It hasn’t been long since Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto — better known as Vhils — drilled a portrait onto the wall of The Mills, the arts centre currently under construction in Tsuen Wan. Now he is back with an even more ambitious series of works in his mixed medium solo exhibition Debris. What is it about Hong Kong that inspires Vhils’ creativity?

Vhils's Exhibition preview - photogrpahe of José Pando Lucas

Vhils’s Exhibition preview – photogrpahe of José Pando Lucas

Vhils is fascinated by this place: his work taps into the city’s DNA. Hong Kong’s visual vibrancy, combined with its rapid speed change, nourishes his creative ambition. He is drawn in like a bee to nectar. As such, he plans to stay for as long as he needs. Like any true love story, however, Vhils is quick to admit that what he loves about Hong Kong is also what he hates. “I love the pace, the energy, the visual stimulations in the signage everywhere,” he says. “It’s amazing. And when it gets too much, I hate it.” He likens it to the connection between an impressive building and the shadow it casts: the two cannot be separated.

Vhils first came to Hong Kong to work in 2009 and found himself returning again and again until he finally moved here last year. “Since my first visit, I’ve been fascinated by the over-exposure to visual stimulation – and the rhythm of it,” he says. “I moved here because my work is very much about urban contexts and big cities. I love the extremes – how organised it is here and how hectic the city is, but then how much nature and space there is.” His background as a graffiti artist has informed Vhils’ understanding of urban life and how we interact with our space. “Like graffiti, my work is a by product of the city and the urban landscape. My work grows out of that.”

Vhils was first introduced to Hong Kong through film, particularly those directed by Wong Kar-wai. Wong’s visually unique and highly stylised films speak specifically of the city, its identity and the people that live within it. They are carefully crafted montages of Hong Kong, at once nostalgic, sad, hopeful and romantic. “When I came here, I had an idea of what I expected,” says Vhils. “Yet it was so much more than I thought – more dense – I couldn’t see everything there is to see, I would be stimulated forever. It was intense.”

Work in progress of neon installation by Alexandre Farto_- Vhils - Courtesy of HOCA Foundation - 2016

Work in progress of neon installation by Alexandre Farto_- Vhils – Courtesy of HOCA Foundation – 2016

Presented by non-profit organisation HOCA (Hong Kong contemporary Art) , Debris opens on 21 March on the roof of Pier 4 in Central. It will feature new works including a video installation that Vhils describes as a reflection of the city’s busy streets, along with his first-ever works in neon. It’s a medium that befits his constant re-contextualisation of consumerist materials in the public space – and of course neon is also an icon of Hong Kong itself. “Neon was one of the first images of Hong Kong I had as a child, so it’s important to me,” he says. “I want to get back those visual references that are the identity of Hong Kong.”

Finding a Hong Kong-based neon signmaker who was open to a challenge wasn’t easy. Most commercial neon manufacturing is now based in China and there are far fewer masters here than in the past. “It can be hard to push someone who has done something a certain way,” says Vhils. “I had to find someone willing to come up with new techniques. We worked together back and forth, developing the prototypes, learning what you can and can’t do. Now I respect the craft more.” The neon master had to experiment in developing a single tube that varied in width, something that can only be done in minimal increments.

Vhils was happy to led the neon guide the outcome of his work. “I don’t need full control on my ideas,” he says. “Neon is actually one of the more straightforward processes in my work.” That kind of working process has a built-in insurance policy: if a project goes wrong, the artist just ends up with a different outcome. Working with found materials like walls and the billboard posters, Vhils needs this kind of philosophy in his approach. “I never know what layers I’ll find, so I know that my ideas will have to let the material dictate,” he says. “It makes the work more like an organism. I like processes that have a chaotic element.”

Scratching the Surface Hysan Avenue by Vhils in Causeway Bay -2015 Courtesy of HOCA Foundation

Scratching the Surface Hysan Avenue by Vhils in Causeway Bay -2015 Courtesy of HOCA Foundation

Vhils and his team collect advertising posters when they are removed by cleaners. “The texture and thickness, as well as the contrasts of the posters layered over each other makes a difference,” he says. Walls give Vhils insight to a place. “They tell you things about the city, the pace, the people. How disposable each layer is. In Lisbon it can be two months before a new poster is put up, in Hong Kong it’s three days.”

Vhils uses the accumulated posters to make collages, digging through each layer like an archaeologist, removing parts until he reveals an image he has planned out. He works on several collages at a time and then returns to the streets and pastes them up. Outside of Pier 4, Debris includes a public intervention – a tram featuring the collages, which will run a normal service throughout the city from 12 March. And while the tram has long been a part of Hong Kong life, it’s also a personal point for Vhils ­– he grew up riding Lisbon’s trams and they became the backdrop for some of his formative work as a graffiti artist.

"Ephemera" - In situ Tram project - Photogrpahe of José Pando Lucas

“Ephemera” – In situ Tram project – Photogrpahe of José Pando Lucas

In this cycle of finding mediums to work with, of finding ways to re-examine and reposition the visual onslaught of consumerism, Vhils knows that what creates also destroys. “I want to make people conscious of the impact of creation,” he says. “It [destroys] something that was there before, like a poem written on a clean piece of paper that came from a tree. The act of destruction to create is the thing that ties everything together. If we are conscious, maybe we can create in a different way.”

Operating TRAM Intervention starting March 12 | Running daily
Debris runs from 22 March to 4 April, 2016, at Central Ferry Pier 4. Click here for more information.
Opening Reception on March 21 from  7-9PM