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Irene Chou

A World Within: The Art and Inspiration of Irene Chou / By Christie Lee /

There’s been a revival of interest the world over during the past few years in the works of female artists, and not least in Hong Kong. One manifestation of this is an exhibition at the Asia Society of Irene Chou, the Hong Kong- and later Brisbane-based artist who illuminated the Hong Kong art scene with her abstract ink paintings in the mid to late 20th century.

Born in Guangdong in 1919, Chou grew up in an artistic environment: her father was a writer, her mother a calligrapher. Lingnan School painter Zhao Shao’ang was her first ink-painting teacher but it wasn’t until 1966, when she began to study under Lui Shou-kwan, a Hong Kong artist who advocated that an artist should combine technique and individual expression in his or her art, that she began to find her own footing. From Zhao she learned technique; from Lui she learned to let go of imitation, a practice long revered in the traditional master-apprentice system, and find material from her own life experiences. All of this is on display at A World Within: The Art and Inspiration of Irene Chou, a riveting show spanning five spaces that maps out Chou’s transformation from a cautious painter who was just beginning to look within herself for inspiration to a restlessly creative spirit who aspired to become one with nature.

Concentration by Irene Chou, Ink and color on xuan paper, 179.7 x 95.5 cm, 1973.
Gift of the artist. Collection of University Museum and Gallery, University of Hong Kong. Courtesy Asia Society Hong Kong Center.

The exhibition begins in the 50s. In The Hand, two red gloves are collaged onto a painting with the words “My children, the back of my hand is flesh and so is the palm of my hand” in scraggly script. It is likely a reference to Chou’s attitude towards her two young children, who might have been clamouring for her attention. Next to this is Untitled (Mantis on Ladies Stocking), a painting depicting a spindly mantis perched on the side of a stocking. With the mantis representing intelligence and creativity in Chinese culture, the painting symbolises a sort of intellectual awakening for Chou.

These early paintings form an interesting contrast to the neighbouring space, which features paintings from the 60s to the 2000s. In the 60s, Chou let go of figuration and moved towards pure abstraction, reminiscent of western abstract expressionism. In The Fire (1960s), thick ribbons of fire appear to lash out at the rolling hills in the background and blend in with fiery sky in the top right-hand corner. Despite being painted in 2006, Life is a Many Splendored Thing No 5 reverts back to the collage method from her earlier years. The colours red and green (the artist’s name, Luyun, means “green cloud”) dominate, with words like “fire” and phrases like “all that I’ve wished for in life” and the artist’s Brisbane address collaged onto the composition. By juxtaposing paintings from these two different eras, the room highlights Chou’s transformation, and also sets the stage for the following rooms, where viewers come face to face with this transformation in a chronological display of her works. Even as Chou moved away from the Lingnan School’s focus on technique, there is no doubting her technical precision. In fact, her technique flourished, as shown by Concentration (1973), in which a series of curvilinear parallel lines in varying tones create an undulating form in the shape of an amorphous creature or the interior of a tree trunk.

Lui once said that every artist has a “gen” (root or origin) and a “qi” (energy). Whereas gen is fixed, qi is the vital energy powering the natural world; it’s in every living entity, whether trees, flowers, birds or humans. For the natural world to function properly, the qi needs to be in balance; humans, as part of the natural world, need to follow its rhythms and harmonise with other components of nature. This philosophy forms the basis for qigong, the ancient Chinese meditative practice Chou picked up in the 60s. It is also seen in her paintings. While Concentration and Experience in Meditation No 2 (undated) showcases her technical dexterity, the idea that humans are but one of many components in the universe is in all her paintings. Everywhere you look, Chou appears to be lifting shapes, forms and contours from nature. For the artist, nature isn’t only manifested in
what surrounds us, but also within us. It’s no coincidence that the convex form in Concentration looks so human and tree-like at the same time. The subject underlying all of Chou’s paintings isn’t the individual or nature per se, but both simultaneously. It is Nature with a capital ‘N’; the qi that runs in Chou also runs in her art and the trees and birds she sees. Chou needn’t paint herself into the painting, because she is the painting.

The Universe VI by Irene Chou,
Ink and mixed media on hemp paper 76 x 213 cm, c.1998.
Private collection. Courtesy Asia Society Hong Kong Center.

In As You Like It (1999), two vibrantly coloured discs are encircled by billowing lines. The image is reminiscent of pictures of the galaxy, with the two discs doubling as planets and the lines as the Milky Way. Yet the two discs are also reminiscent of human embryos shielded by a uterus wall. Beneath this image are three inscriptions, one of them reading “I hope that starting from tomorrow mankind can suddenly forget the words chou (hatred) and hen (regret), then it will truly be the Great Unity (utopia)”. Seeking this unity appears to be Chou’s greatest task in life.

As Chou’s style matured, her paintings also became more and more dynamic. Purple Universe (1996) is a kaleidoscopic vision featuring swirling brushstrokes, flecks of paint, lines reminiscent of hairline cracks on a ceramic vessel, a perfect sphere. No sooner have you rested your eyes on one element than your attention is pulled away to another. Everything is in perpetual motion. The qi eternally ebbs and flows, as if only in change can the coalescence between the human and his or her surroundings be achieved.

Life is a Many Splendored Thing V by Irene Chou,
Ink, color and acrylic on canvas, 100 x 211 cm, 2006.
Reverie Collection. Private collection. Courtesy Asia Society Hong Kong Center.

Chou does place one element above all else: creativity. Despite its range of colours, Purple Universe has a focal point: the three imposing loops, created by a single brushstroke, at the centre of the piece. There’s something similar in The Universe VI (1997), where a thick brushstroke sweeps in a horizontal motion across the upper half of the long composition. Behind is a depiction of a landscape recalling a traditional Chinese hand scroll. In Ink Painting (Undated), it takes the form of a massive quarter note-like shape. In all three paintings, the almighty stroke appears to anchor the various elements. If the brush is an artist’s greatest tool, then these fearless strokes represent an artist’s creative spirit.

