The fight for freedom lasts a lifetime
Animals do not need to fight for freedom. They already live freely under the laws of nature, and are likely incapable of doubting their own purpose or existence. Animals live free of worry about the future. Ruled by instinct, their existence is entirely focused on the moment and occupied by foraging and breeding.
Humans possess free will and the means to create what they needs to attain their aims. Their intelligence enables – and perhaps compels – them to investigate the order of the universe. And yet in spite of all their skill and talent, human beings have failed to achieve what animals already have: freedom.
Our attempts to extend our world have resulted in the exhaustion of our world’s resources. Our search for order in the universe has led to the development of a profusion of religions. No matter how ‘advanced’ our civilisation becomes, freedom seems to become more and more distant an ideal. Destiny is simply beyond our control.
My art attempts to investigate the relationship between the human condition and the order of the universe.
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French astronomer Pierre-Simon Marquis de Laplace wrote, ‘If there were a genius who knew all forces driving nature and the location of each single planet, and such genius could analyse all these data, he could then include as macro as movements of the biggest planets in the cosmos to as micro as the atomic movements into one single principle. There would be nothing unpredictable to him. The future could be just the same as the past.’
What de Laplace was describing is ‘determinism’, a concept that holds that every event can be calculated and predicted in a world with order and discipline. Can people seize control of their fate (and freedom) if they manage to attain such vision? Or is it impossible for people to change anything even if they know everything? Is free will just hot air?
It is unfortunate that the human world is not subject to a set of definite fundamental laws akin to those of physics. Human nature is unpredictable and irrational. Even if we were equipped and informed of universal laws, the future would still be impossible to predict, simply because of the human factor. As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born once said, randomness is a perception which is more fundamental than causality.
So how does randomness influence the nature of our lives?
Evolution attributes the diversity of life to randomness. Randomness provides the trigger for a primitive single cell to develop into an intelligent species. Certain random genetic mutations may benefit the organism by providing it with better survival and reproduction opportunities. Thus, the traits of randomness are kept in the gene pool. The characteristics of an organism are partly predetermined and partly dictated by chance, and that is why life in this world is so astonishingly complex and diverse.
Charles Darwin concluded in The Origin of Species that ‘… Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows… ’
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During my childhood I watched my mother carrying out all kinds of rituals: throwing moon blocks, drawing divination sticks, and even trying to communicate with the dead. For a long time I considered it as merely superstition, but now I see them as manifestations of a desire to control one’s own destiny within a universe that one does not completely understand.
In ancient times people used divination to delegate their right of decision making to a higher power. It was an expression of their respect and esteem to the order of the universe, as they believed the human race was a part of nature. Nowadays, people still seek divination as a means to control their own destinies, and they still seek help from the realm of the supernatural. Feng shui, horoscopes and gods are everywhere. All of them are end-products of fear.
Fear of danger and death is inherent to both humans and animals. But while Man racks his brains to find ways to beat the odds, animals can only rely on their basic instincts to survive. From another perspective, Man will exhaust any and all means to gain a sense of safety, even if it means placing their bets on such artificial things like legends, myths, religions and feng shui.
Have we actually known all along where we came from, but got lost for some reason?
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Modern humans (homo sapiens) are the only remaining species of hominid. Like chimpanzees, gorillas and apes, humans belong to the primate family, but are characterised by their erect posture and advanced brain. Our brains give us the capability to reason logically and learn leanguages, develop mutually beneficial social bonds, and master skills of great complexity. Humans are thus able to originate different beliefs, legends, rituals and social norms, which set them apart from other animals.
It is obvious that Man’s creativity is on a different plane from the basic instincts of animals. Humans have developed a high level of civilisation and shaped their physical world through creative and social organisational power.
The question is, how did mankind manage to evolve the high-level civilisation we see today?
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‘Taking action is the beginning of knowing, knowing is the result of taking action.’
Xing Zhi Xing by Tao Xingzhi
Standing erect was the tipping point for the development of the human race. As there is no need for a forelimb to support the body, both hands are free to develop further. The delicate and flexible fingers can touch and feel the world, investigating and receiving information just like an insect’s antennae. It was an evolutionary development that raised the possibility of creativity upon survival.
When humans first stood up, they found that they could use their hands to grasp food, to fight, to use rocks as tools. But while hands are crucial, I believe legs are the real crux of survival, since they give real support. Legs hold up the weight of our bodies to stand, to balance, to walk and to run.
‘For the Earth there were no roads at the beginning, but when many people pass that same way, a road is there.’
