What have you learned from researching and promoting arts education early in your career?
I started off promoting Chinese ink painting, creating a Chinese painting syllabus and running the Hong Kong Visual Art Magazine. I held classes for primary and secondary school teachers, organised the All Round Contact with Chinese Historical and Cultural Development exhibition which celebrates their achievements. The main focus was to lay the groundwork for Chinese painting education. These days, there are more Chinese painting exhibitions for kindergarten and primary school students, and the students aren’t simply copying teachers’ or famous artists’ works, and are painting the themes of their own choices. I see that as an improvement.
Image courtesy: the Artist
Why did you switch from using Chinese ink to corn husks as creative medium?
It happened by chance. During SARS in 2003, I travelled to the former Yugoslavia to visit my relatives and bought a couple of corn husks dolls as souvenirs for relatives and friends. It was then I started thinking about the possibility of using corn husks as a creative medium. After my retirement in 2013, I travelled to Serbia. I encountered corn husks once again in a gallery featuring amateur artists and their corn husks dolls. I started working on the medium with a group of friends when I came back to Hong Kong and it’s been nine years since, making numerous corn husks dolls, covering timeless and universal themes. In fact, I was doing a lot of scenery sketches in Chinese ink at the same time when I travelled across Europe. I painted handscrolls that were over ten metres long, including Journey on the Path of Van Gogh, Trip in Sicily, Revelation from Dunhuang Murals and more.
What’s so special about corn husk?
Corn husk has a distinct, crêpe-like fibre texture. It varies depending on whether it’s wet or dry; as in corn husk is stretchy when wet but more moldable when damp. In terms of water control, it’s somewhat similar to Chinese painting. You can guide and constrain paint pigments while they are moist, but they can’t be altered after the painting dries. That’s the uniqueness of corn husk. Once you acquire an understanding of it, you can have a lot of fun throughout the creative production process.
What inspired you to meld Dunhuang apsaras with corn husks, a practice you pioneered in 2019?
In 2018, the Hong Kong Heritage Museum and the Dunhuang Academy co-presented a large-scale exhibition – Digital Dunhuang — Tales of Heaven and Earth. Ms Chan Shuk Wai was the docent for our White Box Friends. Subsequently, the group invited Ms Chan to be our guide when we visited the Mogao Caves.
In 2019, my friends from White Box Friends and I followed Ms Chan to the Mogao Caves for a five-day trip. Inside the caves, I found myself in awe of the mural’s subject matter drawn from ancient Chinese history using an array of techniques. The Mogao Caves are indeed a vast repository of cultural heritage. I asked myself: Isn’t there a resemblance between the flying apsaras’ fluttering ribbons and the shredded corn husks right in front of me? On that account, I created my first corn husks apsara. The form of corn husks is akin to the beautiful lines in Chinese painting; the aesthetic is very much to my liking and henceforth, I started expanding my practice.
Image courtesy: the Artist
Can you share with us some of your memorable moments during your exhibitions in Italy and Serbia?
There were many memorable moments presenting in Italy and Serbia. Last Summer we toured two city-run galleries in Serbia. White Box Friends had had years of experience exhibiting in the city of Pirot. The venue in Milan was a conserved heritage building next to the famed Cimitero Monumentale, a veritable free open-air sculpture museum. The exhibition venue, like JCCAC, was previously an industrial complex that made parts for steam locomotives. The factory was huge with buildings on four sides and a courtyard in the middle. Aside from the local audience, there were also quite some foreigners including overseas students from Mexico, Russia, Japan and China; and even football players from Kyrgyzstan. The different faces I saw allowed me to truly experience Milan as a cosmopolitan city.
Image courtesy: the Artist
What prompted you to take your students and artists to Dunhuang?
We were propelled by Digital Dunhuang — Tales of Heaven and Earth, an exhibition co-organised by the Hong Kong Heritage Museum and the Dunhuang Academy in 2018. Huge thanks to Ms Chan Shuk Wai for sparing no effort in hosting seminars for White Box Friends, equipping us with background knowledge prior to the Dunhuang trip. She told us the story of Chang Shuhong, a Chinese painter known as the “guardian of Dunhuang”, so we could recognize how pioneers who embraced Western culture cherished their own country’s cultural heritage. I also hoped more people would get to know Dunhuang, protect the art and culture of Dunhuang, and learn about cultural harmony as well as history.
Co-presented by︰JCCAC, White Box Studio, White Box Friends
Can you tell us more about Classics Revisited．Classics Reinvented, your featured exhibition at JCCAC Festival 2022?
Classics Revisited．Classics Reinvented is an exhibition that tells the stories of every artist’s contemplations. Dunhuang is not the only classic revisited; this is about each individual’s cultural heritage inspiring their creative work. We saw Dunhuang, Byzantine art in the Balkans and murals from the Renaissance in Italy. Surveying their similarities and differences served as an interesting research proposal. Hence we invited artists and students from Serbia to submit their works to this exhibition, and artists from Milan to tell their stories. Sophie Yu, a young local artist who had studied mural painting in Dunhuang, created a fresco copy of the Bodhisattva. There will be two public workshops in which Sophie will demonstrate the making process of Dunhuang murals. Among the works of the Serbian artists is a copy of an angel portrayed in Byzantine fresco paintings. Louis Lo’s statue shows Buddha lifting his arms, looking for his head. Perhaps his head is in the British Museum, Musée Guimet, or in the hands of another museum or art collector in the West! Rosanna Li’s work reminds me of the group of people falling into the river in the Dunhuang murals. Erica, an Italian artist, created a crowd using rice as the medium. They are all smiley faces except for one. As for me, I think of myself as liberated as the flying apsaras. Thus, I created the eponymous artwork with corn husks. Silhouettes of the celestial figures dancing amid trailing clouds depict a stillness in things moving, and a movement in things still. It will surely attract a handful of people who are into flying apsaras! At the end of the day, each of the 58 exhibitors has their own techniques and expressions. I will leave it to the audience to experience it for themselves!