Whitehot Magazine

Epistolary Sorrows: Notes from Underground Love

Installation view, Lam Wong: Ghosts from Underground Love at Canton-Sardine, 2022.


Lam Wong: Ghosts from Underground Love 


September 10 through November 26, 2022

Curated by Steven Dragoon  

By RHYS EDWARDS, October 2022

Lam Wong’s new solo exhibition Ghosts from Underground Love at Canton-Sardine in Vancouver’s Chinatown marks a return to the theme of emotion, especially love and suffering, since his last solo exhibition Lam Wong: The World is as Soft as a Volcano - A Moving Composition (2020) at Centre A (Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art). Inspired by Dr. Laura Nys' study of the concept of emotional refuge, drawn from research into the Bruges State Reformatory for Delinquent Girls throughout the early 20th century, Wong juxtaposed fragments of text excerpted from love letters exchanged between resident 'delinquents' with imagined portraits of the girls themselves. Though the project began during a residency with Griffin Art Projects in the summer of 2019, the project gained renewed urgency during the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong throughout the subsequent year. Wong observed that many of the protesters were themselves young women, of a similar age to those studied by Nys, and integrated a selection of their portraits into the exhibition.  

Wong's works seem to invoke the impossibility of representation, though as imagined within the realm of sexual and political agency. As if to honour the fugitive aspects of each subject's personhood, Wong elected to mount their portraits atop of previously painted panels, thus hiding an underlying composition—the realization of an image, via painting, paradoxically manifests another subject's concealment. The excerpted fragments of text displayed alongside are almost indiscernable, scratched out from paint, and de-contextualized, while many of the portraits are semi-fictional—Wong's own imagining of what the individual may have looked like. This strategy of concealment has recurred throughout Wong's paintings, both through the act of literal covering and through his use of a Richter-esque blurred painting technique. These strategies accrue a pointed meaning within the context of both the young women held at a state correctional facility in early 20th century Belgium, and the young women censured, imprisoned or missing in the post-democractic Hong Kong. There is here an acknowledgment not only of love, but of the challenges of love—of the struggle to come to truly know and be known by another. Love is a dizzying edifice that transcends both the individual and the state apparatus, asking each of its witnesses to rise to its felicity, and to come to the terms with what it demands of us. Insurmountable in its sublime scale, we are made weak; we respond with disbelief, sorrow, or inveterate violence. And an art of love must do justice to the grief which accompanies it. Short of uninhibited, inchoate expression, there is then the element of restraint—a sideways glance at the topography of the emotive field.  

Lam Wong, Marie, Chinese ink, acrylic and oil on canvas mounted on cradled wood panel, 2019/2022.

Within both of Wong's chosen contexts, emotion and speech are further subject to the will of the state, creating among their subjects two sets of discourse: one for the public, approved realm of agency, and one for the personal, excessive, erotic, and exhaustive. The state becomes threatened when personal volition spills out into the public realm; emotion, and by extension, grief, becomes concomitant with the taboos of feminine personhood and political indiscretion. It is as if the subjects of Wong's paintings are redolent of a private knowledge—the sort of truths which only emerge within the intimacies of transgression. The hidden note passed between incarcerated lovers, or the piercing words of a woman who refuses to perform the role that has been ordained for her, recognize a higher reality, and accrue ever-greater potency in their vehemence. Their defiance is a threat not only to an instrumentalized social order, but to the veneer of the disaffected, blasé attitude that predominates throughout industrialized culture. Wong's artwork is an outlier in the latter respect, emerging as it does at the conjunction of two cultures that disavow expression—the glass immaterialism of Vancouver's art postwar art history, and the circumscription of “anti-social” behaviour within the Chinese state apparatus. 

Within Wong's broader strategy there is then a realization of emotional expression as a field of creative agency, a staging out of its many iterations and subtleties. There is deeply personal, irreconcilable, unknowable grief; and then there is eroticized, interpersonal, politically volatile grief. Wong's efforts resonate with sensibilities of public grieving elsewhere, including, most recently, the coming to terms of many Canadians with the atrocities committed against the Indigenous peoples of this country, as well as the aftermath of the United States Supreme Court's revoking of the landmark Roe v. Wade court decision. In each instance, grief returns as a revenant haunting, an affect out of joint with chronological flow.  

Installation view, Lam Wong: Ghosts from Underground Love at Canton-Sardine, 2022.

But Wong's concern is not so much with taxonomizing the emotional realm, as simply a bearing witness—as both testament to the human condition and its recurrent sufferings, and as a testament to the difficulties of empathy and compassion as a sociopolitical project. In thinking through the sorrows and passions of the women held within the Bruges Reformatory or Hong Kong prisons, Wong invokes the labour that empathy requires of us, particularly across historical and geographic distance. 

Underground Love, 2022

Yet, the elements of concealment that recur throughout Wong's work introduce a certain degree of distance from each subject. From this vantage point, each instance of loss enters into a vaster, polychromatic sea of suffering. It is telling that Wong's frontispiece to Ghosts from Underground love, a towering twenty-by-twenty feet site-specific painting (Underground Love, 2022) in the building’s lower ground lobby that leads into the exhibition space, includes both a passionate fragment of text drawn from one of the Bruges Reformatory letters, and a Buddhist sutra in Chinese explaining the cause of suffering and exhorting all souls towards compassion. The latter is both prologue and coda to the exhibition, as one exits and leaves the gallery—it leaves an imprint of eternity upon the otherwise discrete affairs of Wong's workings. The vicissitudes of cruelty that haunt so many of us seem relentless, and yet, they are a blessing—each and every one of them is a query that alludes towards the vital possibility of a more empathetic world. Like the delicate pouring of tea or the recitation of prayer, Wong's grievings are measured, ritualized, incarnate within historical, interpersonal flow. WM


Rhys Edwards

Rhys Edwards is an artist, writer, and curator. His writing has appeared in Canadian Art, The Capilano Review, C Magazine, and BC Studies. He graduated with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of British Columbia in 2014, and he lives and works in Vancouver, BC, on unceded Coast Salish territories.

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