A highly personal series of images by Wing Shya goes on show this month as part of a philanthropic collaboration between the renowned photographer and a hospital foundation, writes Marianna Cerini
A striking series of images by Wing Shya goes on show as part of a philanthropic collaboration between the renowned photographer and a hospital foundation
Wing Shya may be one of Asia’s best known and respected photographers, but he’s disarmingly self-effacing as we chat in his Chai Wan studio about his coming exhibition, a fundraising collaboration with the Hong Kong Adventist Hospital Foundation. “I never really felt like a good photographer until I did this,” he says of Sweet Sorrow, an unsettling series of images of young Hongkongers that will be shown publicly for the first time this month.
Wing shot his subjects in striking, otherworldly outfits against black backdrops or bleak city settings to give voice to his perspectives on love, hope and isolation amid unremitting urbanisation. The Hong Kongborn artist, famed for his work with film director Wong Kar-wai, spent almost a year drafting storylines for the photos and then more than six months selecting the models— not professionals, just ordinary people from various walks of life. The 30 images provide a powerful social critique of today’s youth that touches on vulnerability, loneliness and body image.
“It’s one of the projects I’m most proud of,” says Wing. “I’m mostly known for commercial projects, but Sweet Sorrow is different; I developed it independently, out of my own pocket and over the course of almost two years. It’s my way to voice my disquiet about Hong Kong’s younger generation. It’s also a visual experiment I had to go through to validate myself as an artist.”
In one photo, a bare-chested, tattooed man wearing patterned trousers and tall geta (traditional wooden Japanese footwear) looks into the camera with an expression both defiant and detached. Another shows a couple in pink rabbit ears and wigs wrapped together in white fur like conjoined twins, with speckles of colour on their bare legs. The effect should be cute, but set against a dark background it’s incongruous and preposterous. In a nighttime urban scene, a couple on a roof, he in a kimono, she in a black-and-white Minnie Mouse costume, seem to be about to jump to their deaths. Vibrantly coloured cartoonish scrawls, added digitally by Wing, emerge from buildings in the distance, maybe in an effort to lighten the mood. But viewing the suicidal figures, their backs to us, there appears to be no space for hope.
“Wing’s work is very distinctive,” says the chairman of the hospital foundation, Jo Sootang. “The photos aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but they certainly make an impact. They’re edgy. We want to associate that with the idea of engaging with charities. Coming to view the Sweet Sorrow show and contributing to the foundation’s Cancer Fund offers people a different way of giving back to the community.”
The exhibition, to be staged at Loft 22 in Central, will be the first time Wing’s project is shown publicly. The pictures have lain dormant in his studio for
“IT’S ONE OF THE PROJECTS I’M MOST PROUD OF. I’M MOSTLY KNOWN FOR COMMERCIAL PROJECTS, BUT SWEET SORROW IS DIFFERENT; I DEVELOPED IT INDEPENDENTLY, OUT OF MY OWN POCKET AND OVER THE COURSE OF ALMOST TWO YEARS”
three years. “I created Sweet Sorrow as a personal project,” he explains, “and I wasn’t too interested in showing it to an audience. Then Jo Soo-tang got in touch.”
Jo takes up the story. “We were looking to organise a creative event linked to philanthropy, promoting something or someone that could champion Hong Kong’s contemporary culture and art scene. Valerie Chow, who’s one of our ambassadors, connected us to Wing. She’s a mutual friend, and after seeing some of the photos privately, she thought they would be a good fit for us.”
Wing was only too happy to become involved in helping the foundation, whose charitable outreach programmes support financially disadvantaged patients and work to promote early diagnosis and treatment. He is “really grateful for the opportunity to show the images,” Wing says, though “for space reasons, I will only be displaying 15 out of the 30.
I’m glad the foundation found Sweet Sorrow a home so it can reach a wider public for a good cause.”
All money raised from the collaboration—the first time the foundation has organised an art show, and Wing’s first philanthropic venture—will go to the foundation’s Cancer Fund to help provide free MRI and PET-CT scans for underprivileged patients. The exhibition is free to the public, with the prints available for purchase through the foundation. On the evening of March 14, a ticketed opening reception will take place at which guests will be invited to pledge donations.
Sweet Sorrow runs from March 14-17 at Loft 22, California Building, Central. Tickets for the March 14 opening reception are HK$800 and available through hkahf.org.hk or joyce.cheung@ hkahf.org.hk.
MIND GAMES Wing Shya’s subjects often have lifeless expressions, creating unsettling contrasts with their bold outfits. Right: Jo Soo-tang
YOUTH, REVISITED “Some of my subjects are dressed in cute outfits,” says Wing Shya (left). “But they don’t look endearing. They are like dolls. They don’t realise they’re human”