Ikon presents the first solo exhibition in Europe by Taiwanese-American artist and filmmaker James T. Hong (3 December 2021 – 13 February 2022).
Hong (b. 1970) has been making provocative films for over twenty years. Focusing on ideas of morality, his work prompts viewers to question their own biases through confronting and often humorous philosophical narratives. For Ikon’s exhibition he shows two films, made 10 years apart, each with animals as protagonists. Seamlessly interwoven, humans and animals in the artist’s work are one and the same: adaptable species that are equally capable of good and evil acts in given circumstances.
Hong’s work The Duck of Nature/The Duck of God (2010) is presented as a large-scale projection and was originally made as an educational video commissioned by the Dutch government for children from migrant communities. The five-minute video imagines the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza as a mechanical duck who is snubbed by other birds on the canals of Amsterdam. The scenario reflects the experience of Spinoza himself, who was excommunicated by the Jewish community for his humanist beliefs. The film’s rousing score, an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers (1892), lends pathos and absurdity to the motorised bird’s futile attempts to merge with different flocks. At the heart of this light-hearted work is the question of authenticity – whether a robot qualifies as a ‘real’ duck – and the discrimination faced by migrant and so-called ‘minority’ populations within mainstream society (an experience Hong identifies with as a first-generation East Asian growing up in the United States).
To access Hong’s second film, visitors to the gallery must move through a set of transparent PVC curtains which recall the plastic barriers used in hospitals and abattoirs to prevent contamination. De Anima (2021) is a two-channel video installation adapted by Hong for Ikon. Filmed in Taiwan, the first channel presents three points of view: the artist’s, that of the “enemy” virus (Covid-19), and a dog’s. The voice of the narrator from the American anti-Japanese propaganda film My Japan (1945) provides the voice of the virus, echoing the anti-Chinese sentiment that surfaced at the beginning of the C-19 pandemic. The second channel, shot in India at the historical location where the Buddha gained enlightenment, reinterprets the first channel and represents the artist’s quest for insight during the pandemic. In both elements, animals provide this perspective with witty observations on human behaviour.
Who are these people? They smell old and weak.
I like walkies with less people around. No scooters, nice.
These people walking, where are they going?
I don’t trust these people.
The two video channels of De Anima embody “two sides of the same coin”, sharing the same soundtrack yet offering viewers different viewpoints. Hong’s voice and electronic score amplify the work’s ominous narrative. De Anima is a development of Hong’s video submission to CC:World, an online project organised by Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, to explore the “racism, social and economic injustices” that the spread of the pandemic made apparent.
Both of Hong’s films exemplify his interest in ‘biomorality’, a system of ethics inspired by Aristotle’s History of Animals, which is shaped by organic processes and the interrelationship between humans and animals. In De Anima, immorality is as easily detectable as a bad smell; a form of biological essentialism that moves away from the western idea of the human soul as the ultimate arbiter of moral judgment and towards nature as a source of ethics. The title of De Anima references the Latin for ‘soul’. Whilst Hong’s Buddhist beliefs maintain that neither humans nor animals have individual eternal souls, animals are also seen as sentient beings, capable of reaching enlightenment. In many of his works, animals feature in cutaways (shots that lead in or out of a film’s main narrative), acting as allegories for human emotions.
James T. Hong is one of Taiwan’s most distinctive filmmakers. Often addressing taboo subjects, his smart scripts and immersive visuals invite much-needed reflection about the state of human ethics in today’s society. This exhibition gives Birmingham and UK audiences the chance to discover his unique voice and vision through two key works, selected from more than 20 years’ oeuvre. Melanie Pocock, Ikon Curator
The exhibition is accompanied by a programme of public events and a digital publication, including an essay by Melanie Pocock, Ikon Curator and excerpts of other films by James T. Hong.
A trailer for Animal, made by James T. Hong is available here: