Hon Chi-fun’s Circles of Life: A Look at One of Hong Kong’s Most Important Artists

“The circle is me, the form of my own being, and the image that I value and cherish. It is the world of perfection I seek after,” the late Hong Kong artist Hon Chi-fun wrote in 1981. Known as a pioneering modernist, Hon died on 24 February at the age of 96, leaving behind a large and complicated legacy.

What exactly he meant by “perfection” remains beguiling, even after visiting A Story of Light, the artist’s final solo exhibition at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, which runs until early June. But the exhibition does allow viewers to gain insight into the overlapping desires that are the beating heart of Hon’s art.

Despite high profile shows at the Hong Kong Museum of Art and the now-defunct Chatham Galleries, Hon remains something of an enigma to most people in Hong Kong. He is an artist from a bygone era famous for his airbrush paintings, but his work seems to bear little relation to present-day Hong Kong.

A Story of Light aims to change that. While Hon is best known for his Circle series of paintings, he tinkered with long exposure photography, created complex collages and was a skilled calligrapher. The 30 paintings, photographs and prints on display at the Asia Society is a testament to the artist’s unwillingness to be boxed up.

Hon Chi-fun

Hon Chi-fun, ‘Bath of Fire’, 1968, oil, acrylic and silkscreen on canvas, triptych, 132.1 x 396.3 cm. Collection of Hong Kong Museum of Art.

“Not many people I’ve met know him, or even if they do, were historising him,” says Kaitlin Chan, co-curator of the exhibition. “But his ideas of being between cultures, of internationalisation are incredibly relevant.”

Hon passed away three weeks before the opening of A Story of Light. On 22 March, Choi Yan-chi—Hon’s wife and a famous artist herself—gathered at the Asia Society with poet Quanan Shum, critic Louis Ho and writer Tang Siu-wa for a discussion about the artist’s work. The tone was equal parts reverent and tongue-in-cheek, a fitting farewell for a man who married life to art, but who also saw humour as a strength of character.

Born in 1922 and raised by a single father, Hon had a relatively peaceful childhood. He was top of his class at Wah Yan College. “He had to [be],” notes Choi. “His family couldn’t afford the school fees so he needed the scholarship to keep studying.” While his dreams of attending university were dashed when Japan invaded Hong Kong in 1941—“He never forgave the Japanese,” says Choi—Hon was adamant not to let the war get in the way of his artistic aspirations.

Hon began working as a postal inspector but on his days off would run around town with prominent Hong Kong artist Luis Chan, his paint box in tow, to learn how to paint en plein air. As he grew as an artist, Hon was instrumental in founding the Circle Art Group, which was set up in 1964 with the goal of examining notions of “East versus West” in Hong Kong abstract art. It wasn’t Hon’s first attempt at pushing the cultural conversation forward: eight years earlier, he had established the Modern Literature and Art Association with the more general goal of promoting Hong Kong arts and literature.

“We drank, we danced, we flirted,” laughs Quanan Shum when asked to describe Modern Literature and Art Association meetings. “[Hon] was always in his biker jacket. He was such a young thing.”  

In 1969, Hon finally got his due. He was awarded a Rockefeller art fellowship to study lithography and etching at New York’s Pratt Graphics Centre in New York. He was the first Hong Kong recipient of the award. By then, his art already displayed an experimental streak. One memorable piece is “Bath of Fire,” a triptych on display at A Story of Light. Merging Pop Art sensibilities with the artist’s now-distinctive circle motif, “Bath of Fire” combined unsent letters, poems, photographs with earlier works. Hon described it as a “rebirth”—perhaps in anticipation of the new stage in life that New York would beckon in. But it also spoke to a compositional complexity that spoke to the overlapping desires and the in-betweenness that he had to contend in life.  

“I asked him, ‘Why was there this shift [in subject matter] from the 50s, when you did a lot of landscapes, to the 60s and 70s?’” Shum recalls. “He said to me, ‘You know, when you reach a certain age, you get a calling.’ When I ask him what calling, all he said was, ‘A feeling of light’. I thought it was all rather religious. My impression of his art is that they are all circles and squares. You know the Da Vinci painting [Vitruvian Man]—where the ideal man is enveloped by a circle and square.”

