Published: 13:36, May 27, 2022 | Updated: 13:36, May 27, 2022
Fair encounters
By Chitralekha Basu

The city’s major annual international art fairs — Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Central — are back, running at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre until May 29. Chitralekha Basu caught up with some of the artists featured as well as key people involved in putting the shows together. 

Ellen Pau’s 7th-century CE Buddhist scripture-inspired video installation, The Shape of Light, is a co-commission by Art Basel Hong Kong and M+ museum. The work will continue to light up the Kowloon skyline every evening until June 19. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Ellen Pau, artist, maker of Art Basel Hong Kong-M+ co-commission, The Shape of Light

What drew you to The Heart Sutra? Did it have anything to do with the pandemic which has shattered many of our long-held beliefs and made us see the world in a new light?

I was drawn to The Heart Sutra by a close friend who passed away in 2019. She told me when the physical pain grew unbearable, she would recite verses from The Diamond Sutra and The Heart Sutra. I made a performance piece at the closing of my 2019 retrospective exhibition at Para-Site in memory of my friend. I sought a way to connect mindfully with those we have loved.  

The more I find out about The Heart Sutra, the more I am fascinated by it. I learnt from scientists that our bodies have an “intrinsic cardiac nervous system” that communicates with the brain but thinks with the body.  It reminds me of the 17th-century French mathematician Blaise Pascal’s remark: "The heart knows reasons that reason cannot know." 

The Heart Sutra was translated as “The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom '' by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. 

Learning from old wisdom, I hope my version of The Heart Sutra mediates the light of healing to help ease pain and suffering. I hope it can turn on the light of wisdom for the city to move past difficult times.

What can you tell us about the nature of the live performance element of the show and how it is expected to sync with and/or complement the digital component?

The live performance in the M+ Forum expands on The Shape of Light on the M+ facade. There is a physical space that the performance takes place in, and also an expanded space of sensations. Inspired by materialist film and the architectural and technical qualities of the M+ facade, the performance is set to be an interplay of the machine and our own cybernetic nature. We have created digital images from sound waves, as natural light mixes with artificial light generated from live coding. The Shape of Light will be chanted in sync with the movement of light. All these interconnected elements will reflect on the passage of time, space, and our cybernetic existence.

It seems to me that the idea was to have The Shape of Light glow like a beacon of hope for Hong Kong culture. As someone who is a pioneer of the city’s digital art tradition, how do you see the future of this genre shaping up in Hong Kong? Would you say Hong Kong could take the lead in producing refreshing and meaningful digital art that are more than spectacles?

The Shape of Light, the first video commission to go up on the M+ façade, could be a spectacular movable feast for the senses, but the power of art goes beyond this. 

Historically, Hong Kong used to be famous for its flourishing neon lights, and neon constitutes a vital part of Hong Kong visual culture. These days, many neon lights in the city have been replaced by LED panels, which are very accessible and easy to install. What new creative languages might evolve from these public screens?  Could LED overtake cinema as a unique visual language that helps to shape Hong Kong’s global identity? 

I think placing art on Hong Kong’s public screens can be a way to go. I hope that public theatre owners and operators realize that artists too can contribute to the visual culture of Hong Kong. 

Art Basel’s Asia director Adeline Ooi says Art Basel Hong Kong’s specially commissioned projects—Ellen Pau-created The Shape of Light and the Artist Trams—serve the art fair’s aim to “connect art with the general public”. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Adeline Ooi, director, Art Basel Asia 

This year Art Basel Hong Kong (ABHK) includes a number of large-scale installations. Was it a conscious decision to create spectacles, after last year’s relatively low-key outing, or did it all happen organically?

I would say that this is an organic development. The ABHK show has consistently presented works in the more traditional booth formats as well as large-scale installations in the past in the form of the Encounters Sector curated by Alexie Kantor-Glass. As this edition of Art Basel Hong Kong is taking on a hybrid format, we are grateful to be able to showcase a wide range of artists and works in differing scales. 

It is a joy to be able present more monumental works in the show, highlights include Hanart TZ Gallery’s presentation of a 40-channel speaker system installation sounding the heartbeat of artist GayBird, and Liang Gallery’s stoneware installation 2021-3 by Hsu Yung-hsu from Taiwan. The technique and medium of Hsu’s work is impressive. It looks deceptively simple, but the process of creating it with clay is painstaking and demanding.

There is a whole range of ABHK exhibitions happening outside the main venue of Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, including The Shape of Light on M+ façade. In a sense, downtown Hong Kong has been turned into an immersive art experience of and by itself. What would you say is the most exciting feature of this year’s outdoor, public programs? 

