An interview with Chow Chun Fai

by Mara Sartore
April 27, 2015
Mara Sartore
Chow Chun-Fai

I’ve met Chow Chun Fai in his studio in Fotan during Art Basel in Hong Kong to talk about his recent works. One of his latest most significant art pieces, Supper at Emmaus will be displayed at the Venice Meeting Point (Navy Officers’ Club – Arsenale) during the 4 days of the openings of the 56th Art Biennale.

Mara Sartore: You were telling us about this new painting in your studio, does it have a title?

Chow Chun Fai: Well because today we’re having the open studio, I have some paintings which have a similar subject matter so it’s more about the social issues and the political situation here in Hong Kong and i never wanted to have work which was too political, maybe this is also related to my education: I was trained in painting and I wanted to do things that went more in depth, when you do works that are political somehow they are too superficial, you have to be very direct, you have to make your statement in a very short time. But the environment in HK changed and that’s why my work became more political we could say, but I also think it’s more about how the artist reacts to the social environment.
So this painting I have here is all from the movies, I capture the subtitles which is exactly the same from the movie, but even though it’s the same, when I make it into a still the meaning becomes different.
So for example this one, the big one, is from a movie called Little Chang which was made in 1997 which is about the handover of HK at that time. So in the movie there were three kids, two from Guangdong and the other one is local and when they arrived at the harbour they discussed about the future of Hong Kong.
I made this painting during the Umbrella Movement in 2014, and even if the movie was made seventeen years ago, if we look at the subtitles today, we have another feeling.
I’m not trying to respond to the social issues just by the subtitles but I’m trying to capture the actual problems in China today.
We’re are living in an environment with lies, somehow it’s quite ironic…you can see from the subtitle or from the scenery I capture.
But as an artist I also have other concerns on the paintings, for example I keep doing my paintings using different materials.
A Better Tomorrow , “when we turn to be good we are being tracked” is a painting I made three years ago, I used Enamel industrial paint because I wanted to have new materials in my work and also because I tried to imitate the billboard that we used to have outside the cinemas. Nowadays we have electronic billboards, but in the past they used to hand paint the posters. The paint they used wasn’t oil or acrylic but they used industrial paint.

MS: You can tell that the effects of each painting are different, is this explained by the materials you used?

CCF: Yes I am mixing different materials, some of them are made with oil, some with acrylic and others with industrial paint. I think this is really important for my own development, I keep doing different experiment on materials. The Photo Installation is another series of my work. I have another one which I am still working on, the latest one is the Caravaggio at the entrance.

MS: Of course, the one we used for our website! What’s the process to take these photographs, do you create the set, choose the people and then take the photos?

CCF: Kind of: it’s actually more simple than that. For example the drapery on Jesus Christ is actually canvas, so I painted it, I folded it and then I took pictures from little models.
It’s actually me in the picture, if you look closer you can see my face.

MS: Interesting, so did you put make up on to take these pictures and did you do you hair as well?

CCF: Yes exactly. And even the one with curly hair it’s me, I put a wig on. When I finished this work there was a discussion on how Caravaggio painted his works and actually there’s also debate nowadays because some historians and scientists think that Caravaggio used a camera to make paintings.

MS: What do you mean by using a camera to make his paintings?

CCF: He might have worked with layers: most of the historians agree that he used ha camera obscura, a black box, to make his paintings. Many of us agree. But there are other scholars that state mercury and silver was found on the base of his canvases and he painted on top. This was the early way to develop a photo. This was 400 years ago and there’s still a debate going on, but the fact that you can find these materials on his canvases is true.
Another proof is that if you check Caravaggio’s canvases with x-rays you cannot find any lines or sketch on the canvases, so this means that he painted directly, without making any kind of drawing before.
I met a professor and when she saw my photographs she told me that she thought that this is how Caravaggio made his sketches because he couldn’t develop the image at once, but he had to do it in many times on the canvas. The technology of lenses was really poor 400 years ago this means that if he tried to develop mercury and silver on the canvas he could only do it in a very poor way.
He had to adjust the lens in order to have the right focus. If the focus was on one part of the canvas, the rest was blurred so every time he was working on a part of the canvas he had to fix the focus. There’s also another proof: when you measure Jesus Christ’s hand you realize that the one at the front is smaller than the one at the back. This is very strange because all of his paintings are so realistic so why is the hand at the back much bigger than the one at the front? It’s because of the focus that he had to adjust, like in camera that we would use nowadays.
I do believe in the theory that Caravaggio managed to work on some kind of photo development technique 400 years ago.
For me there’s another meaning when I use photo on all this classical work, it’s also an echo to the technique that was used at that time.

