From Monday to Friday, Ant Ngai Wing-lam works as a colourist at Madame Tussauds on the Peak, meticulously recreating the faces of the world’s most famous people on life-size waxwork models. In the evenings and at weekends, Ngai makes very different art: fantastical paintings and ceramics featuring fish-human hybrid characters in a variety of strange scenarios. In one recent painting, a fish-human wears a wedding dress while lying on a bed by the side of a road. In another, one of Ngai’s characters appears to have been kicked out of their bed by an enormous squirrel.
“I can make realistic paintings, but in my own art I don’t want to,” she explains. While Ngai’s day job requires her to focus on somebody’s outward appearance, making her own art allows her to delve into people’s feelings, thoughts and experiences. In fact, while the success of a waxwork is measured by its specificity—a model of Michelle Yeoh is only successful if everyone recognises it as her—Ngai is happiest with her own work when one painting inspires different responses in gallery-goers. “It’s very interesting that many people come to see a painting and have different comments about it. Some people think my characters look happy; some think they look sad,” she says. “I think that being open to interpretation is an important role of art.”
Ngai’s latest creations are going on show in both London and Hong Kong this month. From October 26 to November 5, Hong Kong-based gallery Alisan Fine Arts is featuring her work in the exhibition Beyond Tradition: The Metamorphosis of Chinese Art at Cromwell Place in the British capital, while in Hong Kong Ngai is opening a solo show at Gallery Exit. This exhibition, titled No Dreams Can Last Longer Than A Night, is running from October 21 to November 18. Over the same period, Gallery Exit is also hosting a solo exhibition by the artist Oscar Chan Yik-long, giving visitors the chance to discover the latest work of two rising stars of the Hong Kong art scene at the same time.
As the title of Ngai’s solo exhibition suggests, her new paintings are inspired by dreams – a subject that recurs in much of her work and has inspired many other artists throughout history. Dreams were a particularly popular subject of the Surrealist artists who rose to fame in Europe in the aftermath of the First World War. The loss of life during World War I was greater than in any previous war in history, while the explosion of mass media at the time — including easier access to newspapers and films — communicated the brutality of the battlefields to the public.
The horror of the war inspired some people to question the political and philosophical ideas that western societies had been built on. Renaissance and Enlightenment beliefs of humanism and rationalism had not stopped this mass death, so writers, artists and others began devising other theories to understand — and advance — society. The Surrealists believed that humanity had been limited by rational thought and began devising methods to unlock the latent power of the unconscious mind, including automatic writing and drawing, when they would put pen to paper without self-censoring. Many of these artists believed that dreaming was one of humanity’s most creative acts and tried to capture their own dreams in their work. Salvador Dali’s famous painting of melting clocks, “The Persistence of Memory,” which he made in 1931 and is arguably the most famous Surrealist painting in history, is often interpreted as a dreamscape.
Ngai is regularly described as a Surrealist artist and in 2021 was included in an exhibition at Alisan Fine Arts in Hong Kong titled Chinese Surrealism. But Ngai has mixed feelings about the label. While many Surrealist artists believed dreams unlocked something new — a bold new frontier of human thought and imagination — Ngai believes dreams are important because they reveal what is already there. “Dreams are not only pictures and stories. Dreams relate to reality,” she says. “Dreams are feelings you can’t control. Maybe in the daytime you don’t want to think about a person, but that person still appears in your dreams.”
Ngai roots her dreamlike scenes in reality by setting them in identifiable locations in Hong Kong. For a group exhibition she took part in at Gallery Exit in 2021, she even named her paintings after the locations they were set in, such as the work “Plover Cove Reservoir,” which featured a fish-headed couple dressed in wedding outfits flying a kite over the lake. In her current exhibition, two of the paintings — “Dynasty Theatre House 1” and “Dynasty Theatre House 2” — are set in that cinema in Mongkok, which was the largest in the city before it closed in 2019. Sometimes gallery-goers recognise the places even before they read the titles. “One time a lady recognised a road on the Peak that she lived on,” says Ngai.
