Untitled, 1995, Graphite on paper
Cheng: You accumulate experience as you grow older. So what are your thoughts as an adult on ‘seeing’? What does it mean?
Yim: To me, the important part of seeing is about using eyes instead of hands to contact objects. I am actually a very tactile person, which is why I enjoy ceramics. But I often use my eyes to ‘touch’ or ‘read’ objects, especially objects I am not allowed to physically touch with my hands.
Cheng: So you will use your imagination to get some sense of its texture or temperature.
Yim: To me, seeing is related to touching anyway. In fact, sometimes I take a tactile perspective to look at or read things.
Wong: When I was teaching at the Hong Kong Art School, I took the students to do some photography in the streets. They went in pairs, with one responsible for operating the camera while being blindfolded, and the other leading the way. Sight, I believe, is ultimately not necessary for photography. The students were shooting the whole night, and many of the resulting images were blurry. But they began to realise that their sense of smell and sound could even be more important than sight.
Yim: So what would you say about the pictures?
Wong: They were disastrous, of course. But I hoped they would go beyond perceiving the world only through their eyes. If you are capable, your photos can represent the smell or sound of an object. Another time, I told the students to sketch what they saw while walking from Shek Kip Mei to a cafe in Sham Shui Po. I was asking them draw from memory, which is not the same as photography. I told them that memory is more important than photography. Photographs are ultimately for viewers, not only the tangible image itself, but also the intangible concept behind it. Without any preconceptions, a photographer may not be able to capture something good on film, something that might provoke the viewer to think. Therefore, I told them they could ‘shoot’ with or without a camera. They can do so while walking down the street, a la The Matrix, as if they were detectives collecting evidence.
Yim: This idea about concepts seems very programmatic, but with some very powerful presumptions.
Wong: Not necessarily. Why did I use this method to guide them to observe their surroundings before doing creative work? It is the same as allowing them to shoot overseas – a lot of people pay no attention to this and just take pictures of the same landmarks, like the Tower of Pisa. Everybody takes pictures of the Tower of Pisa. It should not be this way. I hope they won’t rush to shoot as soon as they see, but first take in their surroundings – sights, sounds and smells – before pressing the shutter button. A picture taken this way is better than a simple snapshot.
Cheng: The only quasi-professional photography training I have ever received was at the headquarters of Readers Digest when I was working there. The Art Director and Chief Photographer trained me how to choose photographers and photographs according to the standards of international magazines. It is impossible for a photographer to send in pictures within one day. Instead, it takes a few days to one week. For instance, a photographer who needs to take photographs for a story set in a mountainous region will need to spend time living there and ask questions – a bit like a journalist. The result requires more observation or sensation, such as sounds, smell and touch.
Feeling with all the senses
Cheng: Much post-impressionist development in art has been influenced by technology. How significant has it really been?
Wong: Definitely very significant, especially in the commercial field. In photography, technology is the key to success. But standing out from the crowd is still about one’s prior training. That is to say, by taking a purely technological approach, you lose the potential of other sensory inputs to affect people. Many well-known designers like Uncle Kan [Kan Tai Keung] still… well, they have passed the stage of using pencil and paper and feeling the friction and messiness which were the sources of their inspiration. A generation that is familiar only with iPad…
Yim: That is vastly different. That kind of touch, I think, is very important.
Cheng: Technologies such as iPad and iPhone put the emphasis on the visual. However, what people see is only the surface of a screen. There is a lot more underneath.
Yim: In my definition though, I call this situation ‘using the eyes’ more, but not actually ‘seeing’ more.
Cheng: Dr Ian Fong Ho Yin, who is in cultural studies, calls this being ‘eye dominated’. Like you said, it is only about the eyes, the movement of the eyeballs. How does this impact the life of the current generation?
