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Art meets science at Hong Kong medical museum exhibition

Exhibit by contemporary artist Zhang Yanzi aims to reflect the beauty and pain of the medical field

A human-sized wing forged from steel and wrapped in white bandages lies on a wheeled hospital bed in the centre of a low lit room. The work of art calledRescusitation first appeared as an image in Zhang Yanzi’s mind the day she began her artist’s residency at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences.

Contemporary artist Zhang’s solo exhibit, which opens this week, marks the 20th anniversary of the museum, which has come to symbolise love, devotion, and sacrifice to the Beijing-based artist, who is haunted by the story of a surgeon found dead at the foot of the balcony in the old Edwardian building years ago.

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The building, in the historic Tai Ping Shan neighbourhood of Sheung Wan, was Hong Kong’s first purpose-built public health and medical laboratory, opening as in 1906 a Bacteriological Institute to find cures for the plague, which had decimated the city. In 1996 the building was converted into a museum.

“I was touched by the sacrifices of the doctors who used to work here,” says the artist who is recognised worldwide for her self-reflective meditations on pain, healing and the esoteric beauty of the medical world.

The suicide of a Scottish surgeon Cecil Robertson, living in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation, also underpins Zhang’s complex feelings towards the heritage building. Robertson was remembered for his love of watercolour painting alongside his medical contributions to the community.

From Zhengjiang originally, 48-year-old Zhang was a sickly child who made regular trips to the local hospital, often by herself. She says she came to find her contact with medical paraphernalia rather comforting, especially as her father, who worked as a vet, often keep his tools at home.

“We didn’t have toys growing up, so me and my sisters used to play with his stethoscope,” she said. “I would listen to my heart beat and it sounded like music to me.”

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Zhang said she loved her father very much as a young girl, but they grew distant in her teenage years when painting began to divert her attention from her studies. She remembers him as poetic and brilliant, but very strict, and at times, depressive. He had unmet ambitions and lived in an age that did not favour the high minded. He passed away in 2001.

A closet intellectual who enjoyed playing erhu, crafting calligraphy alongside pursuing cures for pigs and cows, she believes he would have felt quite at home at Hong Kong’s medical museum.

“In her work we see a sort of self-therapy,” says co-curator Henrietta Tsui-Leung, who represents Zhang at her gallery Ora-Ora, which is working alongside the museum in their first cross-disciplinary exhibit that bridges science and art. “Zhang is refined and elegant, but with a hidden darkness,” she said. “She’s poised, but there’s an unrest, a kind of pain.”