Benrei HUANG: Shapes of Self-reflection

ESLITE GALLERY proudly presents the solo exhibition Shapes of Self-reflection by US-based artist Benrei HUANG from July 3 to July 31, 2021. In the 14 years since the bunny character Nini was created in 2008, there have been no fewer than 100 stories surrounding it. Always sporting a pair of bright eyes, Nini’s seemingly expressionless face hints at its composure regardless of how the world changes. Now that the world is facing the unprecedented impact of COVID-19, Nini is still here to soothe people’s anxious hearts with its cool-as-a-cucumber attitude.

  • Exhibition Period:3 July – 31 July 2021
  • Address:ESLITE GALLERY ∣ B1, No. 88, Yanchang Rd., Xinyi Dist., Taipei City 110055, Taiwan

Shapes of Self-reflection features a total of 47 paintings and sculptures by Benrei HUANG from 2019 to 2021, during which the sudden global outbreak of COVID-19 has completely changed everyone’s life. As such, this solo exhibition illustrates HUANG’s contemplations and changes to her creations as well as life before and after the pandemic.

After her solo exhibition Minorities Rule at the ESLITE GALLERY at the end of 2018, HUANG returned to New York to continue to conceive new works. On with her usual peace and quiet life, HUANG admitted that at that time, “My creativity seemed to be lethargic. My desire to create was like chewing wax, which doesn’t taste very good.” She described herself of being wrapped inside a huge “cocoon” of loneliness, almost suffocating. That was when she “encountered” Kitano Takeshi’s 2002 film Dolls. In one of the stories in the film, the female protagonist, emotionally betrayed by the male protagonist, becomes brain-damaged from a failed suicide attempt. The male protagonist tries to atone for his actions and ties a red rope between them. They wander through the countryside together as the days and seasons change. The irrevocable fate and the heart-wrenchingly poignant innocence somehow melted the cocoon around HUANG, allowing her to tap into the feeling of youth that she thought she had long forgotten. This state of mind unexpectedly echoes the romantic sensibility in her works Autumn makes its own spring when all leaves turn into flowers.

Benrei HUANG also introspects herself in the world of her creations. The free and easy spirits seen in the Ninis in Shapes of self-reflection mirror her own state of mind. But then in early 2020, the pandemic swept across the world and disrupted life in ways unimaginable. Living in hard-hit New York, everything came to a near standstill. Quiet on the surface, but people were anxious. HUANG believed that “the Creator is giving us a shock test,” and that “in 2019, the world was safe and people were free to do whatever they wanted, but came 2020, and obstacles were everywhere people turn.” After a whole year of living in dormancy and concentrating on creating, HUANG realized that “God wants us to submit to Him. you can only submit to the will of God. Be quiet and reflect. Don’t be opportunistic nor take things for granted.”

I’m all washed, soapy clean, so don’t blame me is her first creation related to the pandemic, when she was still able to face it with some tongue-in-cheek humor at the time. The theory of leisure: social distancing edition is the brainchild in response to the initial outbreak when the U.S. government vigorously promoted mask wearing, frequent hand washing and keeping a safe social distance, calling on Americans who value personal freedom to protect themselves and others. However, the ferocious virus was more powerful than people could have imagined. The long and intense fight against the virus gradually led to fatigue—people realized they were helpless in this crisis of the century. Like the Disappointing umbrella, what should have protected Nini from the torrential rain has become useless. The lonely state of mind during the pandemic hits close to home in My safe haven, where Nini looks for signs of a “safe haven” (or perhaps a solution). Benrei HUANG, who had originally returned to Taiwan to prepare for the solo exhibition, did not expect to be greeted by a major outbreak in Taiwan. She couldn’t help but recalled last year’s experience in New York as a heavy feeling lingered in the air. She said that in order to shift her focus from the fear and anxiety about the pandemic, she took up her hobby of singing again. Almost blue is an expression of how singing can calm her mind and body.

The Nini series has been ongoing for more than 10 years, and Nini has somewhat become HUANG’s best creative partner. From the very beginning, Nini has been like HUANG’s spokesperson, conveying her thoughts and feelings. Meanwhile, Nini lived up to the expectations of bringing comfort and healing to many people. “Even if the world is heavy, your heart can be light.” Slowly, HUANG discovered that “Nini has developed a life of its own. I often feel its eyes gazing at me, as if saying: Nini can stay the same, but you can’t!” This push is exactly the artist’s self-expectation for continuous breakthroughs and improvement in her creative vision.

Benrei HUANG draws inspiration from everyday life and uses Nini the rabbit as a vehicle for contemplation and reflection on her experiences. From Benrei HUANG’s paintings we can get a glimpse of the artist’s inner world, as most of them are inspired, directly and indirectly, by the people, things and events that take place in her immediate environment. Sometimes a painting comes from her mourning for the loss of a pet; sometimes it could be an afterthought when she encountered a street performer (singer) in the subway; and sometimes it may be to express her anxiety about environmental degradation. Benrei HUANG believes that all creatures on Earth are only a small part of the universe. Although the course of nature and life are beyond our control, optimism and a fighting spirit may be our only way to give meaning to our existence. As such, HUANG’s works often emanate a hint of sadness and helplessness yet at the same time filled with warmth and humor. Though personal, her works contain emotions that are universal to us, and thus they become a mirror of our own experiences, and from them we are able to see a bit of ourselves.