Peggy Chan on Ecological Art Activism in Hong Kong  

Portrait of Peggy Chan. Image courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation.
Peggy Chan, Specimen Tree No.2, 2017-2019, cyanotype, sunlight, time, film, pins, cement, copper and wax, 23 × 172 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation.
Peggy Chan, Specimen Tree No.6, 2017-2019, cyanotype, sunlight, time, film, pins, cement, copper and wax, 23 × 172 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation.
Peggy Chan, Specimen Tree Series (No. 1–6), 2017-2019, cyanotype, sunlight, time, film, pins, cement, copper and wax, 23 × 172 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation.
Peggy Chan, Queen’s Garden, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.
Peggy Chan, Cup of Tea, 2015, sunlight, time, cyanotype, film, ink, Korean paper, acrylic on canvas, 80 cm (diameter). Image courtesy of the artist.
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ART Power HK

Through various techniques and multi-media installations, Hong-Kong artist Peggy Chan explores the complex and interwoven relationships between human beings, and urban and natural environments, underlying the unpredictability of tomorrow’s evolution of species. Caroline Ha Thuc sat down with the artist to discuss her practice and, in particular, her artwork nominated for the 2020 Sovereign Art Prize.

TEXT: Caroline Ha Thuc
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation

Portrait of Peggy Chan. Image courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation.

 

From collages to the display of objects or plants, you are using several mediums and artistic formats. The cyanotype technique, in particular, brings a typical blue hue to many of your artworks. When and why did you start working with this technique?

I first got in touch with cyanotype techniques at university, when I was learning about photography. The tones of blueness delivered by cyanotype have endless variations for recording images. Such uniqueness attracts me to explore this technique in my artistic practice.

 

The blue from this technique seems to be an invitation to explore underwater worlds. What is your connection to the sea?

I really enjoy looking at the sea and the sky. They are both the biggest colour block in nature. With the sea, the colour gets deeper as you dive, unfolding into endless possibilities.

In my memory, there used to be a small pier at the backyard of my grandpa’s old home. He liked looking at the sea with me in his arms. Since I lived in Macau city when I was young, I did not have a lot of chances to get in touch with nature. I did not know how to swim at that time but I always travelled between Macau and Hong Kong by ferry. I remember the seawater as yellowy when departing from the Macau area, but that around Hong Kong it became green or blue.

 

Peggy Chan, Specimen Tree No.2, 2017-2019, cyanotype, sunlight, time, film, pins, cement, copper and wax, 23 × 172 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation.

 

Any connection with the typical blue of Portuguese ceramics (azulejo)?

In the past, architectural elements were where I usually saw blue. There were indeed these blue tiles everywhere along the streets and lanes in Macau that I really liked. The “cultural colour” of a place can be connected to our memories and impressions. Some artworks are about the preservation of such memory.

 

I feel that the marine ecosystem in Hong Kong tends to be neglected. Would you agree?

Frankly, I don’t understand as well. Some 60 per cent of the territory is covered by sea. Hong Kong owns a beautiful natural harbour and a unique coastal landscape, which has high biodiversity. However, Hong Kongers and the government rarely pay attention to the sea. Take the Chinese White Dolphins which are disappearing in the Hong Kong waters, for example: it seems that the government doesn’t care much. Local artists exploring this field are also less significant, with a general focus on the cultural side of the coastline. A case in point is the documentary Ballad on the Shore (2017) directed by Ma Chi Hang. With my practice, I wish to extend my ability and strength to bring about greater public awareness about the sea and coastline preservation.

 

Peggy Chan, Specimen Tree No.6, 2017-2019, cyanotype, sunlight, time, film, pins, cement, copper and wax, 23 × 172 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation.

 

The artwork that has been nominated for the 2020 Sovereign Asia Art Prize, Specimen Tree Series (No. 1-6) [密集標本系列 (No.1-6)] was first exhibited in Macau Museum in 2017. This time, you focused on Macau wetlands.

Yes, the whole exhibition was dealing with Macau’s ecological transformations, and especially with the conservation of wetlands. During my research, I was shocked by the fact that 90 per cent of these wetlands had already disappeared amid urban development. I finally found a wetland conservation site enclosed by construction hoardings. It’s unimaginable. How long can the animals and plants of this wetland live? I started visiting the remaining mangroves and wetlands, and while digging into the conservation records and news files, I found that there wasn’t much concern with conservation research.

