HONG KONG — Michele Chu has always been interested in exploring the intimacy between strangers.
She has built art installations with fabric barriers and designed social experiments eliciting public participation, and intended to base her upcoming exhibition at the contemporary gallery PHD Group — her debut solo show — on the cleansing rituals at a bathhouse. But the work became more raw and personal when, a few months ago, her mother applied to receive euthanasia after a protracted battle with cancer.
The exhibit, “You, Trickling,” is about anticipating the loss of a maternal figure. It also explores how rituals and a renewed connection with one’s own body might facilitate healing. Ms. Chu brings the hot air, mist and steam reminiscent of an onsen, a Japanese communal bathhouse, into the sprawling 3,000-square-foot gallery space of PHD Group, which she divides with fabric into womblike chambers and tunnels.
“On a city-level, there is an undercurrent of loss everywhere,” she said. The exhibition is “a space for people to feel. Also, in a way, it’s for people to ponder how we might grieve on a collective level and care for each other as well.”
Ms. Chu has long focused on the body in her work. Last year, she imprinted her sleeping and menstruating body onto cyanotypes, blurring the outline of her body with silhouettes of a second figure representing her mother. And throughout the pandemic, she collected the cigarettes she had inhaled, strands of hair she had lost and fingernails she had clipped as a way to mark the passage of time.
“It’s a way to make sense of things, to mark the emotions and memories associated with that time,” she said.
This show incorporates some of those body fragments, as well as Polaroid images transposed onto panes of smashed glass: a woman’s curved back, hands clasped and outstretched
Influenced by the field of somatic healing, a form of therapy that centers the body, and by the works of the performance artist Ana Mendieta, Ms. Chu also invites viewers of the show to connect with their own bodies through the performance of rituals associated with water, sound and scent. In the final part of the exhibit, sounds of flowing water represent the slow and gradual release of repressed emotions.
“It definitely feels very vulnerable,” she said. “I think that’s what artwork should be like, though. When you’re the most scared to show it, that’s the most meaningful to you.”
Just as Ms. Chu drew from her relationship with her mother in creating the work, PHD Group’s co-founders, Ysabelle Cheung and Willem Molesworth, also found inspiration in family history during their months archiving the belongings of Ms. Cheung’s grandfather, whose life inspired their gallery.
The couple had met while they were working at a downtown New York gallery , and moved to Hong Kong together in 2016. Until 2021, Mr. Molesworth was the director of the de Sarthe Gallery, and Ms. Cheung, a fiction writer and essayist, was the managing editor of ArtAsiaPacific magazine until 2019. Both craved an art space that engaged thoughtfully with local artists.
“There was something missing from the art scene in Hong Kong, basically, and that was a real acknowledgment of the cultural forces that were at play in the city, as well as a gallery that embraced the narrative of what Hong Kong we felt — really, authentically — was.” Mr. Molesworth said. “And not taking a Western white cube gallery and putting it into the city.”
Founded in January 2021, the contemporary gallery sits atop an office building that Ms. Cheung’s grandfather, David Lau, had worked to develop in the 1970s between the bustling districts of Wan Chai and Causeway Bay. He and his two partners had used the penthouse as their private clubhouse, entertaining clients and friends with mahjong parties, banquets and barbecues on the wraparound balcony.
But the space had fallen into disrepair over the past 20 years, becoming more of a cluttered storage space than anything else, until Ms. Cheung and Mr. Molesworth hired Beau Architects to consider its viability.
“The smell and the mildew and mold had created these microclimates underneath furniture and underneath mattresses, but our architects still saw so much potential in the space. For us that was very reaffirming,” Ms. Cheung said. “It’s so intimidating to walk in and see this history layered on top of each other in a kind of chaotic fashion and to not only renovate the space but also to archive my grandfather’s belongings.”
Among the sea of belongings were counterfeit paintings, erotic ephemera and thousands of antique coins. Some choice items from this trove are now displayed in a cozy library by the gallery’s entrance as a tribute to Ms. Cheung’s grandfather.
The founders shouldered most of the labor of monthslong renovation themselves, covering the walls with sealant and carrying bricks up flights of stairs. (The gallery is still run by the two alone, with no other employees, which is the main reason it operates by appointment only.)
Ms. Cheung noted that, while they wanted to honor the space’s history as a private clubhouse, “we do also want to move it to the 21st century,” adding that no women guests had been allowed into her grandfather’s clubhouse. “In our program, we really try and embrace women artists, queer artists and a lot of different identities.”
Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” — a rewriting of the hunter-gatherer narrative to center women, storytelling and nurturing — was a guiding influence in the couple’s inclusive vision for the gallery. The gallery represents emerging and midcareer artists primarily based in Hong Kong and East Asia, many of them women or L.G.B.T.Q.
“We want to rethink this history of violent aggressive impact and think more about carrying different stories within us,” Ms. Cheung said.
In the past year, PHD Group exhibited the work of the queer artist duo Virtue Village; the painter Lee Eunsae; and Sasaoka Yuriko, whose video installation blended the narratives of kamikaze pilots in World War II with the Greek myth of Icarus.
PHD Group’s full name, Property Holdings Development Group, strings together the jargon the city’s many real estate companies share in common, as a cheeky rebuke of the city’s fixation on profit and land development. Its acronym also satirizes the elitist nature of the art world, while also pointing to the gallery’s emphasis on research and thoughtful engagement with the community.
While many galleries throw parties during the week of Art Basel, Ms. Cheung and Mr. Molesworth decided to open the gallery for 24 hours a day, from 4 p.m. on Monday, March 20, to midnight this Sunday at PHD Group for visitors to experience “You, Trickling.” (Visitors can make an appointment from the gallery’s website or by calling or sending a WhatsApp message to its hotline: +852 5943 7541. The address of the gallery is provided after an appointment is made.)
“We hope that the exhibition and our extended hours during the fair will provide space and time for decompression, softening, wandering and impromptu gathering — a moment of respite from the relentless propulsions and distractions of the world outside,” Ms. Cheung said.
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