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” of Hong Kong, aptly named Fotanian. In celebration of 10 years of community, an unprecedented 260 artists and gallerists opened 80 studios to the public for two consecutive weekends in January. In a limited amount of time before the studios opened to the public, I visited one of ten industrial buildings claimed as artist space: 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 accordion-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 10th. 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, and the toymaker were the original worker bees here. Now these 13 parallel honeycombs have been whitewashed and replaced by the contemporary artist: worker bee by choice.
These vertical flats are large (for Hong Kong) and lofty, with very desirable high ceilings. Most are rented or shared, but the successful artist has bought a unit of his or her own and invested in impressive high-tech minimalist compact organization systems. It was of equal interest to view the art as it was to take a peek at the intimate space: trinkets, paintbrushes, books, and cooking utensils. In the building I was in, none of the artists had made any variations to the plumbing or to its appearance: a mere toilet in the back that (according to several artists’ accounts in the catalog) backs up from time to time, which must be unpleasant.
I was pleased to see the sculpture of Danny Lee Chin-Fai in his 12th floor workshop. Danny is one of the most successful sculptors in Hong Kong and his “Dance of Clouds and Rain” is a permanent fixture in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt Macau. Three life-sized motorcycles lined the floor of his studio in various stages of completion, it seemed. Their edges smoothed and rounded, one was in stone, and another appeared to have been dipped like a strawberry into molten silver. In the back of his workshop, a large mercury-like “droplet” rang distant bells with Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate.” Chin-Fai was preparing for a solo show, Reconstructing Landscape, at the Hong Kong Art Center and for 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 media that all seem to feed off of each other: paintings of scenes from old Chinese movies (with every English subtitle written along the bottom carrying a double entendre), photos of paintings, video stills of old movies, paintings of Hong Kong street scenes, and the beloved Hong Kong taxis (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 Sistine Chapel. At 340 centimeters high by 740 centimeters wide, the image is a collage-like piecing-together of 3 by 5 inch photographs. Upon closer inspection, one sees that both God and Adam are Chun Fai’s self-portrait, which seems to speak to the artist’s ability to reproduce or replicate himself through art. As Chun Fai relates, “In contemporary art, the artist precedes the art,” and thus his perpetual use of the self-portrait is perhaps his best calling card. Adam’s body has been reconfigured with the highly polished plastic musculature of a doll, and equally as striking, the winged angels encircling God have been replaced by plastic doll faces. This piece breathes “Made in China,” and his use of fabric and dolls is a direct reference to China’s position in global commerce as a place where the rest of the world goes to have things made, as well as a nod to his immediate surroundings—the warehouse where he comes to work every day—and its history.
Blue Lotus Gallery on the 5th floor, run by Belgian transplant Sarah Von Inglegom (who later reported over 2,000 visitors a day during this event), has arguably the best feng shui in the building. Situated in a corner, two walls boast large windows that look out over green hills. Koon Wai Bong’s works were beautifully showcased in this peacefully minimalist setting. Koon has masterfully harnessed the skills of landscape ink brush painting on long, vertical surfaces of silk that are a signature of traditional Chinese art. Yet his works are strikingly modern, effectively juxtaposing starkly negative spaces with the boldly positive, and creating a balance that echoes the artist’s synthesis of tradition and modernity. A rising star, he received the “Hong Kong Contemporary Art Biennial Award” in 2009. (Interestingly, he paints from home.)
Living in Hong Kong, one hears mostly about the brand name galleries (Gagosian just opened here last week) and their international stables of artists. If a dealer thinks you have star appeal, it will happen for you here in Hong Kong: the Hollywood of the Asian art market. Yet, what’s it like to be a living, working Hong Kong artist? If you’re lucky, you’ve snagged a studio space at Fotanian. Let’s just hope that the looming apiarist with his smoker labeled “rising property rates” doesn’t rout this colony anytime soon.