Yim: The function of ‘seeing’ is restricted. That is to say, this is a phenomenon of sight. An artist, however, does not merely see the form of an object and its physical context, but engages all his senses to experience the object. If you limit yourself to purely what you can see, you are inhibiting your other senses. That is simply what the body does when we focus on a specific function. It’s a very natural response. For example, if I am listening to something very intently, I won’t really notice or sense anything else that might be happening around me. When I am looking at something, all the sounds around me will seem to be switched off. Our sensory knowledge, then, is partial and limited. When we only perceive what we see, our understanding becomes restricted. I think the current situation is leaning increasingly this way.
Wong: I was saying this while teaching last night. I was talking about ‘see’ and ‘look’. To look is to gaze at something, which is relatively superficial. For example, ‘Angelababy has the look of a Japanese doll’. I encourage students to ‘see’. What is seeing? I take the word apart into ‘s’, ‘e’ and ‘e’: namely, sensibility, explore and express. Sensibility involves technique. For instance, you need to at least know how to paint and to feel through your senses. In addition to technique, it needs to be rich in emotions. Explore is about investigating the theme, while express is using the media you have mastered to present the theme you’re exploring. That is why I always say to my students that as well as having techniques and using your senses, you need to know what you want to present, as well as how to do it. This is far more in-depth than just looking. ‘Look’ can be easily transplanted and copied, and thus is not very long-lasting.
Cheng: Looking back at what was said about old-fashioned photography – actually being able to ‘see’ takes time.
Wong: Indeed, years.
Self portrait, 1993, Graphite, colour pencil and watercolour on board
Cheng: To look, on the other hand, is different. It’s fast. In this age of copy-and-paste, searching and communicating is super fast. It only takes a split-second for someone to receive an email. It is so different from the old days when one had to wait patiently for a letter to arrive. We have lost that sense of waiting, but some things need to let time do its job.
The domination and popularisation of the image
Cheng: Image is what we see mostly. Image ruled Western civilisation even before modern technology. It is comprised of authority and communication, and even acts as the window through which one may know the world. Photography has taken down many things, and now we are at a time when the development of photography is also being questioned. From past to present, what does the image of photography contain?
Wong: According to academic theory in the 1960s – namely classical studies – photography contains symbols with meaning. However, new photography has already abandoned what it originally represented and has begun to raise questions against it. Hong Kong is far behind in this respect. The vast majority of people still cannot accept this type of photography. Conceptual photography here is generally greeted with contempt from people who do traditional salon, realist and documentary photography.
I don’t know why this unbridgeable chasm exists between documentary and conceptual photography. They still consider that photography should represent what is real, and what is conceptual is not real. This gap is too big. For a whole year I was rebuked by the magazines. In a few exhibitions we deliberately placed documentary photography into the conceptual photography section. The same thing was done in the fine art circle ages ago, but traditional photographers and photography magazines feel that it is some kind of heresy.
Cheng: They still think that image is king.
Wong: And they still believe that the image has to be realistic, close to photojournalism. You are not allowed to alter it even slightly or it is considered heresy.
Cheng: And now everybody can use a camera.
Wong: Yes. The popularisation of photography has its benefits, but it has also trivialised images.
Yim: The same is true in art history. It has always been the minority who challenges the status quo and the majority who is being subverted. The same thing always happens in the progress of history.
Cheng: In the realm of ceramics, image has no domination. Ceramics are mostly vessels to contain things.
Yim: The problem is that ceramics always had an identity crisis. Is it a craft or an art? A few other mediums suffer the same fate. What is mainstream is not considered a medium. But sculpture, photography, ceramics and printmaking – those that are found in cultural museum collections – are being marginalised by the mainstream.
Yim: On one hand they despise craftsmanship, and on the other hand there are those who look down on contemporary art. I do not harbour such discrimination, but there are definitely people like that in the field. It is a conceptual issue.
