2012-Making Sense of the Moment – Works of Lam Tung-pang by Abby Chen
Making Sense of the Moment – Works of Lam Tung-pang
Lam Tung-pang is probably among the first generation of art school hopefuls that strove to become full-time artists upon graduation. Born in 1978 and raised in Hong Kong, Lam completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the New Asia College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2002, and graduated from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London with a Master of Fine Arts in 2004. In the past ten years, Lam has achieved critical acclaim for his unconventional, though deeply personal, work that intertwines a refreshing aesthetics with contemplations on environment, selfhood, material, and time.
Lam’s early work, Fotan (2003), I See You (2003), Somewhere, Sometime (2004), Shirt (2006), are just a few examples of the paintings and mixed media on plywood that offer observations of his familiar surroundings in both Hong Kong and London. The abstract, often minimal approach, and the use of everyday materials such as nails and sand, coupled with charcoal sketches, depicts a kind of mood resulting in a visual experience, translated into a melancholy gloom. Drawing upon memory and imagination, it was also around the same period that he produced a number of pieces that negotiates the relationship between image, object, and space. By taking on the form of three- dimensional installations, his Shake (2005), Symphony (2005), In the Memory of Rainbows (2005), and Folding (2006), already exemplify the versatility and originality of Lam’s artistry that continue to be the heart of his oeuvre.
As someone who grew up in the 1990s, it is important to note that there is a common but vague anxiety, and sense of helplessness, shared by the Hong Kong people towards the dissolving of a colony. For many, such apprehension can only take shape over time with the change of politics and culture. It was in this context––the fermentation of its complexity––that I examine Lam’s work created after 2007, a decade after the 1997 handover. Starting with Selling My Soul (2010), an important installation and performance in his career, he began to redirect more interest to exploring the notion of existence and disappearance, which correlates to his awareness of Hong Kong’s lost and isolation.
Invited to participate in an international group show “No Soul for Sale,” Selling My Soul took stage at the Tate Modern in London, Lam used rubber-made eraser to wipe out his charcoal drawings and left residue crumbs on the floor. Leung Chi-wo, another exhibiting artist, helped Lam to document the working process. From a series of photographs, one can see that in the far right corner of the Turbine Hall, Lam stood and moved on a platform raised above the floor with only two walls built. Four sheets of paper, each at 1 x 2.4 meters-long, filled with charcoal drawings of lines throughout, were hung on ninety degree intersecting walls with two sheets on one side. Additionally on the platform were fifty matchbox-sized erasers, each stamped with custom-made drawing of himself standing and erasing. According to Lam, his initial plan was to rub off the charcoal over three days, but only to receive the sudden mandate from Tate to finish within a few hours before the opening. The speed of his movement, as a result of the tension created by haste, further intensified the urge of erasing, that the impending future lies in the very moment of the present being disappeared.
While Lam rushed to finish, a multitude of his own action occurred simultaneously with dual implications of referencing: as the eraser wiping out the material, it is also effacing the self; yet the self-depicting gesture of erasing is imprinted on the eraser, which is as much an object as a character that complicates the relationship between action and material in the course of time. The performative process of Lam’s attempt to obliterate the dark charcoal vividly portrayed the interchangeability of threshold between materiality and immateriality. At the end, the white noise resemblance on the paper, the crumbs strewn over the floor, and the less-than-half remaining eraser, were left to elicit the temporal and instantaneous presence. The separation of the physical substance from its body in the drawing, was equally embedded in the self-consumed action for the eraser. What one considers permanent was replaced by the realization of something in between: the removal is the creation of the new layer of void and absence, at the expense that both the original medium and the new tools shared a synchronized evanescence.
If the earlier work is more about a young mind observing and interpreting as a form of reaction to the outside world, instead of just being a participant, by this point he has gained more self-awareness of his environment. Selling My Soul represents a paradigmatic shift in Lam’s vision and practice. He was able to take a metaphysical perspective on the society, by developing his own philosophy, he gained a level of confidence, as well as freedom, to pick and choose the thinking methodologies and artistic approaches. I therefore see this performance piece as a milestone that signifies his later more open, and possibly an even more critical, examination of his relationship with surroundings.
As conceptual as Lam’s work might appear, one would be surprised to find how personable and candid he speaks about his creative process, with specificity of being an artist in Hong Kong. Yet, his work hardly provided visible a trace of this locality, until 2008 when he participated in a project called “Where is My Mum?,” which asked how the identity of a city can have an impact on the identity of an individual. And this work, in the format of a question, has transformed into a panorama of duality and contradiction, as demonstrated in his subsequent Diorama series of 2010, Long View Under Scrutiny series of 2011, and the most recent epic painting Centuries of Hong Kong (mixed media on plywood, 2011), commissioned by The Hong Kong Legislative Council. Within these new developments, Lam is experimenting a way of fragmentation, which is also an indication of his current milieu. His ability to suture and appropriate pieces of the old images and scenes of today together expressed a sense of curiosity, an inquisition of mood, in an era where the change is so swift and imbalanced that the contrast between past and present becomes part of the landscape.
I have written in length about The Youngest and Oldest (mixed media on plywood, 2011), a significant piece from Lam Tung-pang’s recent Long View Under Scrutiny series.1 To me this work visualizes the internalization of Hong Kong after its handover. Resembling an architect building materials, Lam used and adopted hints of recent happenings or parts of ancient art expression. By reintroducing fragments of the past, and then through a process of constructing, his work provides a path to experience how the reference of age and place lose, or maybe even reestablish, their relevancy. The intangible experience of displacement and uncertainty is translated by the vast scenery Lam puts in front of the viewers, from whom he looks for the similar desire to feel both belonging and a sense of resistance to containment. Such a paradoxical state of being speaks to the fragility and tenuousness of life itself, magnified by a limited time therein existing in the slice of breathing space––free from the just-ended colonial yoke and the forthcoming unification.
When Lam Tung-pang was asked about his recent fascination with ancient imagery, he responded, “My fondness with the past is grounded in my understanding of the present.” Indeed, standing on the center flux of the epoch, there is probably not much difference between looking forward and recalling the past. From his early work reflecting the life of the everyday, to the performance-based installation in which a specific experience of time played a vital role, then to the recent re-constructing of cross intervention connecting old and new, is determined through his imagination for a non- linear environment by placing his art on precisely the verge. For Lam, that is his engagement with reality: to create the possibility of experiencing time in all processes of perception, action, and cognition; thus capturing the transient, ephemeral human visage that bears witness to a delicate, and perplexing historical moment.
San Mateo, CA, USA January 29, 2012
1 Abby Chen, Yishu, Volume 11, Number 1, Jan/Feb 2012, “The Best of Times: Lam Tung-pang’s Long View Under Scrutiny”
Making Sense of the Moment - Works of Lam Tung-pang by Abby Chen is originally publish in
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