Hometown by Lu Xun
Humans have moved to different places in the quest for a better living environment, and they created more civilised living conditions with their hands. Other organisms rely on basic instinct to survive, and do not possess the creativity to transcend its restraints. Unlike animals, humans can investigate, mimic, explore and create. All these activities cumulatively form the collective wisdom of the human race; ‘civilisation’.
Scholars have recognised the use of tools as a sign of intelligence. Tool use has also been theorised as the ‘spark’ which stimulated the evolution of mankind through continual expansion of the brain. But actually there has been definitive cue to explain the expansion of the human brain over the past millions of years. Nonetheless, researchers in general believe that Man developed his abilities to invent and use tools due to the pressure of evolution.
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In Greek mythology, Prometheus and Athena created mankind and passed knowledge onto them. Zeus prohibited humans from using fire, but Prometheus – who pitied Man for his hardships – stole fire from Olympus for them. Enraged, Zeus fastened Prometheus to a cliff in the Caucasus, where an eagle pecked at his liver every day. As soon as Prometheus’s liver healed, the eagle would return to tear at it again – into infinity.
Was was fire worth the risk to Prometheus?
The use of fire was indeed another tipping point for the development of human civilization. It indirectly stimulated Man to multiply. Fire can be used to cook food, and the protein and carbohydrates obtained from cooked food enabled better nutrition. Fire can also deliver warmth, which allowed Man to extend his activities into the night and the colder seasons. The light of a fire helped safeguard Man from nocturnal predators. In all these respects, fire drastically reshaped human behaviour.
Eventually Man also found that with the help of fire, materials could be moulded into different shapes and be hardened or softened, leading to the invention newer and better tools for hunting, living, and fighting.
So, humans evolved to standing erect, to using their hands for exploring and fashioning tools rather than for supporting themselves. The discovery of fire later enabled them to transform materials and improve their tools further. Their brains developed concurrently. Were these events predestined? Or were they random developments?
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‘Other than being content with the land, he is also good-natured and thus is able to love.’
As Man hunted for food in the wilderness during the Stone Age, he was essentially nomadic, simply unable to live in one place for more than a short time. Only centuries later would the human race begin to cultivate food – a development which tied him to one dwelling. As his crops flourished, Man began to domesticate animals. Clay was used to make pottery. The development of agriculture ushered in a relatively stable phase in the history of Man.
But rather than sticking to farming for himself, Man was gradually drawn into commerce, starting businesses and moving into towns and cities. They did not like to rely on the earth for survival, and moved farther and farther away from its nurturing embrace.
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‘Cain has built a city. For God’s Eden he substitutes his own, for the goal given to his life by God, he substitutes a goal chosen by himself – just as he substituted his own security for God’s. Such is the act by which Cain takes his destiny on his own shoulders, refusing the hand of God in his life.’
The Meaning of the City by Jacques Ellul
In the Book of Genesis, Cain was exiled by God because he killed Abel, his brother. He then dwelt and farmed on his own and built a city he named after his own son, Enoch. His story reflects something fundamental about human nature – competition, jealousy and rebellion. From moving to settling down, civilisation evolved continuously and human beings established their supremacy over all other living things.
‘And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly”. And they had brick for stone, and lime had they for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth”. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the children of men built. And the Lord said, “Behold, the people are one and they have all one language, and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be withheld from them which they have imagined to do. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech”. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off building the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel, because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.’
Three significant achievements of civilisation have been mentioned in this biblical story. First, Man had started to exert more effective control of transformational technologies and built improved dwellings. Second, they had acquired the vision to plan and develop a city in the plain of Shinar. Third, the architectural and civil engineering technologies required for the Tower of Babel revealed mankind’s capabilities at the time, and the fact that people had already been living in clusters for generations. Two dark traits of human nature are also exposed in this story: the tendencies to arrogance and decadence.
Those who live in cities today are inheritors of the same genes. The rise and fall of great cities from history were all the result of timing, location and people. When people find common goals – just like those who discovered the plain of Shinar and dreamt of building a city – many dreams can come true, but only on the condition that the timing, location and people are right. However, when humans are driven by arrogance, competitiveness and jealousy, destruction is the usual outcome.
As the knowledge and wisdom of Man kept growing, people began to transform natural materials to improve their lives – a mere piece of clay would be fashioned into a brick, and then an entire city. One might think that the development of technologies and industries would make people proud, yet as the Bible records, it did not satisfy them. They believed that they could take full control of their destinies and spread their name.
The result of their arrogance earned them a notorious reputation that has lasted to this day. They had also botched their once-balanced relationship with nature.
What will the future of our planet be like? In truth, the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that it can already be foreseen.
