[Sponsored] The theme of WMA’s upcoming art exhibition is the Covid-19 pandemic.

The title – “Can’t Touch This!” – is partly inspired by American rapper MC Hammer’s hit 1990 song U Can’t Touch This, as well as a parody version relating to coronavirus by a high school principal in Alabama. On the one hand, the title references the everyday objects that are now possible sources of contamination; on the other, it could refer to the growing red lines under Hong Kong’s many new laws.

Cant touch this poster
“Can’t Touch This” promotional poster. Photo: Courtesy of WMA.

The exhibition currently on show at the WMA Space in Central is conceived as an extension to Faces under Masks, a book by journalist Chloe Lai made up of interviews with 10 Hongkongers detailing their experiences of the pandemic.

Three visual artists were invited to create visual responses to the project. While the artworks were mostly produced in 2020, curator Angela Su sees them as an extension from 2019, since the emotions aroused by months of social unrest still linger. Whether it is the public health crisis or a personal breakdown, the trauma cannot be viewed in isolation – a point she emphasised to the artists.

When it comes to events that define Hong Kong in 2020, there is an elephant in the room. “We need to learn how to create artworks in the new age under the laws,” said Su, an avant-garde artist. “To continue to be confrontative or find a way around it? It is something every artist has to consider.”

"Can't Touch This"
Siu Wai Hang’s “Hot Shots” . Photo: Courtesy of the artist and WMA.

[C]ontinue to be confrontative or find a way around it? It is something every artist has to consider.

Siu Wai Hang

“In art, we use metaphors and analogies because we are not trying to lecture,” said Su. Artwork should go beyond making simple political statements appealing to like-minded audiences and should inspire people of different backgrounds to reflect, empathise and think, she said.

The exhibition begins with Siu Wai-hang’s Hot Shots, a collage of headshots taken with a thermal gun – a device now installed in every shop and restaurant in Hong Kong. A reminder of the work of French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon, which marked the beginning of the modern mugshot, the colourful portraits hint at the privacy we are involuntarily surrendering along with our biodata and warn against the use of big data for mass surveillance.

Yim Sui Fong’s “Avatar.” Photo: Courtesy of the artist and WMA.

In Avatar, a sound and video installation, artist Yim Sui-fong addresses the timely topic of companionship as coronavirus lockdowns force people into isolation. But as the titles of some sections suggest, the pandemic is not the only thing to blame for the overwhelming loneliness.

Yim Sui Fong 嚴瑞芳’s “Avatar” (film stills). Photo: Courtesy of the artist and WMA.

In Forbidden Tongue, the narrator cites Nushu, a coded script used exclusively by Chinese females in the 19th century, to remind the audience of the use of secret language to communicate hidden messages. The 25-minute film ends on “Keep Climbing”, which is a familiar phrase for many Hongkongers.

“When I Look At You Now.” Photo: Courtesy of the artist and WMA.

While Yim takes the audience back to the past, fellow artist Kenji Wong Wai-kin invites people to imagine the future. In When I look at you right now, young parents write and read intimate and heartfelt letters to their children a decade from now amid a wave of emigration from the city. Audiences are also invited to pen a letter of their own.

Photo: Courtesy of the artist and WMA.

Also on display is one of the images by Tse Pak-chai, who takes a research-based social issue-focused approach to photography. Tse, who has over a decade of experience documenting protests in the city, turned his camera to local households. Through tiny details in mundane lives, he explores the ways people cope with waves of Covid-19 outbreaks. 

Tse’s portraits accompany Lai’s book project, from which the exhibition stems. Lai set out in February 2020 to document an oral history of the pandemic in Hong Kong. Over several months, she spoke to a variety of people from different walks of life – such as a Filipino domestic helper confined to her employer’s home yet banished from the living space, a flight attendant desperately seeking a career change as air travel ground to a halt and a sailor who was not allowed to set foot on shore.

"Can't Touch This"
“Can’t Touch This” exhibition. Photo: Courtesy of WMA.

The stories are not unfamiliar to Su, who had explored the theme of pandemics even before Covid-19 struck. In Contagious Cities (2019), she studied the history of epidemics in Hong Kong, including the SARS outbreak and the Great Plague in 1894, and interrogated the grand narratives that often end with science conquering the disease.

She came to the prescient conclusion that Hong Kong is prone to an outbreak that can strike at any moment.

But reality proved to be far worse than her expectations as healthcare and politics became inexorably intertwined. In Hong Kong, authorities postponed the Legislative Council elections and banned rallies on public health grounds. Police thwarted political gatherings by issuing fines for violating social distancing rules.

Together, the works offer a critical reflection on the government’s handling of the public health crisis.

“Dealing with the government is more difficult than tackling the virus,” said Su. “There are ways you can protect yourself from being infected. But government restrictions and their double standards make everything far more complicated.”

Siu Wai Hang's "Ash 01".
Siu Wai Hang’s “Ash 01”. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and WMA.

Although Su said that most artists are pessimistic by nature, Ash – by Siu Wai-hang – captures the aftermath of a wildfire in a single photo. This image of scorched earth with plants sprouting from the soil ends the exhibition on a positive note and offers a glimmer of hope.

Can’t Touch This! is currently showing at WMA Space in Sheung Wan. Pre-booking is required due to pandemic prevention measures.
Dates: Open from now until April 25, 2021. Tuesdays until Sundays, noon until 7pm.
Address: 8/f Chun Wo Commercial Centre, 23-29 Wing Wo St, Sheung Wan
Tickets: Entry is free – book here.

Rachel Cheung is a reporter based in Hong Kong. She holds a degree in Journalism and Communication from Chinese University of Hong Kong and her work has appeared in South China Morning Post, Washington Post and Quartz.