MS: How do you actually call this artwork, is it a painting? Is it only one copy?

CCF: I call it photo-installation and it’s an edition of 7.

MS: How do you construct the structure behind?

CCF: It’s a wooden frame, I needed to emphasize that it’s a unique photo so I didn’t want to stick it on one board, so I nail it on the wooden bar and people can see that they’re all unique photos.

MS: The Caravaggio photo installation is really impressive and I am still shocked that I didn’t recognize it was you posing for it. You can really change your look, you’re an actor basically.

CCF: It’s also about the light and shadow, they are really important elements in my work and in Caravaggio’s work as well.

MS: Absolutely, but when I saw it on my computer I was impressed by how you captured the sense of his work.

CCF: I’m really trying to use his own technique, the way he managed models in a dark room, how he worked with only one light source and as I said how he used light and shadow…I try to learn a lot from his work.

MS: Could you also tell us about these painting representing Hong Kong’s city life? I see the traffic for example.

CCF: It’s a really long story but I’ll try to make it simple. I used to paint city landscape, mostly from Hong Kong. You’ll realize that you can see so many taxis in my work, that’s because of my experience: I was a taxi driver while I was studying fine arts. My father was also a taxi driver and he never owned the taxi until when I got to university. It’s a really big thing to own a taxi in Hong Kong where even on something like that there’s speculation, also today the license is worth 7 million HK dollars so of course we couldn’t afford it and we had to start a mortgage.
Everyone in Hong Kong has to do these kind of procedures to own things. But then my father had a stroke while I was studying which meant I also had to take over his job as taxi driver for seven years.
In my early work I tried to capture my daily life and this kind of experience influenced me to paint the city landscape.

MS: What about these ones? The look more like TV than film.

CCF: Yes they are news clips, all these three represent Donald Tsang Yam-kuenthe, the chief executive of Hong Kong.
For these three I took the subtitles and the scene from the news, it represents one of my concerns: if the artist has to respond to a political situation, it has to be direct and quick because news just happen in one day so if you do a painting, which usually takes three or four days, it’s always too slow to be used to react to an issue.
For me these works are an evidence of something that was said in the past, for example the Chief Executive, was Chief Secretary before and what he says in this news clip is that building a cultural district in Hong Kong would have brought economical benefits, meaning that for them, the rulers, it was about money rather than what art and culture.
The other one (CY Leung, ” June 4 Incident for sure was a tragedy for Chinese”) is about the June 4th incident, so for sure this painting cannot go to China, the one you see here is actually a print of the painting.

MS: Who owns the painting?

CCF: It belongs to Uli Sigg

MS: Is it part of the collection he donated to M+ or is it in Switzerland?

CCF: It’s in Switzerland now, but before it was taken there I tried to show it in different places in Hong Kong just as an experiment: if I have works about June 4th I want to see the reaction of the people. I tried to show it in the university and it was ok. I tried to show it in a gallery and that was ok too. I tried then to put it in the Museum of Hong Kong in Kowloon as part of what we used to call the Biennale which was based on applications but it was rejected by the jury.

MS: That’s because of political reasons.

CCF: Not exactly, but that’s what happens sometimes in Hong Kong, because we have direct censorship, we always have an excuse to try to keep things more stable. Of course I’ve had no explaining from the Museum on why the work was rejected. I would say this is the difference between mainland China and Hong Kong: in China you would be told very directly that this work is not allowed and all the artists have their way to face this kind of situation, they can have some private venue for their work or other ways to show them; in Hong Kong they won’t tell you directly which work is allowed and which work isn’t allowed, they will bring other excuses like administrative reasons.
That’s why for me it’s not only the painting but its all history becomes the painting itself.

MS: Do you have a gallery that represents you in Hong Kong?

CCF: I worked with Hanart in the past few years and we keep collaborating.


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