Most of Ngai’s works also feature her characters in recognisable social situations — at home, on a hike, at a wedding — although their emotions are often hard to read. “I didn’t bring my swimsuit” (2018) depicts a couple standing outside Fanling Swimming Pool, with the woman seeming despondent at her forgetfulness. Her partner has extended his arm towards her, but it’s not clear whether he’s comforting her or about to launch into a finger-pointing rant. In “The May Flower—Frangipani” (2021), a couple seems to sit happily in a field, though their faces might be blank out of boredom rather than contentment. “Victoria Peak Garden” (2021) features a character in a wedding dress sitting on the floor with her head in her hands, while a besuited man next to her tears a sheet of paper into tiny pieces. Are those his wedding vows? Is this a painting of a couple breaking up at the altar? Or could this be a paramour who has swept in to save her from committing to a loveless marriage?
The ambiguity in all these works — as well as the feeling that they’re just snapshots of a much larger story, which is continuing off canvas — is deliberate. “I don’t have a certain answer in my works, I just ask questions, but relationships are the thing I talk about most in my art,” says Ngai. She is interested in relationships because all of them, Ngai thinks, exist against the odds. “Think about your parents. Originally they were not a family. They were just two people that didn’t know each other, who happened to come together and decided to have a family. There are many, many questions in all parts of a relationship. How do you go through your life together? How do you keep two people together?”
Ngai makes her characters appear to be male and female because society conditions viewers to see a man and a woman together as being a couple, so portraying her characters in gendered clothing allows her to visually signpost that they are in a romantic relationship. But she is happy for people to interpret the gender of her characters however they want. “They can be anyone – man and man, woman and woman,” she says, clarifying that in life she believes relationships can be formed between people whatever their gender identity.
The centrality of relationships to Ngai’s art is further emphasised in her work because she often makes paintings as pairs. In her current exhibition at Gallery Exit, all the paintings are in pairs, like “Dynasty Theatre House 1” and “Dynasty Theatre House 2.” In all the pairs, one of the paintings features a scene with a female character, while the other features the male character. While the pairs are exhibited together, they are sold individually, so may be split up at the end of the show. “I actually love to separate them,” says Ngai. “Two people can be together and have a very strong relationship, but people are still individuals and can be alone.”
While Ngai’s musings on relationships and her choice of geographical settings are based in real life, there is one element of her work that is unmistakably outlandish: her fish-human hybrid characters. People often assume that Ngai’s creatures are her take on Lo Ting, a species of merfolk that local legend has it live in the ocean around Lantau Island. Lo Ting have inspired several Hong Kong artists over the decades, including Jimmy Keung Chi-ming and the artist, critic and curator Oscar Ho. “Actually, when I started painting them I didn’t know about Lo Ting,” says Ngai, whose fish-people are actually tributes to two of her old pets. “I had these two fish when I was small. I got them when I was 12 and I was around 20 when they died. I thought they were a boy and girl, but I don’t really know. After they died, I kept dreaming of them. After I painted them once, I never dreamed of them again,” she says. “It was like an exit for my emotions.”
Painting fish-human hybrids also allows Ngai to reflect on a feeling she’s had since her teenage years: a fear of being different to other people. “Sometimes I used to feel like an alien,” she says. “When I was younger, I always cared a lot about what my friends said I looked like. I just wanted to be normal, to disappear in the crowd.” Ngai’s characters appear strange, just as she used to fear that she did, although now she feels differently. “I think now I understand that everyone has their special qualities,” she says, so her fish-human characters do not hide away but stand tall. They are depicted going about their lives in the city just like everybody else.
Ngai’s characters have become something of a trademark, but she says that one day she might stop painting them. “Maybe someday there will not be fish in my work. It’s not a must,” she says. “It’s like I’m a movie director and I’ve always used these two actors so far. One day I might use other actors to tell different stories.”
No Dreams Can Last Longer Than A Night runs from October 21 to November 18 at Gallery Exit.