Creating Across Cultures - Jaffa Lam

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CONTENTS Editor’s Notes on Romanization and Pronunciation Preface Acknowledgments

viii ix xii

IN T RODUC T IO N By Michelle Vosper


WO MEN of WORDS Introduction by Jennifer Feeley



NIEH HUALING 聶華苓: On the Outside Looking In


By Michelle Vosper CHAPTER 2

LIAO WEN 廖雯: Writing a New Chapter for Chinese Contemporary Art


By Christina Yuen Zi Chung CHAPTER 3

CANDACE CHONG 莊梅岩: A Playwright Puts the Hong Kong Story on Center Stage


By Clare Tyrrell-Morin WO RLD of the VISUAL Introduction by Sasha Su-ling Welland CHAPTER 4

YIN XIUZHEN 尹秀珍: Sculpting Soft Histories



By Samantha Culp CHAPTER 5

CHOI YAN CHI 蔡仞姿: Blazing a Trail for Hong Kong Art and Education


By Clare Tyrrell-Morin CHAPTER 6

LULU SHUR-TZY HOU 侯淑姿: Taiwan Through a Feminist Lens


By Christina Yuen Zi Chung CHAPTER 7

JAFFA LAM 林嵐: An Artist Shines a Light on Community


By Clare Tyrrell-Morin with Valerie C. Doran CHAPTER 8

YANG LINA 楊荔鈉: The Art of Documenting China’s Most Vulnerable

By Jennifer Feeley



THE ARTISTS IN THIS SECTION, trailblazers of the contemporary era, can claim a long and illustrious lineage. As artists, patrons and collectors, women enriched the realm of visual expression in premodern China through contributions to the literati arts of poetry, calligraphy and painting. Jin Dynasty calligrapher Wei Shuo (272–349) was acclaimed for her stylistic innovations. Li Qingzhao (1084–1151) gained renown as a Song Dynasty poet, calligrapher and connoisseur of books. Yuan Dynasty painter Guan Daosheng (1262–1319) disregarded gender convention with her atmospheric rendering of bamboo, a traditional symbol of masculinity. Qing Dynasty flower and landscape painter Chen Shu (1660–1736) self-consciously identified with female predecessors when she painted Han Dynasty Lady Wenji alone in a tent with paper, ink stone and zither by her side. Embroidery, while not part of the male scholarly canon, was a means of female bonding, agency and self-expression. Female poets wrote about the practice, and women authored treatises on the art. By the

She exhibited sensuous paintings of female nudes at the First National Art Exhibition of 1929 in Shanghai and joined the faculty of the National Central University in Nanjing. As the violent clash between Nationalists and Communists divided the art world, Pan left for Paris, where she spent the rest of her life. Her transnational career is an important precursor to the five contemporary artists featured in this section. Their work attests to multiple border-crossings that complicate and challenge understandings of Chineseness. All have made groundbreaking innovations to form that challenge conventional art practices and institutions. Choi Yan Chi’s early deconstructions of Chinese calligraphy defy the politics of Western modernist abstraction, and her installations confront both mainland state violence and British colonial history in Hong Kong. Lulu Hou’s photographic and text-based work documents the dreams and struggles of Vietnamese women sold into marriage with Taiwanese men. Yin Xiuzhen’s installations ruminate upon the human cost of spectacular national projects

of the VISUAL late Qing, embroidery had gained new economic and artistic status. When Shen Shou’s (1874–1921) needlework portrait of the Italian empress won a 1911 art competition in Turin, the Qing government presented it as a gift to the Italian emperor. In the early twentieth century, Chinese art schools offered classes in Western painting and new opportunities for female artists like Pan Yuliang (1899–1977) to hone their skills in genres not yet dominated by a male tradition in China. Pan won a government scholarship that allowed her to train in painting and sculpture in Lyon, Paris and Rome.

Pan Yuliang (1899–1977) Self Portrait Oil on canvas. 1945 © National Art Museum of China

through her use of intimate, everyday materials and the domestic and industrialized labor of sewing. Yang Lina’s digital documentaries and feature films break taboos in representing divorce, domestic violence and female sexuality on screen. Jaffa Lam’s sculptures and installations illuminate race, gender and class-based marginalization in the face of cross-border economic realignments. While some of the artists identify as feminist and others frame their work in broader terms, their art poses critical questions for our time about culture and power. — Sasha Su-ling Welland 69



Creating art is a kind of compulsion. It’s as though the work is stuck in your throat and you need to get it out to save yourself. You have to do it. There is no choice.