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As humans mastered more and more survival skills and exploited more and more commodities, they increasingly believed they had placed their destiny into their own hands. They wanted to enjoy what they gained, and then came hedonism. Food and sex were two basic components for survival, yet even an increased quantity of both failed to adequately satisfy. Thus, they invented various addictive things with which to indulge themselves. They began to forget the fundamentals of living, as well as the meaning of life. Acts like plundering and killing soon became commonplace.
Buddhism generalises the three ‘toxins’ of life: greed, hatred, and delusion. It is ironic that Man has forgotten about the great love of the earth because of his ‘advancement’. Our agony is the karma of their greed in the material world.
Man still fought for more. Newer and more efficient weapons were invented, and then there was more fighting and slaughter. People joined forces and fought for tribes, states and nations. There were also kings, officials and generals. These developments further refined the allocation of resources, the exchange of goods, and brought the rise of economies. There was also wealth, along with more and more indulgence. Tyrants rose to power and brutal wars were fought. As a result, there were slaves and poverty, which led to inequality, injustice and suffering.
Massive quantities of man-made commodities such as stoneware, pottery, bronzeware, weapons and even the ruins of cities could now be seen all over the Earth. All are traces of our history, testaments to the ‘greatness’ of the human race. Our experience, knowledge and intelligence is still growing, and our accomplishments have been so astonishing that our superiority to all other organisms is beyond question.
And yet what are all these to the Earth? Can the Earth endure them all?
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Living in a city might at first seem comfortable and liberal, but a closer look reveals it to be a stifling existence. The builders of cities have prioritised economic production, efficiency, convenience, expansion and profit in their works. There is little that is ‘human’ about these environments. The natural environment is sacrificed and the true goal of life go astray. Now, people are inculcated from birth to be competitive. They even pass this notion down through generations. It is a trend which is unlikely to end until the human race itself is exinct.
Nowadays refer to larger cities a ‘metropolis’, or as a ‘megapolis’ when they are even larger in scale. In these urban centres – which are also focal points of politics, economies, cultures, and often regional or international transportation as well – the population can be in the millions. Under globalisation, all these metropolises are competing to become megapolises each with over 10 millions citizens, and eventually be the ‘world capital’ where unbelievable manpower and financial resources will be centralised.
Nevertheless, all these metropolises operate on the principles of capitalism. With the convenience of transportation and high mobility of financial resources, the cities resemble each other more and more, high-rises become taller and taller, and chain shops of international brands have expanded to every corner of the world. People are living similar lifestyles and sharing the same values. Consumerism has become a global culture, undermining the historical and racial characteristics of different nations. The defects inherited from Cain – fear, selfishness, arrogance, greed, extravagance and jealousy – are essential to culture, and are thus spreading across the globe.
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In the acclaimed Japanese manga Parasyte, there was a conversation between the ‘parasytes’ discussing how to attack the humans. The parasyte leader reminded its companions, ‘You guys underestimate humans. As an individual every one of them is vulnerable, yet when they go hand-in-hand together, in their hundreds, thousands, or even millions, they will become a different organism. They will form an extra mega brain other than having their own heads. We are destined to fail if we try to rebel against that brain’. This observation reminds me of the digital communications technologies we have today.
The development of digital technologies and communications devices has redefined the distances between people. Computers, smartphones and the internet seem to have made communications easier. Yet while the frequency of communication is on the rise, a number of scholars hold the view that this form of communication has reverted people back to a primitive ‘village’ mode. News spreads widely and quickly without verification, and words are readily changed and commented on. Much ‘news’ takes the form of gossip, and simply adds unnecessary additional pressure to already over-pressurised people.
When I look back upon civilisation through the generations, one question inevitably comes to mind: why, in spite of all the efforts we have made to intelligently improve our quality of life, do our civilisations always fail? Putting aside natural disasters, the failures of civilisations seem to always come down to the repulsive conduct of Man. Is it an outcome of evolution? Are these behaviours rooted in human nature? Why can we overcome the environment but not our tendency to fight each other?
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I attempt to reflect on human nature through art.
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I once joined a retreat camp at Mount Davis which required participants to maintain silence. Perhaps one could find some enlightenment in such a tranquil environment. But one day, as I gazed across the harbour during my morning walk, I felt a deep sadness. Looking across to Kowloon, I suddenly felt the enormous loneliness of my city. After that I painted ‘Opposite’, the first in a series of artworks with the theme of urban development.