Cheng: Is it because those who have been doing creative work with images feel that they are superior? For instance, photography obviously is not about being creative with images, but recording them. To record with tools which used to be expensive but have now become so cheap that everybody can do it. Ceramic are mainly used as practical vessels. It is an image, one that is tangible and utilitarian. You can even find a cheap labourer to make them. We tend to think that creating a painting is awesome because one can imagine what is up there in the sky, and God in the heavens. Is this kind of thought that makes people consider something as art?
Before I started teaching, I was proud of being able to draw quite well. But having taught a few thousand students, I found that… well, hundreds of them could draw quite well, and would surpass me if they kept up the practice. I began to take myself less seriously and considered drawing to be less personally significance than before. However, they only draw objects that are realistic, not imaginary or impressionistic things. That is when I take myself more seriously again.
Wong: If media and the work of artists must respond to the world in order to be orthodox, contemporary artists need not be bound by forms used by artists in the past. This is the reason for the emergence of installation art. Should only 3D wooden sculpture or realistic painting be considered as art? I think standards change with time. Once people thought it would be fantastic if everyone were a Michelangelo, but such talent is one in a million. Even if we can find one now, instead of having him create carbon copies of what Michelangelo was capable of, his view would probably be transformed. Something has to change in order to make us appreciate it.
Yim: Ceramics have been slighted not because of whether there is image, but because times have changed. Uniqueness is being emphasised more in our generation’s artistic circles. However, the artisanal elements of ceramic art are easily associated with being ordinary and generic. Crafts, of course, can be transformed into something unique – that is, by using craftsmanship to highlight the unique features of an object. But its association with craft often leads to its marginalisation.
Moreover, a myriad of things can be mass-produced, and people may feel that it is rather foolish to continue making things by hand. What they fail to understand is that craft is an important step of human evolution and a monumental accomplishment. Our relatively fast-paced and pragmatic society is often blinded by end-products and results, and people fail to see the significance in the continuation of craftsmanship. If the product is the only concern, then all we have to do is to make, mould and mass-produce it. Nonetheless, our hands possess some sort of magic.
Marginalisation of craftsmanship is due to the change of social values; our attitude being shaped by our commercialised and industrialised society. Values have changed. Uniqueness has become commoditised. Why is something auctioned off at a sky-high price? If it is something a craftsman can make, the price will be diminished by virtue of similarity. But if it is so unique that only you can get it done, its price will be far higher.
The self and selflessness of photography
Yim: Regarding the differences between the observation method for photography and drawing, I can only say that my limited understanding of photography restricts me to do most of the comparisons merely through the more traditional method of using a camera to capture images. Actually, the wall dividing photography and drawing has been torn down.
Wong: It is true with regard to art, but not with non-artists.
Yim: Let us use a traditional explanation of photography for the time being. If it is a painter looking at painting, the starting point of the creative process staring at a blank canvas, and not necessarily looking for an image out there. Photography, on the other hand, is to use one’s eyes to constantly look at what is happening out there and then to feel it. Once you have sensed what you want to capture, you frame it. With painting, however, you look at a canvas and think about what you can extrapolate out of this blank space. This may not be coming from the outside world but could be an image from your heart, or a feeling triggered by the material itself. That’s how you start. The starting point of the two processes are different. Besides, it is a process of behaviour-photography, which I think is about capturing images. Catching and hunting are by nature very proactive. Painting is more about constructing, extrapolating and shaping.
On the topic of self, one finds self by making choices from a multitude of photographs; and self is expressed through the production of a painting. The self is expressed through perspective in photography, where the viewer speculates how the self is perceived through the angle from which the photo was shot. The relationship between the one seeing and the one being seen is more apparent, easily distinguishable and clear. Not so with painting. There are times when the painter may be overshadowed by the powerful material of a painting you are looking at. Those who paint often may not be concerned about the relationship between seeing and being seen. The painter and the painted are oftentimes merged, with one lost in the other, or the self projected and permeated into the painting, removing the distance between the two. Upon finishing a piece, the self may not be there and can be hidden.