JAFFA LAM is a Hong Kong artist who specializes in the creation of large-scale, site-specific works, mixed-media sculptures and installations, usually made with salvaged materials such as crate wood, old furniture and recycled fabric. Lam’s art involves and reflects strong elements of community, connection and collaborative processes.

An Artist Shines a Light on Community By Clare Tyrrell-Morin with Valerie C. Doran


omewhere in New York City’s Chelsea District, near Eighth Avenue and 32nd Street, sits a small Chinese take-out restaurant owned and run by immigrants from Fujian Province. Like so many of its counterparts in lower Manhattan, it serves cheap, Americanized Chinese fast food. A glance through the front windows reveals typical décor: tile floor, plastic tables and chairs, Formica counter and fluorescent lights, the drabness of which is slightly relieved by a colorful poster of a Chinese mountainscape on the wall and a couple of droopy plants hanging in baskets. The whole scene is enveloped in a slight haze from the frying food and punctuated with periodic shouts from the staff and cooks volleying orders in their southern Chinese dialect. Amid this normality, you will see a startling touch: a softly glowing sign in white neon letters, sculpted in a friendly, casual script that reads:

WE COOK ART HERE It hangs inside the glass front door and the take-out counter and is echoed by two small neon sculptures in the shape of stylized clouds evoking the cloud motifs on ancient Chinese textiles. The ironical whimsy of these neon sculptures suggests the art of a Claude Levecque or Tracey Emin. There must certainly be a story here, one thinks. And indeed there is. These sculptures are the work of the Hong Kong–based sculptor and installation artist Jaffa Lam, who came to New York in the winter of 2007 as an Asian Cultural Council grantee. Late on a dark and bitterly cold afternoon she, too, wandered into this restaurant. This happenstance set off an artistic path of connection, investigation, creativity and kinship for this diminutive, endlessly energetic young artist. When Lam landed in New York in 2007, she was an emerging artist on the Hong Kong scene with a growing reputation for beautifully crafted conceptual sculpture and for her strong sense of community engagement. She had been awarded an Asian Cultural Grant, mainly for researching 133


We Cook Art Here, Lam’s neon sculpture at the Dinersty Chinese Restaurant in New York City, 2007.

public sculptural art in New York and its relationship to its surrounding community. Her ACC grant provided her with a fellowship and space at Brooklyn’s Point B artists’ residency while she studied the technical aspects of shaping glass and neon materials at the famous Urban Glass studio. “My New York trip really marks the beginning of my career,” Lam explains a decade later. She left her own mark on New York as well. Lam had done artist residencies in far-flung places such as Bangladesh and Kenya, creating projects that engaged on a grassroots level, but this was her first trip to the United States or, indeed, to a Western country. Here she aimed to discover authentic ways of connecting locally and creating what one might call her own kind of “public art” in the city. 134


She hoped to learn something about her own identity as a “contemporary artist” in the contemporary art nexus that is New York. With a signature mixture of naiveté and spunk, Lam had approached a few Chelsea and Soho galleries to introduce herself and talk about her work, but was left with the discouraging feeling that they didn’t seem to “get her.” So when she happened upon the Chinese fast food restaurant, she decided to go in and ponder her predicament over a plate of noodles. “I went in to order something,” she explains, “and heard the cooks and cashier speaking my mother’s dialect from Fuzhou City in Fujian. So I ordered my food in that dialect and the cashier was surprised because neither my face nor my dress gave me away as an immigrant from Fuzhou.” She surprised them by correctly identifying the mountain on the poster as Mt. Wuyi in Fujian Province. Lam was born in a little town called Fuding and spent her childhood there before moving to Hong Kong as a 12-year-old. “I decided at that very moment that I wanted to do an installation in their restaurant. But when I told them my idea they laughed out loud: they didn’t think I looked like a ‘real’ artist. Now even the restaurant workers were doubting my identity as an artist!” She laughed right back at them and pointed out that the food they served didn’t taste like “real” Fuzhou food either. They set up a bet then and there: if she could get her art shown in a Chelsea gallery, they would hang her art in their restaurant. The odds, it turned out, were in her favor. Canonizing Lin Zexu Lam struck up an acquaintance with one of the restaurant workers, Ah Niu, who told her he had been smuggled to New York as a teenager by “snakeheads” (people smugglers) from Fujian. He asked Lam if she had seen the statue in Chinatown of one of Fujian’s greatest heroes, Lin Zexu. Erected in 1997, it was taller and grander than the statue of Confucius, Chinatown’s main piece of public art since the early 1980s. Lin was an important Qing Dynasty official famed for his bold denouncement of the British opium trade in China and its pernicious effect on the country’s economic, moral and social fabric. “Actually he is the only famous hero we’ve got,” says Lam. “So we are really proud of him.” Ah Niu brought Lam to Chatham Square in Chinatown to see the large bronze statue of Lin Zexu, which faces East Broadway (or “Fuzhou Street’’ to the locals, due to the large Fujianese population in the area). The statue rests on a base of red granite mined in Fujian and was financed by individuals and civic associations, particularly 135


