Chan Sai-lok, Visualizations of Literature

Charlie Ng Chak-kwan

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Throughout his career, Hong Kong artist Chan Sai-lok has experimented with ways to connect literature and the visual arts. From his early abstract and pictorial representations of literary inspiration to the recent integration of written characters and literary elements in paintings and art projects, Chan’s work embodies the dialectical relationship between literature and the visual arts. Chan’s multiple identities as artist, writer, and art critic provide him with a unique experience in crossing the boundary between word and image.

This summer, Chan’s works, Kowloon Hospital and Places I Once Stayed, were exhibited in the joint exhibition Scenery of Dialogue—Artist in Hospital, an outcome of the residency programme conducted by Art in Hospital, a community art initiative that was established in 1994 to serve hospital patients through art therapy. Chan invited the rehabilitants of the SHINE Recovery Centre at the Psychiatric Department of Kowloon Hospital to capture their life in the hospital through writing and taking Polaroid photos. After in-depth conversations with the patients, the artist responded with a series of paintings inspired by the patients’ voices and their Polaroids. While the psychiatric and medical context receded to the background, the artworks presented the hospital as a living space that incarnates the personal narratives of patients.

Moreover, in late July, Chan participated in the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field in Japan as an art critic, representing the Art Appraisal Club by holding a workshop on the artworks exhibited in the Hong Kong House. Chan guided visitors to an appreciation of the artworks of Hong Kong artists Leung Chi-wo and Sara Wong, through a docent tour that explored the relationships among agricultural fields, photography, images, and stories. In the same workshop, he also introduced other Hong Kong artists who had engaged in both agricultural work and art creation.

Thanks to his receiving the Gold Award of the Open Category in the United Overseas Bank Art in Ink Award last year, Chan received an international artist-in-residence scholarship at Flux Factory in New York City, United States. He stayed there during September and October to work on an art project to reflect on past and contemporary Chinese writings on New York, and the issue of Chinese identity in a foreign place.

In this interview, Chan revisits important moments in his artistic career where literature and the visual arts intersect, sharing with us his incessant interest in the interaction between the two art forms, his engagement in interdisciplinary art projects, and the significance of art criticism for art as well as his creative life.

—Charlie Ng Chak-kwan

In your recent works, collected in Writing Painting 2010–now, Chinese characters are central. These works are quite different from the literature-inspired pieces in the collection Bai Hua Shen Chu 1997–2005. What roles do language and literature play in your work?

I would trace my interest in art and literature back to the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I majored in art, but I also took Chinese literature courses. The approaches of literary criticism, such as the close reading of a passage, reading between the lines of a literary text, and even focusing on a term or a phrase, were inspiring. These approaches are applicable to art as well. When I practice art criticism, I carefully observe detailed arrangements and artistic touches in every piece and think about the reasons behind these details. After learning the method of literary criticism, I started to see the “literariness” in artworks and to treat them as “texts.”

Eventually, when I studied art history, I discovered that the connection of image and text was an important topic in the twentieth century. There were many studies that covered issues from city images in posters and subculture, the introduction of design in art, the relationship between pictures and words, to using words directly in conceptual art—you could find exhibitions of artworks that consisted only of words. In the arena of art, people had different conceptions of words, and, with the influence of linguistics and semiotics, artists began to explore the possibilities of using words or texts.

I love reading literary works and have many favorites. I can still remember impressive plots and passages. Therefore, I started to put literature in my artistic creations. Making artworks was like compiling reading notes. The paintings were responses to my reading. But I felt this kind of creation lacked something. My works at this stage were basically paintings as images. The paintings were rather abstract and emotional. I tried to make the visual elements correspond to the texts. However, I noticed that there was still some distance between them. The text had its own content, but the painting did not necessarily reflect that content.

