had typically been considered a sign of good luck.  The pieces are some of the strongest in the show but they too feel as though they leave territory unexplored—the bat has recently become a contested lynchpin not just of the COVID pandemic but of the mutual blame game between East and West over the disease’s origins. “Being a Bat” in the 2020s must in part be about the perception—accurate, biased or otherwise—of having tipped off the most wrenching global change in living memory. 

Such shortcomings, whatever they may be, do not detract from an overall successful show, one that continues a litany of compelling exhibition staged at the young PHD Gallery, run by Willem Molesworth and Ysabelle Cheung, whose grandfather David Lau ran a social club out of the interstitial rooftop space. The gallery’s full name, Property Holdings Development Group, riffs on this charged intersection of commercial real estate opportunity and exhibition space-making that characterizes many art locales, especially the compressed urban density of Hong Kong.  But beyond family history in property development, the PhD could easily flag the thematic interest in science, technology and politics that runs through many of their shows. Previous installations have examined themes of sex, death and toxicity spanning from “immortal” earthworms to Victorian-era uranium glass and technologized queer pornography. The gallery program is a promising one, and its directors will worth paying attention to as generational unfolds happens in the East Asian contemporary art world.  WM 

Mike Maizels

Michael Maizels, PhD is an historian and theorist whose work brings the visual arts into productive collision with a broad range of disciplinary histories and potential futures.  He is the author of four books, the most recent of which analyzes the history of postwar American art through the lens of business model evolution.  He has also published widely on topics ranging from musicology and tax law to the philosophy of mathematics.

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