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Captured on Polaroid: THEN / NOW's presentation of UK mid-90s club culture

Mengzy documents the multidisciplinary exhibition launch party in Hong Kong

  • Mengzy
  • 16 February 2023

Late last month, an age-old art taboo was broken in Eaton HK’s Tomorrow Maybe gallery.

From seven to eleven in the evening, while DJs held court in the middle of the contemporary art space spinning non-stop rave music, visitors nonchalantly drew on the photographic prints on display with permanent markers.

Not only did nobody try to stop them, the show’s organiser actively encouraged their scribbling, which ranged from things like profanities, mustaches, devil’s horns… you get the picture.

The occasion for all this scribbling was the launch party for ‘THEN / NOW’, a multidisciplinary project spearheaded by Yeti Out’s Silk Road Sounds imprint. Encompassing a two-part digital and vinyl release, a documentary, photography exhibition and zine, THEN / NOW marries the mid-nineties work of Hong Kong photographer Kary Kwok with the rave music of producer James Banbury via his The Magus Project alias.

A stroke of A&R and creative direction genius on the part of Arthur Bray, THEN / NOW materialised when the Yeti Out co-founder realised that separate conversations he was having with both Kwok and Banbury about respective print and music collaborations had the potential to be combined into a single dialogue — and a single project.

“I realised that they were both from the same era, although they were in different parts of London, working in nightlife,” Bray told Mixmag Asia on the night.

“One was in the raves while the other one was shooting photos in queer parties. So, when we all did a session together at Banbury’s studio, we found a lot of synergy and we started talking about how we could come up with artwork that would fit the nocturnal energy of nineties London,” said Bray of the development of the project, which was captured in a seven-minute documentary.

Ultimately, a series of Kwok’s photographs from 1995 (of that year’s Alternative Miss World pageant – a queer institution) were selected as the visual component to the Magus Project release that Bray had been envisioning for Silk Road Sounds.

That series had laid dormant on 35mm slides in Kwok's archive for nearly three decades, he shared at the opening. Incredibly, the exhibition at Eaton was the first time the photographer had seen them printed in a large format – an experience that left him feeling “emotional” and in awe of all the detail revealed on the prints after so much time.

Before Banbury jumped on the decks for the launch party’s last DJ set (in which he dropped the much-anticipated Serum remix of his track ‘Shoss’), we asked him what his younger self would have thought of this revival of The Magus Project – an alias that originally existed for a single release on Rhythm King Records in 1991.

“What’s interesting is that it seems to be having a late life. I mean, I know it was instigated probably by me releasing it,” he answered with a laugh, “but it’s quite nice. I’m sort of bookending my career at the moment with Magus Project because it was the very first thing I released”.

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Though he comes from a younger generation than Kwok and Banbury, Bray is conscious of the historical ties linking the contemporary dance landscape to that of the early to mid-nineties: “Club culture is definitely the backbone of this project and memory as well as nostalgia.”

Indeed, the theme of THEN / NOW plays out on multiple levels. First, there is the musical juxtaposition on the Silk Road Sounds release that combines Banbury’s new “rave revivalist” tracks with contemporary remixes of his original 1991 Rhythm King productions.

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And then there is the resurrection of Kwok’s 35mm slides for an exhibition in which audience members at the launch were invited to participate in “remixing” the photographs, if you will, through the subversive act of defacing the prints – an act that, in turn, pays homage the subversive queer history of the Alternative Miss World pageant.

“There is this contrast of the past and the present because actually creativity is fluid and is not really bounded by time,” Bray mused when answering my last question on his interpretation of the title THEN / NOW, “We just celebrate things differently and the expression is different, but I think the energy is sort of timeless and universal.”

The 'THEN / NOW' exhibition is running until 19 February at Tomorrow Maybe Gallery, Eaton HK.

Mengzy is Mixmag Asia’s Music Culture Columnist, follow her on Instagram.

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