those with Fujianese ties. The installation of the statue took place in 1997, the same year that the British lease on Hong Kong—one of the spoils of the Opium War—expired and Britain had to “hand over” the former colony to China. Lam paid a visit to Steven Wong, chairman of the “Lin Zexu Foundation of U.S.A.,” which had raised funding for the statue. When the statue was originally installed, he explained, the plaque on its base described how the Western powers had invaded and colonized China after the Opium War. The city ordered the plaque removed because someone

Who’s the Hero?, Lam’s installation of a halo on the statue of Lin Zexu, Chinatown, New York, July 20, 2007.



had complained to the city government that it was offensive. Lam was furious to learn that the statue’s history had been essentially obliterated. She decided to find a way to honor Lin Zexu in her capacity as a fellow Fujianese, and to clarify his importance in the community’s history. Lam thought about the famous lines by the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai: I raise my head to look at the mountain moon. Then I lower my head, thinking of my hometown. “For me, the statue of Lin Zexu is my moonlight.” She decided to stage a kind of ephemeral guerrilla art intervention at Chatham Square: at her studio at Urban Glass, she would make a moon-like, glass halo for Lin Zexu, and find a way to attach it to the statue temporarily and to illuminate it. Lam planned to stage the art at midnight on July 4, American Independence Day, as well as her own birthday. True to her goal, the project drew in the community in a number of ways. She made her first attempt on July 4, but the neon broke while it was being raised to the statue. Undeterred, she created a second version and returned on the night of July 20. During the installation process, while Lam was posed precariously on a large ladder, several passersby stopped to help out, and a curious crowd began to gather. A local restaurant provided the electricity. Several other ACC grantees were in attendance for the “lighting ceremony.” For two minutes Lin Zexu was glorified by a halo of light, and everyone passing through Chatham Square in that moment stopped and applauded. There was just enough time to film the intervention for posterity before dismantling the halo to avoid attracting the attention of the local police. The halo that Lam created for that brief moment of light on a Chinatown street is an expression of one of her deepest ambitions: for her, art is always a kind of sanctifier, a halo, that illuminates and honors the dignity of the human experience.

The best way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them. — Ida B. Wells (1862–1931)

Survival Years When Jaffa Lam and her family moved to Hong Kong in 1985, their home was an illegal structure built upon a rooftop in the busy, industrial district of Kwun Tong. It was a far cry from the rivers and fields of rural Fujian Province, where she lived with her mother for the first twelve years of life. “You could say it was kind of a slum,” she says. “We were the poorest of the poor in Hong Kong. We had to face a lot of difficulties, like the police coming from time to time, and of course there were bad guys around too.”



