Chow Chun Fai’s (A)political Art

Chow Chun Fai’s studio in Fotan.
Recent work by Chow
A tranquil corner of Chow’s studio.
View of Chow’s studio
Chow showing his latest experiment with material
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It’s been four years since he thrilled and irked the art world by running in Hong Kong Legislative Council election. Chow Chun Fai still maintains that he is not a political artist.


TEXT: Christie Lee
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and CoBo Social

If you’re one of those who believes wholeheartedly in the myth of the hard-drinking artist, then it’s likely you’d fall for Chow Chun Fai’s little experiment. “I purposely put that there,” the Hong Kong artist points to a well-stocked wine cabinet. “to see if any journalist would include it in their article,” the 36-year-old cracks a grin. Turns out that five did.

Chow Chun Fai's studio in Fo Tan.
Chow Chun Fai’s studio in Fotan.

When I commented that his studio looked decidedly neater from my last visit – during the 2012 edition of Fotanian Open Studios – “I am doing more of that now,” Chow waves to the drawings from his Captured from my mobile phone series. “So it’s a much cleaner creative process.”

The artist of course, is known for his long-running Painting on Movies, where he paints images from Hong Kong movies and adds his own captions, the latter oft snappy commentary on the state of affairs in the Pearl of the Orient. The industrial paint – a medium he stuck in earlier years – imbues the surface with sheen of glamour that is usually associated with movies. Curiously, the artist has never been obsessed about movies – “I had probably only gone to the cinema twice growing up. We were poor,” the artist notes. “In university, I watched what everyone else was watching, so I felt like it was more peer pressure than anything else.”

New paintings by Chow
Recent work by Chow

Chow is well aware that we are always seeing what’s in front of us – be it a movie, photograph or painting – is always through some sort of lens. Back at university, this lens took on a literal form when Chow once saw a movie through the lens of a camera ‘the whole thing was over-exposed, so the only thing I could was the subtitles!’ He fondly reminisces.

As industrial paint is being replaced by oil, Chow’s paintings – particularly his portraits – also became more luminous with softer contours. “I used to fear oil really. I never quite got the hang of it back at school,” he says of his ‘late awakening’. That’s not to say, that it’d automatically translate into sentimentality. ’Rarely do you get that outward display of emotions from me,” notes the artist. And even if there exist tears, they are likely to be pre-mediated, as in the case of the row of oils that hang behind Chow.

A tranquil corner of Chow's studio.
A tranquil corner of Chow’s studio.

There was a time when Chow and his contemporaries – many of whom who graduated from Chinese University in the years leading up to or immediately after the 1997 handover – deliberately strayed from talking about politics in their works. “We didn’t want to be called opportunists,” he recalls. “I think you saw it in other artistic fields, but that bridge between the visual arts and politics only came into existence recently…” he pauses before elaborating. “The 2006 Star Ferry incident was an example, as was the Tsoi Yuen Tsuen protests.” It’s something that Chow is cautious about to this day. “I mean, you do see artists riding on political events and whatnot to make art…” he trails off, declining to name any names.

The artist might still be cautious about confronting political issues directly, but it’s not too hard to see the theme of deceit that threads through his work. At his ‘I Have Nothing to Say’ (which might as well be retitled I Have A Lot to Say) show at Hanart TZ Gallery in 2015, the Captured from my mobile phone series shows the extent to which fake (North Korea has apparently landed a man on the sun?) can be masked as real news and disseminated.

Though Chow still resists the political artist label.

View of Chow's studio
View of Chow’s studio

‘I don’t call what I do political art, in the same way that I don’t call what I do conceptual art,” Chow says nonchalantly. This resistance to categories materialised during his campaign to run in the 2012 Legislative Council for the Sports, Performing Arts, Culture and Publication constituency. Does making art amid the street dance wannabes and Chinese opera of the Mong Kok pedestrian zone constitute performance art, or was it a part of the artist’s political campaign?

His campaign, of course courted far greater controversy, with many criticising Chow for endorsing the election format by his very participation in it. “To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have done it if it happened now,” he scratches his head. One is tempted to compare his action to the 60,000 people who voted for Edward Leung Tin-kei, with both being doomed affairs. “Well, but with me, there was real action involved,” he grins.

Chow showing his latest experiment with material
Chow showing his latest experiment with material

The idea of looking at something through a lens of sorts extends to his current research into whether masters like Caravaggio used chemicals to burn real images onto his canvas, before retracing them with his brushes. Much like the way that a camera works in today’s day and age. “This can be a very real explanation of why masters like Caravaggio and Vermeer were able to paint such lifelike portraits and objects, and overthrows assumptions that these masters must have been painting using God’s eyes.”

While Chow has little practical use for Caravaggio’s method in the modern age, one can rest assure that the camera obscura is in the trusty hands of Chow, who understands all too well that in the era of the image-saturated digital world, nothing is to be trusted.


Christie Lee is a Hong Kong-based arts journalist, her articles have been published in Art + Auction, Artsy Editorial, Art in Asia, Baccarat magazine and Yishu. She has a degree in English literature and political science from McGill University.

 
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