For example, Kan Mo-han’s White House or Dung Kai-cheung’s Those Days by the Sea each have a story to them, but it would be ridiculous to put the whole story in the painting. The artwork would become an illustration or a comic. That was not something I wished to do. Painting is not a way to represent literature; or, let’s put it this way, if you use painting to represent literature, you haven’t really explored the strength of painting to the fullest, and the relationship between painting and the literary text is somewhat slim. This was my realization after many attempts to capture literature in this way.

Later, when I studied for a master’s degree in art, the styles and forms of my creations began to change. I started to focus less on the content and to reflect more on the nature of literature. For example, prose depends on the natural flow of speech, while poetry depends on the rhythm and the collisions of language. I tried to look for the essence of literature and then use a form of art that would correspond to that. In the works Red Paper and Future, at Variance with Memories, you can see some abstract rows of red dots. My writer friends immediately understood that these works were related to texts, writing, and reading. The inspiration of this form of representation came from a project at the House of Hong Kong Literature conducted in Choi Yuen Village. It was organized in a Chinese New Year after the village’s protest against the construction of the Express Rail Link that would connect Hong Kong and Shenzhen, which was going to eliminate the whole village. The project aimed to commemorate the culture of the village and bring it back to life. I bought some firecrackers from Guangzhou to light there. Firecrackers were symbolic of the fierce protest and, at the same time, their redness represented the felicity of the Chinese New Year. The red pieces of paper that remained on the ground were very interesting in the sense that they resembled writing. These red paper pieces were signs in a sequence just like texts that we read, which were also signs. The works inspired by this were a kind of rewriting. For instance, in one of my works, I overlaid Xi Xi’s Marvels of a Floating City and Dung Kai-cheung’s Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City. Both stories are about the history of Hong Kong. You can see the text of Xi Xi on the lower layer and the text of Dung on the upper layer. The red dots between the texts represent sequences of characters.

Another example is my rewriting of Eileen Chang’s novel Red Rose, White Rose. I attempted to experiment with the method by taking it to the extreme. The red paper corresponds to mosquito blood, while the white paper corresponds to a grain of rice, which are both famous symbols in the story. People who know the story can immediately work out the associations. The correspondence created is on an artistic, abstract level.

Another example is the project Wandering at Kowloon City. It was about representing Kowloon City, and I made references to texts relevant to the district, such as the lines from Hong Kong poet Chan Chi-tak’s poetry collection To Hell with the Market. The poet mentioned the road development in Wan Chai, which mirrored the urban renewal of Kowloon City. Old tong lau that awaited acquisition coexisted with high-rise buildings on small sites. Images of tong lau formed the lower layer and images of high-rise buildings formed the upper layer, and texts from Chan’s poem were put in between the layers. In the urban renewal of Kowloon City, a new MTR line will pass through the district, and Chan’s poem on Wan Chai also mentions the railway. The texts symbolize the passing through of the railway, which witnesses the transformation of the scenes on the streets. This is another way of interpreting a literary text in my artistic creation, which is more relevant to the original literary content.

Moreover, for Reading a Poem from Lau Yee-ching, I was inspired by Chinese literati painting that was popularized in the Song dynasty. This kind of painting valued the combination of poetry, calligraphy, and painting. The art form belonged to a past era detached from our times. But I tried to see if the idea of it could be conveyed through new poetry and modern art. I made layers of ink wash style paintings of trees and rocks to create a sense of space, and then placed the text horizontally, which is different from traditional literati paintings, in which the texts were placed vertically. The characters were also in computer fonts instead of written by brush. I placed an acrylic board between the layers as well. I wanted to represent the idea of “poetry, calligraphy, and painting” all-in-one by using new elements, and there was a lot of fun in the creation.

As both an artist and a writer, how do you see the differences and connections between the visual arts and literature in terms of their form and expression?

For me, being an artist and a writer means I have two identities. These two identities were often considered paradoxical by others. In the literary circle, other writers saw me as a painter or an artist. But when I interacted with people in the art circle, they thought I was a writer. This perception of me is still around now—there are people who think I am only a man of letters. The two identities are not very compatible for some people and they would think it is hard to recognize my position. However, if you consider the bigger picture of contemporary art, multiple identities are not uncommon. An artist can be a writer, curator, and critic all at the same time. You can often find artists with multiple identities in overseas exhibitions. In Hong Kong, I notice that some practitioners have not realized this adequately.

