“Being aware of the photographic traditions of postmodern photography and identity art, I want to explore the idea of sentimentality, the premise of highly compressed emotion. They are deliberately over the top. One artist friend is a bit overwhelmed by the ‘glare’ of the portraits, but my question is “can you see past the glitter?”— Hiram To
Hiram To, Dior-orDi, 2002 | Image courtesy of the artist’s estate and The Hong Kong Art Archive
Born in 1964 in Hong Kong, Hiram To was an artist, curator and writer. From 1978 to 1983, To lived in Scotland when he was a teenager. After returning to Hong Kong in the mid-1980s, he came to Australia from 1986. Since the mid-1990s, he moved back to Hong Kong. His body of work tackled the nature of changing identity and its relationships with the mass media and personal / public interface. To has been trained as graphic designer and illustrator. He was interested in working in conceptual-based installations taking references from a wide variety of sources such as literature, film, art and popular culture to create multi-layered installations that embrace and challenge the way that identity is constructed or fragmented.
To’s works have been widely shown in Australian public galleries and internationally, including the National Gallery of Australia, Powerhouse Museum and the Queensland Art Gallery. In 1994, To has been invited by London’s Camden Art Center to have a solo show, becoming the first Hong Kong contemporary artist to exhibit in the UK. In 2005, his work was the subject of a survey exhibition at Winnipeg Art Gallery, Canada, titled “Hiram To: don’t let me be misunderstood”. In 2007, he represented Hong Kong at the 52nd Venice Biennale. As a curator, To has collaborated with Institute of Modern Art Brisbane, Artspace Sydney, Ipswich Art Gallery and Next Wave Festival in Australia, and Hong Kong Goethe-Institut. As a writer, his writings have been published in South China Morning Post, Harpers Bazaar Hong Kong, C for Culture, City Magazine and The Standard.
Identity, identity formation and self-representation
For To, identity is an unreliable concept; self-image is fashioned and reformed over time in continual transactions, influenced by changing, external circumstances. Duplicity is his central interest, especially as it performs in identity formation and self-representation. Ambiguity and illusion are qualities well utilized by To, and they are heightened by installations whose many components resonate with richly layered and romantic metaphors culled from historical archives and the fantasy worlds of consumer spectacle, as played out in cinema, television game shows, music, advertising and fashion.
Hiram To, Exhibition view of The Prestige (I Love You More Than My Own Death), 2007, Hong Kong pavilion, 52nd Venice Biennale, 2007 | Image courtesy of the artist’s estate, The Hong Kong Art Archive and 52nd Venice Biennale
In 2007, To was one of the three artists representing Hong Kong in 52nd Venice Biennale. Hong Kong Pavilion curated by Norman Jackson Ford, entitled as “Star Fairy”, setting out to ask questions on how Hong Kong represents itself to the world. “I Love You More Than My Own Death”, To’s installation, plays with a multi-layered reference to present Hong Kong’s fascinating relationship with fame. His installation charts historical moments of fraud and trickery in the realms of past entertainments (magic acts) and socio-cultural politics (China’s Cultural Revolution and its actors).
Hiram To, Shoot the Moon (from I Love You More Than My Own Death), 2008 | Image courtesy of the artist’s estate and Sunpride Foundation
For the historical moments of fraud and trickery in the realms of past entertainments (magic acts), “Shoot the moon” (2008) calls forth the ghosts of two of the late-nineteenth century´s most celebrated magicians – Ching Ling Foo and Chung Ling Soo. To recast himself as two rival magicians. Ching Ling Foo was a Beijing-born conjurer who performed in America in 1898 to great acclaim. Chung Ling Soo, his contemporary, who was actually an American named William Ellsworth Robinson. Robinson masqueraded as a “Marvelous Chinese Conjurer” both on and off the stage. His racial deception greatly advanced his career until his death in 1918, when he was fatally shot while performing his renowned bullet catching act, at which point his identity charade was unmasked.