The story of Lam’s family reflects the fractured nature of China itself in the twentieth century and the complex lives of people caught up in the Cultural Revolution class struggle. Her mother was born to overseas Chinese parents and spent her youth in Indonesia. Her father, who was born in China but sold to a goldsmith as a young child, grew up in Burma. Both of Lam’s parents had returned to China in the 1950s when the Chinese were being persecuted in Southeast Asia. They met at Huaqiao University in Xiamen and married, but were forced to separate due to political turmoil. Jaffa grew up with her mother in a small town in Fuding, while her older sister lived with her father in the city of Fuzhou. Moving to Hong Kong in 1985 meant the family could finally be together. Lam’s mother had been a respected doctor in Fujian, but her credentials were not recognized in Hong Kong, so she had to take factory work as well as part-time jobs caring for the elderly. The sisters worked in factories to help make ends meet. Lam remembers the time she spent the Chinese New Year holiday in a blue-jeans factory with another young girl. “The workers all went on vacation, so those who worked were paid triple. We worked as many hours as we could and when we got tired we just climbed into a big pile of blue-jeans scraps and went to sleep. In those days nobody ever talked about this being dangerous for young girls,” she adds. “That’s why I am financially independent. I know how to make a living, and my mother knew that. So she finally agreed to let me study art. I promised her I would never let her starve.” During her teenage years, Lam had to take on numerous jobs after school, from salesgirl at a boutique to tutor, but she still maintained outstanding grades. She was enamored of her high school art teacher, the smartly dressed Miss Lam, who encouraged her to develop her talent and apply to university. In 1993, Jaffa Lam was accepted into the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s prestigious Department of Fine Arts, the first studio art program in the colony to be based in a tertiary institution. While many of her classmates veered toward Western media, Lam was drawn to ink painting and calligraphy. To this day she says that ink painting is the spirit Lam with her mother, Yu Shuk Kam, in Fujian, 1979. that pervades all her projects. 138


Poster from Lam’s exhibition Looking for My Family Story, 2015.

Yet, a required course in modern art and sculpture with the acclaimed and influential sculptor Cheung Yee at CUHK set her on a new course. The fact that he infused his contemporary sculptures and paper cast works with ancient Chinese traditions endeared him to Lam. His generous and inspirational energy encouraged many rising artists. “He was like a father to me,” she says of her mentor. “I had never been close to my father and Cheung Yee took on that role. He didn’t just teach us about how to make art; he taught us what it meant to be an artist, to live like an artist.”



Under Cheung’s tutelage, Lam found that she liked working with wood, tools and fabrication and that, despite her petite build, she was good at wielding large tools and machinery. The freedom of working in more contemporary idioms also appealed to her. She began incorporating a more conceptual approach in her calligraphic works. In her 1996 piece Black Tiger she used an ancient calligraphic script to copy out the contents of a recent newspaper article on the construction of Hong Kong’s Tsing Ma Bridge, the world’s largest suspension bridge. There was a social and political subtext to this work: with the 1997 Handover of Hong Kong to mainland China looming ahead, the construction of the Tsing Ma bridge represented the inexorable future of an infrastructural linkage between Hong Kong and mainland China—a development that was in equal parts welcomed and resisted among Hong Kong people. Jaffa’s Black Tiger received a major award at the 1996 Hong Kong Art Biennale and was collected by the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Then her trajectory shifted once more: she began to pursue sculpture, installation and mixed media.

Cheung Yee and Lam in front of Lam’s calligraphic artwork Black Tiger (1996).



Nomad After graduating from the Chinese University with a Master’s in Fine Arts and a Diploma in Education, Lam won an “Artists in the Neighbourhood” grant in 2002 and was given the chance for a solo show the following year at Shatin Town Hall. She originally planned to create a fun and interactive group of sculptural installations to be called Playground. But after the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in March 2003 and the havoc it wrought in Hong Kong, she changed her concept. Instead, she created Murmur, a group of four separate but linked installations, almost like a set of metaphorical steles, memorializing/reflecting/distilling the emotions of those caught in the fear of SARS. The four works were titled: For Someone Who Wants to Cry, For Someone Who Wants to Run, For Someone Who Wants to Hide and For Someone Who Wants to Fly. The compassion radiating from these sculptures caught the eye of the influential Hong Kong performance artist Kith Tsang Tak-ping. He recommended her to the Hualien International Artists’ Workshop in Taiwan—the first of many residencies to follow. In 2004 Lam spent two

For Someone Who Wants to Cry, a section of Lam’s four-part installation series Murmur, at Sha Tin Town Hall, 2003.



