Shum Kwan-yi, Sim
Shanshui (landscape) paintings often depict flora and fauna while your works feature vastly different objects. What prompted this breakthrough?
Shanshui paintings are often perceived as outdated and uninspiring because, to some extent, the imagery is disconnected from reality. This reality comprises the visual experience in the present moment and the social environment. However, the development of shanshui paintings is actually closely connected to society and is much more than a showcase of traditional techniques. An example is the monumental landscape painting developed during the Song dynasty. While nature was depicted as part of an ordered world by the literati and painters, it was in fact a response to society’s upheavals and unrest after the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, and the representation of a utopian world. Artistic creations should be relevant to the here and now. This belief prompts me to include what I perceive visually in daily life into my works such as pavilions seen on hiking trails, street signs, vessels often observed in Hong Kong waters and lighthouses. These components are assimilated into the shanshui paintings and collectively become a story that expresses my feelings and responds to current social issues.
There seem to be hints of the ukiyo-e genre in your works. Can you share with us the style of your works and how they evolve?
Traces of ukiyo-e in my works are probably attributed to Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” which had influences on me. Traditional Chinese shanshui paintings tend to be less concerned with depicting or capturing water’s forms. This is especially noticeable in literati paintings. Water was often represented through liubai (leaving blank areas) or simple lines. The detailed forms of mountains and formless water serve to accentuate the relationship between reality and imagination. In contrast, my paintings tend to have little liubai, if not often filled to the brim. This is not unlike our lives in the real world being filled with barrage of information and entertainment to the point of exhaustion. Water is captured in its different states through lines. The appearance of big waves, for example, creates a state of unrest that disrupts the feeling of serenity often associated with shanshui paintings, conveying a sense of danger for the viewers. Instead of portraying a utopian and metaphysical realm, I am more inclined to present a story belonging to the current era and place through shanshui paintings.
What significance do shanshui paintings hold for you?
I began to learn shanshui painting through forging. In the beginning, I was not particularly passionate about this art form. I had the impression that it was detached from reality and simply the technique-driven creation of a traditional-looking painting. It was not until an occasion when I was on a ship in Japan observing the outlying islands. The texture of the forest, covering the island tree by tree, is just like the various types of textural strokes used in shanshui paintings. It was the first time I understood how ancient painters presented nature through brushes. I became intrigued with shanshui paintings and wanted to use this art form to paint what I see around me. I later realised that there are all sorts of fascinating enigmas and stories behind shanshui, with mountains and water being subtle or veiled expressions of the painter’s views and emotions. For this reason, shanshui is a visual language and an indirect channel of communication with the viewers for me.
In addition to your focus on painting, what other art forms are you also engaged in?
Aside from graphic work, I wish to develop my creations further in the form of installation art to demonstrate the potential of traditional paintings through the use of space and objects.
Your work “The Inhabitant Islets” will be exhibited again in the upcoming exhibition “Poem of Soaring” in February. Elements of installation art are incorporated into “The Inhabitant Islets” to present ink paintings in a more contemporary approach. How did this idea come about?
“The Inhabitant Islets” is a series of 19 paintings presented as an installation. It depicts 19 deserted islands without public ferry access. With green lights illuminated from the back, they resemble one old closed-circuit television screen after another. The deserted islands are painted on silk as the material is translucent and its mesh surface, when illuminated, closely mimics the pixels on computer screen. The work attempts to convey the pervasiveness of surveillance in today’s world. Mobile phones, cameras and drones seem to be omnipresent in the 21st century, making it impossible to live an isolated and hermetic life like the ancient people. When even deserted islands are under surveillance, our privacy will not be immune from being monitored and recorded.
Any upcoming creative endeavours in the future?
I do not have a concrete plan for my creative works because they all come from my life and what goes on around me. Emotions and ideas will be communicated through creations when they are ready to be expressed. To be contemporary is to tell the stories of today.