Cheng: One of my own pieces just came to mind. On Facebook I collected a pile of food photos taken by my friends. Then I went to eat at a restaurant in K-11 and drew a picture of my food before eating. Taking picture is very convenient, but drawing your meal is unheard of, so I filmed the process of drawing and now I can review how I drew. It took me a few hours to draw before I eventually ate it. The food was cold and quite unpalatable by then. Then I thought, what would it have been like back in ancient times? Perhaps in writing, it would be like using prose to elaborate on what has one consumed.
Yim: Ya Si has written many poems about food!
Cheng: This piece was done as a reflection on the behaviour of photographing food. But why did I take these pictures and put them on Facebook? It is because I am eating, a point well represented in the picture.
Yim: That is true, and very direct.
Cheng: Unlike magazines, Facebook is even more straightforward. A reader looking at a food picture in a magazine will not consider who is behind the camera, because you may want to eat it when you see the picture staring at you as if it were the real thing. On Facebook, however, the photographer’s identity is obvious; ‘Oh, so and so went there to eat’. This behaviour and phenomenon are inexplicable to me, including the mentality, phenomenon, and the pivotal ‘I’. Take the painting of the ancient Popes as an example. Looking at the photorealistic painting of the Popes will generate the sense of the seeing and the seen. However, some paintings need to blend in with the environment, regardless of whether it is the seeing or the seen. The same can be said about installation art because one is present in its midst.
The doubt and rejection of image
Yim: Sometimes I imagine how a pair of shoes painted by Van Gogh would differ from a photograph taken by him – had he ever done so. A pair of a poor man’s shoes coming from the tip of Van Gogh’s pencil would be different from a snapshot taken by him.
Wong: He never photographed, but Munch wrote a book Munch and Photography, which is comprised of pictures taken by Munch that look like paintings. Photographs back in those days were not that sharp, so they had a somewhat painting-like quality. What you said earlier is similar to what documentary photography is. But when it comes to conceptual photography, many want to approach the ‘de-selfing’ nature of painting. A recent development in war photography is to abandon the documentary style of reporting. They are employing a shooting method that is real and the photos are not staged, yet the dimension is somewhat like that of filmmaking. In fact, some photographers entrenched in the photorealism camp have begun to display their work as film, using this mode to watch a war. Many contemporary war photographs do not depict an actual war, but leave you wondering whether this is a real war or one from a movie. For example, there is an Iraqi who has fallen on the ground in landscape orientation. A standard ratio would be 2:3, but the photographer deliberately captured the object in panorama and framed it in the centre. Although this is a fading soldier, it feels as if he were Jesus levitating in midair. These war photographers no longer use pure documentary style. There are also photos of postwar buildings in ruins shot in 16:9, as in a movie. You will not see the symbolic war photo of explosions or casualties, but the aftermath of ruins and the scenes with fire dotted here and there.
People these days watch too many movies. They will always wonder whether a photo is real or fake. Many of these photographs began to surface after September 11 because everybody thought that was an act. Why did a plane fly into a building and then the entire building collapsed? That triggered a shockwave, causing us to question whether documentary photography and journalistic photography are indeed reporting what is real. Then more and more renowned war journalists began to play with form, cinematising the genre. Certainly, this had already been done in fashion advertisements 10 years earlier. Everything has taken on a cinematic look. It may look like a screenshot, but it’s real.
Cheng: Documentary photography in the past really was documenting reality, that is, recording. It was very trustworthy. But with the use of artistic techniques, there is now more room for imagination. But now there is a plot, reading it will lead people to speculate what the cause and consequence are, and what has happened. This is very dramatic.
Wong: And it is very difficult to discern what is true.
Yim: There is very little separating this from drawing.
Wong: It is becoming almost impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.
