從近觀到遠望 Observations from Near and Far
Observations from Near and Far
I grew up in the 1980s and picked up a smattering of Putonghua in school. Anyway, it was neither a core subject nor was it required. The Putonghua I speak now is largely the result of what I was forced to memorize as a child for the yearly return trips to visit with relatives. . Although many people my age or my generation were born in Hong Kong, a large number of them had parents who had been born in China and later escaped to Hong Kong. Because they still had relatives back home, this gave rise to the great event of my youth; the annual “trip back home to visit relatives” in which the majority of my classmates took part. On the 1st page of our primary school student handbook, was our photo, which we reluctantly replaced every year, and a space where we entered our native province. I was obviously born in Hong Kong, so what was all this about “native province”? Time and again I asked my father, not that I wanted to know what “native province” meant, but when would I be able to list “Hong Kong”? As I write these words, I wonder when, in a few years from now, my daughter passes this handbook to me, what should I write? China is so near, yet so far.
Art has always been my favorite subject. During the course of my art study, in my imagination, materials, themes, and even artists, were all based on the Western Art tradition. As a child, the writing brush and the unpleasant smell of the ink box were my only impressions of Chinese art. In this city that propagates the slogan, “Where the essence of Chinese and Western cultures converge”, I read Japanese comic books, and played games manufactured in Japan. The paintings I imitated and admired were related to Japanese animation. The tune I loved to hum was from the film, The Castle in the Sky, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki; the painting I drew was the Dragon Ball, written and illustrated by Akira Toriyama. My first comic book was “Ding Dang” (Doraemon), which my mother picked up one day on her way home from work. At the time I was in the first grade of Elementary school. In those days, it was also popular for local song writers to rewrite Japanese pop songs. My classmates were crazy about bringing Japanese toys, food, or snacks, to school. There was the Demae Itcho, instant noodles, which we felt was of great quality. I don’t know how the government could have ignored this heavy influence of Japanese pop culture on my generation and claimed that our city is a place where East and West met.
Thus, when I seriously took up drawing, I copied the characters from Japanese comics. It was not until I went to high school that I learned about the existence of some fellow named Picasso, who actually painted one object from different angles on the same surface and claimed that this was “Reality”. Good heavens, what an amusing concept. This was about the same time I made up my mind to continue studying art., and from that point on, right up to the years I was a student in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Department of Fine Arts, I spent my time engrossed in the struggles of the various “-isms” of the West.
My study of art at the Chinese University of Hong Kong played a decisive role in my subsequent work. The department promoted both Chinese and Western arts. Students had 3 years to complete required courses in oil painting and drawing, as well as Chinese calligraphy and painting, plus the art history of both China and the West. For the remainder of our course work we could elect to study Art History or Modern Art Studio. It was absolutely impossible to thoroughly grasp these two great civilizations, both of them thousands of years old, in such a short time, even if I and most of my classmates had been willing to extend our study for another school year. But frankly speaking, 4 years of study is actually just an introduction to Chinese and Western art. Having just reached the threshold, we graduated. However, owing to this solid introduction, when I decided to obtain a deeper understanding in later years, I knew exactly where to start.
When I was a student, Chinese calligraphy, Chinese painting, and Chinese art history were my biggest headaches. This was especially so during Chinese art history exams, when slides would be shown and students had to identify the name of the artist and the painting. To me, all Chinese paintings seemed to be the work of one and the same artist, and the class was extremely boring. During the school year, some fellow students and I rented a place in the factory area near the university. Our studio, with its mountain and factory view, seemed somewhat surreal and a bit idyllic. It was at this time that we opened our studio to the public. After graduation, I disliked the idea of having to teach in order to support my creative work, and always hoped to find some other means. I had applied for a Hong Kong Arts Development Council scholarship to studying abroad, but did not have high hopes. Even the decision to study in England had to proceed one step at a time.