After returning from New York, Hon swapped his brush for an airbrush gun and started creating his famous Circle paintings, where the sense of the erotic and spiritual appear to go hand-in-hand. Likely one of the most provocative pieces from Hon’s oeuvre, “Chasm Forever” (1971), depicts a cracked sphere evocative of a vagina or a geographical fissure. Another piece from the era, “Floating Weight” (1976), features a large, glowing orb inscribed with text culled from second-hand Buddhist sutra books he’d bought from shops on Hollywood Road.

It begs the question, was eroticism a kind of spiritual experience for Hon? One might look to French philosopher Georges Bataille’s idea of the erotic, which holds that it is the intense desire that one experiences during a state of rupture between the self and world, inside and outside, subject and object. The space that this rupture opens up offered a safe space for Hon to work through his conflicting desires, and provides a succinct lens through which one might view the artist’s art. 

One of his many struggles was also that of Hong Kong. What place did Chinese traditions have in a British colony that was becoming increasingly cosmopolitan? During the 1970s, when many Hong Kong artists rejected traditional Chinese painting in favour of Western art, Hon sought out, according to curator Chan, a kind of “meaningful departure.” 

“The more he travelled, the more he was aware of his Chinese roots,” she says. “He was obsessed with Chinese culture, particularly with Chinese calligraphy.” Choi recalls travelling with Hon to the Guangdong city of Zhaoqing in the mid-1980s. “He bought six ink stones and carried them all the way back to Hong Kong in his rucksack. As soon as we arrived home, he went into his study and like a child, laid them out one by one.”

If the Circle Art Group provided a platform for him to explore more abstract notions of East and West, then his travels compelled him to wrestle with his own identity. Was he a Hongkonger? Chinese? Both?

In 2013, in an interview with Shum Long-tin for the Asia Art Archive, Hon revealed that he cried on a trip to the Norwegian fjords. “I boarded a ship at Bergen. The port is protected by fjords from weather elements. The water was as calm as a mirror,” he said. This was in the midst of China’s Cultural Revolution, which plunged the entire country into agonising upheaval from 1966 to 1976. Looking at the placid fjord, Hon said he had the realisation that plunged him into sorrow: “Tranquillity was out of the question in China at the time,” he said.

In 1992, three years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, Hon moved to Canada with Choi, only to return eight years later. “The idea of the circle motif can be read as a yearning for unity, wholeness,” says Chan. “There is a sense of bifurcation. I literally feel that this one person is being torn into different directions.”

Hon’s relentless experimental spirit also makes it difficult to categorise him. Was he a painter? A calligrapher? A photographer? In the early 80s, when Super-8 film exploded into the Hong Kong art scene, Hon met with a local distributor of Polaroid instant film and began experimenting with the medium. He opened the back of the camera and exposed the film to light, and scratched and painted over the surface of the film. What resulted were layered, doubled images that had a whiff of magical realism about them. 

The artist also had his saccharine moments. He originally wanted to name a painting of a small sphere that appears to float against a dreamy blue backdrop “No one but you.” The Chinese title of the piece, “卿卿” (hing1 hing1) which translates as “You,” is a term of endearment used between romantic partners. Choi recalls that when Hon told art critic Nigel Cameron his plan, Cameron responded, “What is this? A pop song title?” Hon ended up naming his work “Secret Code.”

In the 2000s, Hon’s aesthetic pivoted yet again. The artist was in his late 70s and airbrush painting, which demands the use of the artist’s entire body, proved to be too punishing for him. He picked up the brush he’d relinquished some three decades earlier, producing landscapes where intense flicks of red and yellows appear to crush onto nothing, and blues, greys and whites are smudged up in a befuddling mess. Perhaps this was a sign that the many different spheres of Hon’s career had finally collided.

Hon’s friends and admirers always remarked on his vitality, but a minor stroke in 2000 made the artist cognisant of his mortality. “He was scared,” says Choi. “This was, after all, someone who was used to doing whatever–and whenever he wanted.” Hon’s fear and subsequent triumph was captured in “Breaking the Cocoon.” A lash of red appears to leap forth from a dark abyss, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. The defiance breaks through the black paint. 

Hon made sure that A Story of Light was going to be a success—even on his deathbed. “He wasn’t responding much during his final days in the hospital,” recalls Choi. “But when I held up a mock-up of his exhibition catalogue, his eyes immediately started to dart up and down. At the end of the day, art remained the most important thing to him.”

A Story of Light runs at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center until 9 June 2019. Click here for more information.

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