Besides writing art criticism, I also write prose essays, fiction, and poetry. Usually when I have an idea in mind, I need to consider which art form is the best for presenting it. It could be a poem, a prose essay, a story, a painting, or an installation. They are equally valuable to me; I will not restrict myself to one particular form. I can create works that cross these disciplines as well, as I have tried different forms and experienced them. Hence, what are the considerations for determining which form to use?

Let me explain this with an example. This project, A Flower Like Us, was conducted in the Market Museum in Sai Wan this year in May. A young Hong Kong curator, Yu Kei-kei, rented a stall in the market with funding support from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. She invited us to submit proposals for holding a small-scale exhibition at the stall. My project was to present a literary work, which was Xi Xi’s A Lady Like Me. I explored the theme of destiny in the work. I could have chosen a different art form for it, such as writing a poem or a story. However, in the context of the exhibition space in the Market Museum, the idea of a flower came to my mind, as the space was originally a stall selling flowers. The flower can symbolize the girl and her destiny in the story, but we can also see her as a representative of the destiny of this city, as well as everyone who lives here. Therefore, I chose to present my idea in this way. In the background, I printed the most famous lines from the story: “Are you afraid? No, I am not afraid. Are you gutless? No, I am not gutless.” These lines represented the human struggle against destiny. I choose the most appropriate medium of representation to convey my ideas; for me, words, writing, space, materials, and painting are all equally important. And every time I am inspired, I create my works differently.

As I said, I studied literature as well when I studied art. I often came to understand the world and know new things through the medium of words. I was not used to cognizing the world through images or going to exhibitions. My knowledge of contemporary art or theories came from reading books or art magazines. It was in the 1990s, while the Internet was not so popular then. Air travel was also expensive, so I wouldn’t be able to go overseas to see an exhibition at any time. Reading was the most convenient way to acquire knowledge, so it constituted my way of understanding. Moreover, writing helps me tidy up my thoughts. After I am stimulated by many ideas, I need to write them down so as to come up with a more systematic understanding of this body of ideas. It is my habit to represent thoughts in words, written or verbal, to understand myself better. Therefore, writing is part of my creative life. It acts as both an input and an output in my creative process.

Visual language in artistic representations allows more open and extensive interpretations, while linguistic representations give relatively more definite meanings, provided that the audience knows the language. There is often a tension between them when I make my creation. To tackle this, I tend to first write down all the elements that I would like to include. When ideas become text, the text calls for reading. For example, the complete characters that I put on my artworks, I intend for the audience to read them. But if the characters are incomplete or fragmented, that means the original content of the characters is not important, and I do not wish the audience to read them in the conventional way. This can reduce the accuracy of the meaning of the characters. Are fragmented characters “texts” or “drawings”? When a character is so incomplete that it can’t be recognized, it becomes merely lines. I do not speak Hindu and Arabic; when I read those texts, they are just lines to me. For a person who does not speak Chinese, he wouldn’t even know these are meaningful characters. Fragmented characters can create a similar effect. I deliberately experiment with this to deconstruct the authority of texts. We often consider being illiterate an inferior quality; it prevents you from acquiring knowledge, while words also play an important role in promoting the development of human civilization. Words have authority in them. When they appear complete, they become the subject of the work; contrarily, when they appear fragmented, they resist reading and become a visual language.

The project, INKcarnation: Literary Tattoos was a successful event to promote the visualization of literature and demonstrated how literature could interact with Chinese calligraphy and photography. How did the idea come about? Are there other possible ways of relating literature and visual arts that you would like to explore?

