Claire Lee was sitting in a small tofu shop in a few years ago when the poet and artist had a major epiphany, one that sparked her enduring creative fixation: the theme of fragility. It started with the wobbly, pliable substance of the tofu she was eating.
“I was sitting by myself, there was this couple nearby talking very loud – typical Hong Kong. Everything is so tight. I have this tofu in front of me, which I am eating and looking at, and I have this feeling of something very gentle, but also violent,” she recalls. “And as I’m eating it, it almost feels like a spiritual moment. I think about how we deal with and talk about fragile, tender things and I decide I want to talk to people about that.”
Lee now lives in London, and it is with a quiet and rather endearing wistfulness she describes her homesickness for Hong Kong. She first started writing poetry after years of keeping a diary, a process of talking to herself in which the number of words needed to express herself shrunk with each new passage, until her tiny self-directed missives took poetic form. A graphic designer with a degree in curatorial studies from the Hong Kong Art School, she has a visual art bent, and her poems take this form too, always coming from images in her mind. She has released several poetry collections alongside a body of mixed media art.
Lee’s tofu shop epiphany was the start of a venture that led her to sit down with friends and strangers to talk about tofu, leading to a book called Tofu and Violence. It addresses our relationship with the softer, more sensitive sides of the human spirit that we so often vilify as weak, unstable and vulnerable to abuse and manipulation. Lee donated the proceeds from that project to a local sexual violence charity, Rainlily, which plays a valuable role in Hong Kong’s underdeveloped and often victim-blaming welfare system.
Lee wants to explore what is poignant about fragility. She sees hope and power in the ability to connect through sharing vulnerable moments. It’s part of a larger movement that provides an important departure from strains of feminism that oblige women to emulate toxic masculinity in order to get ahead, rather than acknowledging the potential of qualities deemed feminine, such as communication and community building, and an adeptness at abandoning ego in the name of the greater good.
Lee says the ideas for her poems and artwork occur randomly, often in the dead of night when words come to her as she is trying to sleep, having to scramble for her notebook to write them down. Inspiration can come from anywhere: her latest project, a collection of ink drawings and poetry called The Awakening, emerged after flicking through a photography book containing an image by Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybriddge. The photo depicted the hulking form of a bison. Curious about the beast, Lee spent months exploring its story and significance, travelling to a park in the UK to see one in the flesh and take in its overbearing stature and gleaming bovine eyes.
“The bison is bold, masculine, physical, but what interests me is the fragility and the history – they nearly went extinct,” she says. “I wondered why such a majestic, powerful animal still has to think about survival. If he wanted to attack you, he could kick you and you’d be dead. That made me think about humans. Humanity is getting so much power, but we’re also very fragile, and very lonely, and we have these fragile parts inside of us,” she says. The interplay between strength, power and fragility, as embodied by the bison, form the cornerstone of her latest project, The Awakening. It brings together her poetry and ink art pieces, drawing on associations with the bison that span millennia.
“The collection is kind of primitive,” she says. “The bison is related to the caveman and it’s also a metaphor for ourselves. I think about the uncertainty we live with today, and conflicts, and how they can divide us, and how they can also bring us together. Not just for Hong Kong – it’s more than that. It’s for the world.”
“True art isn’t like making bubblegum – it requires courage,” adds Lee. She admits that her work, which sometimes deals with difficult and painful subjects, can drain her. She counts among her muses Russian film director Tarkovsky, finding a kindred spirit in his brooding, symbolically rich and aesthetically mesmerising scenography. The dulcet tones of Bill Evans are another source of inspiration, as she turns to his smooth piano notes for solace and security. She also gives a hat tip to composer and multimedia artist Bjork, whose extraordinary work broaches the subjects of femininity, fragility and humanity’s capacity to love despite our darker, uglier, and despairing moments. “We need more artists like that, who follow their own path and have courage to do that,” says Lee.
Lee’s path has led to both bisons and tofu. Though they are made of quite different stuff, the message they both transmit to her is similar. The key lies in recognising our fragility and drawing strength from it to be kinder to ourselves – and closer to each other.
The Awakening by Claire Lee runs from October 14 to November 11, 2017 at Charbon Art Space, with special performances on the opening day during the South Island Art Day.
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