Painting – or just looking at a painting – can lead us to ecstasy. I was once addicted to Chinese landscape ink painting, such as Fan Huan’s ‘Mountain and Streams’, Huang Kung Wang’s ‘Fuchun Mountains’, and Li Ke-ran’s black landscape paintings. But as I later realised, I was only loitering outside the door of art. Art from both the West and the East were unreachable to me. I simply had no opportunity to learn about them. I self-taught for many years but failed to build up much confidence. I had no idea of my level relative to other artists. I even stopped painting altogether for a few years after the turn of the millennium.
A book by Dr Betty Edwards – Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain — provided a key moment in my career. Inspired by it, I flew to New York to learn the teaching approach from Edwards’ son, Brian Bomeisler. I reflected deeply on the meaning of art and was able to enjoy painting again. My dream of studying fine art was revived, and my sense of confidence was less and less overshadowed by my lack formal training.
The MFA programme at RMIT and the Hong Kong Art School requires students to work on context research and creative rationales. Both were difficult for me, a newcomer who had been immersed in the practical pursuit of art for a long time. Still, at the critical moment, I confirmed my direction by completing a series on urbanism – the idea for which had been hatched a decade before.
Though the determination to complete the series was there, it had been a long time since I’d last picked up my brushes, and I hardly knew where to start. How to strike the right note, the right tone? My supervisor from Australia recommended that I break the logjam by trying a different medium, but I was reluctant to do so as I’d received no formal training in photography and sculpture. Installation and other media were fresh concepts to me. It was during the beginning of the school term, and my mind was full of doubts about what I could achieve. Painting, I believed, was all I could do.
Nevertheless, I followed my supervisor’s suggestion. I bought some wood strips and rather unenthusiastically began to stack them. At the same time, I drafted concepts of some installations which received the approval of my supervisors during tutorials. My Australian supervisor suggested I do some research on related contemporary art movements and artists, and study theories linked to urbanism. All of a sudden, my creativity found new energy.
‘In Cold Blood’ was the installation displayed at the first year-end exhibition. It was something of a prototype for my own artistic syntax – a large quantity of materials in a limited space, and mirrors that produce an endless variety of images and illusions. Thereafter my creative concepts and direction were confirmed, and one of the foci is the study and application of materials.
During this early phase, I examined the construction materials used in urban development. Among them where such materials as rock and wood, which are directly extracting from nature. But even more of these materials – metal, glass and masonry – have to be manufactured. Each material has its own texture and aesthetic properties: wood, for example, exudes warmth, while stainless steel by contrast is hard and cold. The diversity of materials reflects the heterogeneity of metropolitan scenes and symbolises a kind of urban heredity. I used different materials to build up my installations to show the divergent forms of the metropolis.
My next step was to demonstrate the relationship between space and people as a means of investigating the high density of the city and the social distortions it creates. I created a large-scale installation called ‘A Maze’, which allowed the audience to literally walk inside the work to experience the squeeze. The audience could even participate with me in creating the work.
The MFA graduation solo show was a very significant and genuine creative experience. I displayed six installations, which were set to develop separately, yet were linked up linearly and simultaneously. The whole exhibition could be regarded as a kind of interrogation or dissertation. My contextual research had provided me with a creative direction in depth, and it turned out to be the approach I used for my works from that point onward. Frankly, it is a very rational and dispassionate approach, and the sober contextual research and material experimentation it requires are mundane and tedious. Yet it has been very effective for me.
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I learnt to establish my personalised methodology of artistic expression during the MFA study. Influenced by Paul Cézanne, futurism and constructionism, I deliberately created identical cityscapes devoid of people, in which geometric forms were employed rationally, to express my view on human nature. In developing my installation work, I used a minimalist form and craftsmanship as a reference, allowing myself to focus on the nature of materials and the relationship between people and space. I later included the concept of randomness in the creative process, and started the site-specific approach. The latter meant I would first search for a relevant venue, and then develop my work based on its geographical and historical characteristics.
I prepared for the MFA graduation solo show using the same approach. A friend kindly offered his loft and roof in a factory building as a venue. I could make use of its architectural spaces like staircases, corridors and the outdoor rooftop to display installations and showcase the metaphors of my work. For the first time, my own vocabulary of art was established.
I have employed this strategy to develop several more large-scale installations since then, and have received invitations to explore the humanity, geography and history of various districts with site-specific exhibitions. I injected regional elements into each of these works so that both the context and the means of expression could be enriched.
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We ‘bend at three months, sit at six months, and stand with help at nine months’. Man similarly tries his best to stand, and the metropolis we create mimic our efforts. Totems are popped up for worship, monuments are built to commemorate great achievements, and skyscrapers crown our urban developments. Last but not least, gravestones are laid for future generations to commemorate their ancestors. ‘Standing up’ is the alpha and omega of everything.
