The last thing you expect to see in Tsuen Wan is a huge portrait calling out for your attention. Developed in the 1950s as one of Hong Kong’s first satellite towns, Tsuen Wan is a workaday place where empty factories loom beyond concrete housing estates. This is the setting for a new mural by Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto, who is better known as Vhils.
The mural depicts a somewhat stoical woman. You cannot tell her age or her ethnicity – but she is definitely not a creature of the present. Her face marks the transformation of the old Nan Fung cotton mill into a new cultural complex known as The Mills.
Vhils’ background as a graffiti artist taught him to accept that his work could disappear overnight. It’s a notion he carries into his current practice of commissioned work. “It’s simply part of the game and it gives you the incentive to produce more,” he says. Nowadays, Vhils prefers to carve and drill monolithic portraits onto walls, seeking out and embellishing the derelict. But he still doesn’t expect his work to last forever.
“My pieces are meant to change over time, to be absorbed into the background and become a part of the walls and the city itself,” he explains. His work reflects upon what he calls “the complexity of life” in contemporary urban societies.
“My main objective is to make the audience stop and think about the direction our current global development is taking us and how fast-paced changes are affecting the individuals and communities in these societies,” he says.
To do this, Vhils picks sites that have a strong history, because without history, there is no story and nothing to show us the passing of time. This enables him to express the fundamental relationship between people and the physical environments that surround them, something he calls “reciprocal shaping.”
Vhils recently relocated to Hong Kong and he has scouted a number of areas and buildings on which he wanted to work. “I aim to work with what a city has to offer, coupling the rich layers of the walls with subject matter,” he says. The Nan Fung mill, which will reopen in 2018 as The Mills — a private initiative spearheaded by Nan Fung Group, a property developer — seems like a good opportunity. In conjunction with the non-profit organisation Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation (HOCA), Vhils made a proposal to The Mills Gallery curator Angelika Li to create two portraits that represent anonymous mill workers. “I wanted to pay tribute to the unsung heroes that helped develop both the textile industry and the community,” he says.
The project idea, titled Scratching the Surface, Tsuen Wan, came as a pleasant surprise to Li. She praises Vhils’ sense of community. “He is interested in transitional spaces whether they are historical or abandoned, and his work adds value to those communities,” she says. The two works speak to the legacy of Hong Kong’s once-dominant textile industry, which has virtually disappeared since factories left for mainland China in the 1990s.
Each of Vhils’ portraits is a composite he creates from various faces found during his research. He transfers them to the wall in three layers: shadow, mid-tone and highlights. The first step is to spray on the outline, which is then painstakingly carved and drilled away (he says Hong Kong’s concrete walls are some of the hardest to work with). Touches of white paint help to define the faces.
Li thinks Vhils’ process is significant, given The Mills’ context.
“Tsuen Wan itself is very diasporic — many of the original textiles industry were from Shanghai or Ningbo — yet Hong Kong has this culture of disappearance. Vhils’ work is like a minus equals positive. He uses a negative space to create heroes of the anonymous people who made Hong Kong.”
With this project, Vhils knew that the work would disappear during renovation of the mills, which has just begun. “I do portraits in order to preserve them in the public mind. These pieces are specifically ephemeral, playing with the concept of our always-fading memories. When memories are recalled, they still inevitably fade away and become something new,” he says.
Both the uniqueness of the mill’s preservation and the speed at which the old building will be transformed into The Mills is something that speaks to the nature of the city. “Hong Kong embodies the best and worst of our contemporary urban societies. It has a rich, vibrant history based on one of the most notable cross-cultural stories of the last few centuries – and it reflects current global material aspirations and the direction we’re heading in. It’s the perfect case study for my work,” Vhils says.
Vhils seems to have succeed in changing people’s perception of the building. Li visits the developing site every week and she spends time talking to people in the neighbourhood — the kai1 fong1 (街坊) — because community is an important factor in the curatorial program. “I talked to people walking down the street and they said it was new and interesting, they appreciated the newness and vibrancy,” she says, adding that she wished that Scratching the Surface could remain after renovation. At least one of the murals is already slated for removal.
With four core pillars in its curatorial program, The Mills Gallery promises a lot. On top of exhibitions, there will be a community engagement programme, with one-off and annual events, a learning programme which will include symposiums, and an artist-in-residence programme which has already started. At the heart of it all will be the site’s industrial heritage.
“The first time I visited, the spatial experience was consuming,” says Li. “Now that the machines are gone you try to imagine where [they] were and how busy it was – three shifts around the clock, never stopping, for many decades. This mill fed families. I had a lot of emotions recalling some of my senior relatives talking about their lives in the 1970s, thinking about how they really lived. It was an era of hope for women as they become more independent through getting the jobs.” It seems only right that a place that gave so many opportunities, that was a life-force for many, be preserved as a beneficial space in this over-built, over-priced city.
Until its completion in 2018, The Mills Gallery will host pop-up exhibitions around the city, starting with a show by local artist Leung Chi Wo at Nan Fung’s headquarters in Central. The exhibition, Tracing Some Places, includes two commissions by The Mills and recalls both personal and public histories of industrial Hong Kong.
Once The Mills opens, Li hopes that the space, its history, and of course the gallery team will continue an interactive and inspiring relationship. “The partnerships we form will regenerate for something new and bring new ideas. We believe in interaction and making things grow and get bigger – we need synergy, we need new energy injecting into our communities,” she says.
Scratching the Surface can be seen at The Mills till the walls get their final face lift, 41-47 Pak Tin Par Street, Tsuen Wan. Tsuen Wan MTR station is a 15-minute walk away.