“These really are quite good, aren’t they?”
Choi Yan-chi is standing in 1a space, where By the Windows, an exhibition of work by six local painters, curated by Iva Ma, is on display. “Painting is the most basic art form yet it’s also the hardest to tackle, precisely because it comes with so much history,” says Choi.
There are few who are better positioned than her to comment on the state — or health — of Hong Kong painting. For nearly four decades, she has been asking the difficult but crucial question – what exactly is painting?
From the very beginning, Choi is an artist who has eschewed plot and narrative in favour of what she calls “painting installations” that bust conventional perceptions of what a painting should look like. She attributes this flight from convention to her training at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Born in 1949 to immigrant parents from mainland China, Choi had always been drawn towards art. A stellar student, she sailed through primary and secondary schools, but it was at the Art Institute of Chicago that she found her calling. There, Choi encountered figures who were at the forefront of the American avant garde. A young Laurie Anderson presented at her school “baby fat, pigtails and all,” recalls Choi, while a classmate bragged about getting an internship at famed American artist Christo’s studio.
Choi thrived in this hotbed of experimentation. Painting was her medium, but she never “painted on canvas,” she says. To her, painting was less a medium than a subject itself. Looking to her roots, and driven by a desire to “steer Chinese contemporary art in new directions,” she experimented with a pictorial language that was familiar yet utterly foreign, including acrylic screen-print calligraphy, and paper towels scroll paintings.
When she finally returned to Hong Kong in 1978, it was out of love, not patriotism. Choi had met Hon Chi-fun, a Hong Kong painter who was part of the Circle Art Group, in 1971. The two dated for a few years before tying the knot in 1976 in Nevada. “I was told that Nevada had the highest divorce rate, and we, being the young rebels we were, just had to get married there,” Choi recounts with glee. The two have stayed happily married until this day.
Coming back to Hong Kong was not as easy. Choi felt like an outsider in her hometown. “The Hong Kong art scene was far from what it is these days,” she says. “It was pretty dead. I missed Chicago’s nurturing environment.”
She channelled this anxiety into a series of painting installations that were exhibited as part of her debut solo show, Extension into Space, at the Hong Kong Art Centre in 1985. While “Stepping into Space” featured large unstretched canvases tacked to walls, with jet-black calligraphic swirls extending from the painted surfaces, “Light Adventure” comprised mirrors propped up against each other on the ground, their surfaces reflecting all that’s around, including carpets and feet of visitors. For Choi, life isn’t always neat and tidy, and these painting installations, in their frenzied incoherence, provided a way to think about the borders that bound us, physically and psychologically, and how we might cross them.
She also met the people who would become lifelong friends, including Danny Yung, who had returned from the US in 1979, and go on to found experimental theatre company Zuni Icosahedron in 1982, and Yasi, the Hong Kong poet who later penned a poem for her and many others, including artists Oscar Ho and Howard Chan.
In 1998, Choi co-founded 1a space with Chan, and Hiram To, a student of hers and one of Hong Kong’s brightest and most flamboyant artists at the time. It was one of Hong Kong’s very few experimental art spaces. “There were few spaces for us to show our art,” she says. Para Site was one of the only others, but Choi found it too small. “As artists, we felt repressed. There was so much we wanted to do, but there was a lack of art spaces.”
The three secured a place in a former government storage depot on Oil Street that had been recently put up for lease at a very affordable rate. Getting the space was easy, but settling on a name was trickier business. “We were very stubborn. None of us would give in to the other’s suggestions,” says Choi with a laugh. “One night, while waiting for the bus in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hiram suddenly went, ‘Oh, the 1A bus!’” So that was that.”
That moment ended up being godsend, as the 1A — a bus service that runs the long stretch from Tsim Sha Tsui to Sau Mau Ping — encapsulated what 1a space would be: a space of ideas, a space that showed both low and high brow art.
1a space’s first exhibition, National Museum or Gallery?, perfectly captured the founders’ brand of serious irreverence. At once a celebration and a manifesto, it was a dig at the Hong Kong Museum of Art’s proclivity towards Chinese ink art during the 1990s. “It was all about promoting Chinese ink artists in those days,” says Choi. She and To were annoyed that they seemed to be turning a blind eye to contemporary art. “Hiram came up with the name. He wanted to poke fun at the situation.”
