Artist Chow Chun-fai has a lot more than nothing to say in new show
The bolshie idealism of artist's previous show at Hanart TZ Gallery is gone, replaced by a cynical resignation in the wake of Occupy Central protest
At first glance, there is something familiar about Chow Chun-fai’s latest solo exhibition. His long-running “Painting on Movies” series continues here, with more works capturing cinematic moments that speak to the artist’s preoccupation with local identities. There are two jaunty photomontages that are sly commentaries on the universal rhetoric of hero creation, a theme explored in Solitary Journey (2008) and other similarly meticulous applications of a macro camera lens.
Yet, there is a great difference between “I Have Nothing to Say”, which is held until September 12 at Hanart TZ Gallery, and his previous show in the same space two years ago.
The bolshie idealism is gone, replaced by a cynical resignation that his supporters in the 2012 Legislative Council election will find distressing.
The exhibition title gives the first hint of the change from major to minor.
The 2013 show was called “I Have Something to Say”. It took place after his election defeat but it included works that referred to the campaign and how he gave the establishment a run for their money in the sports, performing arts, culture and publication constituency. The conviction, the energy and the freshness from the campaign was still apparent despite his loss in the election.
Even then, Chow was losing faith in mainstream politics. He says “an invisible hand” was at work to make sure of a safe outcome for the establishment in 2012. The system of functional constituencies itself is also biased against anyone fighting for the rights of ordinary workers, he says.
But the government’s reaction to Occupy Central, which Chow took part in as a protester, and the way society has split between the “blue” and “yellow” camps, are developments that have stunned him, rendering him speechless and feeling helpless, he says. The last remnants of his faith in Hong Kong’s established politics are gone and he even questions the wisdom of Occupy Central activists running in the upcoming District Council elections.
“I can’t understand why they are doing it. When you’ve pulled off something as big as Occupy Central, why do you want to resort to ‘chopping down a big tree with a tiny blade’,” he says, using a Chinese proverb to express how futile it would be to try and make changes from within.
The past few months have seen him attempting to make sense of what is happening in Hong Kong through art. The day after the police fired tear gas at protestors in Admiralty on September 28, Chow started work on new, film-inspired acrylic paintings. These are included in the exhibition.
In Little Cheung, he has reproduced a scene from Fruit Chan’s 2000 film – an apposite study of the Sino-Hong Kong relationship set in 1996 that Chow has borrowed from before. Frozen on Chow’s canvas, bilingual subtitles included, is the scene where three children look across from the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront towards Tamar. One girl, who was born in the mainland, tells the others: “I know, it will belong to the People’s Liberation Army.”
“Anyone who knew about the September 28 incident will understand what I have painted here,” Chow says, referring to the protestors’ belief that the police had acted under Beijing’s orders.
There are also paintings based on Let the Bullets Fly, Jiang Wen’s 2010 film. In one, the character played by Jiang himself is seen saying: “What kind of stupid logic is that? You threaten me with a gun because I’m good?”
The wistfulness in some of the earlier works from ‘Painting on Movies’ – seen, for example, in the languid pose of Tony Leung in Internal Affairs: I Want My Identity Back – is replaced here by anger. In fact, the whole exhibition feels like the gloves have been taken off, the artist’s loathing for the mainland government and its cronies is even more naked than before.
Chow says he has tried to avoid direct descriptions of events, opting for more nuanced, oblique references.
But that subtlety is hard to detect in a section of the exhibition called “Captured from My Mobile Phone”. In the same way that Chow appropriates films to make statements about Hong Kong, the selection here reflects his view on mainland society.
Here are dozens of black and white sketches of widely circulated stories that Chow has read on his smartphone. Most are about events in mainland China: how students hired people to sit their overseas university entrance exams; factories that made fake eggs; professional audience members paid by producers to react appropriately on live television, etc. Rather than questioning the “fake in China” stereotype, Chow confirms it.
Chow set up his studio in Beijing between 2007 and 2010 to understand what it was like to live across the border. What he saw – from everyday details to major projects ahead of the Beijing Olympics – made him more fearful of efforts to integrate Hong Kong and the mainland.
“The stories I am showing are reminders that when people live in a place full of lies, their moral values change. We’ve got to protect Hong Kong from going down the same path,” he says.
Ironically, he says he feels more affinity with people in the mainland today as Hongkongers share more of their problems. “In the past, Hong Kong people wouldn’t get mainland films like the ones made by Jiang. The way he speaks, the exaggerated expressions, are all foreign to us. But now, I’m getting it. What his character says in Let the Bullets Fly definitely applies to Hong Kong, too,” he says.
The exhibition is, on the whole, pretty despondent. But light relief is found in the second room of the gallery, where Chow’s photo mosaics unpick the myth of heroes by reinterpreting one of many official, beatific visions of North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un, as well as a scene from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.
At the exhibition opening last week, Chow asked “professional audience members” to send him video clips showing they were moved to tears by his work, which was a nice gag.
Having turned his back on mainstream politics, Chow says he will help friends who are putting their names down for the District Council elections. Other than that, he remains tight-lipped about his own political plans.
“In 2012, I ran knowing I was going to lose. If I ever do it again, I’ll be running to win,” he says.
Hanart TZ Gallery, 401 Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central. Mon-Fri 10am-6:30pm, Sat 10am-6pm. Inquiries: 2526 9019. Until Sept 12