Hong Kong Whispers

Michael Wolf, Arpais du Bois, Marc Feustel
Published by Hannibal Books.  Accompanies exhibitions in Micamera, Milan, (until May 18) and Gallery FIFTY ONE, Antwerp (until May 11).



Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated places on earth, was the muse of the late German photographer Michael Wolf.

Ten years ago, he persuaded a very different kind of artist, Belgium’s Arpais du Bois, to spend time in the least peopled parts of the mega-city for a joint project that unaccountably lay neglected until his widow decided to revive it following his sudden death.

The result is exhibitions in Milan and Antwerp and a beautifully produced book with an elegant introduction written by Wolf’s long-time verbal collaborator Marc Feustel.  It allows us to savour the deep humanity of Wolf, who famously said he was always on the side of the underdog, complemented by the whispered outrage of du Bois’ painted response to his photography.

In the decade since he and du Bois roamed narrow, light-starved alleys between the skyscrapers, Hong Kong has been convulsed by waves of popular protest that have coincided with the loss of some of the character Wolf was intent on immortalising.

He captures a world within a world where people are implied more than seen.  Cigarettes burn between the disembodied fingers of some of Hong Kong’s all but invisible army of cleaners, snatching a break from their drudgery.  We see their rubber gloves, pegged on wire coat hangers to dry, and their squeezed-out mops leaning against walls with an air of head-bowed oppression.

Wolf also turns his focus on tangles of pipework that recall entrails he depicts discarded among the refuse, while butchered meat hangs from hooks, looking as if it could only ever have been as alive as Hong Kong’s plumbing.

The overall impact is a suggestion of resilience in the face of tough, dehumanising reality.  Du Bois states that more directly in the words she embeds in her accompanying artwork.

Almost in the spirit of a negative, a memory, or perhaps a whisper after the event of the photograph, she tones down the bold colours of plastic bags and latex with a more subdued colour scheme.

A pyramid of dull red brush strokes is annotated with the words “trouver un moyen d’habiter le monde”, which could sum up the spirit of all the images.

Again, eliciting from the hinted-at, she responds to a photograph of an air-filled red plastic bag with a more sombre-coloured human heart.

The improvised seating, patched together from buckets and boxes and broken stools that is a recurrent theme, and that Wolf christened “bastard chairs” resembles Chinese characters in du Bois’ grey and brown rendition.

It evokes weariness but also the creative resourcefulness of those who sit on it as well as of the artists who make us reflect on the harshness of life.

Barbara Lewis.