We are extremely excited and proud to present two special commissions to highlight our local talents. Firstly, the public commission project in collaboration with M+ Museum to light up the museum’s LED façade with Ellen Pau’s moving work that features The Heart Sutra (7th Century Buddhist Collection of aphorisms) expressed through sign language. Secondly, in celebration of a younger generation of artists in Hong Kong, our new special Artist Tram project will feature works by Cherie Cheuk, Stephen Wong and Shum Kwan Yi. This is part of our aim to connect art with the general public.

Movana Chen says the idea behind knitting wearable sculptures from magazines torn into strips of paper is to “explore the relationship between the human body and daily life, as well as look at consumerism and the influence of fashion”. (PHOTO BY CLEMENT LEDERMANN / PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Movana Chen, artist, Flower Gallery, showing at Art Basel Hong Kong

What’s the philosophy behind shredding paper and then knitting the shredded material to create a new piece? 

It is about the act of deconstructing and reconstructing particular sets of languages with their various cultural contents. My piece, Dreconstructing, is made from strips of magazine paper knitted together into wearable sculptures. It explores the relationship between the human body and daily life, looking at consumerism and the influence of fashion – and the importance of being oneself. In Dreconstructing the magazines, written in different languages, create a dialogue between different visual languages and a new way to view different cultures, allowing the audience to look at things sideways, (as well as) discover, challenge and be themselves. 

Dreconstructing connects Hong Kong to cities like Singapore, Sydney and Seoul where you have exhibited certain sections of the piece, separately. Would it be correct to call it a retrospective of your works from different years and places?

Dreconstructing incorporates individual works from 2004 to 2008. This large work brings together previous individual pieces in the form of a new work to be experienced very differently on a large scale. 

What led you to create such a monumental work? 

In the previous works, each piece was wearable by different people and related to the human body. Transformed into a single piece on a large scale, they become a piece about exploring cultural exchange through the different languages visible in the magazine strips. 

Later, I went on to using books and maps given to me by friends on my travels, (as my material) as they too relate to sharing of language across borders. 

Tom Friedman’s 33 feet-high sculpture with its wrinkled aluminum-foil finish is expected to appeal to the viewers’ compassion for the needy. (CALVIN NG / CHINA DAILY)

Tom Friedman, artist, Lehmann Maupin, showing at Art Basel Hong Kong

I love the disarming simplicity in your Looking Up sculpture. What’s the idea behind making this figure almost 33-foot high — literally larger than life?

Looking Up is a figure involved in wonder and it’s asking the viewer to mimic its gesture of looking up and participate in wonder. Looking up also suggests being hopeful and optimistic.

The uneven texture is very interesting. Would you like to tell us why you went for it?

The surface comes from using a wide variety of aluminum oven tins. The wrinkled tins created a rich texture that I hope draws the viewer into its intricacies. Words printed on some of the tins show on the surface. One of these says: “Support the bottom.” I see this as a request to be empathetic to the vulnerable, the disenfranchised and the needy.

What can you tell us about the AR experience complementing the sculpture?

Lehmann Maupin has created this experience. It’s a way of showing a sculpture in a location without it being there. This has so many possibilities for me.

Lehmann Maupin adds: The project was launched on May 25 across different sites in Hong Kong, Seoul, and New York, to coincide with Art Basel Hong Kong — where Friedman’s Looking Up sculpture will be on view in their booth — and with his first solo exhibition in Lehmann Maupin’s Seoul gallery. 

As part of the project, Looking Up has been rendered with AR technology that allows users to find and activate the work through a QR code or Lehmann Maupin’s website — no app is required. Users will be able to view Friedman’s sculpture at different sites across Hong Kong, including Times Square, Harbour City, in Seoul, and New York.

Qu Chang, curatorial adviser, Art Central, informs that the large-scale installations grouped under the fair’s Yi Tai section are expected to be “something out of the ordinary, unusual or surprising”, even represent “unusual shapes and alternative life forms”.  (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Qu Chang, curatorial advisor, Art Central

What do the words Yi Tai, under which the large-scale installations at Art Central are grouped, suggest? How does the idea differ from that of Magical Realism in Latin American literature? 

Yi Tai is Art Central’s long-term program dedicated to large-scale installations. It serves as the fair’s platform for large-scale installations, sculpture and spatial interventions, deriving its name from an age-old term meaning “variations in expressing the same Chinese characters”, referring to the (various) adaptations of the Chinese written language over many centuries. In modern usage, Yi Tai connotes something out of the ordinary, unusual or surprising. The multi-faceted nature of the Chinese term allows for continual reinterpretation as each edition of the fair unfolds. 

