In each of his exhibitions at the gallery since 2003, Hong Lei has extended the range of media in which he works to include not only photography, the medium in which he first gained fame in the mid-1990s, but also painting, sculpture and installation. This broadening of the range of his activities was necessitated by the diversityof his thematic concerns which however contemporary they might appear to be are always deeply rooted in a deep appreciation for the great cultural and artistic achievements of China’s past.
For the current exhibition he has turned to Mi Lou, the legendary architectural folly of Emperor Yangdi (604-618), the last emperor of the short-lived Sui Dynasty (604-618). On one hand Yangdi was an aggressive warrior whose campaigns in what is now Korea and Vietnam left his empire bankrupt. On the other he was a visionary who promoted the construction of the great canal between Beijing and Hangzhou which transformed the face of China anda dreamer who late in built Mi Lou (Labyrinth Tower) in the southern capital of Yangzhou. Built solely for the entertainment of Yangdi and his concubines and where eventually he was murdered, this vertical labyrinth has become synonymous with the extravagance and decadence that characterized his reign.
A connoisseur of such legends, Hong Lei has created an installation that emphasizes the hold that they still have over our imagination. As so often in his work, it is in the contrast between lightness and dark, day and night,historical fact and fiction or legend, that profound truths can be glimpsed. Brilliantly lit and lacking in mystery, Hong Lei’s three-dimensional reconstruction of Mi Lou suspended from the ceiling only gains emotionaltruth when seen the right way up in the adjacent darkened room, conveyed through the minute opening of the pin-hole camera (camera obscura) in the center of the wall that separates the two rooms.
In the adjacent gallery, Hong Lei explores related issues in a series of individual works that refer indirectly to the cultivated sensuality associated with the legendary Mi Lou and comments on the gulf separating it from China in the twenty-first century. A fascination with refined eroticism and sexual ambiguity evident in Kingfisher, After Fontainebleau and Botticelli- Hands contrasts with the landscape motifs of Tilted Ocean, Blossoming Pear Tree- Sadness, Tilted Ocean and March-He Yuan, Yangzhou. As always in Hong Lei’s work, however, apparent placidity in theme is generally the occasion for deeply ironic and melancholy reflection as, for example, in the photograph of the celebrated garden in Yangzhou in which the tourists trudging through it are oblivious to the spiritual vision of its creator or the classically romantic view of the ocean frequented by dogs rather than lovers.
Among artists of his generation, Hong Lei is distinctive for the persistence with which he pursues his poetic vision, deeply attached to Changzhou in Jiangsu province where he was born in 1960 and where he still lives. A thoroughly modern version of the earlier literati who did so much to shape Chinese civilization, he looks beneath the surface of today’s world to find mysterious reverberations, ghostly suggestions of a sublimity that once existed but can only be glimpsed today.