When we think of ink painting, we think of tradition and heritage, and that unless we trawl through thousands of years of Chinese art,
history and philosophy, we’ll never be able to truly understand it. While in some ways that is true, Chou’s paintings are as much about a woman’s quest to record and work through the tremors in her life with her brush and paper – and the joy, for both the artist and the viewer, that results when someone is given the freedom to express his or her individuality.

John Currin

Gagosian / Hong Kong / Nov 26 – Feb 29 / Christie Lee /

“There is a kind of distortion that happens with adoration,” says John Currin. I’m not sure that’s true at the artist’s first show at Gagosian Hong Kong. Despite the blooming cheeks, perfect brows, rosy lips and impeccable curls, the artist’s portraits are more kooky than sweet. For one thing, the women are smiling with teeth. Showing the teeth used to be a breach of etiquette for the upper class—usually the only class who could afford the time to sit for formal portraits before the modern era. Whereas classical portraits usually feature solemn sitters, the women in Currin’s portraits have either delirious or vacant expressions. One would never expect a half-naked woman who is looking sideways out the frame to pull a sort of semi-insane smile. Nor would one expect a woman decked in a red robe in the style of a saint to be grinning stupidly. In The Philosopher, a woman decked in a brownish-grey trench coat and a bandana holds a wine bottle in one hand while clutching a blue glass with the other. She has a wicker basket hoisted high on her back, and a teeth-baring grin dominates her face. It is reminiscent of a Mao-era propaganda poster. 

In Ballade, what looks to be a tender moment—featuring a woman sitting in front of a piano in a pensive mood—is subverted by the flatness of the image. Is Currin aiming for satire? A commentary on mannerism? A clue, perhaps, lies in the artist’s unabashed weaving together of pornographic and religious imagery. And yet, while the skull in Happy Magdalene hints at a memento mori, it doesn’t bear any of the dark, sombre hues that usually characterise the genre. The symbolism doesn’t hold. Currin’s paintings are as slippery as ever.

There is also an eerie lightness to all of Currin’s portraits, from the translucent vessels in Happy Magdalene and Shelley to vacant smiles. It’s as if every one of them could use an additional layer of vanish. They feel oddly empty, as if the artist has so much more to say but somehow barred himself from doing so. They appear to be part caricature, part mid-20th century ad and part art commentary, and yet simultaneously none of them. There is little way of accessing them. It’s clear that Currin is a skilful painter. But that’s all what one can glean from his opaque art: his technical skills and his knowledge of art history. 

Currin’s paintings aren’t about the male gaze, nor are they satirical spins on mannerism. Instead they pose the question: how much of a person can you really extract from a picture? Naturally, Currin wasn’t the first painter to question the validity of portraiture. Francis Bacon urged a generation of gallery-goers to look past the surface into the pain, violence and isolation that haunted post-war Britain; and Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits critique the idea of femininity, positioning it as a social construct. Currin’s portraits question the limitations of portrait painting itself: how do you distill something as multi-faceted as a human being into a 60- by 45-centimetre painting? 

Sebastian Fagerlund

Höstsonaten / Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre / Hong Kong / Oct 18–19, 2019 / Ernest Wan /

Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata, 1978) made its way to the operatic stage two years ago, when a two-act opera of the same title, with a screenplay-turned-libretto by Gunilla Hemming and a score for solo singers, choir and full orchestra by Sebastian Fagerlund – both Finns who regularly work in the Swedish language – was produced in Helsinki. This production was recently presented in Hong Kong by the government’s World Cultures Festival, of which this year’s theme was The Nordics. On this occasion, the music was performed by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, the Malmö Opera Chorus and a cast of Scandinavian soloists, under the leadership of Swedish conductor Patrik Ringborg.

The story tells of the unhappy reunion between Eva, who lives with her husband Viktor in his vicarage, and her visiting mother Charlotte, a successful touring pianist whom she has not seen for seven years. Charlotte’s egotistical pursuits have resulted in a long-standing neglect of Eva, whose love for her mother has gradually turned into a hatred that is now finally vented for the first time.

Soprano Erika Sunnegårdh as Eva, mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant as Charlotte and the Malmö Opera Chorus as the latter’s audience in Höstsonaten. Courtesy Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

The set, designed by Frenchman Stéphane Braunschweig, makes full use of the space on the stage, with the vastness of the expanse accentuating the solitude of the few characters and their isolation from one another. The downstage area represents the living space of the house, where most of the action takes place. At the back are three compartments, one of which is a small room occupied by Helena, Eva’s disabled younger sister who, to Charlotte’s surprise, is no longer institutionalised but cared for in this house. Directly above it is another small room, where Charlotte’s late lover Leonardo occasionally appears. Both of these rooms suggest Charlotte’s repressed memories that continue to haunt her. The spacious compartment upstage accommodates the chorus, “an extension of Charlotte’s ego”, as the composer himself puts it, the always approving concert audience that is the source of her self-esteem and largely defines who she is.

In most of this two-hour opera, the characters sing arioso that is not especially melodious or memorable, until Helena bursts into florid, passionate song towards the very end, an indication that, her physical handicap notwithstanding, she is the only one who is not “emotionally crippled” (as Eva says of Charlotte). Elsewhere Fagerlund clearly focuses more on the orchestra, which, despite the sometimes busy activity
on a surface level, typically produces enthralling sustained sonorities, now forceful, now subtly colourful, that either evoke general moods or illustrate the characters’ states of mind, rather than their outward behaviour or actions. Indeed, nothing much happens dramatically in the work, the argument between mother and daughter being just about the only event in it. While this does not automatically mean ineffective opera, splitting this row across two acts, with the second of these resuming just where the first has left off, certainly blunts the inexorability – so powerful in Bergman’s film – with which past wounds are torn open and left to bleed.