Blue wind, 1996, Acylic on board, 31 x 43 cm
藍風，1996，塑膠彩紙本，31 x 43 厘米
Yim: And yet, the colour and texture of painting can be very subjective. As for image, since any manipulation is still based on the original, a large scale departure from the original is, generally speaking, quite impossible – unless it is of a very special kind. With painting, say Van Gogh painted a pair of shoes compared with a photograph of the same object taken by him, the difference would lie in the thickness of the strokes. They are so strong, like a fiercely burning flame, and his self-projection results in this: he is the shoes, and the shoes are him. If it is captured on film, the shoes will still be shoes. It is a lot harder to have viewers associate the shoes with the photographer himself.
Cheng: Let’s set photography and painting aside for a moment. Image per se… the internet is flooded with parody of pictures, pictures of different varieties, pictures that make you wonder if they are real. Like you said, there is a lot of doubts, and quite necessarily so.
Wong: Yes, doubt and rejection.
Cheng: That’s because there are people who will send anything out, even pictures which are blatantly fake. Therefore it is easy to question the authenticity of pictures these days, because images are inherently unreliable. The problem is not with photography; to some extent it needs to document history, but if this becomes an enormous challenge…
Wong: A firm moral ground can still be maintained in pure journalistic photography. Even though there can be colour adjustment, a hand that is intact should never be altered into a severed one. That is to say, there is a very fine line in moral standards and it is only found in journalistic photography. Anything beyond this category can be modified.
Yim: It is hard to say whether it borders on lying. In terms of worldview, photography defines the relationship between us and the world through ready-made images. Therefore, the situation will become very difficult when both the approach and the world have become lies, where it is impossible to draw a line anywhere any longer. Under such circumstances, perhaps painting may be more realistic because while painting can be based on readily available images, it can also bypass them and define the world in its own terms. It can do so through disassembling, simplifying, enriching, or using methods like brush strokes, lines or distortion, etc, to define the relationship between self and the world as well as our understanding of the world. Unless it is in the hands of a liar, these are unfalsifiable.
Cheng: If you meet a photographer with honesty and integrity whose techniques are well grounded, and his approach are characterised with thoughtfulness, his work will be known and felt by others. The same is true for painting. Authenticity sends shockwaves through a world of lies.
Wong: There is another important category of photography – namely, family portraits. Its requirement for technical prowess is low, but its nature is very private as sharing with others may not be necessary. This may be in conflict with what you have said, that only you alone can share your own family portraits and childhood photos. Similar to painting, it is unique. But it’s private and exclusive to one’s family members, friends and oneself. This is in some way similar to what you have said about treasuring paintings, only that it is fully realised in photography because this is your family album. Thus, it is a very significant category. The privacy of it is irreplaceable by painting because this is just so personal and private. Moreover, family photos are usually made small to fit into the wallet, carrying with it some kind of residual warmth. Unlike a painting, a photograph is an object that can pick up odour and temperature from our bodies.
Yim: Because it can be highly selective, painting can fool people too. You can take away the undesirable elements and emphasise what you want. Sometimes, photography will record without discrimination what a painter would try to avoid, and confronts him with it – that is, the lies within the painting. Therefore, these two are relative.
Wong: Every medium is unique in its own way.
Painting and photography, relatively speaking
Cheng: You can get a glimpse of a photographer’s style and perspective through his work, but rarely do you get a sense of temperament.
Yim: That is shown through his choices.
Cheng: You can tell Van Gogh was somewhat neurotic through his work…
Yim: And painting can show you something beyond what the eyes can see. Say, a little kid drawing a lift will show you what people are doing inside. Due to the limitations of perspective, photography cannot do so without superimposing or juxtaposing other images in order to bypass what the naked eye is not capable of seeing. Selection and compilation in photography are still based on what the eyes can see, but painting can bypass all these.
Yet thanks to technology, and depending on what lens is used, photography can also capture what the naked eyes cannot see, such as macro or microscopic photography. That is the beauty beyond the range of the physical eye.
