The Topography of an Internal World

Published online at Super Youth Club and reprinted in Casual Days 0.1 (2011)

“The world figured through mapping material or immaterial, actual or desired, whole or part, in various ways experienced, remembered or projected.”

- Denis Cosgrove


My first encounter with the work of Hong Kong-based mix media artist Ho Sin Tung was in a group exhibition entitled “A Place Changes When We Look” at the agnès b. Librairie Galerie in Hong Kong. More than any other artist exhibiting in the show, Ho’s work stood out in terms of encapsulating the theme of the exhibition, as described in the following brief: “The city marks us. The city forms its marks upon us. We are marked by the city as we travel through it and have our being in it. The four artists were invited to show how the city of Hong Kong has influenced and marked their works. They journey through the city without a prefixed notion of what they are looking for and let the city and its changing rhythms form their understanding of what life and art is and could be.”

In Ho’s collection of pieces I saw glimpses of my home city of Hong Kong; however, the perspective had been filtered through her personal preconceptions, thoughts, memories and ideas. The viewing experience was simultaneously familiar and strange, revealing the symbolic textures and nuances of a subjective impression of Hong Kong. Taking inspiration from nineteenth century engraving and cartography, Ho’s work is thought provoking, evocative and deeply connected to spaces of the contemporary city. In particular, her “maps paintings”, which cleverly subvert the science of mapmaking, take the concept of “marking” the city to heart by using representations of geography to bare the traces of her existence.

Due to her intimate approach to mapping, there is an intriguing tension between public and private in Ho’s art. Although her work is largely concerned with her own private experiences, Ho uses the public spaces of the city to negotiate her emotions and encounters. In The Discreet Charm of the Proletarian (2009), Ho maps the distance between her and a male friend. Attempting to arrange several dates over a period of two years, this expansive work charts missed opportunities, geographical separation and her friend’s excuses. Restaurants, bookstores and various modes of transportation dot this map, whereby Ho significantly ignores important geographical markers in favour of sites of private significance. For this work is not a map of space - as it may appear on first glance - but one of human communication and the lack thereof. Indeed, if you look closely at the detail of The Discreet Charm of the Proletarian, Ho has not actually sought to represent Hong Kong’s topography: Causeway Bay and Mong Kok are situated next to each other even though they are, in reality, separated by Victoria Harbour.

Ho’s unconventional technique of mapping may appear at odds with objective diagrammatic recordings of a city’s physical attributes. Indeed, her maps play a part in observing what landscape architect and theorist James Corner refers to as uncovering “new worlds within past and present ones” and inaugurating “new grounds upon the hidden traces of a living context.” The cartographies of Ho’s imagination give life to narratives of urban space that would generally not be privileged with inclusion in an official map. To my mind, this is the beauty of her work; that she facilitates a space for everyday narratives within the complex networks of the city.

In her 2008 graduation work I Map You, Ho visually articulates her feelings about her home district of Tai Po. In her artist’s statement she writes, “Taipo is my home town. I left there at 11. And she haunted me since then. Therefore I started to make personal maps about Taipo, to re-tell stories, to retain memories, to record nightmares.” In contrast, 11/21: Sheung Shui 1997-2008 (2008) captures Ho’s new place of abode; however, it is one that is “still unknown” to her. While I Map You is overflowing with details of the minutiae of Ho’s life in a very personal map, 11/21 is a mosaic of almost indecipherable fragments. The obvious nostalgia of I Map You coincides with Ho’s delicate and aged aesthetic that gives her work the look of an old map unearthed from a dusty attic. The portrayal of contemporary life through an ancient practice further emphasises the intersection between memory and the present that is integral to her art.

Taking memory, space and personal experience as her central motifs, Ho’s work demonstrates the manner in which the places we inhabit and the spaces we move through impact on our understanding of self and how we all leave our own imprint on the city. And although we may leave some places behind in our past, they continue to haunt our present.