Jaffa Lam

By Caroline Ha Thuc /

A socially engaged artist, Jaffa Lam (b.1973) has always valued the process of creation more than finished works. For more than a decade she has been collaborating with an association of former workers in the Hong Kong textile industry, creating collective sculptures and art installations that have mostly been exhibited in public spaces. She mainly works with recycled materials: wood and trees from building sites, fabric from old umbrellas and natural elements found at the sites where she works. She treasures any form of craftsmanship and always tries to connect with local know-how. Inspired by her early training as a classical Chinese painter, she retains the poetic spirit of this tradition while anchoring her work within today’s social and political fabric. A free thinker, she maintains some distance from the art market, inviting the audience to resist a cold, efficient, money-driven system that tends to invade everybody’s lives.

Caroline Ha Thuc: You began your art practice as a sculptor, working with wood from crates and other recycled materials, and engaging socially with local communities. Now it seems you want to expand your practice to performing arts and theatre. What was your first experience with the stage and why did you start working in theatre? Jaffa Lam: Whenever I move on during my art practice, following my brush as if I were wandering in my early Chinese landscape paintings remains a key creative direction for all my installations. What is amazing with Chinese landscapes is that you can create paths to walk, trees to hide or kiosks as shelters to take a rest and enjoy the scene. For me, walking in my installation is an experience of travelling in such a landscape. The elements I add reflect the completeness and richness of the journey, and do not necessarily nurture understanding: instead, they enlarge imagination, just as if you were walking inside a huge, windy, soft bag. 

I actually don’t really enjoy the stage in the theatre, since it is a limited space, but I am also curious about and appreciate its limitations. Somehow, it bears connections with a landscape drawn on rectangular rice paper.

As for the body movements and sounds that I integrate into my work, they also respond to a necessity. I have a lot of memories about sound, maybe because sound is our first and probably last contact with the world. Sound comes out naturally when I imagine how I walk in my landscape, and then the body moves naturally with it.

CHT: Could you tell us about your experience with Wandering in the Dream (2018), a multimedia work involving a recording of Sichuan Opera played in a garden?
JL: The inspiration came from a feeling of empathy after visiting this giant empty heritage house, Duanjia Dayuanzi in Guang’an, Sichuan; the daughter of the owner only could stay on a little upper floor with a very tiny window. 

It reminded me of the classical story The Peony Pavilion, in which a young lady dreams of a love affair and later dies because of it. I think the original story is not that romantic: the girl was probably so sick of being trapped there that she began to develop illusions. Dreams and reality entwine tragically.

Weaving Rock by Jaffa Lam. Courtesy the artist.

CHT: You have rewritten this classical story focusing on this feeling of confinement and mental illness. For you, what does this woman embody in our contemporary society? 
JL: In a broad sense, this metaphorical situation applies to all minorities or to anyone whose views do not match the current standard of morality. Rewriting an existing story means above all questioning. Many tales could be updated to better reflect today’s society. 

Even the idea of evil has changed over time. What has not changed is that thereare still people who are marginalised or judged as evil just because they are different from others. This is a strong obstacle to creativity, too: many young people refrain for fear of being outcasts if they do something too creative and too original. 

Weaving Rock by Jaffa Lam. Courtesy the artist.

CHT: People could either sit and listen to the recording or wander freely in the garden as if they were taking part in the installation. There are many vessels containing water and reflecting the sky: is this a reference to life as an illusion?
JL:  Yes, that’s right. When you walk on pebbles that come from the ancient river, you reach a part of history that is older than the house itself. 

The water tanks connect also to another, more recent part of history. I collected them from various families’ trash stores, where people discarded them when a water pipe was installed in the village. The reflection of the sky in the water reminds us of the illusion of the distance of things, when you feel things are closer just because you watch their mirror image. Yet they all embody channels to reach back in time, and the work invites people to enter this time tunnel through these different media.

CHT: For Weaving Rock (2019), you installed a loom and a rock into a temple in mainland China, alluding to the legend of the creation of Earth and the beginning of silk production in the country. The fabric you exhibited was the last piece woven before this type of craftsmanship was banned during the Cultural Revolution: why do you try to reconnect ancient tales with contemporary history?
JL: I believe that manual work allows people to be smarter. If you think back to the evolution of human beings, you can see how our ancestors progresively liberated their hands, not just surviving and making functional tools but also creating. During the Cultural Revolution, arts and crafts were forbidden precisely to prevent people from thinking. I am using this tale to connect back to ancient times and invite the villagers to create again. It worked as a kind of enlightenment: they suddenly felt that they possessed a treasure they need to protect.

CHT: How did you engage with the local population, and why is it so essential for you to immerse yourself in the local?
JL: There are so many forms of social art that can still be explored. I also wonder why I have been doing social art for so many years since I am a relatively shy person. Maybe I am a collector of stories.

For me, art is a tool to explore the world. Recently I’ve focused more on the inner self, and making art is not so important. 

This is why I can leave the works I create on the site of their creation: in the case of this piece, I left the rock in the temple. What matters is the encounter with the local people, the experience of making the work in specific sites.

CHT: This weaving rock seems to represent a pillar of tradition, even though you transformed it with UV light so that its form became contemporary. Does it embody the persistence of tradition?
JL: Yes, exactly. There is a very famous rock cave nearby, dating back more than 2,000 years. I chose a smaller piece from the mountain, whose size approximately coincides with my size when I sit in the temple. According to the local people, every rock there could be an ancient god. This is also why I used it and convinced them it is a weaving rock, so that they would be convinced they need to go back to the art of weaving. I hope that people believe in the power of nature and not in any other form of authority.

CHT: The gesture of weaving has always been present in your work, starting from your early pieces where you stitched recycled material together. How does this gesture resonate for you?
JL: The first craft I learned was embroidery. My neighbours taught it to me when I was a kid living in China. I only drew later, when I was in school. Maybe this is why I keep working with soft material: I come back to thread and needles naturally. I guess that in the end the inner power of the tiny thread will overcome and cover the giant rock. This might also be a metaphor for civilisation.

Wondering Dream by Jaffa Lam. Courtesy the artist.

CHT: You work with basic elements, such as water, stones and even air through the diffusion of sound: is this a way to reconnect with nature?JL: Yes, water, stone, air and of course wood are elements I like, maybe because I grew up in a rural town, very close to nature. I used to rest in the melon field, climb up the trees, sleep with dogs in dry hay and play with rocks around the riverbank. In contrast, I have never been interested in fire. When I was a kid, I lived near the hospital where my mother worked as a doctor. I remember seeing people burnt all over from a medical factory explosion. Fire is so scary. For me, it means destruction.