The blocks placed on a chessboard for the installation ‘End Game’ resembled the buildings of an urban development, but also gravestones in the future without humans. The opposite of ‘stand’ is ‘collapse’, and collapse is usually a result of an undesirable event such as being knocked down. Advanced ancient civilisations such as Babylon, Egypt and Maya all collapsed in adverse conditions, leaving only pyramids still standing – their headstones. Another artwork, ‘Collapsed’, installed along a corridor, actually represented such circumstances.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Humans invented shoes so that they could walk farther, but their development has diversified since ancient times, from simple and functional to exaggerated and flaunting. Whatever they look like, they still support the weight of human bodies. Man had to learn to balance himself when he stood up and walked, and when he began wearing shoes, he had to learn all over again.
Walking is one of the essential elements of my art, because audiences can walk into most of my installations. An example is ‘A Maze’, which included the audience as a part of the work. I would like to engage the audience with my work, and hence I did an installation on the beach, with clogs fashioned from ready-made wooden blocks. Swimmers could wear them and trample freely within a specific area. The area with all the clogs-prints came to resemble the ruins of a city. I cast a small part of the ‘ruins’ with plaster before sunset, before the the tide washed it all away. The confrontation between Man and nature is endless. ‘Stepper City’ was my first interactive installation, and later on I extended the series with ‘Land Marker’ and ‘In Aggregate’ to explore the transformation of land and the aftermath of human activity.
Not only do shoes protect our feet, they also carry human desires. The rise and fall of the ancient civilisations testify to the consequences of human greed and desire. I articulated the issue of shoes, the action of stepping, and of different substances in the installation ‘Worn Out’. Nine iron plates signified the Earth, and a pair of iron shoes symbolised the development of cities. Scattered along a central line representing cities were magnetic blocks which attracted iron powder, which in turn represented human beings and different substances. The rusty surface of the plates signified the irreversible wounds made on the earth by the development of the cities. A video showed me wearing a pair of iron shoes with magnets were attached underneath. Whenever I took a step, iron powder stuck to the shoes, and I left a mark on the ground. After showing a few steps, the video rewound to the beginning, followed by scenes of lightning strikes and volcanic eruptions in reverse sequence, and ended with the image of the tides. It showed how the Earth regresses with the progress of human beings. In this installation, the same pair of iron shoes was placed at the edge of the iron plates in front of the wall, symbolising a dead-end. The Earth has regressed to its beginning, as shown in the video in a loop.
Human beings have taken for granted their control of the Earth. We trample across it without consideration, crushing everything into dust, and eventually to nothing.
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Tools, the apex products of Man’s intelligence, were consciously invented for practical everyday uses. They say much about our historical and ethnic culture, as well as artistic values. Yet people usually take them for granted, without giving much thought to their origins and how these reveal the basic needs and instincts of Man.
A ladder, for instance, enables to perform work at a literally higher level. For generations, the ladder’s structure and composition have been adjusted and modified. The Chinese prefer to make ladders out of bamboo, because it is durable yet lightweight, and because bamboo grows quickly, easily obtained. People use knives to cut bamboo into different parts, and hammer them together with mortises fastened to form the ladder. Such production is efficient and effective even only using hand-labour, and is the culmination of thousands of years of Chinese wisdom.
Indeed, the hollowness and firmness of bamboo symbolises a kind of nobility in Chinese culture, and the use of ready-made tools in the installation demonstrates the accumulated civilisation of Man. Inspired by the circumstances and analogies described in The Book of Changes (I-Ching), two of my largest installations – ‘Dragon in the Field’ and ‘Soaring Dragon’ – respectively feature 100 and over 200 bamboo ladders. The audience could walk inside both installations to experience and feel a space demonstrating the traditional Guangdong skill of bamboo tying.
Tools are usually physical and tactile, yet there also exist ‘virtual’ tools, such as spoken languages. Spoken languages serve as communication tools, and usually words can also be written on paper to record, communicate, and pass on to other recipients. The expansion of human civilisation has relied on the development of language together with the growth of brain cells. If you recall the story of the Tower of Babel, the price Man paid for his arrogance was the confusion of his spoken languages.
Languages and words are double-edged swords. On one hand, language can enrich civilization; on the other hand, the human race is split by verbal rivalries. With a box of dictionaries of different languages being cut, a bag of academic textbooks in concrete, and a Chinese almanac ‘cremated’ in a basin, the ‘Drifting Classrooms’ series aimed to explore the restriction of languages.
