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Ha Bik Chuen 夏碧泉

Ha Bik Chuen’s Archive of Determination

By John Batten

For over 50 years, Hong Kong artist Ha Bik Chuen (1925-2009) built a large collection of art exhibition catalogues, art books, magazines, and clippings from newspapers and other printed matter. Often accompanied by his wife or children, Ha also photographed every art exhibition he visited, and his photographic archive comprises hundreds of boxes of prints, contact sheets and negatives. Now known as the Ha Bik Chuen Archive and featuring thousands of individual pieces, it is a historical collection of Hong Kong art and Ha’s resources, a glimpse of past international art trends and a personal record of Hong Kong’s art scene between the 1960s and 2000s.

The collection was formerly housed in Ha’s crowded home and its rooftop in Shim Luen Street, To Kwa Wan, where his family kept everything intact after his death, as he wished. It has now been boxed and relocated to a Fo Tan industrial unit where the Asia Art Archive began a three-year project in 2016, funded by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, to catalogue the material and use it for research.

Works of Ha Bik chuen-6
Emptiness by Ha Bik Chuen, Relief print, 61 x 80 cm, 1991. Courtesy Ha Bik Chuen Archive.

Ha arrived in Hong Kong from mainland China in 1957, aged 32, and immediately set out to become a full-time artist. His diary entries from 1959 describe the personal and financial difficulties that involved. However, he soon met likeminded friends with whom he could exchange information, organise art outings and provide mutual support; and he was also dedicated to self-study and self-learning. This, for example, is how he learned photography: “In the first six months after buying my first camera I entered an intense period of self-instruction, learning to handle the camera, making it an extension of myself. After 100 rolls of film I realised that I was a captive of an art that is part science, a science that is also an art.”

Ha approached being an artist through a similar process of self-learning. He was assiduous in collecting all sorts of material related to art, which he would study, incorporating ideas into his own work. After seeing the relief paper prints of fellow Hong Kong artist Cheung Yee, Ha wished to master the technique himself. He did so by looking, reading and experimenting: carving a wooden mould or template of the intended design, mastering the colouring of the template, and then learning to carefully apply wet paper onto the template to produce a beautiful relief print. His prints featured recurring motifs that were seen in all his work – leaves, the sun and moon, wood patterns, Chinese text, nudes, cubism-inspired faces – all executed in nature’s earthy colours: ochre, browns, greens, reds.

His earliest block prints from the 1960s and relief prints of the early 70s were Christmas cards, executed with the additional aim of trying to network with the art world. These early prints exemplify his determination for advancement. Ha explained, in a 1981 catalogue statement:

“I spent lots of time and effort each Christmas designing and making 100 cards which I sent to my local and overseas friends in art circles, hoping for a positive response from them so that we could exchange ideas, share experiences and encourage a creative atmosphere. But I was disappointed. There were few replies, let alone positive ones.”

In the 1960s and 70s, Ha Bik Chuen’s family supported themselves by manufacturing paper flowers and other crafts, but he achieved his ambition of becoming a full-time artist in 1976, mainly supported by the sale of prints. In 1978 he won a prestigious sculpture commission with his design Sailing in the Sun for Aberdeen Square, the open space that is surrounded by Aberdeen Centre’s tall residential towers.

HBC Square close
Sailing in the Sun in Aberdeen Square, (Mid-Autumn Festival decorations covering the sculpture), 2017. Photograph by John Batten.

Situated in the middle of Aberdeen, conveniently near the indoor market, public library and minibus stops, Aberdeen Square is now a popular sitting area, especially among elderly people. Amazingly, this outdoor space has never been upgraded, but retains its original design, materials and colour scheme – predominantly brown tiles, so popular at the time. It is a snapshot of 1970s east-meets-west landscape design; it features chinoiserie architectural details, setting the tone of the space as a stylised enclosed courtyard garden.

There are Chinese arches, or paifang, at each end of the square, but the green-tiled roofline running lengthways along it gives the greatest sense of enclosure. Each quadrant of the square features a small pavilion, while faux pillars and balconies overlook the space to complete its garden setting – one that is largely devoid of greenery. Undoubtably feng shui was a consideration for the square’s architects, as a pool of water is prominently placed in the middle. Nowadays, the pool is often empty and the fountains an occasional trickle. In the middle of the pool is Ha Bik Chuen’s Sailing in the Sun.

