When the elevator doors opened on the sixth floor of the H Queen’s building in Hong Kong—the home of the David Zwirner gallery there—on Monday evening, I thought, for a fleeting moment, that we had stopped at the wrong place.
A jampacked umbrella repair store has taken up residence that would look right at home in one of the narrow streets nearby, with its boxes of products in a panoply of colors, shapes, and sizes. (Few such stores remain in the city.) There’s a simple black one tagged at HK$65 (about US$8.30) and a handsome leopard-print piece for HK$135 (US$17.20), but they are not for sale. That is something of a surprise, since this is the work of Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, who has previously hawked T-shirts and served free food to all-comers, some of which will be restaged at his upcoming survey at MoMA PS1 this fall. (It is also a shame, since rain is in the weather forecast for the coming days.)
However, the entire shop—the centerpiece of Tiravanija’s elegant and oddball solo debut with Zwirner, titled “The Shop” and up through May 6—can be purchased.
Even more unexpected sights await as you pass through that cramped store to the rest of the exhibition, which continues just behind the exit and downstairs. Stroll through (do not miss the winning cutout image of Tiravanija sporting an umbrella hat), and you emerge to find an empty room with black carpeting and a robot vacuum cleaner hard at work. Down a set of stairs, four 3D printers—sizable transparent boxes, like high-tech Larry Bells—are slowly building red objects. Next to that room, still more vacuums (flat, circular, black Eufy models) glide across the carpeting. The mood is a little unsettling, and maybe even a touch menacing: a world of sleek, mass-produced machines going about their business, heedless of human presence.
What is going on here? Some answers come via a press text and helpful staffers.
The vacuums have been programmed to trace the Chinese characters for “dark forest,” the title of a 2008 science-fiction book by the Chinese writer Liu Cixin. (It is part of Liu’s epic, and President Obama–approved, The Three-Body Problem trilogy, which concerns a showdown between an alien civilization and Earth. The phrase itself refers to a pessimistic theory about how a species can pursue survival in the universe.) The robots leave lines on the carpet that are faintly visible, but they disappear as people walk on them. In the shop, a radio plays a recording of someone reading an excerpt of Death’s End (the trilogy’s final book, from 2010) in Cantonese that involves a spinning umbrella that protects a character—the series is rather trippy. As for the 3D printers, they are creating replicas of broken umbrellas, and an augmented-reality program lets visitors see still more broken umbrellas (black, crumpled almost into abstractions) floating in the space.
This would all feel somewhat esoteric, but for the fact that umbrellas have particular resonance in Hong Kong, which goes unmentioned by the gallery. Demonstrators famously used them in the 2014 protests over universal suffrage (when the Umbrella Movement was coined), to shield themselves from pepper spray, rubber bullets, and surveillance, and again in the 2019 actions over the National Security Law. At the time, some Chinese e-commerce sites stopped selling them to buyers with Hong Kong addresses.
“If you compare the umbrella with the weapon the others are using to attack us, the umbrella is nothing for that,” one activist told Bloomberg in 2019. “Actually, umbrellas are really easily broken and we only use it to protect ourselves.”
As you mull that context, you could also take Tiravanija’s exhibition in a more general sense, as a tribute to human invention—to tools that are variously futuristic or rudimentary, disposable or essential, or that have special powers when wielded in an unusual way. He has turned vacuum cleaners into artistic collaborators. And he has made umbrellas that are non-functional. They are damaged, hiding in plain sight, or not for sale, but some are being reconstituted in strange new forms. All the while, his robots cruise the floors, trying to keep their writing visible, aiming to maintain cleanliness.