Review: Machines of Desire at Simon Lee Gallery, Hong Kong

Exhibition view: Group Exhibition, Machines of Desire, Simon Lee Gallery, Hong Kong (21 July–10 September 2022). Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery. Photo: Ah Lung.

Art gallery summer shows can be uninspired affairs, unsold stockroom fare scattered across gallery spaces in an imaginatively titled ‘Summer Group Show’. Place holders in empty cities, waiting for residents to return from summer holidays, in time for big name exhibitions. 

But for those of us who remain in Hong Kong over summer, schvitzing in the furnace, and swimming against the tide of the exodus that is currently plaguing the city, Simon Lee Gallery has a treat for the eyes in their air-conditioned white cube.

Machines of Desire, presented across the gallery’s London and Hong Kong spaces simultaneously (21 July–10 September 2022), features works by 30 contemporary and modern artists, including Parker Ito, Shana Hoehn, and Catalina Ouyang.

Looking at the continuous influence of Surrealism on art, the exhibition builds on the trend of Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, which drew admiring reviews, and a survey focusing on Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim opening at MoMA, New York, later this year (30 October 2022–4 March 2023).

Jim Shaw, Double Trump Chaos #2, 2018

Curated by Emilia Yin, founder and director of the contemporary L.A. art gallery Make Room, and Kat Sapera, a director at Simon Lee Gallery in London, the exhibition’s Hong Kong chapter stages a collision of unconscious and conscious desires, a motivating force of contemporary consumption, through 12 works by eight artists, among which Jessie Makinson, Mai-Thu Perret, and Kiki Smith.

Two works by L.A.-based Jim Shaw open the show. Informed by consumerism and counterculture, Shaw’s obsessive eye for detail is channelled towards satirical send-ups of American social, political, and commercial values, with shiny household appliances, gadgets, and consumer products often making an appearance.

Shaw’s pencil and gouache-on-paper drawing, Anatomical Weird-Ohs with Mirrored Vacuum Cleaners (2013), depicts twin vacuum cleaners floating on either side of what looks like three dissected organs or slices of meat. Hung next to this work is a black acrylic-on-white-board painting from the ‘Trump Chaos’ series the artist produced in 2017 and 2018, capturing the chaos and turmoil of the Trump presidency in America.

The painting’s fine cross-hatched lines and coils are reminiscent of those in comic books, but it’s difficult to make out its details. Are these the twisted strands of a toupee caught in a whirlwind, in waves, or in flames? It’s hard to say. But that seems to be the point. The reality Shaw captured in real-time was a black and white newsprint swirl of confusion.

In contrast hangs British artist Jessie Makinson’s Another word and I’ll cut your tail off (2022), a vibrant oil on canvas painted in a fiery palette of reds and oranges. Its colours complement a pair of neon Corian Pixel Box floor sculptures by Angela Bulloch, glowing and pulsing in red, pink, and purple, like morse code. Makinson’s playful and fantastical painting is covered in patterns and colour. Teeming with figures entwined and tattooed with flowers, vines, curlicues, scales, and animal prints in constant motion, bodies embrace, dance, frolic, and frottage. A satyr, or a devil, whose form is decorated with flames, holds a tiny, disembodied head while straddling a reclining woman painted with teardrops, as another female figure cradles the woman’s head from behind.

Makinson’s composition recalls religious Renaissance paintings, but rather than virtue the artist unleashes an erotic force; a manifestation of the psyche, where dreams and nightmares reside in an atmosphere of fear, fantasy, anxiety, and desire.

Unfettered female sexuality is also found in American artist M. Florine Démosthène’s Before the Victory (2022), a collage on paper utilising ink, mylar, and glitter to depict three curvaceous marbled figures: two of them embrace a woman whose green glitter eyes look directly at viewers.

Jessie Makinson, Another word and I’ll cut your tail off, 2022

Mai-Thu Perret’s minimalist, green-glazed, ceramic wall sculpture, Actually know your own mind (2016) hangs on the wall beside the Makinson painting like a visual palate (and palette) cleanser. Both a sculpture and a painting, glossy repetitious ovoid forms recall bulbous Hong Kong egg waffles, with a sensual and tactile quality that conveys at once fragility, in its formal allusion to egg shells, and strength, in its kiln-fired sculptural form.

The egg, a recurring motif in Perret’s work (such as in series like ‘Heart and Soul’, 2007 and the work Diana, 2022), is symbolically tied to fertility, birth, and creation. Through its repetitive form of 60 eggs lined up in rows, it also calls to mind industrial farming and mass consumerism; themes that connect to Shaw, an artistic influence for Perret.

Mai-Thu Perret, Actually know your own mind, 2016

Tacked to the wall at the end of the gallery, behind a row of sculpted resin daisies installed on the ground, is Paulo Nimer Pjota’s Opium poppy verde (2019). Like a chaotic scrapbook page created at the height of an opium-affected fugue state, this large unstretched canvas hosts a stream of consciousness across a verdant image plane.

Lustful, snogging cherries, Disneyfied flowers, butterflies, and cartoon fairies surround a realistic rendition of a classical vase (a recurring motif in Pjota’s work), filled with poppy bulbs.

Tucked away behind the main gallery is a television screen showing a three-minute video work by Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta, Volcán (1979). The work is part of the artist’s ‘Silueta’ series (1973–1980); it depicts a raised mound of earth on a riverbank, with a vertical slit bearing the impression of the artist’s body erupting into flames and smoke. A volcanic mons veneris.

Merging sculpture, earth art, and performance to explore connections between nature and the feminine, Volcán speaks of ancient rituals and magic; a manifestation of desire that adds to the palimpsest this exhibition has created to frame art as a vehicle through which reality can be escaped, subverted, and made sense of. While connections between works and their significance to the exhibition’s narrative seem tenuous at times, this instability between object and meaning creates space for visitors to conjure their own interpretations. 

Paulo Nimer Pjota, Opium poppy verde, 2019

Published on, 17 August 2022

Photos writer’s own unless otherwise credited.

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