Portraits from Behind / Gallery Exit / Hong Kong / Mar 14 – Jun 13, 2020 / Ilaria Maria Sala /
Throughout the summer of 2019, as Hong Kong was shaken by the most intense mass protests the city has ever witnessed, photography moved from ubiquitous to a scrutinised medium for recording reality. As thousands were arrested and charged with rioting, protesters started to ask onlookers not to take their portraits, to avoid being identified. At the same time, border officials decided to scrutinise what people saw, and asked to check the telephones of those who wanted to cross into mainland China, looking at their photos to determine if they had taken part in the protests. Social media posts appeared with participants’ faces blurred or cropped out. More frequently, people would take public photos that only showed people’s backs, making identification impossible.
Hong Kong artist Chow Chun Fai’s new solo exhibition at Gallery Exit, Portraits from Behind, moves along the same lines. On a series of small canvases that illustrate stills from the protests, no face is recognisable, with the exception of two self-portraits, in which Chow wears a surgical mask in case tear gas is deployed.
The format of the paintings contributes to a sense of crushed hope: the only large one is Hong Kong International Airport II, a realist scene from the occupation of the airport in August 2019, which measures 166 x 200 cm. Then, as the subjects depicted show an increase in violence and despair – people crouching behind open umbrellas in clouds of teargas, or in front of the fires that were consuming street barricades – the canvases become smaller. Those of the earlier protests measure 22 x 18 cm, while the ones dominated by flames are just 10 x 10 cm.
“I wanted to suppress my emotions by painting small canvases for the most violent images,” recalling how much has happened and how much it has impacted the city, says Chow.
There is an immediacy to the paintings that is progressively blurred out, just like the faces of the protesters, into a feeling of increasing sadness and of bearing witness to what was previously unthinkable. In some instances the photojournalistic side of the images brings to mind Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series, influenced by the stark, sensationalist photojournalism of Weegee, aka Arthur Fellig, who photographed street crime and murder in New York in the 1940s.
“As I did this series, I thought about masters a lot: Andy Warhol, yes, but in particular Hieronymus Bosch,” says Chow. “He had a very unusual representation of hell; how he describes fire is influenced by having witnessed a very big one in his hometown. When I saw the fires burning in Central and in Nathan Road at night, that is the kind of feeling it gave me: it was an artificial light, from the tear gas and the fires.” As the future of Hong Kong is brought into question more than ever before, Chow wonders whether this history “will have to be erased”. And if this should be the case, then the canvases he has painted will contribute to retaining the memory; as he says, “Maybe in this way these images will have a use”.
這些油畫的形式給人一種希望被踐踏的感覺：唯一的大型畫作是《香港國際機場II》是2019年8月佔領機場後的寫實場景，尺寸為166 x 200厘米。然後，當所描繪的主題顯示出升級的暴力和絕望，例如被催淚煙籠罩的人，蹲伏在敞開的雨傘後面，或者火光熊熊的街頭路障前面，畫布變小了。描繪早期示威活動的作品的尺寸為22 x 18厘米，而主題以火焰為主的尺寸僅為10 x 10厘米。