CHT: Why do you feel it might still be relevant today to draw from tradition, and especially traditional Chinese culture?
JL: I cannot forget the place and life I lived, compared to the urban life I had later and still have. I always remember the old feeling, even if I know that Fuding, the little town I come from in Fujian province, is not the same any more. I still dream a lot about it but never go back, being afraid of destroying this dream.

We should not forget the past: what we see today are still traditions but covered with new packaging. I am a traditional person and I enjoy all the crafts. How to transform these cross-generational traditions into contemporary forms, and exploring people today’s attachment to them, is my long-term topic of study. It is a form of meditation, like going back to the temple of the soul. Of course, since I come from China, I cannot avoid
traditional Chinese culture, which is my cocoon. I don’t know what I could do without art, and I have the same feeling with traditional Chinese culture.

CHT: You have been working a lot recently at heritage sites such as the Sam Tung Uk Museum, a typical Hakka walled house in Hong Kong. Do you feel history tends to be forgotten?
JL: Yes, people either forget or vulgarise history. In this house, the couplets [lines of poetry that are hung on the sides of the doors] have disappeared. Besides, the lantern should never have been installed in the middle of the hall because it covers the very important family horizontal board, which was an award from the emperor. Government officers still ignore these cultural customs. I cannot change them but at least I can participate in projects that allow history to be told. For this exhibition, I took down the lamp and installed an LED couplet in the main hall. 

Sam Tung Uk, Performance. Courtesy the artist.

CHT: Last summer, with Re-Rub Universal Declaration of Human Rights, you organised a collective performance involving women revealing by frottage the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Who were these women?
JL: This was not just a women’s activity; it just happened that more women showed up. This public performance aimed at releasing people’s anxiety, anger, disappointment, fear and regret that originate from our chaotic social situation. 

CHT: Working with women has always been an important part of your practice, especially former workers. Is this still a priority? 
JL: Yes. I recently made a white “housewives” flag for Manifesta 12’s flag project Across the Border, initiated by Filippo Minelli in Palermo [Sicily]. I chose white because it means surrender, but also because although invisible, it stands out among all the colourful flags. And I am still very much involved with the Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association. 

CHT: To which extent do you feel that your art practice is or will be impacted by recent events in Hong Kong?
JL: This is hard to say now. A few years back, I made the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the first of July march. Singing under the Moon for Today and Tomorrow, exhibited at Taipei MOCA 2015, was inspired by the 2014 Umbrella Movement. This time I cannot work too fast as the issue is more complicated. My art cannot respond quickly to events: it is more about deep reflection and observation. I am concerned with the emotional impact of events and I am focused on healing; I cannot change the world as much as an activist or a politician. I try to give people a space free from judgement, boundless and open.

Ed van der Elsken

Hong Kong the Way It Was / By Christina Ko /

As the city’s future hangs in the balance, historically and technically fascinating photos taken by Ed van der Elsken in 1959-60 transport viewers to Hong Kong’s past.

The subject of F11 Foto Museum’s fifth-anniversary exhibition, Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken’s photos of Hong Kong taken around 1959-60, has by coincidence or fate been tied to several important dates in the city’s democratic history.

Hong Kong the Way It Was showcases familiar Hong Kong scenes through warm yet unfamiliar eyes. Van der Elsken was on a 13-month tour of the world when he stopped in the colony for three weeks, falling for this “prettiest of harbour cities”, as he termed it, though he showed but a few of the photographs publicly for almost three decades.

Blake Pier near Hong Kong Island’s Central District was the arrival and 
departure point for passengers and crews of the ocean-going ships anchored in mid-harbour. They would order a “walla walla”, a small motorboat, to take them to and from the shore. Courtesy F11 Foto Museum.

In 1989, spurred by the events of Tiananmen Square, he dug up the film negatives – which had never been printed – and disappeared into his darkroom for over a month, despite having been diagnosed with a terminal disease the year before.

Van der Elsken, whose photos are part of major public and private collections around the world, died the following year; we do not know if it was by design or not that the compilation of his Hong Kong images was released in book form in 1997, the year of the city’s handover.

We do, however, know that the F11’s founder and the current owner of the photos, Douglas So, could not have predicted Hong Kong’s political tumult when he purchased the collection five years ago, around the time F11 was established. Nor could he have known it when he decided to put this exhibition together a year ago.

“[Though] we were unable to foresee the current events, as we curated the show we became aware that even 60 years ago, Hong Kong faced many issues we are facing today, including poverty, identity and overcrowded living conditions,” says So. “We have discovered that both locals and foreigners are equally interested in the exhibition. The current social climate has made it more difficult to visit museums, but we are confident that the exhibition will continue to attract visitors to see Ed’s Hong Kong – the first time such prints, made by the photographer himself a year before his passing, have ever been shown anywhere in the world as a complete set.”

Playground near resettlement flat in Kowloon. Courtesy F11 Foto Museum.

They feature tropes that have become iconic for Hong Kong, including the silhouette of a junk boat – now the logo for Hong Kong’s tourism board – a tram and a street-side newsstand, although the one in Van der Elsken’s work is manned by a young woman in a tea-length dress with a baby strapped to her back. Other pictures capture the idiosyncrasies of the era, like a pair of young children toting buckets of water, a suited expat travelling by rickshaw or a worker balancing dozens of teapots on two ends of a bamboo pole over his shoulder.

All of these images are rendered in Van der Elsken’s signature gritty, paradoxically romantic black-and-white style. He was not purely a point-and-capture man – he interacted with his subjects, even occasionally aggravating them, such as when he photographed the legs of seated women in short dresses at the races, the tops of their pantyhose peeking from the side slits of their fitted skirts. A policeman who sought to stop him became an unwitting subject, too. 

