By John Batten /
Tobe Kan Kiu Sin graduated from the Hong Kong Art School/RMIT University with a fine arts degree in 2017. It was a fortuitous education: she had previously applied to but was not accepted into Hong Kong’s two other established fine arts undergraduate programmes, at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Baptist University’s Academy of Visual Arts. Undoubtedly, the art school’s programme was more suitable for her. Kan’s fellow students were not all fresh secondary school graduates, but similar to her: a bit more mature – she was born in 1984 – with some work experience and a thoughtful commitment to the self-financed study of visual art.
Initially enrolled in the sculpture stream of the course, she immediately moved to painting, where her mentors included Art School teacher and artist Ivy Ma and alumni artist Carol Lee Mei Kuen, with Lee curating Kan’s first solo exhibition, Peck-eyes Ravens, at the studio of CL3 Architects in 2018.
Kan grew up in Hong Kong’s Fanling and Kwun Tong districts and went to a “nice, not competitive” secondary school. Her first works were little handmade books and zines, cobbled together with a school friend using Photoshop. In 2005, she completed an associate degree in design at City University of Hong Kong, with a strong interest in animation and anime. Kan is a classically solid designer, with clean lines and a modernist approach.
The move from designer to visual artist is never smooth. It requires a mind shift. The difference is often stated as: a designer works for a client, whereas an artist works for themselves. The visual artist is challenged by her own limitations, a designer by the limitations of a client. The visual artist can make mistakes and has the chance to learn, experiment and set personal challenges. Kan has embraced being a designer by day and an artist at all other times.
After graduating she worked in design. Then, in 2011, she lived in Berlin for a year, working as an intern in two independent design studios. This experience was life defining. The design director at one of the studios encouraged Kan to explore her personal creativity. Her time in Berlin and travelling in Europe, visiting museums and experiencing other creative approaches, encouraged her to consider developing her non-design creativity. On her return to Hong Kong in 2012 she shared a studio in Fo Tan with her friend Cheryl Chow and artists Cheung Wai-man and Ho Sin Tung. This supportive, hard-working environment gave Kan an introduction to a working artists’ studio, and advice on technique and materials to develop her own painting and drawing. It also solidified her ambition to begin formal visual art studies. I remember seeing, at that time, the small, intimate landscape paintings she had done as a student exercise. They displayed a mature grasp of technique and an aesthetic sensitivity unusual for an undergraduate.
The first inkling of Kan developing her own style was her brave choice to draw on brown-grey-greenish, rough, industrial wrapping paper. This dense base material complements the ideas seen in Kan’s early drawings, Hand, hand and hands and Take over, overtake (both 2015), using masking tape, pencils and pastels – forerunners of the mixed-media drawings seen in her first solo exhibition. Personal loss, depression within her family and sadness underlie much of Kan’s current work – but little, actually, is revealed about herself. If you meet her, she dresses in severe black from head to toe, but is far from black-hearted: she exudes care and humanity. Likewise, her art: it is, for want of a genre, expressionist and deals with psychological ups and downs, an Edvard Munch approach, rather than a razor-blade-nihilist, dead-end one; her work is uplifting and thought-provoking. A series of large landscape and collage drawings, Mountain oh mountain I, II and III (2016), depict sad, prone sleeping or comatose figures lying, almost camouflaged, across mountain and deep valley landscape scenes. The physical landscape with figures blending into the surroundings serves as a psychological mind map that Kan explains in a poem she wrote as, “The suffering of others is like a mountain. / Never will you get over it. / Never will you bear it. / The most painful torture is one’s imagination of others’ trauma.”
I like that Kan is prepared to venture outside her chosen core media of painting and drawing into sculpture and previously video. Her mixed-media medicine cabinet, Myrrh (No medicine) (2016), contains bottles and mixtures of medicine, including anti-depression drugs, fabricated in paper with hand-written signage by Kan. But myrrh, the medicinal resin, given to the newly born Jesus by the Three Wise Men, when spoken, sounds like the Cantonese for “no medicine”. Kan uses this cross-linguistic absurdity to show a lighter approach in her art, and a Chinese appreciation of mental illness. Always tackling serious topics, Kan sums up her medicine cabinet: “I am not a Christian, just attracted by the homonym of myrrh in Chinese. There are too many incurable things in the world. If there is no medicine to heal, only self-help could reduce this suffering.”
