Hong Kong's Best Contemporary Women Artists

Luise Guest

Contemporary art in Hong Kong has long been overshadowed by art from mainland China. Luise Guest explores contemporary art in Hong Kong through the lens of four contemporary women artists – Phoebe Man, Annie Lai-Kuen Wan, Monti Wai-Yi Lai and Celia Ko – who are currently working in Hong Kong.
Annie Lai-Kuen Wan, documentation for ‘Looking for Poetry in Wan Chai’ – the artist’s process and research | Courtesy the artist
When people talk about contemporary Chinese art they are invariably referring to art from Mainland China. Despite recent international exhibitions, even in Hong Kong itself, few people seem to be aware of the interesting contemporary art being produced there. Initially it can seem less dramatic, less extraordinary, than the work produced by artists trained in the powerhouse PRC art schools such as Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts. However, on closer inspection, the fascinating subtleties of a liminal place with a complex postcolonial identity emerge. Hong Kong has been something of a transit zone since the days of the Treaty Ports and the British seizure of its harbor at the end of the first Opium War in 1842. Its unique history results in contemporary art quite unlike the current shape of art from China’s mainland.
Some little-known facts about contemporary art in Hong Kong:
– More than 60,000 people attended the inaugural Art Basel Hong Kong Art Fair in May this year. And more than half of the participating galleries came from the Asia Pacific region.

– 7,000 people visited Song Dong’s exhibition in 3 weeks during January this year.

– Major international galleries such as Gagosian and White Cube now have a Hong Kong presence, as do Edouard Malingue, Pékin Fine Arts and Pearl Lam.

– The West Kowloon Cultural District, when complete, will comprise 17 arts and cultural venues.

– Hong Kong is now the world’s third largest art market by auction sales.
Clearly, there is a hunger to see contemporary art. But what does it mean for Hong Kong artists? There is a sense that artists who live and work there are the ‘poor relations’ of the art stars from Beijing. Despite recent exhibitions such as Saatchi Gallery’s Hong Kong Eye which featured the work of 18 artists never before shown outside Hong Kong, it is still difficult for local artists to find gallery representation, partly due to prohibitively huge gallery rents. Liminal, at K11 Art Mall by young artists Kenny Wong and Marco de Mutiis conveys the anxieties so evident in Hong Kong – lack of space, the pressure of sky-rocketing rents, anxieties about cultural identity, and ‘big brother’ watching from just across the border – through the metaphor of computer operated ‘drones’ equipped with video cameras observing and recording unaware passers-by outside the gallery. The Hong Kong Contemporary Art Awards also reveal a rich diversity of practice. The fact that so many artists in Hong Kong see their work as a form of social activism is often unacknowledged: they are engaged with their city and its myriad concerns in a way which distinguishes their work from other artistic centres. Artist Annie Lai-Kuen Wan says, ‘For me the social issues are overwhelming.’ Ivy Kin-chu Ma’s work ‘Cambodia / Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum / Numbers Standing Still’ exemplifies this seriousness of purpose. A series of ghostly sepia numbered tags suggestive of labels attached to a person’s clothing are arranged according to the Fibonacci sequence, bearing marks of erasure and over-drawing on the archival prints.

Ivy Kin-chu Ma, Cambodia / Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum / Numbers Standing Still, 2012, Pastel Graphite and Ink on Archival Print, set of 11, each 79 x 60 cm

To find out more, I spoke with four very different artists in Hong Kong. They all happen to be female. In an art world which is still somewhat testosterone-fuelled this is just one more factor to add to the difficulties experienced by local artists in a place which tends to look beyond, rather than within, its own borders.
Sculptor and installation artist Phoebe Man works with materials some would see as not only unorthodox but confronting. Most notoriously these have included sanitary napkins and fingernail clippings. She engages her audience in participatory works, blurring the boundaries between artist and viewer. Man has made works which could be viewed as overtly feminist, dealing with sexual assault and violence against women; and is planning a piece in Taiwan in which she will work with the remaining WWII ‘comfort women’. She sees these now very elderly survivors as extraordinarily brave for bringing what was once a shameful secret into the light of day.