His particular way of weaving narrative
“Since the Venice Biennale piece in 2007, I developed a particular way of weaving a narrative that crosses time and locations, and different fields. It’s very much like script writing, a bit ‘operatic’. At times it becomes so complicated but that’s my fascination with it, to draw out threads and stories that run parallel and similar.”
Hiram To, Garlands – 1, 2010-12 | Image courtesy of the artist’s estate and Sunpride Foundation
Garlands (2010-2012) is a series of portraits that To photographed his mother, Helen Y Lai, striking various iconic Judy Garland poses from “A Star is Born”, a classic film in 1954. To interwove childhood memories of his mother with an outsider – Garland. This work is full of the artist’s private language, based on vintage studio shots of Garland, weaving together a fictional narrative that intersects with the artist’s real life experiences.
Hiram To, Garlands – 4, 2010-12 | Image courtesy of the artist’s estate and Sunpride Foundation
“A couple of years ago I looked at my mother and the notion that she resembled Judy Garland came to me. It’s more than just physical. It’s about the stories and myths, and the idea of casting my mother as a tragic star is kind of left field. So I basically told her “I’m going to dress you as Judy Garland and photograph you”. That’s really how it came about at the beginning.” Helen Y Lai, To’s mother, was a floral artist. In the eyes of To, she can be considered as the new generation of women in the 1950s-1960s. She has always been creative and was a little bit of a tomboy, but later on she was one of the cheongsam wearing ladies who went to work at a “gweilo” office in Central, like Maggie Cheung in “In the Mood for Love”.
Hiram To, Garlands – 5, 2010-12 | Image courtesy of the artist’s estate and Sunpride Foundation
“Afterwards, I started looking into the links in more details. I came across a very interesting background of Garland arriving in Hong Kong in 1964 and I began to weave a narrative, merging with my family background.” Garland was a famous Hollywood star in the 1960s. To considered her as a tragic star after he did research on Garland’s history. Garland overdosed at the hotel and was sent to hospital after her concert in Australia was canceled due to Typhoon Viola and the news of her sister killing herself in Las Vegas. After a disastrous concert tour in Australia, Garland visited Hong Kong in 1964 which was the year To was born.
Hiram To, Exhibition view of “Garlands and Vessels”, Amelia Johnson Contemporary, 2012 | Image courtesy of the artist’s estate and Amelia Johnson Contemporary
In 2012, “Garlands and Vessels”, two series of To’s works exhibited on two floors of Amelia Johnson Contemporary, a gallery located at Central in Hong Kong. For the series of “Vessels”, To printed images of his mother’s flower arrangements onto mirrors covered with a thin white layer of plaster, with the exposed slivers reflecting a silvery light. The series of Vessels has been arranged on the top floor of the gallery forming parallel narratives with “Garlands”.
Kary Kwok and Queer Reads Library, Installation view of the display “Can’t Get You Out of My Head: From Kary, to Hiram”, Myth Makers—Spectrosynthesis III, Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong, 2022-23 | Image courtesy of the artists and Tai Kwun
To died at the age of 52 in 2017. In late December 2022 to mid-April 2023, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head: From Kary, to Hiram”, a display as love letter from Kary Kwok to commemorate To in the exhibition “Myth Makers—Spectrosynthesis III” at Tai Kwun Contemporary. Kwok is a photographer who met To one night at the gay club Works in 1996. They both lived in Causeway Bay and shared the same taste in music, film and art. A whirlwind friendship ensued between them. Besides the display, To’s work “Garlands – 1” and “Garlands – 4” are also shown in the exhibition.
Hiram To, Installation view of Garlands – 4 (2010-12) & Garlands – 1 (2010-12), Myth Makers—Spectrosynthesis III, Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong, 2022-23 | Image courtesy of the artist’s estate, Tai Kwun and Sunpride Foundation