Renaissance man's Voyage showcases art, science

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 September, 2009, 12:00am

For the next seven weeks until November 15, visitors to the Louis Vuitton store in Harbour City have a beautiful object to look at in addition to the travel bags, shoes and jewellery - a 15-metre painting called Voyage of Discovery.

'It goes from nothing to the start of the universe and back to nothing,' said artist Dominic Lam Man-kit. 'I try to capture billions of years in 15 metres.'

It goes from the Big Bang, a cascade of colours, to a galaxy of stars and planets and the deep dark blue at the end of the universe.

The piece is a mixture of art and technology, like its creator, a Renaissance man who has packed into a single life the careers and experiences of many different people.

A US citizen, Lam finds Hong Kong the perfect base to develop his wide range of interests - business, art, philanthropy, academia and following Liverpool and Manchester United in the Premier League.

The son of a poor immigrant family from Shantou, he wanted to be an artist. However, his parents insisted that he studied something more useful; he decided to become a scientist and went to Canada at the age of 17 on a one-year scholarship.

His family was so poor that they could not buy him an air ticket - a family friend gave him a one-way ticket to Montreal and C$200. Lam supported himself with odd jobs and two full-time jobs during the summer holidays.

Lam has degrees, including a doctorate, in mathematics, theoretical physics and medical biophysics and taught at Harvard Medical School and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

He set up the first biotechnology company in Texas in 1985; in 1989, it became a limited company worth US$30 million, making him financially independent enough to retire.

He has received 14 US patents, including one to give vaccines in an edible form, rather than by injection.

He conceived the idea to help China combat hepatitis B, which affects hundreds of millions in Asia; an injection costs 50 US cents, while an edible vaccine made from plants could cost less than one US cent.

He has set up businesses, in health and environment, with an annual turnover of US$1 billion.

In 1999, he founded the World Eye Organisation (WEO) to prevent and treat eye diseases.

A successful academic and businessman, Lam has never stopped pursuing his passion for art. Since 1990, he has been painting, with exhibitions in Hong Kong, Washington, Houston, Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing. In 2001 and 2002, he did two large artworks for the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing.

In 1999, after 35 years in the US, he decided to return to live in his hometown. 'I can live anywhere but this is the freest and most exciting city in the world. It is very free and very safe.'

The picture in the Louis Vuitton store combines two of his passions - science and his art. It uses a technique he discovered by accident in 1980, while developing black-and-white photographs of the retina at Baylor College of Medicine.

He found that the application of the colourless solutions used in black-and-white photography to photographic paper could give rise to the full spectrum of colours without using pigments. The colour is generated by a process called 'chromoskedasic' scattering of microscopic particles and is the same process which makes us see the sky as blue.

Since then, Lam has used this process as the main technique for his painting to create stark and powerful images of abstract, human and landscape subjects. 'It is about producing colour not through dyes or pigments but more how the universe produces colour. For the first time, we can reproduce on paper the exact same way that the universe itself creates colour.'

In applying this technique to his art, he uses his knowledge of Chinese art and culture and his knowledge of science. His mentors include renowned masters of traditional Chinese paintings and Nobel prize winners in science. 'One of my teachers told me that I should draw on my knowledge of the eye and visual sciences because this is what I know.

'The best art often comes from one's deepest experience.'

Lam has taught others to use the technique and many do.

'I believe in 'copyleft'. Others are welcome to use my inventions.'

At the start of June, Louis Vuitton asked him to do a painting to mark the 40th anniversary of the landing on the moon.

He went to the Harbour City store, one of only two of its 435 in the world - together with the flagship on the Champs d'Elysees in Paris - with space set aside as an art gallery.

Outside, he found a queue of customers waiting for the doors to open; inside, he found a long, narrow corridor that was the art gallery and designed his work accordingly.

He spent a month conceiving the picture, before painting it during two breathless weeks in his apartment on the 40th floor of a building overlooking Victoria Harbour. 'When I paint, I sleep a few hours a night. The creative process stimulates adrenalin.'

An associate made a video out of it, after hours of painstaking editing, which runs on the third floor of the store on a giant television screen.

The Hong Kong store is the second-largest Louis Vuitton outlet, after the flagship, in terms of size. It is the mecca of brand-conscious Chinese who queue patiently at the cashiers to pay for their products.

One reason Lam returned to Hong Kong in 1999 was to be closer to China. Previously, he had travelled to the mainland up to twice a month, earning the nickname 'Pan Am Lam'.

The focus of the WEO, the charity he founded in December 1999, is China. 'It has millions of visually handicapped people, especially the poor. Our aim is an eye centre in each of the 30 provinces.

'Currently, we have seven and an eye research centre.'

The centre provides free eye operations and examinations and trains ophthalmic professionals. It relies on donations from individuals and corporations.

In July 2007, the WEO opened a Torsten Wiesel Research Centre at the West China Medical Centre in Chengdu to engage in basic and clinical research, especially on eye diseases most prevalent in Asia.

It is named after Wiesel, a Swede who received the 1981 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine with David Hubel for their discoveries on information processing in the eye. Wiesel is a member of the WEO board and flew to Chengdu to attend the opening ceremony.

Lam studied under him at Harvard and considers him one of his life teachers. The two have remained in touch since Lam's arrival in Harvard in June 1970. 'He told me that being either a scientist or an artist should be like a vocation, not a job. If he had not been a scientist, he would have been an artist.'

Another mentor is sculptor Ju Ming, who invited Lam to Taiwan to learn sculpture.

'He suggested that since I had spent 30 years on vision research, I should focus on painting a series based on the eye and visual processing; this must be a subject that was most famous and passionate for me.'

Lam is divorced, with two children. His son is a paediatrician who lives in Houston and his daughter a lawyer who lives in Los Angeles.