Annie Lai-Kuen Wan, ‘Looking for Poetry in Wan Chai’, relief sculpture comprising ceramic moulds

Annie Lai-Kuen Wan works in highly unconventional ways to reflect on the changing nature of her city. Often using moulds, as a way of ‘mapping reality’, she examines our relationship to the material world and its meanings. Her work ‘Looking for Poetry in Wan Chai’ recorded the fabulous tapestry of text in the oldest parts of Hong Kong, a visual landscape of signage that is under threat from development. Currently showing in the Hong Kong Art Museum, ‘Crafting a Reverse Scenario for a Lost Sheep is an investigation of time’s actions on organic substances. Ceramic sheep figurines are sealed in glass containers, together with wet clay and bean sprouts, creating enclosed micro eco-systems, surreal landscapes of growth and decay in miniature.
Monti Wai-Yi Lai works with materials found in the natural environment, in particular with pigments she creates from ground leaves, once again reflecting on Hong Kong’s very particular social and environmental issues. Lai uses the traditional tile patterns found on post-war Hong Kong apartment blocks as an organising principle and key design element in her ephemeral, often participatory, site-specific works. She wants to make works in which her own memory of growing up in a semi-rural area of Hong Kong, now rapidly submerged in the urban megalopolis, connects with significant issues both local and global. She thinks that an authentically Hong Kong voice is increasingly being heard. ‘Artists and audiences are looking for that!’ she says.
Celia Ko, a painter trained in the conventions of academic realism, adapts Baroque and Renaissance conventions and iconography to create highly theatrical staged images. She reflects on the relationships between her protagonists and their contemporary lives, as well as on her own history and cultural identity. Some works focus on her grandparents and the significance of family in traditional Chinese culture; others on the complex hybrid identities and relationships which emerge in the contemporary city.
Each of these four artists has undertaken study and residencies outside Hong Kong, and has exhibited their work internationally, and they bring these rich experiences to the ways they represent their ideas. Phoebe Man’s work ‘Rewriting History incorporates the intricate Chinese tradition of paper-cutting in an installation exploring the psychological consequences of sexual assault. Man sees this work as a continuing project in which she gives a voice to those who are otherwise unheard, finding a metaphorical way to represent the complex experiences of victims. Man uses paper-cutting because it is folk art traditionally made by women. ‘I use it because paper is a traditional women’s craft and it is like a dialogue with Chinese tradition,’ she says. Dubious about being defined as a feminist artist, despite early notoriety stemming from her sculptures made of sanitary napkins, Man says, ‘Actually my work is about self-exploration, so my work is (firstly) about Hong Kong, and then because I am a woman….I would say I am inspired by feminist theory but I would not say I am a feminist artist. I hope there is still room for imagination in my work so I would not say it is an illustration of feminist theory.’

Phoebe Man, Rewriting History, Installation, paper-cuts, 2008 – 2010. Image courtesy of the artist

‘The Moons’ documents tiny sculptures made of the artist’s fingernail clippings, attached to her own nails in a meditation on contemporary ideals of feminine beauty, and a comment on the cultural construction of notions of repulsiveness versus desire. In a homage to Dada and the ready-made, her 2007 ‘consumable sculpture’ series, ‘Cakes’, was a response to the tenth anniversary of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong. She wrote a number of imaginary dialogues between lovers, and applied them as cake decorations. ‘The dialogues might happen between lovers, or friends. They might allude to the relationship between the government of Mainland China and Hong Kong people,’ she says, rather cryptically. It is left to the viewer to decide what she is saying about this problematic relationship, and whether the eager consumption of the cakes by the audience is also a metaphor.

Phoebe Man, ‘Rewriting History’ installation view (detail)

Annie Wan says she has no intention to push the boundaries of ceramic practice; however her thoughtful works, based on her deep understanding of contemporary cultural theory, do just that. Ideas of time, loss and memory are embedded in her material practice. She uses clay to make moulds of found objects – books, supermarket cans, tiles from demolished buildings – and then casts them in a manner reminiscent of the works of Rachel Whiteread or Doris Salcedo. Wan’s works are similarly elegiac. In ‘Looking for Poetry in Wan Chai she was inspired to recreate the ubiquitous Hong Kong street signage in relief. Browsing in a bookshop, she found a classical poem: ‘We haven’t seen the ancient moon, but the present moon has shone on the ancient people.’ She wandered Wan Chai to find signs with the Chinese characters she needed to reproduce the poem. Finding them outside shops, on public toilets, and even in graveyards, she pressed clay slabs onto the signs to create a mould. The resulting ghostly white signs suggest the ancient past and also the palpable sense of loss felt by those born in Hong Kong as they watch their city transforming. ‘I have paid attention to this kind of imagery,’ says the gentle and softly spoken artist.
One work is more overtly political. For ‘Banned Book Trilogy, initially shown in Beijing, Wan made a cast of a book about the events of June 4, 1989, banned on the Chinese Mainland, added its barcode, and put the resulting fragile porcelain book on the shelves in a bookshop attached to the gallery. She asks us to consider how ideas can be suppressed and how history – and people – can be rendered invisible. In Hong Kong, using the same book, she added flour and organic materials so that it would grow a surface of mould. In another version she added soil and other organic matter, and weeds grew through the book. In the final version she painted the original book with slip and fired it, so the book itself burned away in the kiln. What remains is like a fossil, a memory of injustice and social control.