In 2008, Hong Kong’s literary circle was agitated by the lack of a museum of literature in the blueprint of the West Kowloon Cultural District. A group of writers, led by Dung Kai-cheung, decided to organize the House of Hong Kong Literature to express our discontent with the decision. In the government’s mindset, literature belonged to libraries but not to art. Hong Kong already had a central library, and literature was not needed in the Cultural District. I joined as one of the ten founding members of the House of Hong Kong Literature in 2009. We launched a series of activities to promote it, but we did not have an office and venue for it at that time. The West Kowloon Cultural District Authority did not understand our pursuit, so we decided to show them our ideas. INKcarnation: Literary Tattoos was the inaugural and fundraising project of the House of Hong Kong Literature, which is now situated at the Foo Tak Building. We needed to show the public that the House of Hong Kong Literature was important and widely supported by the cultural circle. Hence, we invited writers, art practitioners, and scholars to lend us their bodies and pick their favorite lines from books they loved. Hong Kong calligraphy artist Chui Pui-chee was invited to perform Chinese calligraphy on their bodies by writing the literary lines on the skin, like tattoos. It symbolized determination and a strong belief in the power of words and writing. Hong Kong photographer Bobby Sham helped us to present the body art in the form of photographs displayed in the exhibition. It was a demonstration of our perseverance in promoting Hong Kong literature and support for the House of Hong Kong Literature.

We experimented with different things for the project. We were not sure about many details in the beginning, such as how big the characters should be or which body part we should write the characters on. We found that it was better for the characters to appear on the upper body so that the face of the models could be seen clearly. We also considered different styles of calligraphy; some were more legible than others. Clarity was important, but the writing should also be vigorous enough to convey the power and strength of our belief. The posture was also crucial. The models did not know what postures were required; that depended on the photographer’s sense in taking the most appropriate angle. Each photo was a result of negotiations among the photographer, the calligraphy artist, and the model that could reflect both professional decisions and personalities.

Visual arts are about materials and space. Is it the same for writing? Writing is an experience of space and time, but the nature of its material medium is different from that used in visual art. Although we can explore different ways of establishing correspondences between the art forms, writing does not necessarily rely on visual art to be seen. However, a wider imagination of the possibilities of writing is beneficial for writers. I would like to respond to a general pessimistic attitude among the Hong Kong writing circle that literature is a marginalized art form here. I think this is a self-restrictive attitude. As I said, hybrid identities are very common in the contemporary arts circle. If writers do not restrict themselves and enlarge the marginalization, there can be a lot more interdisciplinary cooperation. For example, Soundpocket had a mentorship program to nurture young local artists; the theme this year was Writing Sound. They invited an Australian sound artist and me as the mentors. I have no knowledge of sound art, but we collaborated to train the mentees to explore different ways of connecting sound and words. If we do not restrict our understanding of writing, we will discover that there are many projects that require writing talents. The strength of a writer is that he can express things distinctly in imaginative ways. This is a very valuable edge that can become an integral part of many art projects. If writers are willing to try new practices and exercise their skills in new ways, they will be able to reach out to more audiences and have utterly different experiences.

Alongside Poetry in an Alley was an experimental project that set up a visual exhibition space with the theme of poetry on Sharp Street West. The idea that literature can form part of the cityscape is pretty uncommon in Hong Kong. How do you see the potential of developing the idea in this city?

Since the protest movement against the demolition of the Star Ferry Pier and the Queen’s Pier, Hong Kong began to realize that urban space could be open to the public; the Umbrella Movement also inspired the exhibition of art in public space. Citizens can make use of public space on the street. Nowadays, there are many arts projects that attempt to integrate with the streets, such as the projects Hei Lung Lane in Yau Ma Tei, The Form Society, 100 ft. PARK, and Things That Can Happen in Sham Shui Po. All of these alternative art spaces emerged from a widened imagination of space. This project at Sharp Street West was a commercial shop unit rented by the artist, Yang Yeung, which was originally a small shop for selling flowers. The area was just as large as a shop’s display window. There were eight sections for the whole project, and I would like to take up one section. The participating poets were all emerging poets from the Baptist University’s Fannou Poetry Society, which was funded by the University. I invited them to join the project because I would like for them to expand their imagination of literature beyond writing, books, and publication. The project was not easy for them, because they were not familiar with using space or doing something that was relevant to the street. It was a first for them, spending time on the street pondering the ways a poem could appear in the window, or what the poem could be about. The poems exhibited were composed after numerous discussions on reimagining urban space, so the content and rhythm of the poems were all related to the scenery of a back alley. They tried many ways of presenting the poems, such as sticking the lines on the wall or writing on large pieces of cloth and hanging them up.