Moreover, painting and photography are different in how they handle the instantaneous as well as the here and now. A photographer embraces the external changes of the world, and photography presents the present with a very strong temporal sense. To a painter, the present and the instantaneous moment are infused with the material he is touching, the texture and the impact of the colours. Your interaction with the paint at the present is fused together with the present moment you are observing.
Painters and photographers also process sense of distance differently. Painters tend to keep a distance from the here and now while embracing it because they need time for precipitation[??rain??] before working on it. The temporal sense presented may not necessarily be very strong, but what is seen in a photograph is captured in a split second. This kind of ‘now’ really means ‘now!’. The so-called recipitation[????] is done when one takes the time to choose.
Alice, 2005, Graphite on paper, 22 x 27 cm
頴思，2005，石墨紙本，22 x 27 厘米
Portrait of Alice, 1996, Watercolour on board, 27.5 x 19 cm
憶，1996，水彩紙本，27.5 x 19 厘米
* * *
* * *
Heaven and earth, 2000, Digital C-print, 50 x 300 cm
天與地，2000，數碼圖像紙本，50 x 300 厘米
Red breeze, 2001, Digital Image
* * *
* * *
黃：他沒有拍攝，但Munch有一本書Munch and Photography。Munch自己拍的相片像是畫的，因為當年的攝影沒有那麼鮮明，反而有種朦朦朧朧的感覺，有些畫意。我覺得你剛才說的與紀實攝影是相似的，但當來到觀念攝影，其實很多都想接近畫的「去我」。近年發生了一件頗特別的事，就是新的戰地照片開始離開紀實式的報道。像是在伊拉克的，他們會用一個方式──不是擺拍，不是造的，是真的；但他們拍時所用的「度」，已經開始接近電影。寫實派開始有一班攝影師將它變成電影的顯示，以這種方式去觀看戰爭。現在反而有很多戰爭照片並非拍正在打仗的場面，而是會令你覺得這究竟是真實的戰爭還是電影呈現的戰爭。例如有個伊拉克人在地上跌倒，橫向的，一般的尺寸是二比三，但他故意用全景去捕捉，置中。你會覺得雖然是個奄奄一息的士兵，但也很像耶穌浮在空間的感覺。他們這班戰地記者已經不是用純紀實的方向拍攝戰爭。也有些相片是拍攝戰爭後的建築物，例如頹垣敗瓦，但拍得像電影的十六比九。你不會看見很標誌戰爭照片的爆炸或傷亡，相反他們是拍事後的頹垣敗瓦，有點烽火的那種。現在的人看太多電影，會聯想到這究竟是真實還是虛擬。其實911之後就開始多了這類相片，因為大家都以為那是一台戲。開了電視機，為什麼有飛機撞了上去，然後整座建築物倒下……那時候開始有很大的衝擊。究竟紀實攝影和新聞攝影是不是真的在報道真實的東西呢？於是越來越多出名的戰地記者開始玩形式，將其電影化。當然，這在十年前的時裝廣告早已有了。所有東西變成如電影般，感覺很像劇照，但其實是真實的。
＊ ＊ ＊
彼岸，1996，塑膠彩紙本，103 x 116 厘米，夏利豪基金會藏
Opposite, 1996, Acrylic on board, 103 x 116 cm, Phillippe Charriol Foundation Collection
Doctrine of Bridge, 1997, Mixed media on wooden panel, 160 x 120 cm, Private collection
橋，1997，塑膠彩木本，160 x 120 厘米，私人收藏
Compact Metropolis, 1999, Digital zinc, film output, acrylic, 145 x 51 cm
壓縮都會，1999，數碼鋅版、菲林輸出及塑膠彩，145 x 51 厘米
Blue City Blue, 2000, Digital C-print, 50.8 x 76.2 cm, Asia One Collection
藍城藍，2000，數碼輸出紙本，50.8 x 76.2 厘米，Asia One 藏