“Technically speaking, Ed was not the photographer who waited for the perfect moment to appear; [he was one] who initiated it,” says So. “He was not a photojournalist but a passionate photographer who captured his favourite subjects, such as ladies in cheongsams, rickshaw pullers and strange colonial architecture. Through his lens, we see a Hong Kong without cosmetics, with the daily lives and struggles of ordinary people. This collection embodies precious memories of Hong Kong during an era of enormous social change.”

So’s own favourite photo is one of Blake’s Pier, a perfect example of a shot that juxtaposes then and now in the viewer’s imagination, and one likely to elicit an emotional reaction for people familiar with its current incarnation. “This is one of my favourite images because the over-a-century-old structure was iconic and full of history, which also caught the eye of Ed. Blake’s Pier is still with us now in Stanley, standing side by side with another historical building, Murray House, which was also preserved and relocated brick by brick,” he says.

In curating the collection, which is displayed over F11’s three floors, care and consideration have clearly been taken to create a journey that appeals to tourists, art aficionados and nostalgic locals alike. A splashy institutional show with a big-name artist this is not – instead, it features an emotionally engaging, historically fascinating oeuvre that sheds as much light on the photographer’s style as it does on the Hong Kong of the time.

Little touches loan the exhibition an intimacy rarely seen in museum shows (F11, a restored building in residential Happy Valley, isn’t exactly the expansive Hong Kong Museum of Art or M+, and nor is it trying to be). At the door, while buying tickets, visitors can pick up White Rabbit sweets, chosen because they’re local and were popular with children in the past. And next to certain photos are boxes mounted on the wall emitting the smells that made the Fragrant Harbour so very fragrant, such as salted fish or black-bean paste. 

So has been careful to ensure the show also pays adequate homage to the man behind the lens. F11 found and purchased all remaining first-edition copies of Hong Kong in circulation and offered all but one of them for sale, at a loss – all of them, unsurprisingly, have been sold. The other copy is on display at the museum, and alongside it some photos are mounted back to front, so viewers can see instead the notes that the photographer made on the backs of his prints.

From Tiger Balm Garden – In The Journey to the West, one of the
pilgrims‘ (Monkey, Pigsy, Monk and Xuan Zhuang) greatest temptations/
hurdles was the Spider Spirits. Through years of meditation, the Spider Spirits were able to assume the form of women. Halfway into their journey to the west, the pilgrims came upon a village where Monk begged for food. There was only women in the village. The Spider Spirits (disguised as women) were excited at the sight of the Monk and immediately took him home for dinner. What we see in Ed’s picture is this exact moment where the Spider Spirits took Monk, as eating a Monk would make them immortal. Courtesy F11 Foto Museum

“Ed was one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century,” says So. “His publications, including Love on the Left Bank, Jazz and Sweet Life, are among the classics that influenced important photographers such as Araki, Nan Goldin and Tim Walker.”

On the top floor is an image of Van der Elsken, accompanied by the following quote, which in these trying times is sobering in its optimism: “Talking about change: let us hope that after 1997, the free people of Hong Kong will be of some influence in changing the rigidity of the colossus China that is going to swallow it. Who knows whether tiny Hong Kong, its people used to freedom, to individualism, will start an avalanche of liberalisation in the People’s Republic of China. Why not? In these last years of the 20th century, freedom is in the air!”

Liz Lau

Ceramics maker and LUMP Studio owner Liz Lau talks about three works by local artists in her collection.

Chris Lo Sze Lim became my ceramics teacher when I moved back to Hong Kong from London in 2015. He was a generous and invaluable advisor when I was planning the opening of my own workshop, LUMP Studio, and we have worked closely since then on the Hong Kong Dragon Kiln Concern Group, which is dedicated to the preservation of an 80-year-old, 20-metre-long outdoor ceramic kiln in Tuen Mun.

I love Chris’s works because they are full of the ebb and flow of emotion. This piece was made for his last solo exhibition in Hong Kong, in 2016. It tells a beautiful, bittersweet story of Ah Bo the stuffed koala bear. Chris used to take Ah Bo everywhere and loved pressing his face into its round head. One day, more tired and stressed then usual, his mom was tidying around the house when she found Ah Bo under the couch. Frustrated by the mess, she ripped Ah Bo’s head clean off its body, right in front of Chris. Chris was devastated, burst into tears and stayed mad at his mom all afternoon. That night, before going to bed, Chris’s mom returned Ah Bo to him, the head already sewn back on. His mom’s gesture filled Chris with sorrow. While Ah Bo and his mom are both now gone, Chris remembers his childhood and commemorates his mom’s hard life with a ceramic rendition of Ah Bo. Each thread connecting the head to the body is a symbol of his mom’s love for him. Given Ah Bo’s tough history, I make sure ceramic Ah Bo always has pride of place in a home. He hangs in my hallway, across from my bedroom, a constant reminder that family relationships are complicated.

Ah Bo the Koala by Chris Lo Sze Lim, Stoneware, found wall-mounted coat rack (wood, iron), 
38 x 60 cm. Courtesy the artist and Liz Lau.

I met Yeung Yuk Kan last year at my studio. Now residing in the Netherlands, she was back in her hometown of Hong Kong for a visit, and it was my great pleasure to meet her and learn more about the process of this quiet, self-effacing artist. It is exceedingly hard to buy her works in Hong Kong, but a handful of pieces were available at the recent opening of the bookshop in the newly renovated Hong Kong Museum of Art in Tsim Sha Tsui. My eyes locked in on one and I snapped it up immediately.

Since I love making ceramics, I find myself fascinated by artists’ techniques and methods. I love Yeung’s works because her process is complex and layered but the result is thin and light – a wonderful juxtaposition. It’s a bit hard to describe her process with words, but it goes something like this. Yeung rolls out almost paper-thin sheets of porcelain and assembles them like a seamstress while the clay is slightly dry but still pliable. Her forms are soft and organic, seams are sometimes left partially open and she pushes and pulls on the clay to create warping and distortion. Instead of a straight cylinder, the result is interesting ripples and waves when you look at it from different angles. Yeung then starts on the surface decoration, crossing the boundary into Chinese calligraphy and etching. She covers pieces of paper with black slip (liquid clay) and then uses a pencil to write or etch a Chinese poetry into the dark ink. Before the slip dries, she cuts the lines of poem into long, vertical strips, and then “prints” them – literally, sticks them – onto the outside of the vase. As the porcelain is quite dry by now, it soaks up the black slip. The paper strips are then removed, and wherever these strips were applied the porcelain become jet black – except where the poem was etched, where the bright white porcelain comes through. In the case of this vase, Yeung then added pink slip and some additional decoration to the inside of the vase before taking it to fire.