Life-sized portraits of three of the subjects of Rickshaw (2005), which drew attention to the economic plight of the drivers in Bangladesh.

weeks in Kenya at the Wasanii 4th International Artists Workshop in Lamu, a small island 200 miles northeast of the coastal city of Mombasa. In a local museum she discovered historical records revealing the 400-yearold connections between Lamu and China via the ceramics trade. She created eleven flowing sculptural forms out of mosquito nets, handpainting “China blue� ink designs onto the material. She employed a local tailor to sew them into shapes inspired by the Muslim architectural arches of the doorways and hung the nets in a community courtyard where women would gather. Lam became enamored of the artist residency concept and the idea of working closely with the surrounding local communities. In 2005, she flew to Dhaka, Bangladesh, with funding from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. She wanted to explore the city for creative inspiration, but her hosts insisted, for safety reasons, that she ride with a 142


rickshaw driver. Lam’s response was to befriend the driver, and she also got to know his family and friends. She documented the lives of the rickshaw drivers and learned about the economic hardships they faced as the city’s steady modernization put more and more of them out of work. Lam would kneel down on the ground with her camera to shoot their portraits, allowing them to appear much taller than they were. She commissioned portrait painters, whose usual subjects were the rich and famous, to paint these drivers. “Whenever I go on a residency, all the money I get must be spent in the local environment,” she explains. “This is one of my practices.” Lam was overstepping all the class rules, aiming to highlight the challenges faced by this overlooked sector of the community. Her resulting mixed-media and photographic installation Rickshaw took over the Alliance Française gallery in Dhaka and featured life-sized photographs of various drivers standing beside their rickshaws. When the works reemerged the following year at an exhibition in Hong Kong, Lam went one step further—adding ornamental gilt frames and brass nameplates to the photographic portraits. She wanted to grant the rickshaw drivers the same honor and deep respect one sees in portraits in the Louvre. There are in contemporary art criticism special terms for the kind of art that Jaffa Lam creates, where a process of connection to, and deeper understanding of the community around her is an essential element of the work. The French critic Jean Baudrillard calls it “relational aesthetics.” But for Lam, an artist originally trained in ink painting, it was an outgrowth of her personal identity and the life she has lived. Jaffa has always been doing “relational art”; it comes naturally to her. When Lam returned to Hong Kong in 2006, she received no praise from the local arts community for her new work. “When people saw the Rickshaw project, they criticized me,” she says. “They said, ‘What are you, a social worker?’ At the time, people in the arts community were more concerned about the problems at home.“ The year 2006 had been pivotal in Hong Kong’s new movement to preserve collective memories. This was triggered in November 2006 by the closing, demolition and relocation of the Central Star Ferry terminal to make way for a four-lane highway. The terminal building, built in 1957, was one of the city’s most visible postwar landmarks, and the historic heart of the famous Star Ferry, which has been ferrying people across Victoria Harbour for more than 120 years. Around 150,000 protesters congregated in November 2006 as the Star Ferry set out on its final journey from that pier.

Art isn’t everything. It’s just about everything. — Gertrude Stein (1874–1946)



The “Meditation Room” of Looking for Ah Mak in the Dream Studio, one part of Lam’s contribution to the exhibition Looking for Antonio Mak, Hong Kong Museum of Art, 2008–2009.

Many Hong Kong people felt a collective sense of loss at the disappearance of the pier; its clock tower no longer chimed its bell across the waves of the harbor every hour. The following year another nearby landmark, Queen’s Pier, suffered the same fate and more protests were held. But by the time these started, Jaffa Lam had received the Asian Cultural Council grant and had been whisked off far away to New York. Communing with Antonio Mak In 2008, when Jaffa Lam was just back from New York she was invited to create a two-part work for a group exhibition—Looking for Antonio Mak—at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Antonio Mak Hin-yeung, one of Hong Kong’s most pioneering sculptors, had died at the age of 43 in 1994. Guest curator Valerie C. Doran set out to locate the artist—



