Artist Chan Wai-lap has spent the past five years making meticulous, grid-like drawings of swimming pools that have enraptured critics, curators, and collectors in Hong Kong and around the world. Now, he is expanding his creations off the page: he is building his very own swimming pool outside the Hong Kong Museum of Art in Tsim Sha Tsui, on the edge of Victoria Harbour.
“It’s a very Hong Kong location. When people think of Hong Kong, they think of that view of the harbour,” says Chan. “This is a very good opportunity to let me show Hong Kong, and the world, my swimming pool and its story.”
Chan’s own story begins in 2016, when he found himself stuck in a creative rut. He had graduated from art school in the UK in 2011 and subsequently returned to Hong Kong and formed an artist duo, named Dirty Paper, with Yau Kwok Keung. But after five years of collaboration, the pair decided to explore solo projects. Chan initially struggled to work alone. He found himself languishing in the studio, at a loss for ideas. So, one day he decided to distract himself by learning how to swim.
“I remember when I was three years old, my father bringing me to a swimming pool,” he says. “It was fun, but not real swimming. I had some lessons at secondary school, but I didn’t enjoy it. I never properly learnt.” Too self-conscious to sign up for swimming lessons at the age of 28, he decided to teach himself by watching videos on YouTube. “I’d go every day and spend more than an hour at the pool. I’d escape the phone, escape the TV, escape the news – I’d escape from the world. After a summer, I’d finally learnt how to swim.”
Unexpectedly, the pool also provided Chan with inspiration for his art. He was immediately drawn to the physical form of pools: the gridded patterns, the colours of the tiles, and the reflection and refraction of light in the water. Then, after a few weeks of swimming daily, he found himself contemplating the people around him. “I started thinking, ‘Why does he come here every day at the same time? And what is she doing?’” says Chan. Over time, he began thinking about the pool as a public space: a complex place where people are physically exposed, often wearing very little, but are forced into close proximity. A space where the same people might see each other every day for months on end, but never talk. At swimming pools, Chan says, there’s always a tension between public and private, and the individual and the community. Chan began exploring the social aspects of swimming pools in his art in 2021, when he unveiled a large-scale installation, “The Lonesome Changing Room,” in the Contemporary by Angela Li booth at Art Central. That year, the fair had a particularly strong focus on local art because many international galleries were unable to participate due to ongoing Covid-19 travel restrictions. Chan’s work was a functional changing room, complete with benches, showers, lockers and a full-time performer, who stretched, brushed his teeth, and occasionally even appeared to change out of his clothes (although he was never fully naked) – all in front of tens of thousands of visitors who streamed through the fair.
The installation prompted visitors to consider the architecture of this practical, functional space, something most people wouldn’t do in their day-to-day lives. Beyond that, it also made viewers reflect on the delicate social interactions that spring up inside changing rooms, which are one of the few public spaces where people strip naked. There was a voyeuristic quality to the piece: the audience had permission to watch the performer, but they had to ask themselves if they wanted to. Some watched. Others turned away, giggling, overwhelmed by the intimacy of the work.
Chan’s new project, which has been commissioned by the Hong Kong Museum of Art, is even more ambitious. There are few external clues to the nature of the piece: on the outside, Chan’s installation is clad in bamboo and designed to look like an enormous crate. One side of the box lies flat, allowing people to walk in. Once inside, visitors will realise that they’re standing at the bottom of an empty swimming pool. From this position you’d normally look up to see the surface of the water, but in Chan’s installation all you can see are the design details of the pool surrounding you and the sky. The pool is 5.5 metres wide, 11 metres long and four metres deep. It sits outside the Hong Kong Museum of Art, next to the Hong Kong Space Museum and across the road from the Peninsula Hong Kong, whose guests will look down into the installation.
Chan knew he didn’t have the architectural knowledge to work on the project alone, so enlisted Human Wu, the founding director of Human Architects and an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong, to be the architect of the installation. Chan also wanted some help synthesising his ideas, so he brought Louiza Ho on board as curator.
The work is being unveiled to the public on March 25. It will be open 24 hours a day and will remain in place for roughly a year. “I think it will be a very different experience at different times of day,” says Chan. “In the morning, it will be peaceful and calm. After 11am, it starts to get busy, with travellers and with workers having lunch.” Chan recommends visiting when the sun is going down and shadows start to stretch across the tiles.
