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24 November 2021

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Today, Tomorrow and Somewhere in between

11 November 2021

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15 October 2021

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22 October 2021

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16 October 2021

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23 September 2021

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PLATFORM ISSUE 04: CROSSROADS

10 September 2021

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23 August - 19 September 2021

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30 August 2021

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Rivers of the World

6 September 2021

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8 September 2021

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30 August - 5 September 2021

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2 September 2021

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30 July 2021

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We Are Nature

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24 June 2021

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17 June 2021

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22 May 2021

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Raul Hernandez, Room Available, 2017, film
Raul Hernandez, Room Available, 2017, film

Critical Response: Raúl Hernandez’s Peer To Peer Digital Residency

By Lauren Stephens

Spanish artist Raúl Hernandez is one of several artists working with photography and lens based media nominated to undertake a social media residency with Open Eye Gallery as part of Peer to Peer: UK/HK, a digital exhibition encouraging social exchange between the UK and Hong Kong. Hernandez was nominated by Bess Chan of Hong Kong International Photo Festival, and spent four consecutive weekends excavating his creative process and examining his work ROOM AVAILABLE about his experience as a foreigner in Hong Kong. As a foreigner myself, an American in the UK, these works caused me to reflect on my own thoughts of belonging and togetherness, and what it means to be a foreigner in a strange place. 

Hernandez’s series of works over three years in ROOM AVAILABLE document his experience in Hong Kong, beginning in 2017. As a self-described outsider with a language barrier, he explains that when he moved: ‘suddenly, there was more silence and misunderstandings around’. The first images taken by Hernandez in this series echo this; they are muted and repeat the same message of a room available and a number to contact if interested. This idea of a possible home, which for Hernandez in a foreign land ‘became fragile abroad’, can seem like a beacon of hope or a symbol of constant movement. The title of this photography series, ROOM AVAILABLE, is scrawled on the wall in multiple images taken in Mong Kok, all telling of a room, a space that is available, a home that is possible, emphasising the scale of people moving in and out of this fixed environment. As Hernandez observes, ‘I started to believe in repetition as something to hold on to,’ this repetition was a constant in a presently unfamiliar and changing landscape. Will Hernandez find this room, this place to belong that he searches for in this series of photographs?  

With his later works in 2018, Hernandez moves away from his photographic focus of repetition and instead turns to the composition of an image, still seeming to search for a place to belong in his new environment. Two works in particular illustrate the outsider feeling Hernandez describes: plastic bags hanging in tall shoots of plants, sticking out like sore thumbs, as if to say to be an outsider in this land is to be like a plastic bag among nature. He describes these images as ‘catching small things which expressed my mood at the time’. It is understandable Hernandez would express his sense of not belonging within these images, another being a photograph framing a discarded mattress amongst brush and bramble. These images describe a feeling that you could belong somewhere, but it isn’t quite here. The adaptation towards home, a journey towards a space of his own, seems as if it hasn’t quite happened for the artist. 

It took Hernandez two years to begin making portraits of the people he saw around him, saying of his works in 2019, ‘I tried to search for affinity among foreigners like me.’ Not satisfied with expressing his current situation with foreign objects and landscape, the artist begins to consider that a foreign place is also filled with foreign people. Hernandez first looks to fellow migrant men, specifically those from Southeast Asia. Their portraits are simple and candid, adding a bit of colour to the overall grey and architectural palette of his pictures, but their expressions are otherwise subdued, almost solemn. The formidable gaze of one portrait in particular compared to the others strikes the viewer as a portrait of strength and resilience: being foreign is not for the faint of heart. It is as though Hernandez saw the strength of these men around him and began to feel somewhat at home, found somewhere he could belong among these others who live and thrive in this new place. The artist’s gaze then turns to the women around him, those who he met on Sundays when the women photographed, also from Southeast Asia, had a day away from their domestic help professions. It is these images that are the most vibrant, is composition and framing definitively more balanced than in his previous portraits of men, and there is a certain energy to the portraits of the women that is hidden in the solemn portraits of the men. Perhaps it is here, amongst the women, is where Hernandez has found a more colourful voice or sense of belonging. 

What is most interesting is that when Hernandez’s eye focuses on portraiture throughout 2019, it is not of natives of Hong Kong, but of fellow foreigners. Perhaps it is in other foreign people that Hernandez can best find himself, where he can best find the solace or comradery in this new place in these people. To choose to capture other foreigners like him indicates the shared bond or comradery between the photographer and the photographed. In that instant, they’re able to share a moment connecting them beyond language or geography. The capturing of these moments in time, this language of photography, is beyond any comprehension of belonging: it relies more on composition and depth, colour and imagery. It is enough for the sake of photography that these people share this space in this certain time, it is a beautiful communion because it speaks of the captured reality of the situation. These people belong because they have been captured in their space, in their time, by Hernandez. 

Ending his digital residency with images of more objects that don’t quite belong (an image of a broken mirror hanging outside, others of abandoned rubbish), it seems that Hernandez’s journey will continue for his available room, a space to call his own. He ends his residency by saying, ‘although my idea of home is not gonna have the same form anymore, I know now there may be others. I’m able to contemplate new scenarios and want to think of this plurality as a valuable treasure of my experience abroad learned by the people I take pictures of’. Through this, the artist concludes it is not necessarily a physical space that he was looking for, but ROOM AVAILABLE also means ‘people available’, that there is the space, capacity and room available to form these emotional bonds with others in a shared environment, and it is through others that we can discover a sense of belonging for ourselves. 

Lauren Stephens is a PhD researcher at the University of Liverpool writing about the philosophy of art.

Images: Raul Hernandez, Room Available, 2017, film

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