Ha’s sculpture directly references Aberdeen’s close relationship with the sky and nearby sea using two of his favourite motifs, the sun and a torso-like structure. The sculpture’s two upright flanges/sails support the sun and at certain angles resemble a torso. The Ha Bik Chuen Archive contains countless magazine clippings depicting these shapes, which are also replicated in his prints and photography.

However, Sailing in the Sun is an interesting anachronism, an overtly modernist sculpture in a Chinese neoclassical garden. At face value it appears to be an odd choice, as the sculpture sits uneasily and separately from its surroundings, but it probably reflects conflict between property developer and architect: conservative design versus modernism. Uncannily, Ha’s abstract sculpture is a serious addition to the square, saving it from being incongruous kitsch.

Sailing in the Sun is also important in Hong Kong’s art timeline, as an unusual, rare early example of non-realist contemporary sculpture executed by an artist in a public space. Rather than inviting artists, Hong Kong public sculpture has often been designed by fabricators with technical or engineering skills rather than any overt artistic sensibility.

Consequently, much of the city’s displayed public sculpture can be woeful. Ha’s Sailing in the Sun broke, if only briefly, with that trend. But its integrity has for many years been compromised by its use as a convenient hanging structure for light displays and festival decorations. Its surroundings, particularly the concrete podium on which it sits and the pool in which it is located, urgently need upgrading.

Ha Bik-Chuen-Sentient Beings-3
Left: Pondering, Relief print, 31 x 31 cm, 1997. Right: Noble Lady, Relief print, 31 x 31 cm, 1997. Courtesy Ha Bik Chuen Archive.

Picasso was probably Ha’s biggest influence. In his collection there are countless books, articles and clippings about Picasso and his art, in particular material about Picasso’s interest in African art, bullfighting, ‘primitivism’ and tribal art.

Using Picasso’s cubist/African masks as inspiration, Ha was also attracted to 1960s and 70s “junk art” – populist sculpture made from anything at hand. Initially using bamboo for his modernist sculptures, later in life Ha developed his own stylised, figurative sculpture of hand-carved wooden figures and heads mounted on found objects, usually old metal, metallic kitchenware or bamboo, often standing on old boots. The results frequently verged on kitsch, but Ha is unique as the only Hong Kong artist whose work has been inspired by naive or outsider art: work created by people who unknowingly made art objects. These outsider artists often had medical or psychiatric conditions, were not trained in fine art, and were outside the established art scene.

Ha’s own background as a self-taught artist meant he had an affinity with outsider art alongside a genuine interest in the vernacular Cantonese ingenuity of improvised street design. His found-object sculptures have a different sensibility from the modernist Sailing in the Sun and demonstrate a conscious and deliberate change in interests, countering the prevailing modernist aesthetic of contemporary sculpture.

The great French artist Jean Dubuffet championed outsider art, and his comprehensive collection of outsider art, or Art Brut, can be seen in the Swiss city of Lausanne. Ha would have subscribed to Dubuffet’s belief that “true art is always found where it is the least expected, where no one thinks of it or mentions its name. Art hates to be hailed or recognised.”

Ha depicted Dubuffet’s views in a weeklong exhibition at the Hong Kong Arts Centre in 1981. He exhibited a series of photographs of sculptures that were naturally formed by the elements or unknowingly by human intervention. Reflecting on these photographs and displaying the confidence – indeed, the pride – of someone who had worked hard and was an acknowledged exhibiting artist, Ha said: “I have been everywhere, and seen everything, because I have lingered where others hurry past.”

That could be the maxim that signifies the Ha Bik Chuen Archive: don’t hurry, sit down and learn – with determination.

This essay, in part, was previously published in Ming Pao Weekly, October 14, 2017 (in Chinese, translated by Aulina Chan). It is also similar to the catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition Sailing Through Ha Bik Chuen’s Archive at Spring Workshop, October 14 to December 23, 2017, curated by John Batten.

