These days, you can see Gigi Leung Wing-kei’s portrait on the walls of the MTR, advertising an anti-aging Japanese supplement, or in ads that cover the side of whole buildings promoting a massage machine. Through the years, she has been the face of many beauty products; her perfect skin has made her association with cosmetic houses quite a natural match.
But she is also an award-winning singer in both Cantonese and Mandarin, with more than 20 records to her name, and an acclaimed actress whose film career started with 1995’s Full Throttle and has extended up to her latest, Chili Laugh Story, which was released last year. In between, she has worked in more than 50 movies and half a dozen TV series for directors including Cheang Pou-soi, Pang Ho-cheung and Johnnie To. All told, she has performed in more than 50 movies and a half-dozen TV series: a body of work too large and diverse to list in its entirety.
This is probably what her fans mostly know her for. Less known is her talent to shape the most delicate porcelain, and for tempering chocolate for cake decorating. A group exhibition at The Pottery Workshop called In Between (or in Chinese, faa1 fei1 faa1 hei3 fei1 hei3 花非花器非器, “Flower Not Flower, Vessel Not Vessel”), alongside artists Carol Lee and Koesen Wong, now shows a different side to her talents.
The exhibition, in the same workshop where Leung first learned to handle clay and developed a deep interest in this medium, sees her delicate porcelain flowers arranged in a meditative display over four white shelves. Over the highest shelf hangs a fleeting flying flower and cloud, both in unglazed porcelain, which lead to a lower shelf with a cornucopia of blossoms and flowers, derived both from nature and from Leung’s own imagination. On a shelf further down, the delicate porcelain flowers and blossoms are shown in a withered state; this section includes the exact copy of a withered night blooming epiphyllum, long and plump and closed, looking like a captivating science-fiction plant. On the bottom shelf, Leung has scattered a handful of porcelain dust, which she has finely grated in a mortar after firing it in the kiln, arranged in a flat diamond shape and parted in the middle with a finger.
“Ceramic is exactly like meditation,” says Leung, who is also a vegetarian Buddhist. “Every time you touch the clay you learn more about yourself, and I feel I am passing some kind of energy down on every petal I press with my fingers.”
Leung started learning ceramics in 2007, and was attracted both by its specificities as an artistic medium (Leung graduated from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, with a diploma from the School of Design) and the power of clay to ground the person who handles it. “Especially with white porcelain, which is very soft and delicate, and very difficult to control, you have to be humble,” she says. “You have to follow its special texture, you cannot force it to do things in your own way, because it will not work. It is really like a relationship: you have to be water, know in which way you can be soft and work with this material. It makes you learn how to be humble.”
After years at the pottery wheel, as well as handbuilding — the term by which ceramicists describe working with hands and tools, but without an electric machine like the wheel — Leung took a course with Leo Wong, a Hong Kong ceramic artist and arborist who has been working on porcelain peonies and other flowers in a variety of sizes, which he colours in shades from life-like pastels to striking pinks, reds and yellows.
“I learned the skills of how to build a ceramic peony from him, but then I wanted to do something different, because peonies are very beautiful, delicate and full, really attractive. I wanted to do more variations, like an organic garden,” says Leung. It was a process that required creativity in its construction method. “I had to invert the building process, and build upside down so that it could hold the shape,” she explains. Other withered petals were made by dropping porcelain petals on the floor, to see what kind of fold they would get as they hit the ground.
Ceramics, and porcelain in particular, can be unpredictable; it’s hard to foresee what will happen in the kiln. The firing process is always a little bit of a mysterious moment, in which certain things may work out better than expected, or veer completely off-track, with distorted shapes or unpredictable colours. It’s yet another way in which ceramics teaches its practitioners to let go, to trust the process and not be too attached to the results – not dissimilar to the teachings of Buddhist philosophy.
“The process is fun, it is challenging. This, for me, was a project about life, through flowers: I really appreciate how flowers blossom and then die. It is nature. Life is short – beautiful, but short,” says Leung. She then quotes from a few verses she wrote for the exhibition:
You will know its beauty when you see the blooming moment,
But with no feeling of nostalgia
“Yes, I think life is like this,” she adds.
During the years of Covid, when acting and singing tours were mostly on hold, Gigi Leung decided to use her time by taking a pastry course, and obtaining a diploma at Escoffier. She sees a parallel with ceramics. “Pastry [is] also about the material itself,” she says. “If you want to make a chocolate sculpture, you must temper it. It means you have to manipulate the temperature, and then you only have a very limited time window for handling your chocolate, as above or below a certain degree you cannot do anything.”
Leung is now taking what she has learned from ceramics and pâtisserie and applying it to her career in show business. “As a singer and actress, I have people working for me. But when I make ceramics, the clay is the princess,” she says. “You are in front of it, and have to check: how is it feeling today? Too dry? Too wet? I think working with this medium has made me more compassionate, more capable of understanding the lyrics of certain songs, for example, or to enter more deeply into a character. Making art really opens your heart.”
In the exhibition at The Pottery Workshop, Leung’s ethereal white flowers are joined by Koesen Wong’s slightly deconstructed moon jars and an exploration of alternative clays by Carol Lee.
Moon jars are one of the most classical forms that can be found in Korean ceramics: round vessels in white porcelain that started being produced in the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910), most often with two hemispherical halves joined at the largest point of their circumference, so that two deep bowls can be turned into one, spherical, full moon-like ware. Wong revisits this classical form by jarring the opening, stripping away the clay from the vessels’ mouth, or by adding extra elements like flattened coils on the wares’ side, turning them into moon jars closer to space exploration vessels than romantic Joseon artists’ vision of milky moons.
Carol Lee, for her part, continues her exploration into what makes Hong Kong the place it is. After previous work using wild clay sourced from Hong Kong’s building sites, Lee’s works in this exhibition are made with the soil used for cultivating narcissus bulbs for Chinese New Year. Then she shapes them into something resembling lotus flowers’ pods, glazed in yellow and white, transforming the soil, in her words, into “forms of flower/not flower and utensil/non-utensil.”
The contrasts between the three artists’ work is striking, and yet they seem to carry forward an harmonious conversation over form, the passage of time, and the memory our hands can leave of it once they use clay to represent it.
In Between runs until August 18, 2023 at The Pottery Workshop. Click here for more information.