For chapters two and three, I treated everything like a kind of object. You can always find different objects in a back alley: gloves, floor mops, carton boxes, trolleys, et cetera. Could a poem or a painting be considered an object? If a poem turned into an object, what would it look like? These were the questions I was interested in asking. You would be able to see different ways of turning a poem into an object with different materials and methods of presentation. The design of the window corresponded to the scenery of the back alley. The project ran from November to February, we intended for the arrangement to be like compiling a book. In chapter four, there was a deliberate change of rhythm and tone to respond to the Chinese New Year at that time. The first thing we changed was the colour. Red was too traditional for the Chinese New Year, and finally we decided on yellow. We came up with two lines: “From far away you show me the path that is open for everything but the entrance is strictly blocked” and “We are, what wee are.” I invited Chui Pui-chee to write the Chinese characters in Chinese calligraphy with just one request: the characters should be as wild as possible, so he wrote the Chinese line in wild cursive script. The English, “We are, what wee are,” was written on pieces of cloth hanging from the ceiling. The colour yellow corresponded to the wee that people would leave in a back alley. The wild cursive script looked like spells in the Chinese tradition, together with the yellow-black barricade tape, were taboos to challenge the Chinese New Year’s obsession with the idea of felicitation. This round, black image was a full stop to denote the action of stopping on the street, while that of a comma denoted a temporary pause on the street.

In chapter five, the idea was on peeping. People were curious about what we did with the window and they liked to peep inside. Therefore, in this chapter, we deliberately covered up large areas of the glass window and a part was left transparent with Chinese characters on it. People had to peep through the characters. We used calligraphy before, and this time we used standardized computer glyphs, but they appeared in an unusual way that resembled garbled codes. In the last chapter, we reverted the space of the display window back to the way it was supposed to look like, and hanged these two lines outside it: “From the very beginning, / Shapes then formed in words.” They summed up the theme of the whole project: words could be materialized as objects to be placed in a space.

I considered this an experimental project because it did not guarantee success in conveying the message to our audiences, but I believe Hong Kong writers should participate more in interdisciplinary projects. Better familiarity can help writers to earn more opportunities to cooperate with artists who work in other media. I anticipate there will be more of these kind of chances with the opening of the West Kowloon Cultural District and Tai Kwun. In this way, writers can reach out to more audiences and develop new resources for their creations.

You are an art critic as well and you have written numerous articles of art criticism. In your opinion, what function does art criticism perform?

The first thing an art critic should be able to do is to read the mind of an artist and understand what he or she attempts to do in his or her works. Then, the art critic should be able to put these ideas into words. Because very often, artists are not able to articulate the ideas in their works; and we do not require artists to have competency in using words to express themselves. Art criticism can serve this purpose, which, as I see it, is a kind of translation.

Secondly, as you discover a way of reading an artist’s work, you should not only approach it from the artist’s perspective, because a work itself is open to interpretation. There should be many angles that you can take. Moreover, as a writer, I have my own unique background for understanding the work. For me, seeing the works of different artists is a process of learning and intellectual growth. I can discover how different artists understand words and texts, which I haven’t thought about. This will be a new experience for me. When I write art criticism, it is a kind of communication with the artist. Artists will respond to what I write. At the same time, their ways will also inspire my own artistic creation, which is very beneficial to me. I enjoy seeing different exhibitions to find out how different artists understand words. There have been different linguistic theories developed in the twentieth century, so how do the theories affect visual arts? Book design is also an art form; how can I experiment with it? Personally, I think art criticism has this function of stimulation as well.