Fire-starter explores a burning issue

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 March, 2004, 12:00am

As bizarre as it might seem, setting things on fire is a daily part of Hong Kong life - whether it's sticks of incense stuck next to the ubiquitous pyramid of oranges in the home temple, or paper offerings for the dead, fashioned to look like houses, cars, mobile phones or other luxuries the deceased might want in the afterlife. With alarming regularity, children set off illegal firecrackers on rooftops, while the elderly stand on sidewalks praying over fires burning in flimsy red tins - probably praying for the safety of their wayward grandchildren upstairs. The Chinese burn things to play, to worship, to mourn and to celebrate.

This obsession with fire is the theme of artist Carol Lee Mei-kuen's first solo exhibition 'To Set Fire and Stir Wind', showing at SoHo's 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.

From a distance, Lee's artworks - human faces, flowers and birds drawn in a subtle palette of chocolates, creams and caramels - look like modern Chinese watercolours. In fact, they are collages created by hundreds of delicate pieces of xuanzhi, or traditional Chinese rice paper, burned into different shapes and shades of brown, and then layered scrap by scrap onto canvas. Instead of paintbrushes, Lee uses lit incense sticks to create her works. 'To burn things is a very traditional Chinese thing to do. It's part of our culture,' she says. 'Staring into a fire is one of human being's most basic instincts. Fire appeals to us at our most primitive level and conjures up our deepest emotions.'

Lee's exhibition starts with three small canvases in the gallery foyer. The first has barely perceptible human faces showing through the plain white background; the second is darker; and the third is burnt to a crisp. 'The first is the ideal person, totally peaceful, pure and calm. Of course, nobody's really like that,' Lee says. 'The second has some burn marks on it, some complications, some problems, but also some beautiful things. That's what I think is in most people's minds. The last is like what happens when you let something - a problem, a fight or a complication - get out of control and burn you to the ground.'

Control over nature is a recurring theme in Lee's work. 'When I start burning the paper, it's a bit random. It's not like you can really control fire. But if I can control the burning a bit, I can make something beautiful. If I let the fire go out of control, it will burn the paper to nothingness.'

Lee is not shy about referring to news topics. Rethinking of H5N1, for example, is a series of two pieces about the chicken flu. One shows a face looking away while chickens fly in the opposite direction. The other is of chickens falling down a vertical canvas with a crowd of hungry faces at the bottom looking up in expectation. 'In Hong Kong we killed so many chickens during the chicken flu because we are affluent enough to do so. Then we reprimanded other countries for not doing the same. But those people might be starving, and perhaps they can't bear to see so much food going to waste,' she says.

Women's Betrayer shows two female torsos, one with a darkened burned breast, another with a murky triangle around the pelvis. 'I have, by sad coincidence, three close friends who all have breast cancer. Another one of my friends has ovarian cancer, which has become even more of a social issue after the death of Anita Mui,' says Lee. 'I was surprised that, for many of my sick friends, their first concern was not health. They showed great resistance to the best treatment, which was to have a breast amputated or their ovaries removed. They were more concerned with how this changed their identity. How would others, especially lovers and spouse, see them now? Does it make them feel less like real women?'

The exhibit's strongest works are simpler ones that do not deal with topical matters so directly. Face to Face is a series of 19 square portraits of different faces from different races. The one square where the viewer might see his own reflection has a mirror. According to Lee, this piece asks whether we see ourselves as clearly as we think we do. In A Moment of Time, faces tumble through what looks like an hourglass. And in Lost in the Void of Kaleidoscope, tiny human forms are dotted on top of multi-layered flowers, which look like burnished versions of snowflakes children cut out of paper.

'Every pattern I burn is different, because I can't control exactly what I create,' Lee says. 'It's like the way snowflakes and people are created - each a little different and a little out of control.'

'To Set Fire and Stir Wind', 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, G/F 10 Chancery Lane, (behind the Hollywood Road Police Station), SoHo, until April 30, tel 2810 0065, Pieces from $10,000-$48,000.