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Chow Chun Fai 周俊輝

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”.


2019年夏季,正當有史以來最強烈的群眾抗議震撼了香港,攝影技術從用來記錄現實無處不在的媒介,變成被仔細檢查。隨著成千上萬的人被捕並被指控暴動罪,示威者開始要求旁觀者不要拍攝他們的樣子,以免被人認出。同時,中港邊境官員決定細看人的所見所聞,並要求檢查有意進入中國人士的電話,看他們的照片以確定他們有否參與過示威活動。社交媒體帖子顯示的示威者臉部模糊或經過裁剪。更常見的是,人們會在拍攝公開照片時只露出背影,令識別身份變成不可能。

香港藝術家周俊輝在安全口畫廊的新個展「背影」沿同一方向構思。在一系列描繪示威活動中的靜止畫面的小畫布上,除了兩個自畫像外,沒有一張臉是認得出的。在自畫像中,周俊輝戴著外科口罩以應對可能發出的催淚煙。

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。

周俊輝說:「我想通過在小畫布上畫一些最暴力的影像,來壓抑自己的情緒。」他回憶起城中發生了多少事,和它所受到的影響。就像示威者的面孔一樣,這些繪畫逐漸變得模糊不清,變得愈來愈悲傷,並且感覺見證了以前不可想像的事物。某些影像的新聞攝影元素讓我想起了安地.華荷(Andy Warhol)的《死亡與災難》系列。這系列受到維加(Weegee)(又名亞瑟.費利希)在1940年代紐約拍攝街頭犯罪和謀殺案的搧情新聞攝影的影響。

「當我創作這個系列的時候,我想到了很多大師:安地.華荷,有,但尤其是希羅尼繆斯.博世(Hieronymus Bosch)。」周說。「他用一個非常不尋常的方法描繪地獄;他描述火焰的方法受到了他目擊家鄉大火的影響。當我看到夜間在中環和彌敦道的大火燃燒時,就有這種感覺。那是來自催淚煙和大火的人造光。」隨著香港的前途史無前例地受到質疑,周俊輝想知道這段歷史「是否會被抹掉」。若然如此,那麼他所畫的畫布將有助於保留記憶。正如他說的那樣:「也許這樣的話,這些影像會有用處。」

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