Tsang Kin-Wah: Nothing

The inaugural exhibition at the M+ Pavilion, Tsang Kin-Wah: Nothing, is an expansion of the artist’s solo presentation representing Hong Kong at the 56th Venice Biennale, which was titled The Infinite Nothing. Tsang, who was once a devout Christian, became increasingly sceptical of religious value systems, and the writings of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche influenced him deeply. Nietzsche’s influence is evident throughout The Infinite Nothing, which opens with a video of a running river. The work emphasises the notion that all things reside in a state of constant change, positing life as a perpetual cycle of self-realisation, manifestation, and deconstruction, a cyclical journey that starts and ends in the same existential void.

Following his exhibition at the Biennale last year, Tsang has delved deeper into the question of life’s emptiness. His art continues to explore the significance of human life while retaining a complete awareness of the potential futility of such efforts. The current exhibition comprises an installation that is a continuation and evolution of The Infinite Nothing. Nothing contains creative elements that are similar to the Venice work, including text, sound, projections, and site-specific installation; the result is an immersive intellectual experience.

Perhaps due to the obstacles he has faced in life, his upbringing and schooling, and his lifelong exposure to both Eastern and Western philosophies and religions, the artist continuously casts doubt on himself. To some, his nuanced viewpoints may seem ambiguous and equivocal. For example, Nietzsche’s Overman (Übermensch in German and sometimes Superman in English) concept figured prominently throughout The Infinite Nothing. Nietzsche’s theory states that people should actively seek to improve themselves, but by comparison Tsang’s view of life is more pessimistic and sceptical. During preparations for the current exhibition, the artist realised that he lacked Nietzsche’s enthusiasm. He echoes the philosopher’s proclamation that ‘God is dead’, but he cannot bring himself to pursue the Overman ideal. Instead, he has no choice but to return to mundane life and uses his new work, Nothing, to express his state of ambivalence. Rather than describing Nothing as a new phase of the artist’s exploration of life, it would be more accurate to say that this exhibition is a form of awakening, a re-examination of existence. His inspiration comes from William Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, Macbeth (1606):

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing. (Act V, sc. v 24–28)

In what may be a projection of Tsang’s personal experiences, Nothing, like Macbeth, touches on weighty topics such as human nature, survival and desire. The word ‘nothing’ slyly focuses on that which is insubstantial, irregular, and ephemeral. Yet by using the word ‘nothing’ for his exhibition title, Tsang brings ‘nothing’ into existence; therefore he takes self-negation a step further by adding the strikethrough to the title. In his work description, he fittingly quotes from Drawn and Quartered, a collection of aphorisms and essays by the twentieth-century Romanian-French nihilist philosopher E. M. Cioran: ‘I have invented nothing. I have merely been the secretary of my sensations.’[1] The exhibition combines metaphors and allegories drawn from philosophy, literature, and religious concepts, with elements of film, music, and other popular culture references that conjure a variety of moods. Nothing may appear cold and unfeeling on the surface, but in truth it contains the emotional ebbs and flows of the artist’s inner world, and we are gradually immersed in these fluctuating sentiments. In the end we might find ourselves torn between ebullience and silence, effusiveness and speechlessness.

According to Tsang, the installation in the open-air terrace of the M+ Pavilion is divided into three sections: the open sky above, the terrace itself, and the curved staircase. The sections represent, respectively: the unattainable metaphysical realm; the human world; and the path of no return, covered in earth and accessible only through death. The tree that occupies the centre of the terrace struck the artist as richly symbolic. Tree imagery often appears in the myths and sacred texts of various religions, and thus Tsang decided to incorporate the tree as a visual allusion to the Tree of Life in the Judeo-Christian tradition. According to the Bible, the Garden of Eden had both a Tree of Life and a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The fall of mankind happened as soon as humans possessed the capacity to discern between good and evil, for such knowledge reveals the fragility and absurdity of life. The tree image also reminded Tsang of a poem by the Buddhist master Huineng (638–713), in which the Bodhi Tree symbolises wisdom, the mirror represents the quiet mind, and dust stands for the worries of mortal life.[2] All things are ephemeral, and the vexations that trouble us are the products of our own minds. The artist uses this symbol to suggest a sombre and philosophical matter: the destiny of humankind is like that of a tree, rooted in dust, and returning to dust. So what significance does life possess? Regardless of whether human life is meaningful or not, it is undeniable that we have no means of escaping our fate.

Tsang has covered the exterior walls of the M+ Pavilion terrace with mirrors, creating a seemingly endless space in which we can see multiple ‘selves’. His thinking here recalls Buddhist notions of impermanence and anātman (‘non-self’), which posit that all things are insubstantial and that even our perceived ‘self’ is an illusion. To Tsang, the entirety of life is an interminable illusion, for nothing is truly immutable. This idea, for him, recalls the ninth verse of the poem ‘I Have a Special Plan for this World’ by the American horror writer Thomas Ligotti:

The human phenomenon is but the sum of densely coiled layers of illusion

Each of which winds itself upon the supreme insanity

That there are persons of any kind

When all that can be is mindless mirrors

Laughing and screaming as they parade about

In an endless dream

But when I asked the lunatic what it was that saw itself within these mirrors

As they marched endlessly in stale time and space

He only rocked and smiled

Then he laughed and screamed

And in his black and empty eyes

I saw for a moment, as in a mirror

A formless shade of divinity

In flight from its stale infinity

Of time and space and the worst of all

Of this world’s dreams

My special plan for the laughter

And the screams[3]

As soon as we enter the exhibition, we are enticed by the written words displayed on the terrace floor. We read as we move through the space in a circle that represents the wheel of cyclic existence. When we end up back where we started, we read the artist’s conclusion: ‘THIS IS THE ONLY WAY / THIS IS THE WAY’, a nod to Nietzsche’s notion of ‘eternal recurrence’[4]. Clearly, Nothing complements The Infinite Nothing both in terms of concept and spatial expression. The myriad things and matters recycle and reincarnate, and history similarly continues to repeat itself—though each iteration is characterised by some variation. Nothing can be seen as an experience that cuts across this perpetual cycle, in search of a place of stillness, awaiting a moment of enlightenment.