My 3 years in England is another stage that deeply influenced me. Here I’ll just mention two incidents related to myself and China. The first is that Chinese contemporary art suddenly became popular and attracted much attention in the West. Much space devoted to art, magazines, and even official art museums were exhibiting works of contemporary Chinese artists. Once, my college roommate told me how surprised he was when he first saw images of Chinese cities on TV. I did not expect to learn that in their world, China was so remote. I think I was the one who was surprised by this remark of his! As far as they were concerned, China and Hong Kong were one and the same place; there was no difference. No acknowledgement was made of Hong Kong art in any discussion of Chinese contemporary art trends. I do not feel that Hong Kong’s finest artists are in any way inferior to artists from China or other places in the world. However, I was upset and confused when I picked up a painting album, carelessly discarded by the school library, documenting Hong Kong’s first participation in the exhibition in Venice.
The second incident is not an incident, but rather the impression I have as a dweller in both Hong Kong and London. When I was in Hong Kong, whether in school, art galleries, or in the company of my art teachers, my works were referred to as “Western paintings”. However, in England, my works became “Oriental painting”. One day in London, for some unknown reason, I had a sudden craving to see traditional Chinese calligraphy, and wished very strongly for a whiff of that pungent ink that I had formerly so disliked. I had always thought that racial distinction was not a matter of skin color, but of deep inner feelings. The sudden impulse to “look upon traditional Chinese calligraphy” was perhaps the same as a craving to eat Cantonese roast goose. However, I don’t believe it is a sudden awareness of one’s identity, but rather a reverence for the past and that which is ancient.
Besides studying contemporary art at that time, another field that attracted me was ancient Greek, or the even earlier Western art. I always carried paper with me and often made sketches of the sculpture in the British Museum. Both the British Museum and V&A are fine places for sketching. The medieval paintings in the National Gallery were also among my favorites. I was always attracted by those somewhat rigid-looking human figures and compositions.
At a time when I was constantly exposed to contemporary art, my admiration for this “ancient and rigid” element was growing increasingly strong. Perhaps this was some sort of reflex. I think artistic creation is a manifestation of the artist’s existential quest, and, as such epitomizes society. Thus curators should not blame artists if their works display too much individuality, for it is both inevitable and essential. Moreover, they should examine their own ability to interpret the relationship between the artwork and its social significance. I believe works of art that exert a powerful attraction all come from the hands of those artists who are uniquely individualistic, a quality that enables them to either dismiss or accept pressure or criticism. A discerning curator can always find a way to create a bridge between individuality and society, opening up possibilities of communication and imagination, and freely accessible to everyone.
This special “ancient and rigid” quality is a stage that every culture experiences. It is a phenomenon that I find extremely interesting. Long before the Internet age there were already signs of “globalization” among mankind, and it seems likely these emerged in the absence of communication.
Something else I have become aware of is that throughout my former years, both in my painting and in my life, I was seeking a certain special quality. Gradually I discovered that which I had been seeking and traditional Chinese painting sprang from the same source. For example, I have always disliked the feeling of oil paint on canvas, and preferred the feeling that acrylic paints give of having thoroughly permeated the wooden board. That is, until I went to England, where I found a canvas medium that could absorb water like paper, at which point I resumed painting on canvas. When I paint, I rarely use a broad brush unless coloring a large background, and prefer, instead, to use the round brush. In other words, a painting is a combination of broad and thin lines, and I have painted them in the way trees are painted in traditional Chinese painting. Take my personal life, for example. I make it a practice to keep a certain distance from society, and my studio in Fo Tan, with its mountain view, gives me the feeling of a sanctuary where I can escape from reality. This is how I deal with the displeasure I feel towards society. I don’t believe all of these aspects are only found in traditional Chinese art. Perhaps other cultures have produced them as well. However, just because of my experience of studying art in Hong Kong, it was the door through which I entered in my quest for a creative resource.
March, 2011, Hong Kong