夏碧泉的自學藝術
作者:約翰百德

我和幾位友人最近在籌備展覽,展品來自已故香港藝術家夏碧泉的收藏品,現在已於黃竹坑非牟利藝術空間Spring展出。夏氏在過去五十多年來收集了多項藝術展覽圖錄、藝術書籍、雜誌、剪報和其他印刷品的剪存。夏氏生前不時帶同妻兒一同參觀展覽,並為每個去過的展覽拍下照片。他的攝影存檔中便有數百箱照片、貼印索引照片和底片。這些收藏現稱為「夏碧泉資料庫」,內藏數千件獨立作品,是豐富的香港藝術史料。其收藏讓人一窺以往國際藝術潮流,亦是60至2000年代香港藝術面貌的專有紀錄。

夏氏的蝸居和天台位於蟬聯街,是土瓜灣十三街之一,曾經是存放整套藏品的地方。夏碧泉的家人在他離世後把所有東西保持原貌。這些物品現已裝入箱子,移送到一個位於火炭的工業單位,亞洲藝術文獻庫在這裡將進行一項由香港賽馬會資助、為期三年的計劃, 把有關資料分類,並展開研究。

夏氏1957年由中國來港,當時32歲,甫抵港便馬上走上全職藝術家的事業之路。他在1959年的早期日記中描述了達成這項目標的個人和財政困難。然而,他很快便報讀了社區藝術課程,並遇到很多志同道合的朋友,交換資料、組織藝術出行,並互相支持。但更重要的,是他非常專注地自學,還透過自學學懂攝影:「……在(購入首部相機後)的頭六個月,我進入了深度自學的階段,學習如何處理相機,令它成為我的延伸。用了一百多卷菲林後,我發現自己完全被這門有一部份是科學的藝術,有一部份是藝術的科學俘虜了。」

夏氏成為藝術家的方法,也是透過類似的自學過程,而他百折不撓地收集各式各樣與藝術相關的物料,然後細心研究,再輕鬆地把意念融入自己的作品中。在看過另一位香港藝術家張義的紙浮雕版畫後,夏氏希望掌握這種技巧。他不斷參考、努力閱讀、勤於實驗,終於做到了:把心目中想要的圖案刻成木模或模板、熟習為模板上色的技巧,然後學習小心把濕紙貼上模板,製成美麗的畫。他的畫有重覆出現的圖案,在他所有作品上都可找到:樹葉、太陽、月亮、木紋、漢字、裸體、靈感來自立體派藝術的臉孔,全部都以赭石、棕色、綠色和紅色等大自然的大地色彩實現。

夏氏六十年代最早的凸版印畫、七十年代浮的雕印畫都是製成聖誕咭,此舉其中一個目標是為求與藝術世界有所聯繫。這些早期的版畫印證其求進步的決心。他解釋道:

每年在聖誕節前我都花費大量時間,很用心設計及誠意地製作約一百份聖誕咭寄往海外和本港的藝術界朋友,希望得到其他藝術工作者的回應,互相交流蔚然成風,養成藝術創作興趣和風氣,可是回覆的訊息很少,正面讚賞的更少,實在令人失望。(《我創作版畫的歷程》 夏碧泉自序)

60、70年代,夏碧泉一家以製紙花和其他手工維生,在1976年,他成功達成做全職藝術家的目標,以出售版畫為主。1978年,他迎來重大突破:獲委任完成一個有名的雕塑項目,為時代廣場設計《在陽光中航行》,作品周圍圍繞著高聳入雲的住宅樓宇。

香港仔廣場為香港仔的中心,靠近室內街市、公共圖書館和小巴站,位置方便,成為受歡迎的休息區,特別受長者喜愛。最新奇的是,這一戶外空間從未改動,保留原本設計、物料和顏色(主要是棕色地磚,當時很受歡迎)。這是70年代環境設計東西交匯的一個例證,亦包含明顯的中式(或者更準確地,是中國風)建築細節,空間主調設定為一個格式化、四周圍起的庭院花園。

牌坊,即中式拱門,是放於廣場前後兩端。然而,是廣場左右延綿的綠瓦磚屋頂,最予人包圍之感。廣場的四方都建有迷你「亭子」,假的柱子和露台,讓整個地方有庭院的格局,但欠缺綠色植物裝飾。廣場中間的一池水非常顯眼,無庸置疑,這設計建築師考慮到風水 。現在,池內通常空無一物,噴泉也只不過偶爾兩三滴。池的中間,所謂「庭院」的中間,就放著夏氏的作品《在陽光中航行》。