Vase by Yeung Yuk Kan, Porcelain, 12 x 22 cm. Courtesy the artist and Liz Lau.

Can a spoon be art? Not some old antique spoon that goes into a display case or stays wrapped up in storage, but one that I use every day for my soup and cereal and congee, that was only made at the beginning of 2019? This spoon by Hikki Lau Wai Shan, a ceramic artist who is also the studio manager at LUMP, is shaped by hand and with simple pottery tools. Its form is a cross between a Chinese ceramic spoon and the straighter stainless steel version, slightly decorative but nonetheless highly functional.

It might seem weird that I choose to put something as mundane as a ceramic spoon into my list of favourite works I’ve collected. But that’s really what I think it is. In fact, I would say that in my home, most of my art works are found in my kitchen cupboard. It is filled to the brim with unique, one-off pieces of varying shapes and sizes by artists from Hong Kong and abroad.

Spoons by Hikki Lau, Porcelain, 4.5 x 18 cm. Courtesy the artist and Liz Lau.

I get to pull some of them out whenever we have company for dinner, and I try my best to pair the food and the tableware. But my favourite pieces are the ones I use and touch and sip from every day: a coffee tumbler made by a Japanese ceramic artist friend, a wheel-thrown bowl by my partner that I eat my instant noodles in, and this wonderful, quirky spoon. It’s art that is just a partof my day-to-day life, a unique privilege for those of us who are partial to collecting ceramics.

Community arts: Supporting or Subverting the Establishment?

By Samson Wong /

“Is [sic] the community arts becoming too close to the establishment?” my fellow contributor Queenie Liu asked me during the writers’ panel at the launch of Art Readers on Art – Hong Kong (I), a new bilingual volume by seven local artists and scholars. All seven were in attendance, including art historian Linda Lai Chiu Han and artist Ho Siu Kee. Liu’s chapter is on political art, while mine looks at the experiential side of participation in community art, defined here as a practice in which the art-making process aims to help people with their wellbeing – two very different artistic approaches to social intervention. The question presupposes a suspicion of the state that current applies in Hong Kong but is certainly not limited to it.

Liu’s observation, though pointed, is commonly put to community artists. The argument has been most strongly formulated by art historian Claire Bishop, one of community art’s harshest critics. She described the UK’s community art movement between 1970s to 1980s as simply “an agitational force campaigning for social justice [that later] became a harmless branch of the welfare state” (Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011, 2012). British community artist Malcolm Dickson explained this as a struggle where “the balance of power between funders and practitioners was broken” (Art with People, 1995).

In Hong Kong, the community arts can and do occur without government or corporate support, but it’s difficult in a city with such competition for physical and mental space. At the same time, due to the practice having shared goals with the social welfare and education sectors, and the need to have stable locations for steady participation, the community arts has thrived on partnerships with community centres, rehabilitation facilities and schools.

A self-portrait greeting and exchange activity with artists with disabilities.
Courtesy i-dArt.

Numerous branches of the government support the arts. It recently established the $250 million Arts Development Fund for Persons with Disabilities. The Leisure and Cultural Services Department began work in the community as early as 2000, and gradually steered the strategies of the Audience Building Office and Art Promotion Office from audience development to facilitating artistic participation in communities. In addition, the Labour and Welfare Bureau, the Home Affairs Bureau, the Education Bureau and the Social Welfare Department have also been incorporating the arts into various projects for at least 10 years.

The community arts certainly work closely with the establishment. In an environment where schooling often resembles job training more than education, and where social services are sometimes more remedial than empowering, the community arts falls easily into the role of pacification of social ills rather than developing holistic personhood and civic participation.

Yet after struggling through a similar period in the 1990s, the UK’s community arts movement eventually established its footing, with dozens of its organisations and practitioners now sought after internationally for their expertise in the empowerment of underprivileged communities and cultural development through the arts.

The question is whether the community arts in Hong Kong can likewise uphold their values and serve the people. In 2013, during the administration of former chief executive CY Leung, the Hong Kong Our Home fund was established. Carefully navigating the guidelines, numerous community-art practitioners, including myself, applied for its funding using ambiguous wording to eke out maximum creative freedom. By keeping the project scale and final product commitment small, my project was able to create a space for a group of children of various ethnicities in Yuen Long to collaborate and express their feelings and thoughts about the concept of home.

Older adults 60 to 90 year-old from 10 districts participate in the Jockey Club ‘Community Remixing’ Music Project to compose, record and perform original pieces, 2019. Courtesy Centre for Community Cultural Development.

One might argue that such projects pacified people’s criticism of poor governance by becoming its propaganda material. But at the same time, such projects nurtured a sense of belonging and complicated simple prejudices, both essential elements in building communities and identities. This city is certainly at a political crossroads when it comes to carving out an environment for local cultural expression. In the messy work of project organisation, local cultural practitioners and administrators are finding creative ways to skirt bureaucratic and ideological hurdles.

At the book launch panel, artist and Ho Siu Kei said that he values artists striving to be outside the establishment, where new perspectives and insights may be gained. But there are countless positions in relation to the establishment, and one is never simply inside or outside it. There has always been a drive for the community arts to work with the voiceless; this includes single mothers, children on the autism spectrum, domestic workers and sometimes even successful executives or government officials who are consumed by their demanding jobs. If we were to apply a similar level of observation, openness and suspension of judgment to embracing the community-arts experience and each other’s stories, like when we enter a strange new exhibition, what new perspective would we find?

