Pearl Lam Galleries opening a new exhibition space in Hong Kong earlier in March 2015, just prior to Art Basel – featuring the work of young artist Ren Ri and his beeswax sculptures – was perhaps a fortuitous match made in heaven. In China, as in the West, the bee is a symbol of industriousness and hard work, but as many other word/sound correspondences in the Chinese language, bee (蜂 fēng) also sounds like abundance (丰fēng) and therefore the bee is often seen as a sign of prosperity. Pearl Lam has been ‘crowned’ the ‘queen of Eastern art’ by the CNN in 2007 and she hasn’t let us down since then. Her vast gallery ‘empire’ stretches from the shores of the China Sea in the bustling ‘Paris of the East’, Shanghai, to the freeport of Hong Kong and the culturally über-active city state of Singapore to the South. Her team boasts directors based as far West as London and moving everywhere around the world to tend to her extensive collectors base and collaborations across the globe. Her ‘kingdom’ is surely a prosperous one, much like a queen bee’s labour-intensive beehive.
It is therefore a ‘honey-sweet’ coincidence that her new space dedicated to the promotion of emerging artists, and local and international designers, launched with an exhibition where the artist’s collaborators are none other than the prosperous, hardworking, tireless bees.
Ren Ri, born in Northern China’s Harbin in 1984, has found a unique niche for his artistic practice. It is already difficult enough to manage a team of human studio assistants, let alone a swarm of bees. Nonetheless, Ren Ri has masterfully managed a seamless communication with the insects’ realm, producing a series of works that hang between the natural and the manmade kingdoms.
Entitled “Yuansu Projects” and curated by Hong Kong and Shanghai-based David Ho Yeung Chan, the exhibition spans the two floors of the new gallery space at Hong Kong’s 189 SOHO, where a new conglomerate of art ventures has found a haven in the scarce real estate of the central island. Entering the space, the ubiquitous candid light of the typical white cube clads the atmosphere with a serene calm and tranquillity, a silence that verges on the spiritual and reminds one of the calm after the storm.
The honeycomb-like sculptures in Yuansu II, encased in acrylic cases on transparent plinths, float around the space, like specimens in giant jars, ancient scholar’s rocks hanging in the void or growing out of the ground like trees, yet also resembling 3D printed dioramas of futuristic buildings for the next millennium’s über-populated metropolises. Approaching one of these works, which reflect the light with honey yellow and brownish hues, feels like entering a new dimension and laying one’s eyes upon a treasure chest or a sumptuous castle just abandoned by its dwellers and courtiers – the bees.
Ren Ri has found a seemingly impossible way to manipulate the bees’ behaviour, so as to achieve a result that he has planned for his artworks. It certainly makes one wonder how a human being has successfully done so and been able to create such beautifully effortless sculptures. Like honeycombs, these organic works are dotted with small hexagonal ‘windows’, making them appear alive and habitated. Yet the bees have long abandoned their abodes, or better, their work places and now probably remain in the artist’s studio, where they await to work on another series.
Each and every sculpture is similar yet different. Ren Ri placed the queen bee in the middle of the box, letting the worker bees build the beehive around her. Every seven days, as a reference to the biblical seven days of creation, the artist shifted the position of the hive, to create a living object. The ordered randomness and chaos of nature, coupled with the logic of a human mind, has allowed Ren Ri to create a series that reflects the transformations and changes inherent in life, and perhaps also a message of strength, of fighting against the odds to continue to flourish. This makes me think of the symbolism of bees west of China, in ancient Egypt, for example, where the tiny golden, buzzing insect was an insignia for kingship or, during the Merovingian dynasty in mid-5th century France and later for Napoleon, where they signified immortality and resurrection.
Leaving the realm of bee castles below, the upper floor accommodates a second series of works, Yuan Su I: The Origin of Geometry (2007). Of a more modest scale and presented within wood and acrylic frames, the series appear like paintings albeit not traditionally displayed on walls, but rather floating around the space horizontally on low plinths. Like their counterparts downstairs, these pieces merge the natural and the artificial, yet appear as shots of landscapes from above – ancient maps of the surface of the Earth, with its valleys, mountains, hills and rivers, merging and disappearing into each other in a monochrome beige surface. Light reliefs appear and disappear, as if Ren Ri had been talking to the bees and showing them photographs of landscapes, satellite images and maps of the globe.
These works remind me of classical Chinese landscape painting. I am tempted to make the connection and see it is as a contemporary re-interpretation of that ancient form of art that so interested and delighted the cultured scholars and emperors of China. The same goes for the sculptures, which as similar to scholar’s rocks, stand in a pure garden, symbols of spirituality and the longing for a connection with nature.
The philosophy of Daoism and the inextricable relationship between man and nature seem to have inspired Ren Ri in his work, who says that
‘the duality of interactions between the human body and the bees is not simply in the physical sense; more importantly it hints at an interrelated force and its counterforce.’
Ren Ri’s works are an investigation into the forces of Nature and the effects and consequences of human intervention. This concept is expressed in the title, where Yuan means ‘element’ and su is ‘mould’ – and Yuansu can be translated as ‘a comprehension of the gestalt of life’. Ren Ri sees his sculptures as a representation of the truth of human/nature interactions, which are governed by harmony, destruction, moulding and interference, and can be unpredictable and volatile, yet wonderful at the same time.
I cannot but think that Ren Ri has inspired me, and perhaps by extension, the citizens of Hong Kong. Like those literati and emperors that painted or collected landscapes and rocks in their studios and made miniature gardens to stroll in and feel one with Nature, Ren Ri transforms the white cube of Pearl Lam’s new space into one of those contemplative spaces, albeit a futuristic one. In a city as busy and bustling as Hong Kong, where one mostly walks through walkways from steel-and-glass skyscraper to concrete highrise and almost never sees the sky or much of the natural landscape, Ren Ri’s exhibition gives the metropolitan dweller that breath of fresh air and that space to contemplate life, its transformations, our wholeness with nature and our place on this earth.