Hong Kong artists explore beyond the confines of their studios

Lui Chun Kwong, 55 years old, was among the first artists to move to Fo Tan, near Sha Tin, in 2000. The neighborhood offered low rent and was near Chinese University of Hong Kong, where Mr. Lui taught fine arts for 25 years before retiring this year. Many of the more than 150 artists in the area were once students of Mr. Lui. Photo Credit: Christopher Shay/The Wall Street Journal

Fotanian has been rooted in Fo Tan – a suburb in the Sha Tin district of Hong Kong – for more than 13 years.  The development of art studios in Fo Tan mirrored the SoHo of 1970s New York and the Dashanzi Art District in late 1990s Beijing.  The decline of Hong Kong’s manufacturing sector led to a surplus of vacant factory space in industrial areas, such as Fo Tan.  When the SARS crisis hit in 2003, rents tumbled — and in moved space-hungry artists.

The high concentration of art studios in Fo Tan makes it easier for collectors and the public to find out what’s going on with local artists.  However, the downside is that it has become a trendy spot, like in the 798 Art Zone in Beijing, leading to rising rent prices.

The Fotanian Open Studio Programme is a major annual event in the local art scene.  Every year in January, artists throw open their doors in several consecutive weekends to welcome the general public.  The public is invited behind the scenes to explore these artists’ creative works, which encompass a wide array of media, including paintings, sculptures, ceramics, mixed media, printmaking, installations, photographic and video works.  Visitors can freely explore the artists’ workplaces and open a friendly dialogue with the artists in an approachable atmosphere.

With over 88 studios and over 250 artists participating in 2013, in the Fotanian community is growing at an unprecedented scale.

Studio districts are known for being insular.  After all, the artist stereotype is of solitary geniuses manically toiling away in clutter.  As that stereotype often proves to be true, studio districts may have many creative people in a small space, but there is often very little hustle and bustle of social mixing.

From Charlotte Miller's blog

From Charlotte Miller’s blog “Chinese Art Attack: Contemporary Art”

Fotanian, the organized collective of artists in Fo Tan, stepped out from Fo Tan for the first time to host an artist sharing session “Artdea Night — Art in Action” on September 5th.  Luckily, I was able to attend and witness artists discussing how they have utilized art media as a creative platform on social issues, as well as how their identities transitioned from a solitary artist into a community facilitator.

The format of the evening followed the concept of acupuncture and aimed to “stimulate every nerve of the people from all walks of life by the creativity of the artists, to further developing more arts and cultural events by the co-operation with different sectors of the society.”

To start us off, Wilson Shieh discussed his artistic practice in Chinese gong-bi (meticulous fine-line) style figure painting, which has toyed with sexuality, role-play, and costume play.  His recent project, titled “Visiting Our Farms”, was a group exhibition — inspired through his work on mural projects in local organic farming villages — with the intention to bring an agricultural experience to urbanites.  Despite its seemingly innocuous subject matter, the exhibition became caught up in the current debate concerning the Hong Kong government’s plan to develop rural districts into new towns in order to cope with over-population and was taken down before it even opened.  (Read more about the controversy here.)  Shieh is now pursuing opportunities to display the exhibition in local schools.

Lam Tung-Pang‘s works demonstrate how an individual navigates a constantly changing environment and attempt to illuminate the ephemeral distance between transitioning realities.  As a magnetic speaker, he explained the “gray area” that occurs when artists are given space to explore without any expectations.  However, he recognized the limitations that happen when artists only revolve around the fixed location of their studios, and so he promoted the duty of artists to spread their art to reach a wider and wider range of audience.  To close, he reminded us that art opens space for us to have the most topical conversations — which right now in Hong Kong surrounds the dangers of urbanization and attachment to land.

Lam Tung-pang working on the “Past Continuous Tense” exhibition

Next up was world-famous artist Wong Tin Yan.  For over ten years, he has been creating sculptures out of discarded wooden pallets.  Rather than keeping his artwork in the gallery realm, he focuses on continually conceiving fresh ways for the public to access his art: from a wide variety of crossover commercial projects with world-famous brands to staging a sculpture garden about Animal Farm in Times Square to mobile sculptures on tricycles to even having an exhibition on a showcase train on a railway.

Massive wooden pallet sculptures by Wong Tin Yam for “Animal Farm” exhibition in Times Square

Thickest Choi Chi Hau, founder and coordinator of Lawnmap Hong Kong, talked about creating a map of public green spaces in Hong Kong and then curating different forms of activities — concerts and art events — to encourage everyone to enjoy these lawns.

Public music jamming session on Aug 7, 2011 coordinated by Lawnmap

Closing out the event, Grace Cheng, an independent curator and the Director of Art in Hospital, had us all get out of our chairs and draw our emotions with crayons.  Mrs. Cheng is dedicated to bringing art into the lives of every citizen and curates exhibitions that are accessible to all people and even interactive for people with physical and mental disabilities.  Her organization Art in Hospital coordinates murals, art workshops, and other art-related activities to promote holistic care and support for patients and caregivers.  She is also the director of Community Art Network, an organization that betters the community through organizing, managing, and promoting the enjoyment and creation of art during public art projects.

Events hosted by Community Art Network

Even though these artists live in a designated studio district, they are actively exploring innovative ways to break out of the confines of their studios and engage with the public in fresh ways.

How have you been exploring beyond your own studio lately?

Public exhibition of hundreds of paintings done by hospital patients and laid in the street to create a massive quilt, coordinated by Art in Hospital.

Just a reminder that Breaking down thestudiow a l l s, the 13/13/13 Sketchbook Project ebook published in July, compiles the lessons learned from artists like these across the globe about how to change communities through art and creativity.

Sign up for the 13/13/13 Sketchbook Project mailing list to receive the link to download your copy now!

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