From a casual scroll on social media, I came across the news that Indonesian artist Christine Ay Tjoe has a solo exhibition at White Cube Hong Kong. Given her evocative oeuvre, I knew I had to see it in person to experience the magnitude of her recent works.

As I entered the rustic, antique doors of White Cube, a colossal of ocean blue, tinted grey and off-white dominated the ambience. I almost felt the urge to apologize for interrupting such a profound moment, despite stillness that is engraved in the gallery and the world.

Installation view of Spinning in the Desert.
Photo by Jasmine Chau

Not Just Another Abstract Art

Titled Spinning in the Desert, Christine Ay Tjoe introduced us to a world of good and evil, a mirror that reflects our internal needs and desire. Completed in 2020, her latest abstract and figurative beings are portrayed on a large beige canvas, evoking imagery of the desert. In conjunction with the hues of blue, the negative space on the beige canvas further conveys textural dryness, a strong connation of desert and sand.

Installation view of Blue Cryptobiosis #02 (2021), Oil on Canvas, 230 x 200 cm
Photo by Jasmine Chau

Christine Ay Tjoe’s upbringing as a Catholic has gradually influenced her to place biblical references into her work. In her latest exhibition, the title premise “the desert” is in reference to “Israelites traveling through Egypt after being expelled” (White Cube, Spinning in the Desert, 2021), a major telling of suffering, disobedient and punishment. This iconic biblical story can be adapted to our experience with the pandemic. Across the series, accents of red and pink peers through the canvas, indicating a figure or two that is enwrapped in a typhoon- like collision. In addition, biological, pore-like patterns are consistent across the works, as if to repeatedly emphasize a significant point in Biblical stories. While humanistic figures and biological beings are similar in biological make-up, the latter reflects Ay Tjoe’s attempt expression with “‘cryptobiosis’, which is when an organism enters an inactive state in response to environmental conditions, causing metabolism to stop” (White Cube, Spinning in the Desert, 2021). In consideration with the pandemic, the exhibition title echoes the world’s stillness, a year-long period that allows us to examine ourselves, to search for hope and beauty in the macabre and distress.

Blue Is The Warmest Colour

A French film once states, Blue Is The Warmest Colour. Director Abdellatif Kechiche tells the poignant love story between Adèle and Emma, to which the two young lovers experience growth and loses and asserts themselves as a woman and an adult. For Christine Ay Tjoe, positive and negative life experiences are equally essential in self-discovery. For her, blue is the colour of hope. In Spinning in the Desert, the artist dissects the human anatomy in order to reach the unconscious, a path to our deepest self.

Blue is an outliner in Ay Tjoe’s latest series. While accents of blue surrounding the human figure reminds us of water, which makes up 60% of our bodily functions, the sharp hues in the abstract composition guides our attention in between layers, eventually to the core. This meticulous composition is in fact reflective of the artist’s skills as a graphic designer. Her experience with intaglio dry point prints highlights the importance of lines, whether in drawing, print-making or paint. Each brushwork and smudges made by the hand retains a moment of physical touch, a mark that implies the artist’s state of mind.

Installation view of Spinning in the Desert.
Photo by Jasmine Chau

A Tale of Abstract Paintings

It is suggested that one must unveil their body, from the physical form of the limbs, muscles to the heart, to fully understand their unconscious, emotions and desires. Indeed, this progression of self-discovery is well demonstrated in the curation of Spinning in the Desert.

On the first floor of the exhibition, viewers are introduced to medium-sized abstract paintings with strong visual representation of the human figure. As one walks up to the second floor, they are greeted by four paintings that are less figurative and intertwined in the struggle of body representation. Upon the second floor, large-sized canvases emerge. The abstract content and composition resemble imagery of an entangled figure in attempt to break free from his body.

In the centre, a large sized canvas with an abstract composition of a heart captures our absolute attention. With this painting being the sole work on the wall, the ambience becomes particularly quiet, as one is confronting the heart, the nearest bodily organ that speaks to one’s unconscious, emotions and desires. Indeed, the placement of the paintings are not arbitrary. Rather, it guides us through a journal of self-discovery by spinning off the layers of human existence, which we are aware, starts from our physical being and gradually moving inwards to our unconscious.

Photo Courtesy of Jasmine Chau

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