這件雕塑作品直接參考香港仔與天、鄰近的海岸的親密關係,當中運用兩個其最愛的圖案:太陽和軀幹狀的結構。作品兩個直立的輪緣/翼板支撐起太陽,在某個角度看去,就像一個軀幹。「夏碧泉資料庫」有無數的雜誌剪報,都是描繪這件雕塑所含的軀幹形狀,是為複製其版畫和攝影作品。

但是,《在陽光中航行》是一個有趣的年代誤植,作品明顯是現代主義,體現中國新古典主義的庭園格局。表面上看似很怪, 因為雕塑與周圍環境格格不入,但可見地產發展商和建築師不同的考慮:保守設計相對現代主義。讓人意料之外的是,夏氏的抽象雕塑為廣場加添嚴肅味道,讓佔主導的中國風設計看起來不只是一股不協調的庸俗。

《在陽光中航行》在香港藝術歷史上佔重要一席位。夏氏的雕塑獨特而稀有,屬早期藝術家在公共空間所展現非現實主義的現代雕塑作品。香港公共雕塑製造一直都由擁技術性或工程技能的製造者所壟斷,而非有紮實藝術背景或鑒賞力的人,很多展示的雕塑大都讓人慘不忍睹。《在陽光中航行》打破了該種風氣。不過,夏氏雕塑多年來都用作懸掛燈飾和節日裝飾,作品的尊嚴被打擊。雕塑周圍,尤其是其座落的混凝土台和水池,需要儘快翻新。

西班牙藝術家畢加索可能是他最大的影響,而在夏氏的藏品中,有無數書籍、文章和剪報與畢加索和其作品相關,重點收藏的材料,關於畢加索對非洲藝術、鬥牛、「原始主義」、部落藝術與傳統的興趣。

夏氏以畢加索的立體派藝術/非洲面具作為靈感基礎, 並深受1960和1970年代的「垃圾藝術」吸引。「垃圾藝術」是以任何隨手可得的東西造出來的民粹主義雕塑。夏氏其後發展出自己風格的塑像:把手刻木塑像和頭像安裝於偶拾而來的物件上,通常都是舊金屬、金屬廚房用品,又或竹;很多時都由舊靴子作支架。成果很多時都處於媚俗的邊緣,但夏氏的獨特,在於他是香港唯一一位以單純或外行人藝術作靈感的藝術家。外行人藝術,就是在不知不覺中製成藝術品。這些外行人藝術家有時候是病人,又或有精神問題,並沒有接受過藝術訓練,而且身處建制或傳統藝壇以外。

這雖屬推測之說,但夏氏自身的背景,作為一個自學的藝術家,與外行藝術有所感應,他亦真心對民間廣東風格——湊合的街道設計深感興趣。他所找到的物件雕塑與現代主義《在陽光中航行》有不同的鑒賞力,顯示其對雕塑興趣有意識和刻意的改變。正因如此,夏氏找到的物件雕塑應獲嚴肅對待,因為從他作品集可見其藝術方向刻意轉向,與現代雕塑盛行的現代主義式美感分道揚鑣。

偉大的法國藝術家讓.杜布菲大力倡導行外人藝術,而他全面的行外人藝術收藏(或稱「原生藝術」)可以在瑞士的琉森看到。夏氏會同意杜布菲的信念:「真正的藝術永遠都在最出乎意料之外的地方找到,就在沒有人會想起或提起它名字的地方。藝術不喜歡被歌頌或表揚。」

夏氏於1981年在香港藝術中心舉辦了為期一星期的展覽,他確在展覽中刻劃了杜布菲的看法。他展出一系列雕塑作品的照片,這些雕塑由自然元素天然形成,又或在不經意下經人類界入形成。夏氏就這些照片反映時,顯示出一位久經努力的人,以及一位被公認的展覽藝術家的自信,他表示:「 我到過許多地方,也看過很多事物,因為我在其他人急趕經過的地方留下來。」

那可以是象徵夏碧泉獻庫的格言:不要急,坐下來,堅定地學習。


本文章部分曾於《明報周刊》(14/10/2017)刊登(刊登語言為中文,由Aulina Chan翻譯)。文章與展覽「揚帆漫遊夏碧泉文獻庫」目錄冊內文相似。展覽於Spring 工作室,2017年10月14日至2017年12月23日,由約翰百德策展。

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