2010-02-28 / A model perspective - By Kevin Kwong, South China Morning Post

e_2010-02-28 SCMP
e_2010-02-28 SCMP

South China Morning Post
R10,R11  |   The Review  |   By Kevin Kwong  2010-02-28  
A model perspective     Lam Tung-pang takes influences from his past, Japanese characters and his daughter to share his thoughts about loss, writes Kevin Kwong
In his latest exhibition, artist Lam Tung-pang returns to one of his childhood passions - model kits. Scattered around his Fo Tan studio are military and animal miniatures, as well as models of landscape gardens and a fictitious island, that make up his solo show Diorama, which runs at Hanart TZ Gallery until March.
"Part of this project is to rediscover something that's been lost," says the 31-year-old of his model-making hobby that began with Lego blocks before moving on to the more sophisticated territory of Japanese characters such as Gundam, Godzilla and Dragon Ball. But as invincible as these characters may be in his imaginary world, they had to give way to reality - school exams.
"By Form Four, I knew if I wanted to pass my HKCEEs (Hong Kong Certificate of Education Exam), then I'd have to give up this hobby. I also knew if I wanted to study art, I'd need to score high marks not in art but in the core subjects."
The artist adds that over the past year he had wanted to do a show that he would personally enjoy. But Diorama is more than a self-indulgent trip down memory lane for Lam. Other than the theme of loss - whether it's a childhood hobby or innocence or something greater such as the environment - the exhibition is also the artist's exploration into the interplay between two mediums - model-making with painting - and his observations on the world today.
Three-dimensionality has always interested Lam because it offers perspective that a flat painting or drawing lacks.
"I used to imitate drawings from comic strips like Dragon Ball when I was young. Then I read a book that showed how a drawing could be represented from different perspectives when translated into three-dimensions, and that made me look at drawing from a new point of view."
By integrating actual objects into a painting takes the notion of a three-dimensional painting a step further as its depth draws the viewers closer to the work and into a depicted scene.
"When looking at these models, you can imagine yourself being inside a miniature world, looking at your environment through another pair of eyes and through different perspectives," says Lam.
Hanart curator Chang Tsong-zung says the modelling table is Lam's laboratory for thinking and dreaming. "It is his painting's three-dimensional mind. While magic mountains and haloed groves form the imaginary realm that inspired China's literati artists, the modelling table is Lam's secret garden."
He says the fascination with living in a wider world through its miniature version is, for Lam, tied to escaping the cramped living conditions of the average Hong Kong family.
"Therefore the wild fantasies of Diorama carry within them long shadows of institutionalised modern living."
It also raises the artist's awareness, and concerns, of the dangers of a modern world.
The show's centrepiece is Island - 26112009. It is heavy on symbolism and allegories, featuring a muddy hill plastered with soldiers' bodies, a giant hare, a property development and miniature humans peppered around the landscape model. Lam says the work is made up of news events that had stuck in his mind in recent years. His role, however, is not one of commentator but observer.
"For instance, I didn't take to the streets over the building of the high-speed rail link to Guangzhou," the artist says. "While I can see how the construction will destroy a village [Tsoi Yuen Tsuen in Yuen Long] I also see the advantages of the project and its inevitability.
"So I like to step back and look at these news issues from afar. Some are complicated and I don't think I know the full story enough to take any particular side."
However, Lam does hold strong views on war and its destructive consequences. The Chinese University graduate says he opposed the US war against Iraq in 2003, which he sees as American aggression. One theme of Island - 26112009 is the effects wars have on innocent people: "So you have schoolchildren walking past corpses of soldiers."
The piece also talks of another kind of destruction. At one corner of the model, amid lush greenery, stands a residential estate. However, instead of it blocking the sweeping vista of its surroundings - "which is normally the case in Hong Kong", says Lam - the construction blends with nature.
"And that is my wish, to seek peace and harmony, which is also my state of mind when I'm creating," says Lam. Winner of the Hunting Art Prize: Young Artist of the Year Award in 2005, he holds a master's degree from the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London.
The artist says he is aware of the destruction urbanisation brings - something he doesn't like - yet he also sees its benefits on a society. "I feel embarrassed sometimes [because] I don't know where I stand with certain issues {hellip} I try to see both sides {hellip} and seek a compromise [rather] than conflict. And because of this attitude I've been described by some as a 'pessimistic optimist'."
In Diorama, Lam painted himself working in front of a model, with miniature animals and plants stuck on the canvas. The piece doesn't only play on a two and three-dimensional representation of a painting but also on how one can't truly reconnect with the past.
"The past is no longer with us," says Lam, whose work Faith Moves Mountain - which inspired the Diorama series - last year won a Hong Kong Contemporary Art Biennial Award organised by the Hong Kong Museum of Art.
"I cannot find the same joy in building models according to instructions, just as animals in the zoo can no longer survivein the wild."
Lam, who set up a studio in Beijing with artist Chow Chun-fai three years ago, now spends more time in Hong Kong because of his seven-month-old daughter, who also inspired this exhibition. "I recognised motions and gestures [in her] that made me reflect how, as we grow older, we are forced to change or let go aspects of ourselves."
While he had previously painted on wooden boards rather than canvas, Lam says the current show is on the accumulation of ideas he had from observing world affairs over the past few years.
"Use of materials is not the focus here, it's the concept behind."
Diorama: Painting and Mixed-media by Lam Tung-pang. Until Mar 23, Hanart TZ Gallery. Mon-Fri 10am-6.30pm, Sat 10am-6pm