both through his actual works, which she gathered from collections worldwide, and through charting his influence. She commissioned eight artists to create new works responding to Mak’s work and set about having the carpets torn up and the normal confines of the museum’s halls filled with film, installation, painting, sculpture, photography and sound art— complete with the reassembled works of Mak’s oeuvre. Lam’s contribution was titled Looking for Ah Mak in the Dream Studio. The first part was a “Meditation Room” where she responded to the Buddhist themes driving Mak’s works. The walls were painted a blinding, bluish white with ingenious lighting techniques set up so that stepping inside the space felt like entering consciousness itself. Lam had constructed a large bronze bell and inserted it into the wall. A fan buzzed behind it, so that when you leaned into it, you could hear an otherworldly humming. “I wanted to make it sound like Mak was sleeping in another world,” she explains. This show had touched a particular chord with Lam. “When I was invited to join this show, I thought to myself, ‘Why are all the great sculptors men?’ All my mentors were men, the artists I admire like Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley. But where were the women?” So she added a small nude sculpture of the back of her own body, high up in a corner of the space. “I tried to say, ‘I love you guys, but I imagine you will also need female support one of these days.’” For the second part of her project, she built an actual studio—meant to replicate Mak’s original studio—in one of the museum’s corridors, overlooking spectacular views of Victoria Harbour. She installed bunk beds and a long work table, brought along her tools and spent more than two months in this studio—even managing to convince the museum management to allow her to sleep two nights there. She befriended the security guards and interviewed hundreds of Hongkongers who came to the show. Micro Economy Later that year, Lam was invited to contribute a piece to the Subvision Arts Festival in Hamburg. There she created what would grow into her iconic series Micro Economy. She set about responding to themes that she could feel swirling through the minds of Hong Kong people. Public resentment was mounting over the collusion between government and business in building enormous real estate projects that were destroying the tangible, collective memory of Hong Kong.



As Lam studied the festival site in Hamburg on Google Earth, she was strongly reminded of the Hong Kong government’s controversial plan to build a massive new arts district—the West Kowloon Cultural District— on a 40-hectare site of reclaimed land jutting out into Victoria Harbour. The district would include several performance theaters, a center for Chinese opera, and the M+ museum, dedicated to visual culture. Critics pointed out that the project’s enormous budget (US$2.8 billion) would be better spent on preserving and improving the city’s existing organic culture and the landmarks that were being bulldozed into oblivion. Lam created an installation—Public Cultural District? Republic of Cultural District—as a statement on the plan. She infused the piece with a real Hong Kong–style, punk rock energy. It featured a shipping container lying on the grounds of the Hamburg festival site, with a parachute, made from salvaged umbrella fabric, floating above it. Inside the container was a large paper airplane, which Lam had constructed out of hundreds of government publicity flyers about performances and exhibitions. She then issued her own questionnaires, invited the audience to fill them out, and turn them into paper airplanes. To make this installation, Lam had set up a partnership with the Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association (HKWWA), a group of seamstresses who had been employed in Hong Kong’s once-flourishing textile industry based in Kowloon. Many of these women had lost their jobs to cheaper

Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association members with the umbrella fabric for the parachute in Public Cultural District? Republic of Cultural District, 2009.



Public Cultural District? Republic of Cultural District, Lam’s installation piece commenting on the government-planned West Kowloon Cultural District, 2009.

labor over the border in China. So Lam took the grant money and paid the women to work with her on the project, redefining the very concept of “creative industry.” “Big government always has its mission to improve a city,” she says. “We are individuals: what can we do? We are the micro economy; we do very small things. I’m trying to shift the money from the cultural sector to the public.” Lam began to push the salvaged umbrella fabric and micro economy concept into bigger and bolder forms. For a group exhibition at the Westlake Contemporary Museum in Hangzhou, China in 2011, she and the women at the HKWWA recreated an entire corner of a traditional Chinese pavilion from the rainbow-colored material. It was exquisite and monumental in scale. Lam’s Micro Economy project was invited around the world and it was the perfect art to travel with: the umbrella fabric could simply be folded up and slipped into a bag. The Umbrella Movement When Jaffa Lam is not on the road with her art, she hunkers down in her creative nest in a large industrial space in the district of Fotan in the New Territories—a place where many artists have loft-like studios in former 147


I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other considerations. — Frida Kahlo (1907–1954)