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More and more questions on contemporary art come to mind whenever I am thinking and working on it. Why do artists insist on creating works whose meanings are essentially impenetrable to the audience? Why not create things that are more readily understood? Should artists simply try something more traditional for a better chance of gaining popularity?
I keep working on art without regrets because I have the urge to express from my heart. I choose to reflect and express using visual arts, just as others may choose to write. Contemporary art simply suits me, as I like to work and explore freely on a platform that imposes few restrictions.
Like everyone, my mind is filled with thoughts. I always wait for positive feedback from the audience after creating an avant-garde work that I am pleased with. However, isn’t trying to understand more about the world my real artistic goal? I feel relieved whenever I reaffirm this conviction.
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The approach of my drawing lessons was inherited from the theory developed by Dr Betty Edwards in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. She had researched the perceptual abilities of the right brain for observation, the verbal and analytical abilities of the left brain, and the different outcomes that resulted from their application in drawing. She concluded that anyone could draw realistically if they used the right brain’s perceptual abilities.
After years of research and teaching, I myself have noticed that the abilities of other senses are diluted when we focus on using only one sense. For example, when we use our sense of sight to draw, our verbal and analytical abilities are temporarily diminished, while our spatial and analogical abilities are temporarily enhanced. Thus, drawing can be similar of Zen meditation: the hand-eye coordination is actually mechanical, akin to playing sports. If we analyse the visual elements there, we will find them geometric and abstract, rather like that of laserjet printing. Yet it is in fact the outcome of mankind when both left and right brains are operated interactively while cognition as well as consciousness are involved in the process.
My long experience in teaching and drawing have enabled me to obseve in-depth how people ‘see’ in the contemporary world. Photography by digital camera or smartphone seems convenient and almost cost-free. Everyone can shoot at any angle, anytime and anywhere, and then upload images to share with others. It has become a habit for countless people. We shoot to capture, save, and file all excessive visual data. We are just looking, but not really seeing, let alone intensively observing.
When it comes to drawing, long hours of observation and thinking are required, and one’s mentality and emotions are involved. In the process of expressing themselves, artists leave their personal traits on paper. It makes their drawings more valuable and enduring than any kind of visual created instantly by an electronic gadget.
Further examining the relationship between drawing and our mentality, Dr Edwards determined that personal strokes reflect people’s mental consciousness and character. If one draws with intuition or subconsciousness through exercising the right brain, the thoughts and the inner world of mind can be seen through the resulting work.
I backpacked around Europe for nearly three months during 1994 and 1995, drawing a visual diary during the trip, with the more realistic images found at the beginning. I continued to recorded my moods and emotions afterwards, and later on more accounts of the subconsciousness, intuition and abstract representation appeared. By means of just a few strokes, the visual diary reflected what I saw and felt, exactly as Dr Edwards’ research suggested. Unfortunately, this particular creative period did not last long.
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I am rational when working on art, yet have always been sentimental in my personal relationships, particularly when I was young. During my twenties, ambition, relationships and religion profoundly influenced me. Affections and emotions were not far below the surface of my mind. I would draw and write poetry in my visual diary in the evenings to reflect on what I encountered during the day, and so many were just stream-of-conscious. My first urbanism themed painting, ‘The Opposite’, was also rooted in a sudden passion felt while gazing at Victoria Harbour.
My ‘passionate’ period in painting lasted for a few years, and then disappeared as my emotional life developed. My romantic sentiments vanished bit by bit. I was fortunate to rediscover my passion when I went back to school a decade later.
My mother passed away in the summer of 2013. The impact was almost overwhelming: I vividly witnessed life and death, and it was no longer something purely theoretical to me. Since then, I have been drawing in my visual diary again, once again with intuitive strokes and images filled with feeling and sentiment.
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Contemporary artist Cai Go Quang says he believes in feng shui but not fortune-telling. Feng shui is one of the ‘Five Arts’, and its physiognomy deals with the characteristics of geographical regions. Feng shui practice discusses architecture in metaphorical terms of ‘invisible forces’ that bind the universe, Earth and Man together. Historically, it has been widely applied in Oriental buildings for favourable influences, especially spiritually significant structures such as tombs and dwellings. Feng shui is specious and decidedly scientific, yet it has persisted for thousands of years, manipulating the relationship between humans and their environment. It can be viewed as a philosophical system of harmonising human existence with the laws of nature.
‘The striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the peoples themselves but to the differences in their environments.’