In terms of visual and/or conceptual art, Yi Tai alludes to unusual shapes and alternative life forms. This year’s presentation, titled Thinking Magic, connects the impulse to imagine and dream and the sense of bewilderment at our immediate social context. In the current moment which is filled with anxiety and uncertainty worldwide, “magic” could perhaps provide a pathway that takes us out of the impasses created by the existing systems. 

In many ways, the curatorial concept behind Thinking Magic echoes the artistic and literary genre of Magical Realism, which peaked during the political turmoil in Latin America in the mid-20th century. Similar to stories belonging to that genre, the artworks presented at Thinking Magic connect the realms of fantasy and reality, sharing and infusing the inspirations and energies from the two realms. Thinking Magic also refers to alternative and marginalized ideas.

Would you like to explain the concept of Yi Tai with reference to an artist’s work featured in that section?

Louis To’s sculpture San Syu Wat Leot are not here provides perhaps a direct response to the concepts of “yi tai” and “magic”. The magnificent bamboo sculpture presents a mythological creature that brings to mind the cubist abstraction, the dynamism in futurism, Chinese folk culture and craftsmanship. The title refers to two gate-guarding gods but they are absent in the sculpture, implying the opening of such a gate, the release of wild imagination, and the revival of a forgotten culture.

Large-scale installations are about creating spectacles and immersive experiences, which we’re seeing a lot of since art went digital in a big way. Interestingly, the artworks you have assembled under the theme of Thinking Magic are less about technology and virtual reality and more about tangible everyday objects. Would you like to explain your curatorial vision in this context?

I agree with you that an important quality of large-scale installations is the immersive experiences they provide, though they should not be limited to digital or monumental presentations. In Thinking Magic, the large-scale artworks provoke the audience to generate new interpretations of daily life and renew entrenched understandings of the world. These works bring forth immersive experiences by connecting the mundane and magical, fusing the familiar and fantastical.

For instance, in Afa Annfa’s (JPS Gallery) installation, the washing machines in a laundromat become tunnels that connect different geographical locations. Bing Lee’s PictoDiary series takes the quotidian gesture of diary-writing and transforms it into an encoding process of image-writing which disturbs the fixed system of grammar and syntax. 

These artworks do not express themselves through scale or state-of-the-art technology. These artists care about bringing the forgotten and the not-yet-seen to our reality, visualizing the world from magical and imaginative perspectives, thus enabling us to see, act, and create differently and magically.

Louis To’s Transcendence series of sculptures at Art Central combines the elements of European abstractionist art a la George Condo with those of the I Ching (Chinese divination text dated between 1000 and 750 BC), and tai chi. (CALVIN NG / CHINA DAILY)

Louis To, artist, CWC Consulting & Art Gallery, showing at Art Central

I deeply appreciate your making contemporary art using natural materials such as bamboo and paper. What was the philosophy informing your choice of material?

Thank you for the appreciation and open-mindedness in looking at bamboo as a contemporary material. Indeed it was a conscious and determined decision. I grew up handcrafting toys with bamboo. 

Throughout my 30-year arts career, I have explored media such as oil painting, Chinese ink, various sculpting materials, and even merged performance art with wearable bamboo sculptures.

Living on Cheung Chau Island, I had experience of crafting figures of mythical beasts from bamboo, which inspired me to adapt bamboo craft to my contemporary practice. I pushed the boundaries of the craft by bending the material to extreme lengths — inspired by the fluidity of another heritage craft, candy sculpting — and invented ways of making other materials, notably paint and glue, waterproof and extremely durable. These new and more contemporary materials, together with a new approach to the art form and its aesthetics, enable my bamboo sculptures to have a new status and last through generations.

My philosophy is to give a new life to heritage craft by adapting it to contemporary creations. I was part of the avant-garde early on, having been a part of the Inside Out show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1998-99.

For me, the appreciation of the quality of the material — alive, flexible, strong yet light — goes hand in hand with my conceptual approach which is to bring more openness to the ways in which culture and spirituality are seen. 

The fusion of traditional Chinese craftsmanship with European modernist abstract art in your Art Central sculptures, Transcendence, is remarkable. How do you go about bringing such a synthesis of disparate ideas in your works?  

I was influenced by Cubism, notably the deconstruction of figures, multiple planes and view from several angles. The three-dimensionality and abstraction in my work is inspired by George Condo. I also follow the principles of the I Ching (Chinese divination text dated between 1000 and 750 BC), and fluidity of tai chi, in my works. 

To me, such ideas are not disparate. Contemporary art challenges the way we understand the world around us, sometimes even ourselves. I immersed myself in the study of both Western art history and Chinese philosophy and culture. I blend them not just from a technical point of view but also from the conceptual perspective. Yet I hope my originality always carries a spontaneity and humor.