For Debbie Han, creating art requires time and a good deal of patience. To arrive at her latest work, the artist spent three years making 130 porcelain head sculptures, and threw away all but 10. Then she photographed the face of each sculpture and overlayed three or four frames in a single image to produce The Eye of Perception series, now on show at Cat Street Gallery's new space on Hollywood Road. These fuzzy, layered photos reveal in their complexity not only her struggle with the material, but, ironically, a clarity of vision.
'During that long process of trial, failure and endurance, I wondered if I could express the concept of clarity,' says Korean-born Han, 41, who moved to Los Angeles with her family when she was 10.
The eight photographs in the Eye of Perception series are of blurry, out-of-focus faces. Some have grossly exaggerated hooked snouts on top of button noses, while others feature wide, fat lips over thin ones. The multifaceted nature of each image invites viewers to make their own interpretation of who they are seeing.
Central to her work is how people interpret social values and perceive beauty; through it, she addresses questions of identity and contemporary culture. 'I'm an artist who is conceptually based and I believe in art that communicates with the public,' she says.
The exhibition, her debut in Hong Kong, features 29 photographic and sculptural works made over the past seven years. It's a large body of work that showcases Han's versatility and skill with different materials, including bronze, ceramic celadon and lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The exhibition was shown at Munich's mbf-kunstprojekte gallery and Seoul's Trunk Gallery this year.
The centrepiece is the Seated Three Graces, a digital LightJet print that won the 2009 Sovereign Asian Art Prize. The image, part of the Graces series, shows three seated nude women with luminous skin and Caucasian faces. At first glance, they appear to be marble statues that have been photographed. But in fact they are real-life nudes.
Han says she photographed Asian women in culturally specific poses that represent everyday life, then scanned the images into the computer before removing every hair and pore and smoothing out the skin texture. It was a painstaking process that Han describes as similar to painting.
'The rendering takes two to three months. It is the degree to which I've explored digital rendering that enabled me to achieve the kind of illusive quality of the image,' Han says.
Seated Three Graces went through three revisions and took three years to complete.
'I wanted to create a figure that simulated a European and an Asian, combined the past and the present, and deconstructed and connected with the here and now. I wanted to make an illusion with skin texture and the silhouettes to be so smooth, and for the shape to look like real and very Asian,' Han says.
Howard Bilton, founder and chairman of The Sovereign Art Foundation, says: 'I would say her work is pretty unique, I've never seen anything like it before. It shows great skill and it's not something that is a nice painting. Judges look for works that show the greatest level of skill and unique qualities. They aren't looking for something normal and well done; they are looking for innovation and skill, and her work has that in great abundance.'
Han describes her education and artistic career as following a 'path that was safe and conventional'. She graduated with an art degree in 1993 from the University of California, then, six years later gained a master's degree from the Pratt Institute in New York. She built a portfolio and exhibited her works around the US. In 2003, she was offered an artist-residence programme in Seoul.
'It became a life-changing experience. I was swept away by all that I was experiencing in Korea and the energy of the country,' says Han, who now divides her time between Seoul and Los Angeles.
'There were cultural clashes and contradictions that made me inquire more about the world and what defines Asia.'
Her art has been exhibited in museums and galleries around the world, including The Saatchi Gallery in London, the Seoul Museum of Art and Los Angeles' Contemporary Museum of Art.
Another highlight of her show is an installation, The Battle of Conception, featuring 32 celadon head busts sitting atop a wooden table. The pieces are set up like a giant chess game with half of the faces featuring a mish-mash of facial characteristics based on different ethnic groups versus 16 faceless busts. It's a battle of who is beautiful.
'If you look at society, who [sets] the standard of beauty? What are the factors? Who decides what is beautiful, what is ugly? Who decides what is right and wrong?' Han says.
'I think all social notions that we have are cultivated and move from one culture to another, depending on the country. I believe there is a cultural hierarchy in the world.'
So, which is the reigning culture? 'That's for the viewer to decide. What I'm interested in is the way in which we perceive reality. What makes you you, and me me?' she says.
'I studied painting and didn't have any background in sculpture before I started, but I cultivated it to make my ideas come true. [With new works] I don't create with the same material or form, it's always new to me. That's why I don't know what I'm doing next year.'
Until Dec 6. The Space (The Cat Street Gallery), 210 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan. Opening hours: Mon to Sat, 11am-7pm. Inquiries: 2361 1210