Annie Lai-kuen Wan, ‘I Think It Rains’ 2013, installation of clay tiles at Cattle Depot Artist Village Hong Kong

I Think It Rains, 2013, evokes notions of presence and absence, past and present. This site-specific work records a demolished Qing Dynasty village. Wan took the exact 18 x 10 feet dimensions of the vanished double storey houses and made very thin tiles, installed at Cattle Depot Artist Village with plants growing in the middle. The audience were instructed to water the plants, but in order to do so they had to step on the fragile tiles, which of course would then shatter into tiny fragments, an evocative metaphor.
Monti Wai-Yi Lai is passionate about Hong Kong, its history and its future, and anxious about changes which make people feel powerless. From early site-specific works created as a postgraduate student in Finland, using snow and other natural materials, she has been interested in the ecologies of place and the effects of time. Currently engaged in a number of projects in which she collects leaves from a site, or asks participants to bring their own, she is experimenting with ways to turn them into pigments which are then applied in a manner she sees as akin to traditional ink painting. Lai wants her art to be democratic, involving the community, rather than for the market; to be for the many rather than the few. It is art that stems from social engagement and from ideas about finding a more sustainable way to live.

Annie Lai-kuen Wan ‘I Think It Rains’ 2013, (detail) installation of clay tiles at Cattle Depot Artist Village Hong Kong

In ‘One Square Foot: Shek Wu San Tsuen she asks us to consider the social costs of development and ‘modernisation’. If demolishing historic villages for redevelopment is the only solution to ease the tensions caused by demand for housing, ‘what will be the price we eventually pay per square foot of land so acquired?’ she asks. In this work leaf pigments were applied to square floor ‘tiles’ in an installation comprised of hanging translucent voile curtains. In ‘Village Watch’ the artist made a QR code from pigments made from leaves collected in the villages of Shek Wu San Tsuen and Tin Ping San Tsuen, recording her journey around these threatened locations.

Monti Way-Yi Lai, ‘The Travelling Floor’, installation of pigments created from leaves, and medium

Celia Ko feels similarly passionate about Hong Kong and its heritage; however she employs a very different visual language to explore her ideas. As Frank Vigneron pointed out in his 2012 article about Hong Kong artists in Yishu magazine, art which might be described as ‘community-oriented’ is not the only way to address societal issues. In her exhibition That Moment Now Ko subverted the tradition of ancestor portraits, working from old photographs to create images of her maternal grandparents. These portraits evoke a sense of loss and memory, as do Ko’s acrylic-on-paper paintings of lacquer objects, ceramic vessels, and ornately decorative mirrors, objects that represent powerful childhood memories. Dark lustrous surfaces suggest a mysterious narrative withheld, and the continuing chain of generations of a family who have used and held these objects.

Celia Ko, That Moment Now: Narrative III, 2009, acrylic on paper, 4 feet x 5 feet

More recent works create elaborately staged tableaux exploring ideas about communication between friends and lovers. Teasing, play, and the rituals of courtship and sexuality are all alluded to in an allegorical form. Staged in the artist’s studio, an intimate darkened space heightened with dramatic chiaroscuro, in her ‘Curious Fruits series Ko creates an intriguingly ambiguous world with great technical virtuosity. Describing herself as ‘a sucker for Baroque painting – the intense emotion, the dramatic contrasts, the violence, the strange, exaggerated puzzling actions…’ she invites her audience to complete the narrative for themselves, raising questions of the distinction between reality and artifice.

Celia Ko, ‘Curious Fruits’, oil on canvas, 122 x 183 cm

From issues of gender to questions of social justice and the environment; from urban poetry to postcolonial questions of identity, the personal is political in the work of these four very different artists.
By Luise Guest

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