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Portrait of XPER.XR. Photo by Peter Chung for ArtAsiaPacific.
Portrait of XPER.XR. Photo by Peter Chung for ArtAsiaPacific.
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Maximum RPM

Xper.Xr

Also available in:  Chinese

There was a sleeping tabby cat at the entrance of Xper.Xr’s exhibition at Empty Gallery. Ignoring visitors, it purred away in blissful repose despite the bass guitar riffs and wild screaming echoing from the next room. All seemed well in the cat’s world; not so much in ours. 

Anyway the cat was not real, and its battery eventually died. Xper.Xr is not the artist’s real name either, so I just call him Chris. Empty Gallery is real, even though it feels surreal to emerge from an elevator into near total darkness on the 19th floor of an industrial building in Hong Kong. The metal security barriers that were piled up in a corner of the exhibition are real, though not originals—they are a re-creation of Xper.Xr’s 1994 installation Fracas, inspired by the showdowns between English football hooligans and riot police, and complete with tangled, “Police Line Do Not Cross” tape. The dozens of human teeth embedded around the border of an impastoed black canvas are thankfully not real, though horrifyingly realistic; it too is a re-creation of an untitled work, from 1991.

The retrospective—named “Tailwhip,” for the BMX trick that Chris says he landed only twice in his life—spanned Xper.Xr’s experimental forays into industrial-noise music, action painting, zine publishing, performance art, novel writing, touring car racing, and sonic healing. Though the show featured an abundance of archival materials—cases of magazine clippings, album covers, old correspondence, articles and zines that Chris published, musical scores, and various noise-making props including a megaphone and angle grinder—it can still be difficult to comprehend that Xper.Xr’s multipronged creative life really happened, and with such intensity. Yet “Tailwhip” gave glimpses of the real moments, including Xper.Xr’s sensationally abrasive entrance into the music and art scenes of Hong Kong. Footage from a 1991 event at Quart Society in Pok Fu Lam shows Xper.Xr and the Orphic Orchestra scraping violins and clanging pieces of metal together before Chris takes an angle grinder to his guitar. At an iconic 1993 performance at the Ko Shan Theatre in Kowloon, the group jumped on stage like a classic rock ensemble before the lanky, longhaired Chris began wailing and grinding, while other members launched into varieties of noise-making. A hammer head—now rusty and framed—swung around by a bandmate flew off its handle, hitting their friend in the forehead and leading to the concert’s abrupt termination. 

“Tailwhip” also explored when and how Xper.Xr came into being as a persona. Did he emerge out of a delinquent childhood of urban-industrial, late-colonial ennui, as is suggested in a photo of him soaring through the air on a BMX in a counter tabletop pose circa 1982 in an undeveloped area of Kowloon Tong? Is what marks his creative emergence the 1989 cassette tape Murmur, which tortured the eardrums of Hong Kong’s tiny alternative music scene? Or did he come into his own in a blaze of postmodernism with his first CD, Voluptuous Musick (1992), which deconstructed and satirized Cantopop hits, sparking fears of lawsuits and the artist’s relocation to London? 

And why did Xper.Xr emerge? In the 1980s, as the British empire was hastening its retreat from Hong Kong, Chris recollects that the city had no independent music scene and its commercial culture was stale. But this gave him and others room to experiment. “We did everything we could to counter the mainstream—that was our main drive,” he recollected. But the still unanswerable question is where this desire to crash past the limits, wreck havoc, and make crude and rude music and art comes from. Was it an idealist’s pursuit of raw emotion, of pure expression—anti-melodic and anti-commercial? Or a brazen middle finger to the prevailing social orders of the world? 

“Tailwhip” suggested it was a heady mix of both. One mythical episode of mischief alluded to with a single invitation card was Xper.Xr’s graduation project at Goldsmiths. He imagined driving his beloved BMW into an exhibition gallery. Though his professors were discouraging, he asked two prominent London gallerists for their thoughts. The East End gallery space Curtain Road faxed him words of encouragement; the West End gallerist, Stephen Friedman, told him it was such a cynical idea there was no place for him in the art world. He displayed the two faxes along with the car in The Ultimate Art Machine (1995). One of his professors, Xper.Xr claims, snuck into the gallery and stole the dismissive message from Friedman. 

Contentious moments form an important part of the Xper.Xr archive, illustrating his uncompromising ways. A fax exchange, for instance, between Xper.Xr and Juntaro Yamanouchi, of the Japanese harsh noise group Gerogerigegege, is a terse negotiation over sharing the costs of a record that ultimately never came into existence. A whole binder of letters in “Tailwhip” documents the saga of Chris’s firing from a Comme des Garçon store in London—primarily for three counts of lateness and one unexplained absence—and his successful pursuit of a wrongful termination case. (He did admit that he was never called out for acts of retail sabotage like saturating the store with entire bottles of perfume.) 

These fraught interactions are the flip side of Xper.Xr’s desire for collaboration. A documentary of his project 70mph (2006) shows him and his collaborators in London deconstructing a motorbike engine, attaching it to a computer, and recording its tones as its cylinders fire away. Originally, they wanted to use eight Formula 1 engines and have them blaring on stage with a chorus of six guitars and 12 live drummers in a symphony of speed and sound, machine and men. He still claims hellfire from the exhaust system nearly burned him alive and that his collaborators were at each other’s necks, like any real band.

A few years later, when he moved back to Hong Kong in 2012, he launched a space for alternative music called the CIA (officially the “Cultural Industries Association”) in the Kwai Hing industrial area. CIA spotlighted radical performers like Vagina Dentata Organ and New Noveta in July 2013, and the Slovenian industrialist noise ensemble Laibach, billed as the “most dangerous group in the world,” at a 2014 concert called “The New Cultural Revolution.” Despite all the hyperbole, Xper.Xr insists that he is not avant-garde or political as these too are tired formulas for art and music. He admits there’s a risk in doing any exhibition, especially like “Tailwhip,” of being boxed-in and labeled, and that is exactly the kind of cultural stagnancy he tries to move beyond. 

These days Chris says he’s primarily working as a “quack,” providing healing with Rife Plasma tubes that transmit sound and light at frequencies that realign cells and can cure diseases and cancers. He’s pushing the limits of conventional understanding, and not for the first time. For Xper.Xr, “the history of the world is on repeat,” and though things might seem dire again now, “there will be a reawakening.” Maybe it takes getting hit by the bicycle that you’re trying to spin around midair to see agency, action, and risk in a different configuration. Maybe subjecting your body to pure noise and light at just the right frequency can get us collectively vibrating again. Maybe someone will put a new battery in the cat and it will come purring back to life.

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