2012-January/February | Yishu - The Best of Times: Lam Tung-pang’s Long View Under Scrutiny by Abby Chen

The Best of Times: Lam Tung-pang’s Long View Under Scrutiny 
Abby Chen
What might be the subject of the exhibition Long View Under Scrutiny?1 For Hong Kong-based artist Lam Tung-pang, it is a fanciful landscape crossing over time and distance, filled with found images and objects on plywood accompanied by Lam Tung-pang’s own painting. His work is poetic, humorous, allegorical, and full of surprises.
Developed as an extension of the Diorama series presented in 2010, Long View Under Scrutiny exhibits new work that continues Lam Tung-pang’s reflection upon self and environment. Investigating a culturally acquired perception of memory in comparison to reality in this exhibition, Lam Tung-pang placed one of his most personal and iconic works, Folding (2006), a self-portrait within a hinged wood box created during his four years living in London, alongside his most recent creations, including The Youngest and the Oldest (2011), a five-panel work on plywood completed in his Fo Tan Studio.
The juxtaposition of these two artworks illustrates the arc of the artist’s versatility and imagination, which is manifested within and beyond himself to society and its cultural context. The most intriguing aspect of this exhibition is witnessing how Lam Tung-pang illustrates this sense of identity through a conscious turn of mind and direction. If Folding exemplifies a curious but protective individual displaced from home, then The Youngest and the Oldest represents a harmonic disjunction in form and substance that maps out his anxiety about the present. The gulf between these two bodies of work indicates Lam Tung-pang’s transformation from a
Lam Tung-pang, The Youngest and the Oldest, 2011, acrylic, pencil, charcoal, clay, plastic models, and image transfers on plywood, 214 x 455 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong.
Lam Tung-pang, Folding, 2006, charcoal and acrylic on plywood, 210 x 150 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong.
conceptual artist to a cultural translator who visualizes today’s Hong Kong in a post-1997 and pre-2047 era, the latter year marking fifty years after the handover of Hong Kong to China.
Demonstrating an affinity for how nature—its mountains and water—is painted within the realm of Chinese classical aesthetics, Lam Tung-pang foregrounds The Youngest and the Oldest with images of bare, dormant trees; he directly photocopied and transferred images from books on ancient Chinese painting onto the plywood that served as his “canvas.” He tinted
the sky in the background in varying shades of black, indicating nightfall or dusk, and dotted it with stars. Sporadically positioned across the image are small, three-dimensional appendages made of clay and miniature plastic trees. The fresh, green, artificial-looking colour against the more subdued tones of the painting might seem awkward to those not from Hong Kong, but these objects represent the last detritus left behind from Hong Kong’s long-gone manufacturing base of things like toys and plastic flowers. As a reminder of things precious and fun, objects such as these are embedded in the consciousness of Hong Kong residents, offering a homey and familiar invitation to a region’s history and the artist’s own childhood. Even at such a miniscule scale, these objects not only communicate a sense of the sublime experience of nature, they also inject playfulness and humour that balances
Lam Tung-pang, The Youngest and the Oldest (detail), 2011, acrylic, pencil, charcoal, clay, plastic models, and image transfers on plywood, 214 x 455 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong.
the solemn ambience Lam Tung-pang has created in the overall painting. The paint is absorbed into the plywood, with its vertical growth rings irregularly spreading out, some strong and some weak, infusing the entire work with an ambiguous and hazy sense of uncertainty.
At the lower center of the artwork, tiny silhouettes of two people in contemporary dress are positioned in a small boat, which, according to Lam Tung-pang, is also an image that he copied from a magazine. While the people in the boat provide a focal point from which to visually wander through multiple elements in the work, what really draws one’s attention is the contrast of the ultra dense highrise buildings placed towards the top of the composition, which are painted in a way
that resembles renditions of metropolises in comic books. Most striking are the vibrant colour and flickering lights applied to the highrises that juxtapose a bright area with the rest of the painting, which Lam Tung-pang has purposely left neutral-toned. This disparity of shapes and hues that Lam Tung-pang developed presents not only a style that has its own physical characteristics but an experience, a passage into an imagined land that is both ancient and present at the same time.
Born in 1978, Lam Tung-pang is part of a generation that grew up during the transition between two significant eras. He experienced the transition of Hong Kong from a colony of Britain to a postcolonial and supposedly autonomous region of China. Similar to how a generation of abstract artists emerged after World War II in America, the turmoil of Hong Kong after 1997 had a profound impact on Lam Tung-pang. His nationality shifted from British citizen to British National Overseas citizen to Chinese Special Administrative Region citizen, and, eventually, Chinese citizen. At least three
Lam Tung-pang, The Youngest and the Oldest (detail), 2011, acrylic, pencil, charcoal, clay, plastic models, and image transfers on plywood, 214 x 455 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong.
Lam Tung-pang, The Youngest and the Oldest (detail), 2011, acrylic, pencil, charcoal, clay, plastic models, and image transfers on plywood, 214 x 455 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong.
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Lam Tung-pang, Revenge of Nature, 2010, charcoal and acrylic on plywood, 201 x 244 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
he has with himself in order to position himself within society. In fact, the idea of “self ” has always been the center of Lam Tung-pang’s work, except this more recent representation of the “self ” has gradually expanded with his changing perception of his environment. This includes the huge figure in Giant (2001) assembled from discarded cardboard when he was still a college art student in Hong Kong; self-portraits on uneven surfaces such as unfolded
