When I was 7 years old, the world of gambling was introduced to me through the 1989 Hong Kong film, “God of Gamblers“. Inspired by the near-supernatural powers and sleight of hand techniques wielded by Chow Yun-Fat’s ultra-cool gambler character, my friends and I developed a deeper investment in our card games, graduating from Go Fish to Big 2. Big 2 sessions were punctuated with imitations of Chow Yun-Fat’s signature move – rubbing a card between his palms in hopes of changing it to an ace of 2. While this technique is actually a form of hand mucking, our interpretations of the ‘palm rub’ rendered it full on enchanting, accompanied with a playful desire to magically change the card. These childhood sessions of Big 2 games are the closest I’ve ever come to gambling. Nevertheless, their wistful palm rubs came to mind when I went to the opening of “Octomania (on drawing the number eight)“, a group exhibition curated by Christina Li at Para/Site Art Space, which examines the relationship between gambling and divination.

Inspired by the local genre of gambling films that originated with “God of Gamblers”, “Octomania” brings together five artists from the Pearl River Delta region, including Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Macau. Situated within the PRD, the exhibition attests to the intertwining roles of traditional folk culture and gambling in a Chinese context. As a system of beliefs apart from, yet influenced by clerical religion, Chinese folk religion is embedded into everyday culture. Likewise, as the earliest accounts of gambling were recorded in China (2000-1500 B.C.), its contemporary manifestations, from household mahjong to the casino halls of Macau, reveal its integration into Chinese life. Moreover, the influence of folk beliefs and superstitions has made its way into the practice of gambling, best exemplified in the role of homophonous lucky and unlucky numbers. For instance, the exhibition’s Chinese title (sahp faat), plays on the Cantonese homophony of the number 18, which is similar in sound to the phrase, “definitely prosper”.

With paintings, installation, and mixed media work, themes of old customs, idol worship, and hollow desires, along with their present-day negotiations are explored. Zhou Tao’s installation, “Wish you make a pile”, presents us with his absurd interpretation of the ‘business sleeve’. As depicted in old Chinese films, the extended sleeve conceals the secret handshakes between two people during monetary negotiations. Tao’s video documents his attempts as a street vendor for his contemporary business sleeves, essentially 2-foot long tubes available in various fabrics, including American flag print, Osama Bin Laden print, and acrylic fun fur. The video also includes a scene of a hilarious silent handshake transaction between two businessmen donning three-piece suits with one elongated sleeve. A suit from the video, as well as the street vendor display, accompanies Tao’s installation.

Duan Jian Yu’s painting, “Art Chicken No. 11”, also reflects on contemporary meanings of prosperity. Using imagery rife with noble and prosperous signification, Yu casts a quirky analysis on the role of traditional domestic farming within modern-day China. Depicting chrysanthemums surrounding a farmer operating on a ceremonial chicken with a pair of scissors, Yu offers a reflection on the changing values of a rapidly-developing society.

The title of Otto Li’s series, “Golden Right Leg”, is translated from the Chinese name ascribed to David Beckham’s legendary limb. While one painting depicts this cut out ‘golden right leg’, the other uses the same silhouette to interpret a roulette table layout. Li’s analysis of this public fetishization reveals the similarities between athletic and religious iconography. The resulting god-like status of Beckham elevates the football/soccer field to a heavenly domain, which is particularly heightened when betting is involved.

Chu Yun’s “Journey of Life (II)” offers a neat pile of reprinted posters of a list of wanted criminals issued by the Police Department of Guangdong Province. Free for the taking, these reproductions reflect on the power dynamics between those whom disturb social and moral codes and those who uphold their standards. While facilitating disdain towards the wanted, the posters also emphasize their fetishization into icons of shame and fascination. As each criminal bears a reward of 5000 RMB for one’s capture, the public’s participation in policing is baited with a prize.

Bianca Lei’s installation, “Faith in fakes – Make your bet!” arranges 38 birdcages around a rotating light, casting whirling shadows on the ceiling, walls, and floor. Referring to the number of slots on a roulette wheel, Lei’s work provides a critical analysis of Macau’s post-colonial gambling ‘revitalization’, recasting gaming concessions as civic self-entrapments while emphasizing their negative impact on the public. At the opening, one young girl took to jumping and dancing amongst the dizzying shadows, to which, at her request, I joined in on. Other viewers were decidedly not as energetic in their response, but enjoyed themselves nonetheless, drinking wine and snacking on M&M’s.

As with the sheer will behind the palm rub appropriated from “God of Gamblers”, believing and gaming both require a leap of faith and risk. The artists’ poignant, playful investigations into these intertwining themes highlight how they specifically underscore the lives of the people of the PRD. Drawing together varied works into a cohesive ensemble, “Octomania” has presented an exhibition that is-wait for it!-a good gamble.

Octomania (On drawing the number eight)

Date: 7th September – 8th October, 2006
Place: Para/Site Art Space
Tel: (852) 2517 4620

Text: Becky Ip
Photos: Joseph Cheung & Horia Coran

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