Here is what I have found: participants imagine and voice counter-narratives, often with naive, unpolished, unapologetic clarity, at times yearning for a better school life, the freedom to love and to be oneself, neighbourhood solidarity and intergenerational connection. They don’t only express these desires, but also put them into practice with collaborations that sometimes manage to cut across labels and prejudices.

Art Readers on Art, Hong Kong (I).  Co-Published by brownie publishing and Art Readers, 2019. Courtesy Stella Tang.

The community arts is not anti-fine art or anti-good art. Instead, it is anti-elitism in the arts. I love the contemplative quality of Ho’s works, and I find many other local contemporary artists to be thought-provoking and eye-opening. The community arts explore new perspectives not by distancing the creator or the viewers, but by bringing them together, however different they might be, through expressive and creative work. From this interesting and often messy concoction, people can find differing views, beauty, tears and sometimes even themselves.

To answer Liu’s question: striving for true expression is always subversive because humanness interrupts attempts to mould people into predictable and efficient parts. In other words, the community arts disturb the status quo precisely by being a part of the establishment. 

Tang Kwong San, Kwong Man Chun, Apple Wong Hiu Fung

Long to Belong  / Contemporary by Angela Li / Hong Kong / Nov 21 – Dec 14, 2019 / Valencia Tong /

In a city divided by prolonged social upheaval, three young emerging artists from Hong Kong contemplate their place in the world and what it means to belong. A common thread that links the works on view at the exhibition Long to Belong at Contemporary by Angela Li is a hazy sort of nostalgia, which arises from these individuals’ deep, dream-like introspection. Amid the prevailing anxiety that lingers like thick fog over the city’s uncertain future, the show, part of Hong Kong Art Week’s Art Gallery Night, draws a large crowd.

To the left of the entrance, Kwong Man Chun’s oil painting Huang Cen Ling and Tenement House (2017) captures the artist’s journey of retracing his roots while simultaneously juxtaposing scenes of the past against those of the present. He flattens both space and time as they collide into the depiction of a single interior space, visualising his transition from a rural setting in mainland China to urban existence in Hong Kong. The antique furniture housed within a predominantly green space in the background provides a stark contrast with the red bunk bed and patterned tiles in the
foreground. Laden with rich textures on canvas, the painting exudes a surrealist, sentimental quality.

Bedroom by Tang Kwong San. Graphite on paper mounted on wood, photogram, 177 x 248 cm, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Contemporary by Angela Li.

Echoing such architectural aesthetics is fresh graduate Tang Kwong San’s diptych graphite drawing Bedroom (2019). The meticulously drawn floral duvet cover at the centre of the domestic setting gives away the softness of the fabric, yet the monochrome palette and the cool, metallic reflections of the bedposts create a sense of alienation. In the background, the two brown frames highlight the passage of time through the form of a calendar, as well as the distant memory of family in the form of abstract silhouettes of faceless figures.

Nearby, Apple Wong Hiu Fung examines the loss of individuality by placing near-identical figures repetitively within her work. In Behind You (2014), pink and red flowers cover the faces of two anonymous individuals who are connected like Siamese twins: so close physically but looking in opposite directions. At first glance, the natural pattern of the wooden panel on which the figures are drawn in acrylic and colour pencil seems earthy and tranquil. On closer examination, however, in the area that resembles the figures’ clothing, the pencil hatching, in parallel vertical lines that are perpendicular to the horizontal wood grain, captures the jittery feeling of the artist, who attempts to engage in self-therapy through repetitive
mark-making.

As the city struggles to define its identity in the post-colonial era, the next generation of emerging artists are expressing their longing to belong through art.

Shirley Tse

Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice / La Biennale di Venezia / Venice / May 11 – Nov 19, 2019 / John Batten /

“Butterflies stir a breeze and the ripples flow unceasingly: far away the cyclones swirl. It’s a whole, connected world. Oh, Gaia!” *

Shirley Tse’s tactile, predominantly hand-crafted installations at last year’s Venice Biennale were a unique offering. Her Stakeholders presentation in the indoor ground-floor rooms and adjacent outdoor courtyard of the three-storey residential building in the Hong Kong pavilion at the Venice Biennale was not whizz-bang technology or smart-idea-as-art; nor was it not big-so-I-must-be-noticed or I’m-backed-by-a-big-gallery. It was refreshingly uncomplicated, using found and natural objects, unconsciously recycled and studiously repurposed. It allowed contemplation and a place for the public to rest and consider: the artist installed a row of simple aluminium bleachers; elevated, rowed seating usually found next to a sports court. Directly in front of these seats was an imagined abstracted game of badminton, Playcourt. Inside, glimpsed from the courtyard through open doors was the sprawling installation Negotiated Differences.

Thinking was encouraged at the Hong Kong pavilion. The Venice Biennale can be an exhausting contemporary-art experience, albeit one in Venice, the world’s most fabulous city-as-art. The intentional provision of an inviting viewing and seating area at the Hong Kong pavilion replicated Venice’s own natural, contemplative spaces: the city’s churches. Few other country pavilions provided such considered space for their audience to appreciate their presentation.

Installation  view of Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice by Shirley Tse.Photo: John Batten.

Negotiated Differences is both a departure from and continuation of Tse’s interest in depicting abstractions of networks and systems, previously with iconoclastic, formidable solidity. Her Venice installation is a lighter, open, intricate hybrid structure that links and floats, spans and balances, connects and goads the viewer to follow, immerse and consider the structure’s own labyrinthine tracks. Tse explains that her installation is similar to a rhizome, a subterranean plant system that expands through roots and shoots from its nodes.

In a departure from much of her previous work in plastics, the work predominantly uses wood. The exhibition’s curator, Christina Li, explains that the artist works “with a rotary lathe, an archaic apparatus considered the point of origin for machine tools. The hand becomes the intermediary between machine and matter. In the turning process, Tse works with, rather than against, the grain. Applying force to raw material, in the midst of a volatile sociopolitical reality, is a tactile manifestation of conflict
negotiation; Tse’s approach to material takes into account ethics, acknowledgement and mutual interchange.” The result is turned spindles of different species of wood in different sizes, depicting real and imagined objects – which are linked by 3D-printed connectors, a blend of wood, metal, and plastic. “The lathe work subtracts – objects are formed by carving away from the wood – but the 3D printings adds,” says Tse.

