Caroline Chiu’s Porcelain Cups Are An Homage to Hong Kong

Artist Caroline Chiu’s latest exhibition references some of the giants of art history. Visitors might spot nods to Marcel Duchamp or to masters of calligraphy but, beyond all the intellectual connections it’s possible to make, Chiu hopes that visitors have an emotional reaction to her work. “The installation is meant to feel like a group hug,” she says. “When you walk into the exhibition and you look around, you are meant to feel like you are in a community.”

The show, titled Coo Cups <3 Hong Kong, features more than 230 porcelain vessels arranged to form a continuous line along the walls of Gallery Exit in Aberdeen, where it runs until July 9. Each of the cups is hand-painted by Chiu with a unique mix of colourful dashes, circles and strokes. “If anything, the swirls on the cups make me think of the light shows in Hong Kong and the way the lights go up and down the buildings,” she says. “The exhibition is dedicated to the spirit of Hong Kong people and the energy of Hong Kong.” 

Chiu, a Hongkonger who now splits her time between her hometown and the San Francisco Bay Area, has been a multi-talented member of the city’s art scene for years, active as an artist, curator and critic. She has been particularly moved by how the creative community has drawn together over the past few years, weathering both political upheaval and a global pandemic. It is this spirit of togetherness that she hopes visitors will feel when they walk through the doors of her latest exhibition and find themselves surrounded by hundreds of bright, colourful cups.  

Chiu only started working with ceramics in 2018, when she was curating a group show called Shek O Sublime, also at Gallery Exit. She wanted to contribute something of her own to the exhibition and saw an opportunity to fulfil a long-held dream: to make the perfect cup. “I’d been searching for it my whole life, I kid you not,” she says. Then, on a 2018 trip to Jingdezhen, the historic centre of the porcelain industry in China, Chiu stumbled upon a vessel at a flea market. It had no handle, no saucer and fit perfectly in her hands. It was almost exactly what she had been searching for. 

Chiu was subsequently connected by a friend to a high-end porcelain workshop in the town, which is located in northeastern Jiangxi province, about 300 kilometres east of Wuhan. The craftsmen agreed to tweak the cup to Chiu’s specifications, but only after much negotiation. “When I asked them to make this shape for me, they said, ‘Oh, that’s kind of insulting, we have 2,000 years of teacups, how come you can’t work with one of our existing shapes?’” she recalls, laughing. 

Eventually, they produced several hundred cups for Chiu to paint on. As these were for Shek O Sublime, which was inspired by the seaside village on the southside of Hong Kong Island, Chiu limited herself to blues and whites, painting wave-inspired patterns in the porcelain. The restricted palette also allowed Chiu to focus on learning how to work with porcelain, rather than wasting time agonising over colour choice. “I hadn’t worked with ceramics before,” she says. Previously, she had worked predominantly with photography. 

For her new show, Chiu has expanded her palette, adding vibrant yellows, dark greens, and browns to her cups. “I now have all these different glazes interacting with each other. It was inspired by the energy of Hong Kong, how there are so many people in the city. I wanted to suggest proximity by how close the glazes are to each other,” says Chiu, who was inspired by traditional Chinese calligraphy when making her distinctive lines. “Lots of the brushstrokes are quite vigorous – they’re one stroke, made with lots of energy.” 

Chiu’s cups were also inspired by western art history – notably Marcel Duchamp. “Duchamp said, ‘Here’s a urinal, I’m going to put it on a stand and call it art because art is the idea,’” says Chiu. “I’m saying, ‘I’m going to take what looks like a readymade cup, improve it because it is a shape that does not exist in Chinese porcelain history, and I’m going to make each one unique.’” 

Chiu has deliberately positioned the line of cups in the gallery at eye-level – roughly the same height galleries would normally hang a painting. “I didn’t want them to be positioned lower, which might have felt more like a craft presentation,” she says. 

To Chiu, her cups are art. But she still wants people to use them. “They are made to be used,” she says. “They fit an espresso cappuccino perfectly. When you pour hot water in it, when the cup is too hot to touch, it’s too hot to drink, so the cup has this purpose to diffuse the heat and make the experience of drinking better. There are all these functional things that make this cup perfect. Art can be something we use. It’s nice to have a piece of art that people can incorporate into their daily rituals.” 

The “Coo” in the title of the series stands for Caroline’s Outstanding Objects. The second object in the series is on a much larger scale than the cups: it’s a 125-year-old village house in Shek O that Chiu is painstakingly restoring to its former glory. She doesn’t know exactly what she will use it for yet, though she is considering lending it to an artist friend as a retreat. “I’ve also been thinking about the perfect teapot shape, so maybe that will be next,” she says. 

Chiu also has plans for more cups. The workshop in Jingdezhen has sent several hundred vessels in the early stages of firing to Hong Kong, where Chiu has painted them and then completed the firing process in a local kiln. She is also in discussions with a leading porcelain workshop in Japan about making Coo Cups there once Covid-19 travel restrictions are relaxed. 

But right now, Chiu is focused on her show at Gallery Exit, which is a celebration of her hometown. Despite everything that has happened in Hong Kong since 2019, when Chiu began making the cups for this exhibition, she is still full of affection and admiration for the city – and the people who call it home. “Hong Kong is just the most dynamic, beautiful, energetic place,” she says. “I still very much believe in Hong Kong.”

Coo Cups <3 Hong Kong is on at Gallery Exit until July 9, 2022.  

Photos: courtesy Gallery Exit

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