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
Jared Diamond believes that Man is restrained from the conditions of his survival, of which the geographic environment is the most critical. The Chinese synthesise a system of laws that govern such spatial arrangements and call it ‘feng shui’. When geographic factors collide with humanity, there is the locus of site-specific art, and this is also one of the major foci of my art.
After my mother passed away, I thought again about the influence of my upbringing on my art. I was puzzled by my mother’s dependency on superstitious things, her reliance on moon blocks and divination. These types of superstition became a topic I wanted to address in my art. Site-specific installations ‘Mountain/ Shallow Bay/Three Hundred Coins’ and ‘Happiness/Bitterness’ were my explorations on the tension between human nature, the geographic environment, and fate.
I have always been especially interested in looking for suitable venues for site-specific art, and one I have found was Sik On Street in Wan Chai, where my home and studio were located for eight years. A year after leaving Sik On Street, I returned to create a series of works on anti-capitalism and urban gentrification for my solo show The Legends.
After finishing several series of installations, I also experimented with unstable materials. ‘Nowhere to be found’ – which used iron, magnets and iron powder – was the first result of these experiments. The influence of the magnetic field on the iron powder made for intriguing things to see and feel, adding equivocal associations to the rationales behind the work.
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There is much I remember of the vicissitudes of my childhood in Temple Street, Yau Ma Tei. My parents worked in a mahjong parlour, and that was where I hung around during my spare time. I observed what people would do after a hectic workday. All these childhood memories and experiences have left their imprints on my art.
Yau Ma Tei is a down-to-earth place, and many of its residents make a living by labouring and hawking. Many gamble in their spare time, pursuing dreams of riches. As the saying goes, ‘there is still a chance as long as one keeps betting’. As such, to the people of Yau Ma Tei, mahjong is not merely an entertaining pastime, but also source of spiritual sustenance. I have revisited the fruit market there to observe its daily goings-on, and in one site-specific installation, combined its characteristics with those of mahjong and hawking with a typically modest Yau Ma Tei home setting. To create it, I collected 365 fruit boxes from the market, mounted them with prints of mahjong game sets, and put them inside an old container. The sounds of the fruit market played in the background. Audiences could experience the tensions of the market as they passed through the installation’s narrow aisle.
On the surface of the container there was the logo for ‘China Shipping’ containing the Chinese characters for ‘rich’”, ‘east’, ‘south’, ‘west’, ‘north’, ‘centre’, ‘heaven’, ‘Earth’, ‘super’ and ‘peace’, as with mahjong game sets. It also bore a resemblance to the secret bargaining codes used by fruit merchants. On the other side of the container there was another set of fruit boxes printed with winning mahjong game sets and Rubik’s Cubes, creating two Chinese characters meaning ‘10 million’. The whole assembly was placed on a wooden cart.
How many fruit boxes does one need to move, or how many mahjong games does one have to win, to get 10 million?
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‘Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.’
On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794) by Friedrich Schiller
Life can be considered as a game. People can relax only when they devote themselves fully in playing, possibly as a result of the focus on using their right brain instead of exercising the verbal and temporal abilities of the left brain. The worries of life can only be banished when our mental state has reached the point of selfless ecstacy.
In his book Les jeux et les hommes (Man, Play and Games), sociologist Roger Cailois defined a game as an activity that must have the following six characteristics:
Fun: The activity is chosen for its light-hearted character.
Separate (from the routine of life): It is circumscribed in time and place.
Uncertain: The outcome of the activity is unforeseeable.
Non-productive: Participation is not for producing anything.
Governed by rules: The activity has rules that are different from everyday life.
Fictitious: It is like being in a different reality.
Humans tend to reveal more of their true character when they play. In a fictitious setting where the outcome is unpredictable, all kinds of desires and emotions are on exhibition. While the content of the game is merely an imitation of reality, the players will reveal their true selves when they get involved. My art project ‘The Tao of Chinese Games’ was awarded and sponsored by the Bloomberg Emerging Artist Programme, and the exhibition reflected the cultural, social and political development of the Chinese through four Chinese games – go, Chinese chess, mahjong, and the chart of advancement in official circles.
In my observation, contemporary art has diversified because of our globalised living conditions. The interactive component of art has also become more influential.
Digital technologies have greatly transformed our living conditions in our lifetimes. Modern children have access to far more images than I got to see at the same age. But it is not easy to touch the hearts of the young generation with images. They are looking for mind-blowing experiences, sensational content and interaction.
We use electronic devices daily and are used to keying in characters via keyboards and touchscreens. This generation touches things differently from previous ones. Before digital technologies, people would write with pens and were more accustomed to performing tasks with their hands. Now we gaze at screens for prolonged periods of time. Our eyes are always stimulated by moving images, but our senses are anaesthetised. Our minds are so occupied that there is little focused thinking or imagination.
