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Where's the frame

Maribelle Bierens

May 9, 2022 11:17 PM


Kristy M Chan’s first solo exhibition in Berlin, ‘Strong Cookie’, is now on view at PRIOR Art Space. The exhibited paintings, which are created during her three-month residency at Del Arco Collection, explore a very interesting subject matter: the gym as a space to explore different juxtapositions. There is so much duality going on in these works; different questions are all raised in the artist's unique beautifully layered style. What role does health play in the gym? What role does joy play? What role does gender play in how people can use that space? Comfort and discomfort, weakness and strength. Does it make sense? The exhibition is about normalising having these conversations openly.

Installation view of Kristy M Chan, Strong Cookie at PRIOR Art Space Berlin. Courtesy of PRIOR

The gym is a space where gender dynamics are very visible. Men outnumber the women in the weight room, and visa versa, women outnumber men on cardio equipment. Entering one of those spaces might lead to some discomfort or awkwardness. It also shows the physical standard and social anxiety related to physique that keeps on being reinforced when people try to obtain a desirable physique in accordance to one's gender: women striving for thinness, men strive for building muscle mass. For both genders, weightlifting is not only empowering, it benefits your health a lot too. Feeding back into the overarching theme, the larger than life paintings look very powerful - symbolising strength and sturdiness. However the colours and style add a playful and light and vibrant tonality to the works.

Fascinating is the idea that gym equipment has come to look masculine because it has been shown to be used by men. By depicting dumbbell racks, in this setting of revealing gender dynamics, Kristy undermines the self-evidence of this masculine understanding of that equipment. Even the exhibition’s title ‘Strong Cookie’ reflects a contradiction. A cookie is supposed to crumble under any kind of pressure, not to be strong. And although it's used as a compliment (it's used usually to describe a determined cis-woman) it can feel like condescension for the receiver. 

Installation view of Kristy M Chan, Strong Cookie at PRIOR Art Space Berlin. Courtesy of PRIOR

The artist also used her menstrual blood to explore ideas of weakness and strength. It can be associated with the annoying question: “Is it your time of the month?" when someone tries to dismiss a person who has periods. A symptom of menstruation can be fatigue or lower energy levels, however, creatinine, found in menstrual blood, is a very popular sports supplement. Showing at once the gloomy and appealing side of gym culture, Kristy’s work speaks to another duality. The gym can be fun, something to be enjoyed. Exercise is healthy and important, but it can lead to injury, insecurity, mental health problems or can reinforce diet culture. It's a personally charged subject for the artist as it reveals some aspects of her personal life: her athletic disposition, her upbringing in a traditional Hong Kong setting that continues to glorify thinness, and, her struggles with body dysmorphia and self-doubt. 

"It's about the celebration of being at the gym and enjoying it, despite the injuries, or self doubt or whatever. It's about normalising talking about it, talking about injuries, not only victories, talking about periods openly, it's about opening a conversation for me."

Installation view of Kristy M Chan, Strong Cookie at PRIOR Art Space Berlin. Courtesy of PRIOR

Anyone familiar with Kristy’s work can tell that the residency has allowed her to explore new boundaries. Kristy’s recognisable brush strokes, her unique ability to intuitively capture moments, memories, and emotions in a very distinctive swirl-like style - it’s all there. While painting from life, these works are challenging and confronting and raise important questions - she pushed her practice to new heights. 

An arm-wrestling table was set up for viewers to compete during the exhibition’s opening night. Courtesy of PRIOR

Kristy M Chan with Laura Del Arco, the host of the Art Residency and co-founder of Prior Art Space

Installation view of Kristy M Chan, Strong Cookie at PRIOR Art Space Berlin. Courtesy of PRIOR

‘Strong Cookie’ is part of the Del Arco Collection Art Residency and is on view until June 2nd at PRIOR ART SPACE at Torstrasse 141, Berlin, Germany. For more information, see their website.

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