Working on this installation has allowed Chan to indulge in his fantasy of building his own pool. “It’s my first time building a real mosaic – normally I draw or paint it. I chose a very expensive tile brand, Bisazza,” he says, laughing. Chan and Wu approached Bisazza about the installation and the brand liked the idea so much that they came on board as sponsors. Bisazza’s team worked with Lap to achieve the colours and textures he was looking for. The floor of the pool is covered in dark blue tiles dotted with a few silver tiles that form stars. The colour then transitions into a lighter blue on the walls of the pool. “I chose stars because I love it when you’re in a pool at night and you look up at the sky and see stars. It’s so peaceful. It’s just you and the sky and the water,” says Chan.
In English, the work is named “Some of us are looking at the stars,” after the line, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” in Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan. Chan chose that title partly because it reflects how his pool functions: it encourages you to look up at the sky. In Cantonese, the installation is titled “路過蜻蜓” (lou6 gwo3 cing1 ting4), an idiom that translates roughly as “a dragonfly passing by.” The expression refers to the way dragonflies flit over water, occasionally touching it, then zipping away. When applied to a person, the phrase suggests that they are skimming through things, not paying attention or caring about their actions.
Both titles reflect one of Chan’s desires for the piece: he wants visitors to slow down in his pool, to take a moment to relax, and reflect on their surroundings. He wants them to do the opposite of the idiom. But the Cantonese title has a further meaning. Chan says he likes the idea of passersby in Tsim Sha Tsui being irresistibly drawn to his pool, just as dragonflies are to bodies of water.
To tempt people into the pool — and to keep them there for longer — Chan has also created a series of sculptures to be placed in the installation. The first is a visual joke: there’s a hose pointing into the pool, but look closer and it’s actually an enlarged Hong Kong-style sausage wrapped in vivid orange plastic wrapping, like the ones you can buy at the kiosks at many public pools. Just like on the real sausages, Chan’s sculpture of a hose has a small metal ring fastening the end. “That’s why there’s no water in my pool,” he says, laughing.
The other two sculptures are more conceptual. One is an inflatable life ring that has been twisted to make two rings, so it looks like the infinity symbol. The other is a pair of deck chairs, stacked on top of each other, squeezing some inflatable pool toys stuck in the middle. Cahn says these are metaphors for the social interactions that can unfold at swimming pools. The double life ring brings people together, just like a pool can. But if the two people using it want to swim in different directions, or do different things, that creates tension – just as tension can emerge between users of a pool, some of whom might be using the space for quiet reflection, while others want to play music and socialise with their friends.
Chan wants visitors to sit on the stacked deck chairs, although he knows people will be hesitant because they won’t want to pop the inflatables squashed between them. Although the inflatables look burstable, they are actually made from fibreglass. Chan hopes that by forcing people to question whether they can sit down, the installation will make visitors reflect on the constant, if often momentary, questioning that people do at a pool. Can I use that lane or is it too full? Is that someone’s bag or can I take that deck chair? Should I jump in, or will that disturb other swimmers?
This self-questioning is not unique to pools; variants of it happen in almost all public spaces. Chan thinks the questions we ask ourselves in these situations reveal a lot about the values of broader society. “You learn a lot about a city if you go to a pool,” he says. Some societies prize silence in public spaces, while others feature lots of noise. In some places public spaces are filled with couples or groups; others are dominated by individuals.
Chan still swims every morning, most regularly at the Lei Cheng Uk Swimming Pool in Kowloon, where his father first took him to swim as a three-year-old. After that, he heads to the studio he shares with the artist Ant Ngai Wing Lam inside the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre in Shek Kip Mei. Chan’s corner of the studio houses some lockers from his Lonesome Changing Room Project. One of these lockers is filled with glass eyes and other anatomical models, which are leftovers from one of his exhibitions with Dirty Paper, whose projects often focused on education and their memories of school.
Although there are swimming-related objects and images dotted around the space, the mixture of knick-knacks at Chan’s studio is a reminder that his art hasn’t always been focused on pools. So after his project at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, will he keep diving deeper into the complexities of swimming pools, or is he ready to explore something else? “It depends on whether I have more stories or new perspectives on the pool,” he says. “I’m never really talking about swimming: there’s always a hidden story in my art. So maybe next [time] I won’t use pools. Maybe I’ll use another public space. But I don’t know yet – I’ll see what stories I can find.”
Some of us are looking at the stars runs outside the Hong Kong Museum of Art for one year from March 24, 2023. Click here for more information.