 

Peggy Chan, Specimen Tree Series (No. 1–6), 2017-2019, cyanotype, sunlight, time, film, pins, cement, copper and wax, 23 × 172 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation.

 

How did you transform your research findings into an artistic form?

Artworks are a more sensuous way of expression. As I am not a researcher, this tree came from my imagination, mixing various image elements, like flowers, dragonflies, small fish, crabs, shells and so on. All of them are common creatures of the wetland ecology. I also tried to transform the two-dimensional image into three-dimensional, just like the shape of an actual tree.

 

In this collage, we cannot see human faces but fragmented parts of the human body mixed up with these organic elements: is it a call to better join or embrace the natural world against the usual divide between nature and culture?

I do believe that human beings are not eternal if we keep neglecting the oneness of humans and nature. Since humans are part of nature, by incorporating human fragments in the work, I seek to elicit a third-person perspective so as to encourage reflections on the environmental problems we are facing. I already created artworks featuring hybrid creatures, like my 2016 series “Moonlight on the Blossom.”

 

Peggy Chan, Queen’s Garden, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

There is still a great confusion coming out from this collage; are you suggesting that we are watching a state in-becoming, without knowing how this mixed up will turn out?

Yes, exactly. It is a state in-becoming, with unpredictable transformations and formation of objects. The collage also implies that things in the world are always combinations of different things. That’s why I like this technique.

 

What happened with your exhibition Hundred Species II” when you wrapped all the installation’s objects and displays with a blue plastic film?

This exhibition was part of the Art Basel Hong Kong period in 2019 and was held at Lucie Chang Fine Arts. I did this performance firstly to attract people’s attention about the ecological urgency, but also as protest gesture against the gallery’s last moment decision to replace my works with a much more commercial artist, KAWS. They said they needed to prioritize sales and consider the trend of the public. As an artist, I felt really helpless about the situation.

 

Are you optimistic about ecological issues in Hong Kong? 

No, particularly with the plan of Lantau Tomorrow.

 

Peggy Chan, Cup of Tea, 2015, sunlight, time, cyanotype, film, ink, Korean paper, acrylic on canvas, 80 cm (diameter). Image courtesy of the artist.

 

You are also a founder of “Art Together.” How do you link your artistic work with this non-profit organization?

Both my artistic work and the projects of “Art Together” are closely attached to ecology and community-based projects, reflecting what I am concerned about the most. For instance, we recently organized the third “Fishpond Sustainable Festival,” a community-based art project taking place in the wetlands in Tai Sang Wai. It is sometimes easier for the audience to engage when we don’t focus solely on art. We are also very willing to work with organizations of different backgrounds, in that case with our long-term partner Hong Kong Birds Watching Society, who have been striving to promote public appreciation and conservation of wild birds and ecology.

 

Would you define your practice as cultural activism?

I think so. In my practice, art serves as an entry point for rethinking the multiple possibilities offered by the public space. I employ creativity to incite more thoughts and imagination for pursuing the betterment of society. Our projects and my practice seek to bring changes to the community through art. Art should not be only accessible in white cubes or museums and I strive to break down these bounding walls.

 

Stay tuned with the website for updates of 2020 Sovereign Art Prize.

 

 

About the artist

Peggy Chan Pui Leng (Hong Kong) holds a BA in Fine Arts from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University. Based in Hong Kong’s Cattle Depot Artists’ Village, she works with media that capture time and light, often employing the use of cyanotype – a photographic process dating from the 19th century. Chan uses these processes to create richly layered worlds that evoke elements of daily life – the past, and possibly future.

Chan’s works have been shown throughout Asia, most notably in Hundred Specie, Macao Museum of Arts (2017), Jeonnam International Sumuk Biennale, Mokpo, Korea (2018), The 2nd CAFAM Future Exhibition: Observer- Creator, The reality representation of Chinese Young Art, CAFA Art museum, Beijing (2015), Hong Kong Female Artists Exhibition, St. Petersburg State University, Russia (2018) and Sparkle! After One Hundred, Oil Street Art Space, Hong Kong (2015).

 

 

 
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