Choi and her team opened up the floor of the space to everyone in the art world, from artists including Lau Kin-wai and Victoria Finlay, critics like John Batten and David Clarke, and gallery directors such as Johnson Chang. The opening was a smashing success. People from all walks of life poured in. CNN reported on the event. It also marked the birth of Hong Kong’s first artists’ colony, as some 40 artists, designers and cultural organisations including Videotage and the Artist Commune set up shop on Oil Street.
But the end came quickly. “Oil Street was everything that I’d dreamt of,” says Choi. “Its vast space, the high ceilings. But we, especially Howard, knew that we wouldn’t have it forever. It was prime real estate. The last thing that the government wanted was for it to become a full-fledged artist village.”
In early 2000, all of the artists were evicted as the government prepared the site for redevelopment. (It ended up sitting empty for more than a decade until it was finally sold.) Choi says the following year was hell for 1a space. The government offered temporary space in a Cheung Sha Wan slaughterhouse before granting some of the evicted arts groups space in a former To Kwa Wan cattle depot. It was far off the beaten track of Hong Kong’s small art scene. “The location was a far cry from Oil Street,” says Choi.
But she and her team soldiered on. Just as it was in its early days, 1a space is a space where visual arts, literature, music and urban issues are encouraged to cosy up next to one another. Of the 100-plus exhibitions and events the space has organised over the past two decades, Choi singles out the Cattle Depot Book Fair as her proudest and most testing moment. Held for four consecutive years from 2003 to 2006, the book fair was a colossal project, pioneering ideas that were later adopted by the large Hong Kong Book Fair held every year at the Convention and Exhibition Centre, including an Author of the Year and thematic discussion sessions.
“I was very proud of that because it changed what the Hong Kong Book Fair was,” says Choi. “I’ve always been a huge supporter of cross-cultural projects. We never saw 1a space as just being a space strictly for fine art.”
This fluidity reflects Choi’s approach to her own career. Aside from being an artist and cultural instigator, she is also a teacher. Prior to reading art at the Art Institute of Chicago, she’d studied at Hong Kong’s Grantham College of Education, a teaching college that introduced a one-year art programme emphasising both art theory and practice in 1968. Grantham was later merged with Northcote College Education and Sir Robert Black College Education among others to form The Hong Kong Institute of Education.
“Back in the ‘60s, if you were a woman and you were a good student, you had three career options – a secretary, a nurse or a teacher,” she says. “I didn’t favour the first two, so I enrolled at teaching college. I didn’t love teaching at the time. Who knew that I’d be doing it for more than 30 years.”
At Grantham, influential arts educator Kwok Chiu-leung, tasked by the Hong Kong government to nurture a new generation of teachers, ended up having a life-long influence on Choi. “The art curriculum he developed was unlike any other in Hong Kong at the time,” she says. “To compensate for the lack of resources, he’d take us all around town to meet new artists. We visited so many art studios.”
From 1979 through the early 1990s, Choi taught at Polytechnic University, and in 2002, she was enlisted by Baptist University to head the newly created Academy of Visual Arts. “Unless you studied abroad, you couldn’t really get proper art school training back in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” says Choi. “There are now three schools providing proper art training – Baptist University, Hong Kong Art School and Chinese University. Students have a much deeper well of art history and theory to draw from.”
For her, art education isn’t just about teaching her students to paint or sculpt. “It’s about teaching others to think for themselves, to come up with their own visual language to link art, life and to situate all that in the age that one lives in.”
She has applied this philosophy to 1a space’s programming. Talks and lectures often accompany the gallery’s exhibitions, and there is a fluidity among the various activities.
Two decades on, Hiram To has passed away, Chan has left the gallery, and Hong Kong, once a place with fewer than five art spaces, is now a city bursting at the seams with commercial fairs and galleries. Does Choi see 1a space taking on a different role in this evolving landscape? “Fairs like Art Basel provide some sort of hope for Hong Kong artists, that art can be a full-time career,” she says. “I mean, I didn’t dare think that it could ever be back in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”
But there are still gaps in the scene, which is driven primarily by commerce. “There are limitations to the kind of art that is collectable,” says Choi. “And that’s where government funding and 1a space come in. We have become more professional but we’ve also worked incredibly hard to stay true to what we are – a place to show Hong Kong artists.”
By the Windows runs till February 12, 2019 at 1a Space, Unit 14, Cattle Depot Artist Village,
63 Ma Tau Kok Road, To Kwa Wan. Visit here for more information.