Visiting Artist Profiles

Lam Tung-pang

By Daily Serving March 24, 2013

The Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars who intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions.


Lam Tung-pang in his studio, Hong Kong, December 2012. Photo: Luise Guest.

As part of our ongoing partnership with Daily Serving, Art Practical is pleased to bring you Luise Guest’s profile “Things Happened on the Island: Lam Tung-pang’s Floating World,” which you can also read here.

Currently Lam Tung-pang is travelling in the United States on an Asian Cultural Council fellowship, looking at the way that American museums and cultural institutions represent traditional Chinese painting, making art, and giving talks about the somewhat contradictory aspects of his practice.


When I visited a number of young Hong Kong artists in their studios in early 2011, they spoke of their frustration over the art on which curators from mainland China focused and of their sense of being “poor relations.” Add to those frustrations the tensions simmering just below the surface as cashed-up mainlanders poured into Hong Kong, and it seemed a recipe for brewing resentment. In the two years since, though, much has changed. I returned to Hong Kong in December 2012 and found a very different atmosphere. There are undeniable controversies, jealousy, and scandals (this is the art world, after all), but pride and optimism are emerging. The boom created by the West Kowloon Cultural District mega-development  and its M+ museum, the redevelopment of the Central Police Station, the exhibition of eighteen artists in Hong Kong Eye at Saatchi Gallery in London, and Hong Kong Art Fair’s absorption into the Art Basel brand—these have all had impacts. Contemporary art in Hong Kong is emphatically not “China Lite.” It is something altogether different, reflecting a very specific history and culture.

The artist Lam Tung-pang typifies a specifically Hong Kong identity, expressing not only the excitement but also the anxiety of this particular world. He synthesizes his deep knowledge of Chinese art history and his love for traditional ink painting into a highly contemporary practice. Challenging traditional boundaries between painting and sculpture, he produces paintings and installations that reflect his knowledge of the Chinese landscape tradition and embody ideas about memory and history. His signature technique involves painting, drawing, or stenciling images observed and remembered from Tang-, Yuan-, and Qing-dynasty paintings onto large sheets of plywood.

On my first visit to his studio in December, I saw paintings from his Travel and Leisure series, which represent nature’s beauty under siege by encroaching urbanization. Lam looks with nostalgia to an earlier Hong Kong. In a city hurtling towards an uncertain future after 2047, the date marking the fiftieth anniversary of the handover to China, he worries about what has been lost. He loves his studio in Fo Tan because he can look out the window, and the mountain views are always there. There is a sense of permanence, despite the fact that one can also see the haze of pollution like a veil over the mainland China border.

My visit to his studio followed a number of his high-profile commissions and being selected for the Saatchi show. He will have a solo booth at Art Basel Hong Kong in May, and he has recently exhibited a 26-foot (8-meter) painting, Things Happened on the Island, created for the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. A commission for the Mass Transit Railway will be seen next year as well: a 131-foot (40-meter) work for a new station near Hung Hom, where the artist was born. His professional elation is mixed with personal sadness at the rapid pace of change and the submerging of a specifically Hong Kong identity into the enormity of China. “Sometimes,” he says, “locals feel lost in their own city.” His parents and grandparents came from the province of Fujian during the Cultural Revolution, and his uncertainty as a second-generation migrant is mixed with a fierce loyalty to Hong Kong. This hybridity characterizes his sense of himself as an artist. Identity issues come into his practice, he says, “sometimes just as a need for quietness or refuge—like literati scholars in retirement in their gardens.”

In many of his works, the misty mountains of literati painting turn into the towers of Hong Kong. At once lyrical and intentionally awkward—not unlike the cheesy museum dioramas of his youth—they suggest innocence betrayed. Lam attaches tiny model houses, people, animals, and trees to some works, creating a toy landscape, an escape into a whimsical fantasy world. “Painting is like playing,” he says. Lam, however, is serious about what he does. Intensely peering behind owlish spectacles, the artist told me he immerses himself in Chinese artistic traditions, but he also loves European medieval and early Renaissance painting. The intricately detailed backgrounds in paintings by artists such as Piero della Francesca have always been influential for him.

Lam has been spending his days drawing from the collection of ink paintings in the Heritage Museum near Sha Tin, developing works inspired by Tang-dynasty ceramic horses, which he also draws, in the antique shops of Hollywood Road. The result is a series of three-dimensional paintings on wheeled plywood boxes: two-sided horses, with one side drawn from a close study of the object and the other from its image in a catalogue or a book. These works suggest ideas about the reproducibility and value of traditional objects. If half of the Tang horses on Hollywood Road are fakes, how are we to think about authenticity and a sense of history? While his work may seem embedded in a distant Chinese past, it is actually all about the here and now.


Lam Tung-pang. Past Continuous Tense, 2011 (detail); charcoal and image transfer on plywood. Courtesy of the Artist.



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