Her rhizome spreads through rooms and embodies the idea that the different species of wood – or, metaphorically, humans or any intricate entity – “have different weights, and the connectors have different
angles. I imagine them having to negotiate with each other to
arrive at a balance. They’re joined in their fight against gravity.” She explicitly clarifies that, “In human terms this interdependence perhaps starts with individuals who realise they have a stake in something once the connections become clear to them”.

Richard Powers’ The Overstory*, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2019, follows nine characters and their relationship with trees. All trees and other living organisms, the book proposes, are interconnected. Powers’ fiction refers to the Gaia theory, first proposed by chemist James Lovelock, who died in 2019, and microbiologist Lynn Margulis, fictionalised in Powers’ book, that living organisms interact with the world’s inorganic surroundings to form a self-regulating biosphere that maintains the world’s fragile environment for life to be sustained. As soon as I saw Tse’s Negotiated Differences, I thought: Gaia.

Installation  view of Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice by Shirley Tse.Photo: John Batten.

As Christina Li indicates, Tse’s installations echo “a volatile sociopolitical reality” and life’s “conflict negotiation(s)” and, while avoiding artificially reconceptualising Tse’s exhibition to fit or not fit into a Hong Kong protest story, Tse’s exhibition in distant Venice coincided precisely with the city’s anti-government protests. Inevitably, her presentation was viewed alongside the myriad worldwide press protest imagery, and the exhibition’s docents would have fielded enquiries about the protests from visitors. Indeed, the protest story is embedded in her two installations. Tse suggests rational negotiation to ensure a healthy system, whereas the Hong Kong protests have been unable to return to a “balance” because the Hong Kong government, under instruction from the central Chinese authorities, has not opened any kind of dialogue with protesters or the city’s pan-democratic representatives; negotiation and “mutual interchange” are sadly absent, as are all the stakeholders. But, before I even entered the Hong Kong pavilion, an inkling of Tse’s exhibition and its message of systemic links back to Hong Kong and mainland China was stencilled on the pavilion’s tatty street-side exterior wall in the single word: “FUTURE?”

Was the question mark a challenge? Was it anticipating a breakthrough from incarceration to liberation? Or was it simply an existential cry against confinement? Tse’s Negotiated Differences offered a surprisingly cogent and appropriate response to the pavilion’s wall graffiti and Hong Kong’s current political crisis: talk and negotiate. Located in the pavilion’s courtyard, Playcourt replicates a common Hong Kong pastime: the playing of badminton, often on the street, alley, beach or park. All that is required for a game is two players, two rackets and a shuttlecock – even a net is not necessary; an imaginary one suffices. Tse’s Playcourt uses the simplicity of the game to replicate her version: using abstract forms, the viewer can circuit the players, equipment and the atmosphere of a game. Adding street authenticity, Tse has rigged in the middle of it all an antenna to capture shortwave radio signals. The resulting radio static, intermingled with recognisable language, offers a touch of humanity to the scene – the abstract sounds of children playing. Overhead, clothes are drying on a line from a window. The scene is straight from Tse’s Hong Kong childhood, a time when children happily roamed the streets and played.

Photo: John Batten.

If Playcourt is roughly then, Negotiated Differences is roughly now. Tse has been based in California for over two decades and is also a respected university teacher and writer on the visual arts. She is a member of Hong Kong’s incredibly diverse diaspora, which includes exhibition curator Christina Li. This year’s Hong Kong presentation at Venice has greatly benefited from the diversity inherent in drawing on this community. As Hong Kong’s Nobel Prize recipient Charles Kao said of himself, despite his years away from the city, he is a “Hong Kong belonger”. It’s also proof that Tse’s rhizome is very much alive, thriving and vital. We eagerly await her Hong Kong return exhibition at the M+ pavilion in 2020.

*Peter Hammill, excerpt from Gaia on his album Fireships, 1991

*Richard Powers, The Overstory, 2018 (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2019)

The 3rd Jockey Club New Arts Power Presents: Borrowed Scenery & Flâneur

Dec 14, 2019 – Jan 12, 2020

12 to 7pm

Unit 12, Cattle Deport Artist Village
63 Ma Tau Kok Road
To Kwa Wan, Kowloon

Multimedia exhibition Borrowed Scenery
The multimedia exhibition Borrowed Scenery is exploring urban development issues in the 21st century. The participating artists include C&G, Ko Sin-tung, Kong Chun-hei, Vvzela Kook, Sarah Lai, Lai Lon-hin and Ocean Leung. 

Through installation art, video, photos and other media, the partaking artists illustrate their imagination generated by the urban space, interpret their observations and feelings of the city, and reveal their expectations for the liberation of public realm and the civil rights. The artists also look at the current issues from their unique perspectives and, in the process, explore and examine the way in which art reflects and responds to the urban phenomena.

Extended outdoor performance Flâneur
Presented as an extended performance of the exhibition, curators André Chan and Jing Chin-yin Chong collaborate with choreographer Sarah Xiao to create the 30-minute outdoor performance Flâneur deliberately for busy downtown Tsim Sha Tsui.

The name of “Tsim Sha Tsui” was recorded in the classics as early as in the Ming Dynasty. Subsequently, along with the reclamation in the 19th and 20th centuries, Tsim Sha Tsui gradually develops into a hotspot of commerce, tourism and shopping that draws abundant tourists. Locals, however, often feel both familiar and unfamiliar with this converging area.

The last two performances will be held on January 11 and 12, 2020 respectively. The dancers will lead the audience to stroll around the different spots in the Tsim Sha Tsui area, where the audience can take a closer look at the urban landscape of Tsim Sha Tsui, ponder on the reasons behind the development and discover their unique rhythm in the performance.

Venue 
Tsim Sha Tsui Harbour

Date & Time
Saturday, January 11, 2pm
Sunday, January 12, 5.30pm