In a nondescript industrial building on the south side of Hong Kong Island, there is a portal into the abyss, a series of pitch-black halls and walkways designed to disorient the senses and present art in a radically different way. Welcome to Empty Gallery, a new space for media art, experimental film, and music which would be ambitious anywhere in the world, but is especially so in Hong Kong.
Though the city has recently come into its own as a global art hub, it’s still solidifying a commercial market for traditional art works like paintings and sculpture—let alone VR installations and noise music. But that didn’t stop Stephen Cheng, the founder of Empty Gallery, from launching his dream space last year in the industrial district of Tin Wan, at the edge of Aberdeen Harbor.
Cheng grew up between New York and Hong Kong, and studied film and photography at Harvard. He sought to create a venue for “ephemeral, time-based, and non-object-oriented practices” and for it to run as a commercial gallery instead of a nonprofit institution, in order to experiment as much with art-world economics as with art itself.
“You could call it a lab,” says gallery director Alexander Lau, another erstwhile New Yorker with Hong Kong roots. “We want to find ways to convince people that there’s meaning to acquiring a piece by an artist, and seeing the value in it, even when it’s not a physical object.”
Cheng wanted the gallery architecture itself to reflect this risk-taking ethos—hence its design as a “black cube” space, entirely dark inside. It's like a photo-negative reversal of the typical white cube: Singapore’s Brewin Design Office painstakingly planned two floors of gallery space to create an illusion of infinite darkness interrupted only by the artworks within.
The inaugural exhibition showcases the work of Japanese experimental filmmaker Takashi Makino and emerging Berlin artist Hans-Henning Korb—each with an entire floor all their own. Makino’s multilayered, jewel-tone film Cinéma Concret beckons hypnotically at the end of the entry-hall, while film stills printed on steel appear to levitate along the walls. Beyond this, a staircase descends into a lower level, and the smell of earth and vegetation becomes overpowering. Down here, Korb’s Kaya Cynara is a sprawling, cavelike installation that has packed the gallery floor with dirt, and features oil-slick video projections, a virtual reality experience, and live performers serving boiled-artichoke tea in handmade ceramic cups. Though Makino is an abstract filmmaker in the subtle tradition of Stan Brakhage, and Korb riffs on post-internet occultism, both shows feel like rituals in dialogue with one another, facilitated by the darkness.
One of the gallery’s goals is to make connections between diverse artists, especially from various generations, genres, and regions, particularly cross-pollinating between different parts of Asia, and the Asian diaspora.
Beyond exhibitions and live programs, the gallery will make publications and produce new work. The first release on the Empty Editions label is a vinyl LP by New York-based percussionist Eli Keszler, which has already sold out its first pressing; other music and print books will follow. Up on the 20th floor, the gallery has a “digital atelier,” with color correction, render farm, and sound booth facilities to support their artists in producing new multimedia projects.
But both Cheng and Lau emphasize they’re not only focused on cutting-edge new media or the current tech buzzwords. “I’m very interested in what technology can do,” says Lau. “But I have a commitment to a broader definition of what it means for something to be immersive or experiential.”
Takashi Makino’s Cinéma Concret and Hans-Henning Korb’s Kaya Cynara are on view at Empty Gallery through February 17. For more information, click here. On February 18, there will be a world-premiere of The Endless Cinema, a performance by Takashi Makino. See event details on Empty Gallery's Facebook.