After traversing the terrace, we pass through a long, narrow passage into the dark gallery. The gradually diminishing light creates an effect like day changing into night. We weave through a forest of metal pillars accompanied by no sound other than our own breathing. For Tsang, the forest symbolises exploration and evolution, and it also hints at the emptiness and absurdity of repetition. The tree metaphor extends throughout the exhibition, from the tree on the terrace to another one projected on a glass wall in the gallery. The Turin Horse, a 2011 film by the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, inspired this image. A solitary tree occupies the top of a small mountain, representing the loneliness and isolation endured by all humans, regardless of whether their environment is tranquil or tumultuous. Tsang explains the function of this projected video by referring to a quotation from Orson Welles, who directed and acted in the 1948 adaptation of Macbeth: ‘We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.’[5] The tree in the video forms an intense contrast with the one on the terrace: the real tree develops and flourishes, full of vitality, whereas the cinematic tree reflects the depths of the human heart, its leaves blown off and suspended mid-air by a violent wind, appearing lonesome in its isolation. Ligotti’s perspective is even more desolate; he suggests that even our emotions are meaningless, illusory projections of the world. They can deceive us and lead us to believe certain things are important, but once they pass, only futility remains.

The American director Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) is the inspiration for the video at the end of the passage within the exhibition space. In the film, prison serves as a metaphor for a life in which people are transformed through absurd and compulsory routines on a daily basis in order to achieve societal acceptance. The prison presented in Tsang’s work subtly mirrors the metaphorical cycle traced by the steps of visitors on the terrace. The tree-like pillars, the prison in the video, and even the formatting of the title, Nothing, in its Chinese character (), are all suggestive of a state of imprisonment behind bars, reflecting the intense ennui of the modern age. People, lacking goals and values, merely exist. This perspective may seem pessimistic, but the feeling of emptiness and helplessness evoked in the work may well be a candid portrayal of life in today’s society.

An oppressive mood permeates the room in the corner of the gallery. Here, Tsang draws creative inspiration from Kurt Cobain, the late lead singer and guitarist of the rock band Nirvana. Cobain, a massive star during the 1990s, was the talented idol of millions, but he was also a tragic figure who wrote lyrics that captured the frustrations of his generation. Tsang, influenced and inspired by Cobain, combines Ludwig van Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata with other sound, placing it in this room along with ambiguous imagery like staged performances to create an ambience summarised by the words that appear in the video: ‘LOVE / YOUR UNHAPPINESS / HATE / YOUR HAPPINESS . . . RIGHT HERE / AGONY / HERE I AM / SILENCE’. Music, like religion, philosophy, literature, and film, is an important element of Tsang’s creative practice. For him, music can help people release their feelings and cope with solitude and isolation.

A ceiling-mounted projector in the gallery casts onto the floor the hazy image of a donkey so heavily loaded that it can barely move. To a certain degree, the donkey represents the state in which we find ourselves: burdened by responsibilities, our wills conquered, passing each day in meaningless labour. Upon leaving the gallery, we find ourselves returning to the unending cycle of the terrace. But the apparently unchanged scene is in fact undergoing continual transformation. Perhaps we might ask: must our lives be merely like this? How can humankind break away from the restraint imposed by the heaviness of life? To experience the true extent of existence, yet not feel empty and lonely, to be liberated and free yet not take life too lightly?

Tsang Kin-Wah’s life cannot be separated from his art: art is life, day after day, year after year. Though we say that life is brief, he may see it as a long, slow journey. Experiencing Nothing is like listening to the artist mumble to himself and sigh over the absurdity and futility of human life. His artworks serve as an ongoing self-examination, reminding viewers that he still clings tenaciously to life. Tsang is doubtful about human existence, but he hopes to find meaning in life. Everything appears so empty to him that it is only through art-making that he achieves any satisfaction, allowing him to temporarily forget his painful reality. Through art, he escapes quotidian life—but only for a brief moment. This fact reminds us of his affinity for classical music, and in particular, Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which is regarded as one of the greatest works of sacred music ever written. Tsang finds something redemptive in this Baroque composition, which seems to describe and to praise the burdens of life at the same time. Perhaps his hope for redemption does not conflict with his critique of Christian values; perhaps the meaning of life lies in the endless journey of epiphany, subversion, and emancipation of the self.

Stella Fong
Exhibition Co-curator
Lead Curator, Learning and Interpretation, M+

[1] E. M. Cioran, Drawn and Quartered, trans. Richard Howard, New York, Arcade Publishing, 2012, p. 148.

[2] The original verse is, ‘There is no Bodhi Tree, / Nor a stand of a mirror bright, / Since all is void, / Where can the dust alight?’ As quoted in Joy Xiaomin Su, Truth Vs. Illusion: What Is Life About?, Bloomington, Balboa Press, 2016.

[3] Thomas Ligotti, My Work is Not Yet Done, New York, Virgin Books, 2009, p. 135.

[4] ‘Eternal recurrence is the idea that the universe has been constantly recurring in a similar manner in infinite time and space.’ See Paul Loeb, ‘Eternal Recurrence’, in The Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche, ed. by Ken Gemes and John Richardson, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 645‒71.

[5] Orson Welles's Quotes, 2016, https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/67899.Orson_Welles, (accessed 25 July 2016).