Rather than profit-making or market values, I believed their importance lies in leaving some subtle but powerful inspirations in our ephemeral life.

Chan Po-fung

Chan Po-fung

Reading about art and design history, a lot of aesthetic developments were propelled by innovative pioneers who persistently weeded out the old rules. Like how Cézanne employed multipoint perspective to break away from the traditional representation of three-dimensional space in paintings; Duchamp’s Fountain subverted the conventional values of craftsmanship in the art world with everyday life objects; and the Bauhaus design style of Gropius brought functionality and the beauty of simplicity to the mainstream ornamental designs in his days.

Now times have changed, and so have the norms. Many say that commercial orientation and cost-efficiency-driven production model are two dominant forces restraining the growth of creativity in Hong Kong. Faced with such constraints, Chan Po-fung, resident artist and designer of studio Playback Concept (L6-16) at JCCAC, has demonstrated an avant-garde spirit to change the script. In response to the marginalisation of contemporary jewellery design in the market, Chan set up his brand Playback Concept, in a bid to open up a door for the sustainable development of this genre of design. Diverging from the mainstream, high-speed and de-humanised manufacturing mode, he has joined hands with the community to make hand-crafted products. In response to the decline of traditional smith crafts in the market, Chan has committed himself to carry on such skills, attempting to revitalise them through application in contemporary media. On his creative journey, we can see there is an adventurous spirit, crafting ways beyond the mainstream.

Q1. J

J: How would you describe your art practice?

A1. C

C: My practice is very encompassing, covering design brand, fine arts installation and community art project. I have a brand, Playback Concept, for handcrafted jade and metal accessories. I also have taken part in some visual arts exhibitions to showcase my sculptures. In addition, I have been dipping my toes into community-based art in recent years. I collaborated with The House of To Kwa Wan Stories (ToHome) and kaitak, Centre for Research and Development in Visual Arts, to initiate a series of art activities in the neighborhood. In light of my overall artistic approach, my creations often speak of materials conversion.

Q2. J

J: As you work across a wide spectrum of art forms, there must have been many turning points in your development. Starting from the beginning of your artistic journey, what was the impetus behind the establishment of your brand?

A2. C

C: I did not have any intention to set up a brand when I first graduated from university in 2012. I was keen on handcrafts and metalwork, and enjoyed reworking damaged jade pieces into my conceptual art and upcycling projects. My work gradually gained attention as contemporary jewellery, a marginalised genre not popular in the market due to people’s general disinterest in deep and obscure connotations – for instance, about the artist’s personal sentiments and views on interpersonal relationships. People generally seem to think that there is less room for contemporary jewellery to develop as a genre in Hong Kong, as compared with more popular art media such as ceramic and painting. I wondered whether I should just be realistic and go with the flow, but in the end I chose to put in an effort to fight an uphill battle for contemporary jewellery by creating my own brand Playback Concept.

“A flaw or a beauty of imperfection?”
Q3. J

J: So how is Playback Concept positioned in the local design sector?

A3. C

C: All my products are handmade. At first, the brand followed a more commercial-orientated development. But I quickly became frustrated with not being able to express my thoughts on social and critical issues, and also became bored with profit-driven repetition. I was eager to foster human touch and demonstrate social values that I treasure in the making process. Therefore, I began connecting with various artisans in the community, to share views on craftsmanship and to trigger collaborative productions. I tried to add social values to my work – an approach which people might deem peculiar and marginal. I once joined a training workshop for designers, in which the professor (an apparently rather successful designer) shared that, in order to launch a successful brand, the designer must be able to pitch his products with one short sentence. But I really cannot accept this kind of marketing canon, as I hope my work can be imbued with richer meanings beyond mere gimmicks.

Q4. J

J: On the other hand, what is the importance of artisanship to you? Why have you insisted on injecting craft elements into your products in this mass-production age?

A4. C

C: It is hard to explain. I just enjoy working with my hands and want to allow my pieces to develop gradually. Also, some traditional artistries ─ for example, metal raising ─ are on the verge of being lost, so I hope to inherit the skills and carry on the know-how.

Assembling local craftsmanship to inherit and sustain metal craft techniques.

Q5. J

J: As you mentioned, community is an integral part of your art. But what was the original drive which prompted you to engage in community art after launching your own design brand?

A5. C

C: Being someone who does not like staying in the ‘comfort zone’, I see community art as a branch of my brand, providing me with more opportunities for exploring various social issues. And very fortunate for me, some curators thought my upcycling pieces suitable for community art engagement and invited me to collaborate in such projects.

Q6. J

J: How does your work engage people in the community?

A6. C

C: I am not a social or community service worker. In my relational art, I usually make use of my crafts to link up different people, issues and objects – especially related to the residents, histories and cultures of a district. For instance, in an upcycling project presented by ToHome, I worked with local dwellers in To Kwa Wan to convert discarded mooncake boxes into new products. In the process, the participants shared knowledge about the district’s industrial history and local character. With community-based projects, I would consciously down play my subjective views, as opposed to how I usually approach my jewellery design work.

Q7. J

J: Any memorable story from your community outreach work that you can share with us?

A7. C

C: I remember a retired metal-raising craftsman that I once visited – he was in his eighties and ill under cancer treatment. Looking back at his vocation, he told me his love-hate feelings about being a metal-smith. His work had not brought him much recognition, but ironically the pursuit of excellence in his métier was his lifelong contribution. This provoked me to reflect on the real significance of artisanship or art-making. Rather than profit-making or market values, I believed their importance lies in leaving some subtle but powerful inspirations in our ephemeral life.

Q8. J

J: In retrospect, how has community art impacted the participants?

A8. C

C: I hope it helped enhance communication and connection between people. For instance, in the Play Depot project organised by kai tak, I set up a small hand-made gadget at the entrance of a mom-and-pop store, which attracted the attention of some passers-by to stop and chat with the proprietor – much to her delight! That little gadget became a catalyst for interpersonal connections.

Playdepot Community Project @Cattle Depot Artist Village
Q9. J

J: You set up studio at JCCAC only in recent years. Do you think the environment here has any influence on your artistic growth?

A9. C

C: The open environment of JCCAC welcomes visitors and is conducive to artistic exchange. As a de-commissioned factory building, the sturdy structure and thick walls enable me to carry out some pretty forceful metal-raising procedures. Many industrial buildings have now been partitioned into offices and are no longer suitable for metal-work. One of my artist friends told me that to avoid causing nuisance, he can only work in his studio in the evening after the office next-door has closed. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why most metal-works in Hong Kong are confined to jewellery making.

“The fan is swirling here, the wind is blowing there.”
Collecting broken jades, porcelains, various objects... to reconstruct the wind power kinetic installation via metal craft, setting in a scene of daily household. The fan is regularly blowing the fragments, the light gently passes through the cracks in between the objects. Next to it, is a TV looping the movement of the branch and leaves under the natural wind.
In my relational art, I usually make use of my crafts to link up different people, issues and objects - especially related to the residents, histories and cultures of a district.

Chan Po-fung

Q10. J

J: As said in some earlier interviews, you were planning to expand your production line to the community – to run business in partnership with neighborhoods. Any progress?

A10. C

C: The original idea was to develop a longer-term community-based production model. Many community projects in Hong Kong reply on sponsorship, which allows artists to be experimental and take risks. However, such programmes cannot deliver long-lasting impact as they get discontinued as soon as funding dries up. In this regard, I hope to establish some self-sustainable cooperative relationships within the community. Some art students with metalworking experience are now helping out in my production line and in the process, collaborators from the community also gains a sense of satisfaction. I hope that in some way this will make a contribution to society.