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Mi Lou: Recent Works by Hong Lei    Jun 21 - Aug 11, 2012

Li Cheng and Li Zhaodao
Hong Lei
Li Cheng and Li Zhaodao, 2008
Tilted Ocean
Hong Lei
Tilted Ocean, 2012
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Chambers Fine Art is pleased to announce the opening on June 21st of Mi Lou: Recent Works by Hong Lei. In each of his exhibitions at the gallery since 2003, Hong Lei has extended the range of media in which he works to include not only photography, the medium in which he first gained fame in the mid-1990s, but also painting, sculpture and installation. This broadening of the range of his activities was necessitated by the diversity of his thematic concerns which however contemporary they might appear to be, are always rooted in a deep appreciation for the great cultural and artistic achievements of China’s past.

For the current exhibition he has turned to Mi Lou, the legendary architectural folly of Emperor Yangdi (604-618 CE), the last emperor of the short-lived Sui Dynasty (589-618 CE). On the one hand Yangdi was an aggressive warrior whose campaigns, in what is now Korea and Vietnam, left his empire bankrupt. On the other he was a visionary who promoted the construction of the great canal between Beijing and Hangzhou which transformed the face of China and a dreamer who late in life built Mi Lou (Labyrinth Tower) in the southern capital of Yangzhou. Built solely for the entertainment of Yangdi and his concubines and the site where he was eventually murdered, this vertical labyrinth has become synonymous with the extravagance and decadence that characterized his reign.

A connoisseur of such legends, Hong Lei has created a group of works in various media that emphasize the hold that they still have over our imagination. In preparation for this project, he first prepared a three-dimensional model of the Mi Lou as it might have been during the reign of Yangdi. Suspended from the ceiling in a brilliantly lit room, it only gained emotional truth when seen the right way up in an adjacent darkened space, conveyed through the minute opening of the pin-hole camera (camera obscura) in the center of the wall separating the two rooms. As so often in his work, it is in the contrast between lightness and dark, day and night, historical fact and fiction or legend, that profound truths can be glimpsed.

Although apparently unrelated to each other, the individual works in the installation refer indirectly to the cultivated sensuality associated with the legendary Mi Lou and comment on the gulf separating it from China in the twenty-first century. The fascination with refined eroticism and sexual ambiguity evident in Kingfisher and Botticelli - Hands contrasts with the landscape motifs of Tilted Ocean, Blossoming Pear Tree - Sadness, and March-He Yuan, Yangzhou. In Hong Lei’s work, however, apparent placidity in theme is generally the occasion for deeply ironic and melancholy reflection as, for example, in the photograph of the celebrated garden in Yangzhou in which the tourists trudging through it are oblivious to the spiritual vision of its creator or the classically romantic sea-scape Tilted Ocean which is frequented by dogs rather than lovers.

Among artists of his generation, Hong Lei is distinctive for the persistence with which he pursues his poetic vision, deeply attached to Changzhou in Jiangsu province where he was born in 1960 and where he still lives. A thoroughly modern version of the earlier literati who did so much to shape Chinese civilization, he looks beneath the surface of today’s world to find mysterious reverberations, ghostly suggestions of a sublimity that once existed but can only be glimpsed today.

For more information, please contact the gallery at 212-414-1169 or

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