With Wood and Paint, Bouie Choi Distills Hong Kong Into Art

“We don’t have a lot of big things happening now,” says Bouie Choi on the eve of her solo show opening at Grotto Fine Art’s Shau Kei Wan space. “Things appear calm on the surface but, in reality, things are still happening, day in and day out.”

Titled Crossing the nights Filling the lines, the works on display feature glorious hues of orange-reddish and turkish blue on wood panels. They depict familiar urban scenery, but upon closer look, they are chock full of details. This is seen especially in a triptych — bearing the same name as the exhibition — stuffed with action. There is a neon sign for Kam Koon Wah Bridal that appears discarded among a pile of junk, referencing the government’s announcement to take down the bridal shop’s signage in August 2022, but also the wider crackdown on one of the city’s most iconic features. (Kam Koon Wah is one of the rare businesses that was able to replace its sold neon sign with a new one.) There is also a section of the Anderson Road footbridge network, infamous for going over the budget by HK$1 billion. 

Choi’s last solo exhibition, Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time at Grotto Fine Art was in 2020, in the aftermath of the 2019 social unrest. The show had obvious references to the protests, with one painting depicting a helmet-clad protestor, another the so-called iron horse barricades that are a ubiquitous crowd-control measure during any large event. While Crossing the nights Filling the lines doesn’t reference the “big happenings,” as Choi notes, the works on display are vessels containing the artist’s observations of the myriad ways the city has changed. 

In a way, the exhibition is an act of defiance – an idea distilled into the exhibition title itself. It’s not just about crossing through the night, but also actively filling the space between lines, she says. It is an act of remembering, which of course is now an act of resistance. “Sometimes, when I see something in front of me, another memory from years back will resurface, so [the things] you see here,” the artist says, pointing to a painting in the gallery, “aren’t as simple as they appear.” 

The work in question is “The Bars.” “From afar, you see rows of trees, but actually, they also made me think of bars, fences,” says the artist. The Chinese title, “鐵扇骨” (tit3 sin3 gwat1), refers to the spiked anti-burglary fences seen outside many homes, which also brings to mind the metal fences installed along footbridges to prevent protestors from throwing objects onto roads during the 2019 protests. And wood, with all its unexpected textures, appears to be the ideal material to embody the idea of how memories can pop up most unexpectedly, to be revisited and reshaped. 

While Choi has always painted urban landscapes, wood hasn’t always been her canvas. Born in Hong Kong in 1987, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Chelsea School of Arts graduate dabbled in different art forms in the early stages of her career, including video and performance art, but ultimately landed on painting. She used to find it daunting to paint on wood. “There is unpredictability [in] how the paint interacts with the wood,” she says. But then her community work at local charity St. James’ Settlement brought her in contact with some wood masters, who taught her how to treat the wood before painting over it, making it more manageable. 

This can be seen in the “Here & There” series, in which 20 hexagonal canvases are repurposed from old church pews. “The wood I use comes with its own history – it served a function in society. The ability to repurpose that, this cyclical nature, gives me a sense of hope,” says Choi. 

Compared to her 2020 show, the works in Crossing the nights Filling the lines are manifestly brighter, with sublime splashes of orange-reddish and Turkish blue hues that point to an ambiguous time of day. Choi says she wants to paint the liminal time between dusk and dawn. “It’s the twilight zone,” she says. “When people see light, they inevitably think, well, it’s light from the street lamps during the night time, when in fact, it could also be dawn.” 

But why the indefiniteness? “I want to create the sense that we’re trapped in time,” she says. She pauses, then continues slowly: “I still remember the dates [of the protests in 2019], but eventually, you become numb. You start to want to forget about these dates.”

One of the most moving works at the exhibition is “The light gatherer, which is the coalescence of two memories. The first is from June 21, 2022, when a sudden power outage plunged the northeastern part of the New Territories into darkness. The second is from a story Choi’s father told her when she was still a child. ”During the 1960s water shortage in Hong Kong, my dad said he’d run up to the rooftop, pail in hand, whenever there was rainfall,” she says. In the upper half of the painting, specks of light pierce rows of trees. Amid the foliage is a streak of white. Is that a teardrop, or stroke of light? In the bottom right, a tiny figure holds up a bucket, as if trying to catch it. 

In “Dimpled”, half-translucent white streaks leak from holes in the teak canvas, which used to be floorboards, salvaged from a decrepit mansion in Pok Fu Lam. “In the beginning, I panicked a bit, thinking, ‘What do I do with these holes?’” she says. “But then I decided to just drip paint into it, propped the canvas up at an angle, and let the paint flow down the surface. I’m quite happy with the result.” Again, the idea of finding hope in ruins. 

But if light is a symbol of hope in Choi’s works, then that hope faces the threat of being decimated in “Crossing the nights Filling the lines,” giant figures pluck street lamps off the ground with their bare hands, puffs of light lying in their wake. “I like putting these [gigantic figures] in the work, to see how they control and manipulate the urban landscape,” she says – a metaphor for the giant unseen forces that shape the city.

In the same painting, a giant octopus’s chunky tentacles extend menacingly outwards. It’s not the first time it has been featured in Choi’s art. When she first painted it in 2020, people wondered if it symbolised the Hong Kong government, imposing its authoritarian view on all facets of people’s lives. Choi is coy with the answer. “I mean, people could interpret it in whatever way they wanted,” she says with a smile. 

Note: all photos are by South Ho, courtesy of  Grotto Fine Art

Crossing the nights Filling the lines runs until April 1, 2023 at Grotto Fine Art. Click here for more information.

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