of these four identities existed in the short span of less than twenty years. Such a stretch of time dramatically carves out a sense of vicissitude that is portrayed in Lam Tung-pang’s work, which encapsulates the changing cultural complexion of Hong Kong. Just as the title The Youngest and the Oldest suggests, aging and rebirth happen simultaneously: The young and the old meet to generate a transcendental experience acquired from Lam Tung- pang’s combination of seemingly contradictory objects and images from various sources, resulting in the construction of an ambivalent environment.
This environment enunciates what one sees in Hong Kong from a distance: a booming city surrounded by water, stripped of noise, and transposed into a time tunnel with layers of memorable moments and fantasized escape. The brightly lit highrises in The Youngest and the Oldest, a signature component in this work, are also a signature of Hong Kong’s cityscape, of which the love of light is an integral part. The work pictures Hong Kong’s dreamy scenery at night as well as projecting a symbol of its prosperity, but the city here is muted and isolated in the ocean of a seemingly ancient time. This depiction of Hong Kong being trapped and cut off infuses a melancholic mood into Lam Tung-pang’s constructed reality: It all seems so far away but also so close that we can taste it, touch it, and live it.
Lam Tung-pang once said that Long View Under Scrutiny Under is a dialogue
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writing paper, squeezed Coke cans, wooden window blinds, and beach sand, all constructed during his stay in London during the mid-90s; and the two- dimensional silhouettes appearing in The Youngest and the Oldest with its tiny toy figurines. Attempting to get close to a culture when it seems to be fading away, Lam Tung-pang finds one part of himself becoming further removed from current society while the other part becomes more deeply engaged.
As he tries to exist in both places, a tension in the work emerges that is both hopeful and pessimistic. The Youngest and the Oldest might be considered a scene of a dream that can only end in complete silence and darkness. Observing the two people on the boat as they look at the highrises, one feels that those two people are indeed the self, looking at a world full of splendour. Where the self sits is like a fairyland, beautiful but withered, poetic but bare.
Top: Lam Tung-pang, Giant, 2001, mixed media installation. Courtesy of the artist.
Bottom: Lam Tung-pang, A Letter, 2006, acrylic, charcoal, and postage stamp on paper, 59 x 87 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Lam Tung-pang, Blinds, 2005, charcoal on wood, 44 x 60 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
The flickering buildings resemble a secular life, a life one desires from afar; yet why does that life seem so far away? The traces of this paradoxical state of being, of being neither withdrawn and alienated nor embracing and accepting, are the site for interpreting the distance between past and present for Lam Tung-pang.
2011 marks the tenth anniversary of Lam Tung-pang’s professional career as an artist. When he started, in 2001, there was no infrastructure in place to become a full time artist in Hong Kong. He left for London in 2003 to pursue a master’s degree and in hope of finding a new creative space. He finally returned to Hong Kong in 2007, and then he set up a temporary studio in Beijing for a short period of time. It had been exactly ten years
since the handover. It was also within those ten years that the contemporary Chinese art scene experienced tremendous change that affected Hong Kong’s art and art market. In the vacuum of its cultural identity between two eras, Hong Kong inevitably finds itself at both the birth and the loss of its own voice, and this shift is evident in Under Scrutiny From Afar. For Lam Tung-pang, the four years he spent in London and the time he later spent in Beijing enticed him to confront cultural dislocation and its resulting angst. This trajectory provides insight into Lam Tung-pang’s consciousness, as well as what invoked and redirected his later work on the choice of cultural context and the use of object, form, and material.
Hong Kong, now positioned in a new era beyond its colonial past of one hundred years, has again become a passive site of transition and synthesis, shifting interstitially from a marginalized colonial British-Hong Kong- Chinese multiplicity to a new marginalized postcolonial Hong Kong- Chinese multiplicity. Yet this direction seems more controlled by, and unified with, mainland China.
This changing cultural multiplicity is also metaphorically reflected in Lam Tung-pang’s work on plywood, solid within, but retaining breathing room to observe from a distance. A Hong Kong detached from its former colonial past is half floating before its total docking with mainland China. However, what could have been a prime example of a postcolonial state, one that could look forward to its independence from the reign of the British, is problematized by the handover and by mainland China’s precarious ideology. Hong Kong artists’ new milieu is becoming further complicated in the midst of a rapidly changing Asia and the global marketplace for art.
When closely examining Lam Tung-pang’s work and learning about his process, one has to wonder how he manages to synchronize all the different components. The magazine cutouts, image transfers from antique painting, and little sculpture-like toy models are taken out of their initial contexts and intertwined organically in his work like visual poetry. Things that used to
be independently unrelated to each other now breathe together within one ecosystem, suggesting a coherent spirit of freedom and openness. What Lam Tung-pang wants most to offer is an invitation to play in his reimagined landscape, pieced together by different memories—some borrowed, some lived, some recreated. As he tries to converse with the self he sees in society, he still remains the ultimate witness, observing and creating at the same time. His thinking becomes the reality of his world—which is an imagined world in the best of times.
1 The exhibition was held between October 14 and November 30, 2011, at Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong.

Volume 11, Number 1, January/February 2012
by Abby Chen


Article Description 

A text by Abby Chen focusing on Lam Tung-pang, a Hong Kong artist who is acutely aware of the historical trajectory his city is experiencing in its shift from a British colony to its apparent absorption into the People’s Republic of China.

Related Keywords 

Lam Tung-pang, Hong Kong, Abby Chen, The Youngest and the Oldest, Folding, Revenge of Nature, Giant, A Letter, Blinds, Long View Under Scrutiny, Hanart TZ Gallery, displacement, handover of Hong Kong