When is the last time you visited a contemporary art gallery and found anything other than pristine white walls?
For Stephen Cheng, the founder of a newly-expanded space in Hong Kong, black, not white, is the most conducive environment for a meaningful art experience.
It was while studying Qigong, a meditative breathing technique, that Cheng says he was inspired to flip traditional display techniques on their head. “I spent a lot of my time with my eyes closed and I started to become excited about the possibilities of blackness,” he explains.
The result is Empty Gallery, a two-floor space on the 18th and 19th stories of a high-rise building in Aberdeen Harbour on the south side of Hong Kong island. The gallery is entirely black—black walls, black floors, black fittings. When you first enter, it is completely, utterly dark. It is only when you reach the first of the main art spaces that dim lighting illuminates the works on display.
“Hong Kong is so fast; the language of advertising is so strong and loud and intense. We’re amped up all the time.” Stepping into darkness immediately recalibrates your senses and helps you clear your mind, Cheng says. “It helps you give art a chance to communicate.”
Last week Cheng doubled the gallery’s display space to 4,500 sq ft by expanding into the floor below. Upstairs, Cinéma Concret, a mesmerising 3D film by the Japanese experimental filmmaker Takashi Makino takes over the main gallery.
At first, the piece, which has been built up by layering hundreds of photographs on top of one another, appears to be entirely abstract. But the longer you watch it, the more images coalesce and come spinning towards you for a split second before disappearing again. This profound meditation on the nature of perception and memory is accompanied by a score by the Dutch musician Machinefabriek.
In the downstairs gallery—if you can navigate the darkness and find the staircase that will take you there—is a three-part installation entitled Kara Cynara by the young German artist Hans-Henning Korb.
Incorporating film, sculpture and performance (at the opening the artist served visitors artichoke wine in a riff on traditional Asian tea ceremonies), the piece culminates with a virtual reality experience in a womb-like chamber where an Oculus Rift headset transports you to an abstract, multi-coloured landscape.
Cheng says that Empty Gallery will sell art and represent artists in the traditional manner but much of the focus will be on commissioning and producing new work (with an emphasis on pieces which use technology) and music (his Berlin-based production arm, Empty Editions, has just released its first vinyl LP, Eli Keszler’s Last Signs of Speed.)
“I’m in a position where I don’t have the same pressure to sell,” says Cheng, 37, who hails from one of Asia’s richest shipping families. Born in New York and educated at Eton (he was on the swim team with Prince William), Cheng obtained a degree in film history and photography at Harvard where he studied under Nan Goldin.
In New York, Cheng visited numerous galleries and says the experience sometimes left him cold. “Having an experience with art is not a given; it doesn’t always happen. The 20th-century was heavily visual but now we’ve seen everything. Our eyes are really tired. So I think art today has to use all your senses; the 21st century is about experiences.”
Silicon Valley next?
Cheng is currently in talks to stage an off-site project on the theme of infinity at the Fiac art fair in Paris next year in collaboration with mathematicians from the Sorbonne.
Another big project could be the opening of a second gallery in Silicon Valley. “They’re building the future there, it would be really interesting to embrace the technology. If I was to open a space there, I would want it to be really, really technologically advanced. Also, from a business point of view, Silicon Valley is a really interesting market. These tech guys have a tonne of money and not much taste, but they’re super interested in creativity and innovation. I should probably do it sooner rather than later. I think the moment is now.”
• Both exhibitions open to the public on 13 December and will run until 28 February 2017
By Cristina Ruiz