Artist's high-fibre staple diet

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 December, 1998, 12:00am

Chan Suet-fun has been mistaken for a fashion designer, a weaver, a tailor and countless other things, seemingly every time she tells someone she is a fibre artist.

'There is not much of a history in fibre arts, as far as Hong Kong is concerned,' she said. 'People tend to think of us as textile craftsmen rather than artists.' She can understand the misconception. After all, Hong Kongers are just beginning to grasp the concept of an installation. It may be some time before fibre artists are accepted into the mainstream.

To the uninitiated, fibre art is nothing more than handicrafts - pretty things more in line with a decorator's whim rather than real art. But to Chan, using fibre as a medium has a horizon as wide as one's imagination.

'Painters express with their brushes and colours, I happen to find a wider space for expressing myself using fibres,' Chan explained in a make-shift studio in Tsim Sha Tsui. 'Fibre art is much more encompassing, anything from paper to wool to silk can be made into artworks.' Chan, who recently returned to Hong Kong for her first fibre art exhibition from Holland, said she felt the attitude towards art had not changed dramatically since she left more than 15 years ago.

'There is a general lack of education about arts, which is the reason why I had to leave to go to Europe, where the support and recognition is much greater,' she said. 'I hope I can change that attitude.' The history of fibre art is rooted in textile art, consisting of the centuries old tradition of tapestry-making. But as the modern art movement began in Europe the concept was broadened to encompass any art that is made with fibre. Chan found herself liberated when she went to study in Paris, then in Maastricht, Holland.

'It was also enriching for me to be in a foreign culture, I feel like I am the bridge between Chinese and Westerners,' she said. 'In class we had these hippie types who went from doing tie dyes and weaving their own tapestries in the 1960s to becoming artists today, it was a great learning opportunity.' Likewise, the varied styles and mediums she uses reflect her multicultural background. From silk screens, to soft fabric sculptures, to artworks made from raw fibre, Chan's pieces create a broad vista that reveals a complex personality, continually seeking to experiment.

One of the strengths of fibre art is the artists have to make many of the fabrics and materials they use. 'You are making new discoveries about yourself and your art, the process itself is so important,' said Chan.

Admittedly, part of the process involves labour intensive days. Chan remembers bittersweet days of trying to make felt, her own silk, or making colouring out of onion skin and chestnut. 'As an artist you can't rely so much on ready-made materials,' Chan said.

Low points included her felt-making project which failed because she did not apply enough heat or pressure to the wool, and because the interlock weaving machine was too heavy for her to operate.

'Sometimes you fail, sometimes you chart a new path because of one mistake,' she said.

The results are just as fascinating. For example, Chan created what she calls a 'Chinese cabbage' sculpture with jute and wool, and a 'Chinese fan' with silk and wool fibre.

Although some may think the results are random, Chan delights in the expressiveness of her works. 'It's like an abstract painting.' She has also created a 'self-portrait' using leftover cloth, cutting out her features and stitching them together.

'I actually started to deconstruct myself, putting my facial features randomly.' The work looks somewhat Picasso-inspired. 'It has always been one of my favourites,' she said.

Chan does not mind being called a jack-of-all-trades. 'I would not want to paint because it is so limiting,' she said. 'I want to dabble in everything and become good at them all.' From Holland To Hong Kong. Visual Arts Centre, 7A Kennedy Road. Dec 6 (3pm-5pm) to Dec 13. Closed on Tuesday