Not-yet Famous Five

by Joyce Hor-Chung Lau
Sunday Morning Post, The Review, Aug 22, 2004, p.7. 
The diverse works at Hanart TZ’s Summer Show reveal some impressive, original talent among budding Chinese artists…
Gallery owner Johnson Chang Tsong-zung opens his recent show of five Chinese newcomers’ works with a quip. “This isn’t going to be formal,” he says. “I’m just going to introduce the artists since… well, nobody knows them yet. Actually, let’s start with their parents.”
Chang isn’t totally kidding. The five 24-to-30-year-olds represented at Hanart TZ’s Summer Show are relatively unknown, especially compared with the big-name, big-selling artists the gallery usually promotes. Most of the audience is made up of beaming parents and art-school teachers, posing for snapshots as if it’s a school graduation.
The first thing I see, walking through the door, is a group of youngsters who look as if they’re dressed for a rave, gathered around a blue dress shirt on a hanger. Oh no, I think, not another twenty something Tracy Emin wannabe who’s put a man’s shirt on a hanger and called it art.
A closer look at 24-year-old Kwan Sheung-chi’s A Shirt I Wore to Work (2004) reveals a clever, subtle and well-executed piece. He has pulled apart one of his own work shirts – which he used to wear at his day job at a corporate art leasing company – and painstakingly written “I am artist” over and over in tiny copperplate rows on the fabric. Having created something like the pin-stripes of a traditional work shirt, he then re-sewed the cloth into a well-tailored shirt.
A Shirt I Wore to Work is a part of a series that explores the lines between an idea for an art piece and its execution – between new conceptual art and old-fashioned handicraft. Other pieces include a tracing book covered in the same “I am artist” script, as well as a pile of Chinese-character exercise books that are the bane of every Hong Kong student’s existence. Those who want to buy the books will be charged $100 per hour for the time it takes Kwan to fill them with his neat calligraphy. The point, again, is to explore how the labour behind creating art is priced and appreciated differently form other kinds of work.
Kwan’s installations stand out because they are, by far, the show’s most cutting-edge. His presence is also notable because he’s a Hong Kong artist included in a Chinese art show. This marks a trend for galleries to take a broader view of what it means to be a “Chinese artist” a term that used to be synonymous with “mainland artist”.
In today’s age of increased travel, overseas study and open borders, it’s acknowledged that the new generation of Chinese artists share a certain aesthetic, whether they’re from Hong Kong, Taiwan, the mainland, the US, Europe or elsewhere.
Given the numbers of young artists who’d love to be part of such a show, Hanart has chosen well. All five artists use Chinese themes and symbols, but are distinct from each other and others in the field. This group has resisted every young artist’s temptation to copy. They stay away from traditional landscapes and calligraphy, but also steer clear of what’s fashionable in today’s contemporary Chinese art market. There are no giant leering bald heads, video-game imagery, pop art or ironic Mao portraits.
Dominating the room are large oils by Li Songsong, who works in Beijing’s Factory 798 artists’ compound, in a former East German built factory. It’s an appropriate venue, given the serious, military nature of Li’s works, which are marked by harsh unforgiving angles, dull colours and political overtones.
For his first Hong Kong show (and his first visit here), Li presents four works based on politically important 20th-century Chinese photos, painted in black and white, with only a touch of sepia or yellow to give them a dated look.
“They might be a little strong for Hong Kong people,” Li says, in a barely audible whisper. Measuring almost three metres long, Wait (2002) shows four battle scenes in which soldiers wait tensely with their weapons, but nobody dares move a muscle. It’s based on the grainy images used in all mainland textbooks, and Li says mainland Chinese immediately know how to read between the lines. They identify the better-equipped soldiers as General Chiang Kai-shek’s troops. The ones without helmets are peasants resisting Japanese occupation. Some people can even identify the exact photo or geographical location, the images are such an integral part of China’s collective consciousness.
“Americans look at these and think they’re of Vietnam,” Li says. He doesn’t intend to indicate whether he approves or disapproves of war. Still, his message is clear: in the complicated worlds of politics and conflict, what is assumed knowledge in one culture can be interpreted as something radically different in another.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, aesthetically and emotionally, are the brightly coloured, cartoonish works of Silia Ka Tung, probably the popular favourite of the night. Voted last year by the London’s Royal Academy as “one of Britain’s most promising young artists”, the China-born Tung paints brilliantly hued swirls of psychedelic flowers, animals and crazy made-up characters on plain white backgrounds. With names such as Mambo and Salsa, her works show a finely tuned sense of composition and movement, as well as a multicultural outlook new to the world of Chinese art.
Tung’s free-flowing forms are in direct contrast to Au Hoi-lam’s intricate and multi-layered geometric forms, which the young Hong Kong artist uses to reflect her views of urban life in the digital age.
Prettier and more overtly Chinese in tone are Beijing artist Shen Ruijun’s delicate ink on silk paintings. Hanart’s exhibition shows some of her 2002 pieces, such as Dragon and Phoenix, and her more sophisticated 2004 Scholar Rock series. What’s interesting is seeing how the young artist – probably the least known among the five – has progressed from producing hesitant, awkward works to stronger, more graceful pieces in only two years.
That’s the beauty of an exhibition such as Hanart’s, which shows young artists while they’re still forming their identities and styles. Summer Show introduces a group of new names to Hong Kong audiences and, with woodblock prints starting at $800 and paintings at $12,000, it also encourages new, younger collectors.