by Liz Riviere
Printed in the Brooklyn Rail, March 2011.
With all the talk about the disappearance of bees lately, I thought I’d head off to see a modern hive of another sort. This weekend brought me to Fotan, a section of Kowloon, just North of Kowloon Tong, to ‘one of the most important creative clusters’ (as the catalog introduction says) in Hong Kong.
Two weekends in January featured open studios in which the public could visit artist studios and galleries of ten industrial buildings all within walking distance from eachother. In a limited amount of time before the studios opened to the public, I made it to the building #1: The Wah Luen Industrial Center.
While the sun basked the outdoors in a piercing white light, it was dark and frigid in these hallways and a stank perfume spanked you at the entrance from the fish ball factory next door. I felt a little funny venturing as a lone female into an empty pink accordian-doored elevator wide enough to safely accommodate me and the contents of my entire apartment.
Thirteen floors, but the elevator only takes you to the tenth. I climbed the remaining three, immediately aware of the building’s history. Before most Hong Kong factories made financially necessary retreats back across the border into China, the steel worker, the seamstress, the toymaker were the original worker bees here. Now these thirteen parallel honeycombs have been white washed and replaced by the contemporary artist: worker bee by choice.
I was pleased to see the sculpture of Danny Lee Chin-Fai at his 12th floor workshop. Danny is one of the most successful sculptors in Hong Kong and his Dance of Clouds and Rain sculpture is a permanent fixture in the
lobby of the Macau Grand Hyatt. Three life-size motorcycles lined the floor of his studio in various stages of completion, it seemed. Edges smoothed and rounded, one was in stone, another appeared to have been dipped like a strawberry in a flawless coating of molten silver. In the back of his workshop, a large mercury-like ‘droplet’ rang distant bells with Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate. He was preparing for a solo show Reconstructing Landscape at the Hong Kong Art Center and the imminent publication by AsiaOne of a plush 230-page book covering two decades of work.
On the 10th floor, it wasn’t just Chow Chun Fai’s charisma that drew a crowd. Chun-Fai works with several different mediums that all seem to feed off of eachother: paintings of old Chinese movie scenes (every English subtitle written along the bottom carrying a double entendre), photos of paintings, video stills of old movies, painting of Hong Kong street scenes and the beloved Hong Kong taxi (he used to drive one). Perhaps most successful was the image on the ceiling of the artist’s studio, The Creation of Adam (2006), a mocking recreation of a little something you might see in the Sistene Chapel.
34cm high by 74cm wide, the image is, in effect, a collage like piecing-together of 3×5” photographs. Upon closer inspection, one sees that both God the Father and Adam are self portraits of the artist, which seem to speak to the artist’s ability as creator to reproduce, replicate oneself through art. As Chow Chun Fai relates, “In contemporary art, the artist precedes the art” and, thus, his perpetual use of self-portrait in all of his work is perhaps his best calling card. Adam’s body has been reconfigured with a highly polished plastic musculature of a doll and, equally as striking, once-winged angels encircling God have now been replaced by plastic doll faces. This piece breathes “Made in China” and his references to fabric and dolls are a direct retelling of China’s position and role in global commerce as a place where the rest of the world comes to have things made– as well as a reference to an awareness of his immediate surroundings and their history– the warehouse where he comes to work every day.