factories. Lam’s view is of the lush green mountains beyond—where she can hear the cicadas and birds sing. Within her 1,000-square-foot space are tools of all dimensions. There is a standing tree in the center of the space that she made from reclaimed wood. The tree cannot be sold as an artwork, she explains, because it has no leaves on it, which is bad luck for the Chinese. “Friends ask me why I make art that no one buys,” she muses. “But it’s not about that. Creating art is a kind of compulsion. It’s as though the work is stuck in your throat and you have to get it out. You have to do it to save yourself. You have no choice.” This sense of the need for art as a process of healing and cleansing hit a new level for Lam in 2014. In the previous decade, she had taken on teaching posts at the Hong Kong Art School of the Hong Kong Arts Centre and was growing close to many of her students. It was a surreal moment for her that year when the umbrella—the central focus of her Micro Economy projects—also became Hong Kong’s key symbol of resistance. That fall, what became known as the Occupy Movement began (see also p. 65), when hundreds of thousands of protesters marched and occupied central arteries of the city in the name of free elections and greater democracy. The mass protest was dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution” on Twitter the night of September 28, when Hong Kong’s police force suddenly used tear gas on protesters, an unexpectedly violent reaction to the peaceful gathering. Umbrellas and facemasks were the protesters’ only means of defense, and within hours, designs and logos featuring umbrellas began to circulate on social media. So ubiquitous was the logo that Time magazine named the yellow umbrella the “Image of the Year” in 2014. All the while, Lam had been haunted by the police action against the peaceful demonstrators. “I couldn’t sleep that night of the tear gas,” she explains. “I’m not a super-activist but I felt like I was one of them and I wanted to support them.” She and her team of weavers created a blanket made from salvaged umbrellas, with 87 stars symbolizing the 87 canisters of tear gas fired by the police. A wooden, gravestone-like form displayed the words “2014” on the front and “1997” on the back. The installation—One Country Two Systems, One Bed Two Dreams—was shown in summer 2015 at Germany’s Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg as part of the massive China 8 exhibition. “After creating that work, I felt a sense of release,” Lam confides. Hong Kong Today, Taiwan Tomorrow In April 2014, Lam’s creative impulse was sparked by another group of protestors. After watching Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement unfold on



TV, in which students and civil groups were protesting the new CrossStrait Service Trade Agreement between China and Taiwan, she thought about the bonds between Hong Kong and Taiwan—extending even to the weather. Typhoons, the ferocious tropical storms that swirl through the region, often touch land first in Taiwan before moving on to Hong Kong. Thus, the saying, “Taiwan today, Hong Kong tomorrow.” Yet Lam noticed how protesters in Taiwan were looking to Hong Kong’s situation after reuniting with the mainland as a special administrative region; they reversed the phrase to “Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow.” “I was so moved that Taiwan used Hong Kong as their example to look at,” says Lam. So she decided to create a sacred space, “a memorial site for the two movements.” The resulting installation—Singing Under the Moon for Today and Tomorrow—appeared at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei as part of the show In the Name of Art: Hong Kong Contemporary Art Exhibition. Her meditative work took over an entire, 4,000-square-foot gallery of the museum. Her collective of weavers had built a huge sky made from more than ten thousand umbrellas. At its center was a large moon that looked like an eye. Eight meditation tents hung beneath this sky, like teardrops. People could pull themselves inside these tents and hang there, enclosed in the softness while singing and listening to music. “Singing is the most powerful weapon of the unarmed, the weaker side,” explains Lam. Lam had installed microphones and tiny speakers in the tents, which allowed viewers to record and listen to themselves and others singing and humming. Lyrics from protests songs from both movements were featured on the walls. There was the iconic Hong Kong band Beyond’s anthem “Under a Vast Sky,” which had been sung by tens of thousands on the streets of Central, Hong Kong, and Teresa Teng’s “The Moon Represents My Heart”—a bit of nostalgia from the 1980s for fans in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, and one of the most popular Chinese songs of all time. “We have a difficult relationship with mainland China,” says Lam. “You cannot separate yourself. I couldn’t say ‘I’m not Chinese.’ I’m still Chinese but I also have another perspective when looking at this country. I was exploring these ideas in this work.” Lam had created an entire, immersive environment of introspection— where people were invited to sit, to be still and listen to one another. The vast moon overhead was reminiscent of the poetry of Li Bai, which had inspired her halo for Lin Zexu. The idea it evoked, of thinking of one’s hometown, resonated deeply with Hong Kong and Chinese people who had left villages in China for lives elsewhere. 149


Lam’s interactive installation piece Singing Under the Moon for Today and Tomorrow, Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei, 2015.

This empathic quality is a thread throughout Lam’s artistic practice. In looking at her body of work over the past ten years, one sees how she seeks out the misunderstood, the marginalized and the overlooked, from a genuine sense of kinship rather than a charitable or voyeuristic perspective. There is nothing forced about the way Jaffa engages with her subjects. She wants to talk to the people who navigate the harshness of the everyday world, to understand how they live and to learn how they handle the journey of life. Jaffa blesses, sanctifies and honors things and people. For her, art is a kind of gift-giving, in which her greatest gift is her attentiveness.




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