Lao Zi stated in Tao Te Ching that ‘the five colours blind people, while the five sounds make people deaf’. Will Man progress or regress if he continues to be drawn into the illusions of virtual reality?
To deal with the emergence of digital technologies, contemporary art should re-examine its own innovative elements and influence so it may respond to the social paradigm. Art can be elevated through the inheritance of traditional skills while being innovative at the same time. I believe art should respond in timely fashion to our world, and we shall reflect on how people can be touched and inspired through the expressions and introspection brought by contemporary art.
Ideally, art should be timeless and quintessential. However, such classical notions may not be able to inspire future generations. Contemporary artists need to explore innovative mediums and presentations to allow the audience to understand and appreciate the connotations of visual arts.
History has proved that humans can develop their potential fully in a diverse and interactive environment.
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‘… when visualising the future, they usually overlook the possibility of revolutionary new inventions. Every generation has seen startling technical advances and there is no reason to suppose that these will suddenly stop. On the contrary, they will almost certainly increase dramatically. Nothing is impossible. If we can imagine it, sooner or later we will be able to do it. But even when we make our mainframe computers look as primitive as clay tablets, we ourselves will still be no more than Naked Apes made of flesh and blood. Even if, in our relentless quest for progress, we have destroyed all our close animal relatives, we will remain as biological phenomena that are subject to biological rules.’
1994 introduction to The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris
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As I get into the core of art, I contemplate more about myself and the world, and hence gain a deeper understanding of both. I have been lost and found in my pursuit of art. Sometimes I get carried away. Sometimes I am full of passion but get rejected. I am confused and frustrated most of the time. I am afraid of stagnating, of losing any sense of cause. Fortunately, I have always been motivated by a voice deep in my heart which tells me to persist looking for the ultimate goal. It could be called ‘freedom’, I suppose.
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法國天文學家拉普拉斯（Pierre-Simon marquis de Laplace）曾寫道：如果有位智者在某個時刻知道了驅動自然的所有力量以及每一個星球份子的位置；如果這位智者還超級偉大，能分析這些數據，他就能包含大至宇宙最大星體的運動，小至最小原子的運動在同一個準則中。對他而言沒有任何東西是不確定的，而未來就像過去一樣呈現在他的眼前。
達爾文(Charles Darwin)在《物種起源》的結語中說： 「從大自然的戰爭，從饑荒和死亡，我們有能力構想的最崇高目標，即產生高等動物，是直接的結果。」
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與其他動物相比，人有超越動物本能的創造力。而人的創造力和社會組織力，發展了人的高度文明 ── 一個屬於人類的物質世界。
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「行是知之始，知是行之成。」 ── 陶行知《行知行》
「其實地上本沒有路，走的人多了，也便成了路。」 ── 魯迅《故鄉》
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── 雅克‧埃呂爾 (Jacques Ellul)《城市的意義》
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貨櫃外拓印上的麻雀牌局拼成「發東南西北，中天下太平」， 模仿果欄商人討價還價密碼，重疊在貨櫃的原有商標「China Shipping」上。觀眾走出貨櫃，有拓印上正「叫糊」牌局的二十七個生果箱，加上「扭計骰」拼成「千萬」放於木製手推車上。
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據我觀察，人在遊戲時易於流露本性。六慾七情，在不可準確預測結果的虛構環境中，較易輕鬆地於玩樂時放大。遊戲中的策略、競爭、權力、溝通、運氣等皆是人生的模擬，玩者投入時便不自覺流露本性。二○○九年我以四種中國遊戲圍棋、象棋、麻雀及升官圖中的策略、競爭、溝通和運氣為課題脈絡，獲得Bloomberg Emerging Artist Programme贊助舉辦個人展覽《博弈》，以中國遊戲比喻古今中國人及社會的民族性格。
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「……當他們構想未來的畫面時，他們通常忽略了革命性的新發明。每一代人都見證了驚人的技術進步，我們沒有理由假定，技術進步會戛然止步。相反，技術進步總是會戲劇性地增長。沒有什麼是不可能的。只要我們能夠想到，我們早晚也能夠做到。然而，即使我們造出的中央處理機和古人的楔形文字泥版一樣古樸，我們也不過是裸猿而已。即使我們在無情追求進步的過程中毀滅了我們最親近的親屬物種，我們仍然是大千世界裏的生物學現象，我們仍將受制於生物學規律。」 ──德斯蒙德‧莫利斯《裸猿》1994年序 (1996)
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