Gary Simmons Reckons With the Surveillance State in a Ghostly New Exhibition in Hong Kong

In "Dancing in the Dark" at Simon Lee Hong Kong, lighthouses and watchtowers become haunting emblems of observation.

Gary Simmons, Untitled (Watch Tower No. 4) (2019) Courtesy the artist and Simon Lee Gallery.
Gary Simmons, Untitled (Watch Tower No. 4) (2019) Courtesy the artist and Simon Lee Gallery.

Watchtowers and lighthouses float like otherworldly apparitions in artist Gary Simmons’s haunting new series of works, now on view in “Dancing in Darkness” at Simon Lee Hong Kong.

“I select images specifically when they have dual meanings that can read as one thing and then imply another,” explained Simmons. “Visually there was a similarity between the lighthouse and the watchtower that I was drawn to that could collapse to create a kind of hybrid.”

Gary Simmons, <i>Untitled (Lighthouse No. 6)</i>(2019) Courtesy the artist and Simon Lee Gallery.

Gary Simmons, Untitled (Lighthouse No. 6) (2019) Courtesy the artist and Simon Lee Gallery.

Simmons’s work thrives in a space of both formal and symbolic ambiguity. As has been his signature throughout his career, here he captures ghostly forms in smudged, fragmented style, as though they are emerging from a thick fog. The images seem to vibrate with motion, as though swept up in a storm. The already similar structures he’s painting become even more difficult to discern from one another.

He’s cultivating a very deliberate symbolic ambiguity: while the lighthouse acts as a point of arrival and a beacon of safety, the watchtower is a site of surveillance, a symbol of the government and the prison system.


Gary Simmons. Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery.

Portrait of the artist; Gary Simmons. Photo: HRDWRKER / Tito Molina. Astwood, 2018. Courtesy the artist and Simon Lee Gallery.

“There is a haunting quality to the lighthouse and the idea of one person alone, in a building guiding people to shore,” Simmons noted. “The idea of a trace that hovers in darkness is something I’ve returned to frequently. The watchtower, on the other hand, brings you back to that slave master watching at all times. Today, incarcerated folks are still watched at all times.”

Installation view "Dancing In Darkness," 2020. Courtesy of Simon Lee Gallery Hong Kong.

Installation view “Dancing In Darkness,” 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery Hong Kong. Photo Daniel Murray.

While the works seem to speak directly to the issues of inequality and systematic racism with which the United States has been grappling recently, they capture themes that are not new to Simmons. In fact, the work on view was completed in 2019. 

“From the time I started working in the late eighties until now, my work has dealt with a lot of this subject matter, and it remains sadly current,” said Simmons. “But this all started long before me, before I was even born. Becoming a teenager in New York and having to interact with the police from an early age, the realities of violence were always there. What’s different now is only that back then, it was not caught on film. Today, with the death of George Floyd, these realities become much harder to deny. In that sense, surveillance has changed now—because it’s not just one way.”

Gary Simmons, <i>Misty Tower Top</i>(2019) Courtesy the artist and Simon Lee Gallery.

Gary Simmons, Misty Tower Top (2019) Courtesy the artist and Simon Lee Gallery.

The works are deliberately ambiguous partly to create a space that the viewer fills with their own experiences. “People have to fill in the gaps and use their memories,” Simmons said. “There is a slippage between the images of lighthouses and watchtowers, and also between what the viewer sees and what the viewer projects into the image.”

Gary Simmons: Dancing in Darkness” is on view at Simon Lee Hong Kong through August 29, 2020.

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