RENTAL UNITED, RU9UP, 2014, inkjet print on dibond, 69 × 181 cm. Courtesy Karin Weber Gallery, Hong Kong. 

From 3G to 4G

Karin Weber Gallery
Hong Kong

Across from PMQ, the new arts hub in Hong Kong, is the Karin Weber Gallery, which is currently hosting “From 3G to 4G,” a group exhibition of eight young Hong Kong artists and collectives on the subject of mobile phones. Inspired by the multiple roles that the gadget juggles—to express, impress, communicate, share, exclude and many more—these emerging artists have translated their interpretations of what mobile phones mean into artworks of various mediums, including drawing, sculpture, prints and installations. 

Past the gallery’s front door, which is decorated with colorful text spelling out phrases commonly used by Hong Kong netizens (such as “boy god <3” and “Laugh die me”), viewers are first greeted by art collective Rental United’s RU9UP (2014), a photo print featuring screenshots of a Facebook messaging conversation between the users “RU9UP,” “Stephanie” and “Timothy.” The three founders of Rental United are Damon Tong, Stephanie Sin and Timothy Zau, so it is not difficult for viewers to identify the artwork as an internal conversation among the collective members on studio and other art-related matters. This conversation is repeated three times within the print, taking up 36-columns full of white-and-blue dialogue boxes, creating a pattern of text that resembles a sequence of computer codes. English and Chinglish phrases, photos and the emoji of Facebook’s signature “like” thumb are intertwined in the lengthy dialogue among the three artists. Viewed from a distance, this work demonstrates the technological possibilities that smartphone apps have provided us and how they can bring people together closer and faster with just a few clicks; viewed up close, it is a critique of contemporary linguistic culture, examining how these modern devices have affected modes of communication and the expressive characteristics of Cantonese and English. 

CARMEN NG, User Guide, 2014, watercolor and ink on paper, 42 x 64 cm. Courtesy Karin Weber Gallery, Hong Kong. 

Near the back of the gallery hangs Carmen Ng’s drawing, entitled User Guide (2014). Consistent with her previous illustrations, which are fantastical in style, in this work Ng presents viewers with an adorable and almost child-like perspective of seeing how a smartphone functions. Using watercolor and ink, Ng’s drawing depicts an exploded-view diagram of a smartphone, with layers that include a tiny office located between the top and bottom casing of the device, comically explaining how little men inside are working hard to allow our “calendars,” “photo viewers” and “emails” to function properly. Drawings of figures jumping on a piano keyboard to create music, sitting around a table to generate chat-room messages and working at a big printer to develop photo images, as well as supervisors walking along corridors to monitor the other “employees,” spell out Ng’s whimsical interpretation of high-tech smartphones, a throwback to a pre-digital era in which everything was done by hand. This imaginary drawing is filled with wonder and, at the same time, prompts viewers to reflect on the relationship between humans and technology—especially how the latter has changed the way we navigate the world today. 

BRAINRENTAL, Ordinary Behavior—iPhone #1, 2014, white cardboard, acrylic box, 12.5 × 6 × 8 cm. Courtesy Karin Gallery, Hong Kong. 

Standing diagonally in the middle of the gallery space is an intriguing collection of paper sculptures created by another art collective called Brainrental. A set of three works, entitled Ordinary Behavior—iPhone #1 (2014), rings loudly as a critique of the all-encompassing role that smartphones play in our daily lives. All three sculptures, each placed atop a graypaper surface in individual transparent plastic cubes, take the form of iPhones made from white paper, with one or more miniature pieces of home furniture positioned on top of their “screens.” One holds a dining table and a chair, with a candlelight meal sitting on the tabletop. Another phone carries a toilet with a rug, and the last one a wooden bed. The choice of each furniture set symbolizes the three basic human needs: eating, sleeping and excretion. Brainrental humorously criticizes how smartphones have become “essential” to our lives and, through the use of monotonous colors (black, grey and white), reminds viewers how these devices can be like a mental prison, isolating us from the colorful, real-life world. Looking at the paper toilet sitting on one of the iPhone sculptures, one couldn’t help but wonder, “What am I really seeking in life?” 

Although the works in the exhibition may seem scattered and loosely connected at first, one soon discovers the common thread running among them. Through different mediums and perspectives, young local artists have brought together a fun and lively show, which invites viewers to take a break from the hot and humid Hong Kong summer to reflect on how smartphones have affected modern visual and linguistic culture. 

From 3G to 4G is on view at Karin Weber Gallery until July 31, 2014.