Primordial Hong Kong

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Like a fever dream or a David Lynch film, Wun Dun begins with a journey into the unknown. Push through an unmarked door into what appears to be a bathroom, where an elderly attendant spritzes you with cologne. Squeeze past him, stumble down a flight of stairs and emerge into an uncanny, neon-lit bar that dwells in the subconscious of Hong Kong’s identity.

Open for a week last May during the inaugural edition of Art Basel Hong Kong, Wun Dun was the brainchild of Adrian Wong, the fourth artist selected by the Absolut Art Bureau to create an ephemeral art bar. Like most of Wong’s work, Wun Dun was a carefully choreographed performance that marries the mundane with the surreal: in this case, the visual language of everyday Hong Kong spaces mashed up into something at once recognizable and alien. “The interior unites so many disparate threads of Hong Kong design culture,” writes art critic Robin Peckham, “the feeling is akin to taking high tea in a grimy dive bar, or pounding shots at a truckstop breakfast counter.”

It started, in a sense, with nothing. “Wun Dun is the Taoist concept of the formless state of the universe before things came into existence,” says Wong. Confucianism took the concept even further by imagining that chaos as a “singing, dancing, orifice-less sac” who was struck by lightning, transforming it into the world as it exists today. “It reminded me of this sort of formless state of Hong Kong,” said Wong. “Its long colonial history sets up a situation where the real history of objects, forms, styles, tastes and cuisines are so mixed up and misdirected, they lose their point of reference. I wanted to create a primordial Hong Kong.”

After hunting for a location — the first choice was the Hong Kong zoo, “but flamingos don’t like DJ music” — Wong came across a mysterious room beneath the Fringe Club cultural center that had been used to store ice from 1892 to 1941, when occupying Japanese forces used it as a morgue. After the Japanese retreated, the room was sealed up and forgotten for decades. When Wong came across it, there was no plumbing and no electricity – just white tiled walls. “I’ve been to the Fringe Club literally hundreds of times, and to think there was this empty cavern underneath – it was perfect,” he says.

Wun Dun’s design borrows from various elements of Hong Kong. There’s the wooden banquettes and formica countertops of a neighborhood diner, or cha chaan teng, the fish tanks of a seafood restaurant—in this case stocked with frog-eating alligator fish—and the creaky stage of a tawdry Temple Street lounge. There are hints of the neon signs and decorative grates common in Hong Kong architecture, fused here with Taoist symbolism. Drinks riffed on Hong Kong cuisine, including a (surprisingly delicious) duck fat-infused vodka served with a boy choy garnish. Staff uniforms, designed by retro-chic tailors Moustache, allude to the dress of waiters at the stuffy “soy sauce Western” restaurants that became popular in the 1960s, offering what Wong calls “an exaggerated representation of what Western dining is supposed to be.”

Rounding out the concept were the performers, who were cast to play Hong Kong archetypes – or as Wong puts it, “to fit roles within my daily life”: the bathroom attendant, the inattentive waiter, the grumpy maitre d’hôtel, the sojourning expat. After Wong struggled to find suitable actors, he decided to recruit non-professionals, including his apartment building’s night doorman, a cha chaan teng waiter, a captain on the Star Ferry and a beautiful septuagenarian lounge singer named Lillian Chan, who Wong found performing in a bar on grimy Temple Street, which in its heyday produced legendary Cantopop singers like Anita Mui. Chan performed nightly, backed by a band of furry, featureless animatronic creatures that are literal embodiments of wun dun.

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All photos courtesy of the Absolut Art Bureau.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday August 29 2013at 03:08 am , filed under Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History, Interior Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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