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Bouie Choi 蔡鈺娟 

Crossing the nights Filling the lines / Grotto SKW / Mar 8 – Apr 1, 2023 /

With what she calls her “emotional landscapes”, Bouie Choi continues to portray Hong Kong as a city on fire, undergoing perpetual mutation. Large, watery flows of paint merge with finer architectural elements in dynamic, poetic compositions where human beings seem lost: in the shape of either tiny figures or giants, they keep searching for their place in a reality that has clearly outgrown them. Despite its apocalyptic atmosphere and the many clouds that threaten the city, the artist’s new solo exhibition at Grotto Fine Arts is not about despair; on the contrary, an extraordinary vitality arises from each painting. A time of change and uncertainty is also a time for potential regeneration.

Walking inside the exhibition space involves walking into darkness. The night seems to be total, just like during the blackout that happened in the western New Territories in June 2022. At that time, Bouie Choi was commuting back home, and was trapped in sudden obscurity. She filmed with her phone the uncanny images of the opaque city, and this incident inspired her works displayed at this exhibition. In the gallery, a few beams of light and scattered luminous points guide visitors’ footsteps. At the entrance, Choi has installed a white light projection system that marks the specific moment when light illuminates her working table in winter. Further on, a subtle shadow is cast on the floor of partition walls, traditional in Hong Kong apartments, featuring flowers. The other lights that accompany visitors are the multiple sparkling points painted on Choi’s wooden panels: eerie lights, headlights, torches, streetlights and all the flickering lights from the tiny windows of Hong Kong buildings. 

These lights not only guide the public in the exhibition space, but are also intended to guide the eyes inside each painted composition, while connecting and responding to each other through time and space. What kind of signals they send remains a mystery. 

Choi’s conception of a landscape is inspired by classical Chinese shan shui paintings, which reflect reality and cosmology as a whole. Like most traditional Chinese artists, Choi adopts what is often called “a floating perspective”, embracing and combining multiple standpoints. The triptych Crossing the nights Filling the lines (2022), for instance, features a giant man walking through the city and collecting streetlamps that he puts in the pocket of his raincoat. When he pulls them, their light seems to fade. At his feet, among sewers, canals and houses, workers are busy cutting trees and a shepherd is looking after his goats, all represented at various scales. From all sides, nature is spilling out, with water and forests invading the urban landscape. On the left, a sitting man perched on a railway bridge ponders these extraordinary phenomena, overlooking the oversized octopus that stretches across the panels. 

The large format of the triptych allows us to lose ourselves inside the composition, oblivious to the boundaries between reality and the painted landscape. Choi puts us in the same position as her figures, who can cross time as well as pedestrian gateways, being simultaneously inside, above and beneath the city while still surrounded by it. This permeability is perfectly expressed by the fluidity of colours that melt, overlap and dissolve. The circularity of the clouds also suggests a circularity of time, with urban ruins soon turning into forests, buildings into mountains or waterfalls, all in a continuous movement. The rhythm of her compositions evokes poetry, a balance between breathing spaces and highly dense areas.

The Bars by Bouie Choi, Acrylic on wood, 91.4 x 60,9 cm, 2022. Courtesy the artist and Grotto SKW.

Railings, balustrades, barriers, roadblocks – in urban spaces, our daily life is influenced by these elements of architecture that guide our bodies, conduct our movements and shape our mindset. Similarly, in Choi’s paintings, our gaze glides along the highways, arrested by buildings, oriented by the wind, constrained by lines. This theme of containment is pervasive throughout her work. The bars (2022) features a group of vertical pine trees that resemble the bars of a cage. A man crouching, barely visible, is hiding behind them, probably afraid of showing himself or to face social rules. Sometimes, she only paints limbs, the corresponding bodies having been perhaps swallowed by the landscape. In The red is too hot to stand (2022), it is the artist herself who is depicted as a giant, squeezed between two high buildings. We are left to wonder whether she is trying to hide herself or to fit in.

All the featured works are on wooden panels, most of them recycled from ancient floorboards or from the benches of an old church.  Choi favours this material because it requires a long preparation time and allows her to engage in a conversation with the matter itself and its history. Although photographs of scenes from the city are often the starting point of her compositions, Choi likes to begin a work by letting washed colours flow freely on her panel, following the veins of the wood, forming inspirational clouds, after which she will take over. In Dimpled (2023), for instance, the knots of the wooden panel are magnified by the paint and seem to open like scars. A lonely pig, standing on top of a rock that could represent the leftovers of civilisation, watches how flows of lava drip from a burning sky. The colour of the wood provides the dark brownish, autumnal hues that characterise Choi’s work. It also evokes the traditional Chinese landscapes painted on silk. Choi is mostly interested in negative spaces, and she often intervenes by erasing the paint to create her own shapes. For her detailed figures and outlines, she chose to work with black acrylic because of its precision and texture. Unlike ink, acrylic cannot be totally washed away and will resist, offering a strong contrast with the fluidity of her washed colour effects.

The Light Gatherer (Detail) by Bouie Choi, Acrylic on wood, 152 x 60,9 cm, 2022. Courtesy the artist and Grotto SKW.

Although influenced by Japanese manga and contemporary events, Choi maintains the essence of traditional shan shui paintings as depictions of landscapes from a very personal inner perspective. Her vision of Hong Kong is highly intimate, poetic and emotional. As a child, her dad had to face darkness at night to bring home water in a bucket from outside their village house. He is represented as the child in The light gatherer (2022) who tries to collect water, or a flow of light, running from a cliff. Just like him, as viewers, we collect from this bright exhibition the illuminating effects of poetry and imagination. 

Featured image: Crossing the night Filling the night by Bouie Choi, insallation view at Grotto SKW.

彼月此日 / Grotto SKW / 2023年3月8日至4月1日




Bouie Choi. Insallation view at Grotto SKW.



在城市空間中,我們的日常生活會受到欄杆、扶手、欄河、路障這些建築元素的影響,它們帶領我們的身體、引導我們的動作並塑造我們的心態。同樣地在蔡鈺娟的畫中,我們的目光會沿著高速公路而看,給建築物攔住,受風所引導,被線條束縛,這種控制的主題貫穿在她的作品之中。在《鐵扇骨》(2022年)中,垂直的松樹就像是籠子的圍欄,一個若隱若現的男人蹲在後面,似乎是害怕曝露自己或面對社會規則。風景吞沒了人的身體,所以有時她只會畫手腳。在《The red is too hot to stand》(2022年)中,藝術家將自己描繪成一個擠在兩座高樓之間的巨人,不知道她到底是想隱藏自己還是融入其中。



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