Kan’s kinetic, sculptural lightboxes, housed in top-opening wooden boxes, were exhibited at her CL3 studio exhibition. She used a series of her own drawings transformed into moving images by a pre-cinema stroboscopic moving-image device known as a phenakistiscope. Le Mal, Double (and Hallucination) I/II/III (2018) can be viewed on her website: birds are flying, eyes are opening and closing, and the moon is viewed quickly changing through its phases. Her drawings and the resulting kinetic images are inspired by movies, including Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). They are a mystical metaphor for the artist’s age and the month and day of her mother’s birth.
Kan’s recent paintings take a new, evolving turn, using oil pastel on canvas, rather than paint, which she considers to be “too watery / too abstract”. These were exhibited at Gallery Exit in late 2019, and this year at In the course of Dancing, from Nightfall to Darkness, a group exhibition at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Kan takes reference photographs of trees and patchy undergrowth, close to her current studio and Chai Wan’s cemeteries and parks. These are transformed on canvas, reimagined, depicted as lone trees, pot plants or dense, verdant foliage – usually in a tight choice of colours or black and white. Hong Kong’s political and social unrest during the past 12 months is pervasive and Kan’s heartfelt reaction has affected these lush paintings. Her Awake series of paintings have been impressively scaled up in size and now shimmer in a tantalising tone: an iridescent aqua blue. However, her choice for paintings in beautiful shades of blue consciously reflects Hong Kong’s late summer 2019 protests, dominated by jets of blue-coloured, pepper-infused water fired from water cannon trucks aggressively used by police to disburse street protesters. This blue-dyed water stained everything it touched. Aimed directly at people, it stained blue the surrounding concrete streets, grass, trees and, notoriously, the Kowloon Mosque on Nathan Road.
Kan has quickly leapfrogged from raw student to accomplished artist developing impressive visual ideas of complexity, maturity, sensitivity and political nuance. Her painted forests of trees are metaphors for groups of Hong Kong protesters – covered in blue dye, eyes and skin stinging, their breath constricted, their voices pleading: “I can’t breathe.”
*This essay was written in the weeks after African-American George Floyd died on 25 May 2020 in Minneapolis, USA after a policeman held Floyd’s neck down with his knee as Floyd pleaded, “I can’t breathe.” His suffocation triggered protests across the USA and in major cities around the world. Similar criticism of overly aggressive, violent policing has dogged the police throughout the 2019-2020 protests in Hong Kong.
簡氏首次呈現了獨有風格的端倪，是在她勇敢地選擇了在咖啡／灰綠色的工業用粗燥包裝紙上作畫。這種密度大的基底材質襯托了簡氏在2015年的早期作品《手．手．手》和《Take over, overtake》上所表達的意念，她運用了縐紋膠紙、鉛筆和粉彩，是首次個展混合媒體畫作的先行作品。
簡氏近期的繪畫作品出現了新的演進轉變。她在畫布上以油粉彩而不是油彩作畫。因為她認為油彩「太水性／太抽象」。這些作品於2019年年底在Exit安全口 ，以及今年於香港藝術中心的聯展「愈 ‧ 夜舞」中展出。簡氏參考了樹木和零碎灌木的照片，這些影像來自她現時工作室附近和柴灣的墳場和公園。她把影像轉移到畫布上，經過重新想像，刻劃成孤立的樹木、盆栽又或是茂密青葱的葉子——通常只以有限的色彩或黑白兩色呈現。香港過去12個月經歷的政治和社會動盪遍地開花，而簡氏感同身受的回應也影響了這些草木畫作。她的《甦生》畫作系列把比例放大，令人印象難忘，現在以耀目誘人的調子表達：閃閃發亮的海藍色。然而，她在畫中選用的美麗藍色色調卻是刻意反映香港2019年夏末的連場示威。作品中的藍色，正是警方強攻驅散街上示威者時所用、加入了胡椒噴霧的水炮車藍色水柱。這種染藍的水沾污了所有被它碰過的東西。因為它對準人，周圍的石屎街道、草、樹，還有眾所周知，位於彌敦道的九龍清真寺，統統都被染成藍色。