Kaitlin Chan reflects on her experience curating an exhibition for the late Hong Kong artist Hon Chi-fun.
If you asked me a couple years ago what curating consisted of, I would have said reading and administrating. On most days, you could find me either studying texts and previous exhibition documentation, or liaising installation or production logistics with artists and contractors. I presumed the role of a curator was to conceptualise the exhibition, and oversee aesthetic and programmatic decisions that shaped visitors' experiences. All that changed when I was tasked with organising a career-spanning exhibition of a ninety-six-year-old, Hong Kong–based artist: Mr Hon Chi-fun.
Born in 1922, Hon’s life coincided with a period of significant cultural and political transformation in Hong Kong. In the 1960s, during the rise of Hon’s art career, Hong Kong established itself as a manufacturing hub and shipping port, which in turn supported the city’s burgeoning arts and culture scene. This period also saw an uptick in Western cultural exports of literature and films that greatly inspired Hon and his peers,1 who were among the first generation of local artists to exhibit internationally and on an institutional scale. In the days before commercial galleries were ubiquitous in Central, or institutions like 1a Space or Hong Kong Arts Centre were established, Hon used to show his work in spaces like churches and private residences—though some of his peers, like Jackson Yu, were some of the city’s first gallerists.2 As a founding member of the pioneering art collective Circle Art Group, Hon also helped usher in an era of abstract and experimental artwork that employed unconventional materials with non-representational imagery.
Working closely with Hon’s partner Choi Yan-chi for the exhibition, I pored over his monographs, autobiography, and any citations of his work I could find. The texts gave context to his abstract, otherworldly paintings and prints, articulating how artists during this time were reckoning with notions of “Western” and “Eastern,” and questioning the long-held colonial stereotype that Hong Kong’s art somehow reflected this polar duality. Scholars framed Hon’s work as a direct rejection of this, as a proposition that constant metamorphosis was the only feasible response to questions of cultural identity. For example, Eva Man Kit-wah writes, “There seems to be an attempt [in Hon’s work] to develop a notion of self and identity that links difference to the insistence of speaking in many voices, and to fix a notion of identity that is shifting and multiple.”3
When I first met Hon Chi-fun, he was curled up in a leather armchair, surrounded by trinkets and treasures from his friends and travels abroad. His clothes hung loose on his thin frame, but his wide eyes still brightened every time we pulled one of his paintings out from under layers of bubble wrap and tape. Even in his seniority, I could discern the traces of his sharp square jaw, broad-set eyes, and brooding demeanour that I had previously gleaned from old photos.
Through personal interactions with Hon, my responsibility as a curator began to hinge less on imparting propositional knowledge than presenting Hon as a person in the world, as well as building his legacy at this mature stage of his career. As in: while we were celebrating Hon as an artist, how might we ground his practice in the stakes of his lived reality? How could I prevent myself from freezing his life in amber, hiding behind art-historical jargon that reified him as a “subject” and myself as an “academic”? I began imagining how an exhibition might conjure his presence.
There’s no shortage of rigorous, scholarly exhibitions that emphasise an artist’s career milestones or position within art history; but the exhibitions that resonate with me most are ones that animate an artist’s presence as a peer and friend within a collective, a worker making ends meet, or more generally: a person who was somehow connected to stakes beyond the art world—growing and changing in response to social and political contexts. And so for Hon’s exhibition, instead of simply presenting his works and the intellectual ideas behind them, I wanted to capture his maverick character, his wholeness as a person who not only created artworks, but moved through the world in various capacities—which pushed me to consult Hon’s own materials in addition to the usual art-historical resources.
Hon’s poetry and interviews were helpful in illuminating his metaphysical thinking and the profound moral questioning underlying his work. Pondering infinity in his poem Old Paintings, he wrote: “Man grows old / Landscape grows old / Only aura remains the same.”4 In an interview with Shum Long-tin, he considers painting as a form of pre-verbal communication: “I think enlightenment is achieved in the absence of words.”5 His artwork—particularly his airbrush works, which ranged from beams of light to abstracted genitalia—became fundamental queries: Why are we here? And what is our place in the universe? Where do we come from? And where are we going?
A couple of weeks after I first met Hon, Yan-chi and I spent a delightful afternoon poring over Hon’s photo albums, tracing his boyhood in Hong Kong, youth in Shanghai and Guangzhou, and his thirties and forties as a postal inspector. I marvelled at the contrast between clean-cut Hon grinning in his thirties (1950s) in a starched white postal uniform, versus shaggy-haired 1970s Hon who painted shirtless and in splattered bell-bottoms. The tactile experience of holding black-and-white photographs between my fingers, squinting to read handwritten dates and details, felt like journeying with him along the decades in a single afternoon. “He is very sensitive, you can see through his eyes,” Yan-chi said with a smile as she pointed to a blurry, purple photo of him in his forties, on the cusp of his professional art career. Wearing thick-framed black glasses that were in vogue at the time, his expression is wide-eyed, melancholy, and looking off to the side. His arms are crossed, as in most other pictures of him—especially ones at exhibition openings.
“They thought of themselves like James Dean!” Yan-chi laughed as she held up a photo of him with Circle Art Group co-members David Lam and Jackson Yu. The three men lean against a railing, all poker-faced and posing in self-conscious stances, oozing a distinctive machismo of tortured male artists: stiff chin, crossed arms. They were men who took their art practices as seriously as painters like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, who they read about in foreign magazines.
Paging through Hon’s photo albums and meticulous collection of press clippings, I couldn’t help but reflect on how his archival tendency could also be a product of Hong Kong being a city on “borrowed time.” At the time of Hon’s early career in the 1960s, Hong Kong was not only a city with few formal art institutions—let alone archives or education programs—but also a crown colony of the British Empire. These circumstances inevitably stirred conversations about identity, representation, and belonging, as evidenced in discussions around the Circle Art Groups’ endeavours,6 as well as the literary magazine of the Modern Literature and Art Association.7 Artists were taking it upon themselves to document their and their friends’ careers, projects, and ideas, as the question “who will write our art history?” took on a renewed urgency.
Hon’s desire to present himself as an artist was evident not only by his significant collection of exhibition documentation, ephemera, and personal albums, but his self-presentation in photographs. They often show Hon brooding, sometimes with sunglasses, a leather jacket and motorcycle in tow: he used the vehicle mainly for delivering letters and finding scenic vistas to paint. These images provide a palpable sense of his early unease, and later, eventual confidence in his artistic practice. Associating with like-minded peers and fellow rule-breakers helped free him to confront his doubts. Yan-chi mentioned that Hon was acutely aware of his age when he began painting in earnest in his late thirties. “He felt behind everyone else, at least age-wise. And he was also self-taught.” Our future meetings took place at my office or in the gallery, and were highly focused on the minute details: wall colours, page sequences, the hyphen between Chi and fun, and identifying the artists and writers with whom Hon was photographed. “If only they didn’t all wear the same glasses!” Yan-chi griped.
Around February, our discussions took on a more sombre tone. “Hon is unwell,” Yan-chi announced with all the colour drained from her voice. I hoarded tissue boxes from the office pantry on my desk, as I was prone to tearing up on these calls. Suddenly, the aesthetic details I had been fussing over seemed distant and out of focus.
On 24 February 2019, the news came by e-mail. Hon was gone.
In the wake of her son’s death, Yiyun Li imagines a series of conversations between a grieving mother and her child. She writes, “How do you compare sadness that takes over like an erupted volcano to sadness that stays inside one, still as a stillborn baby? People talk about grief coming and going like waves, but I am not breakwater, I am not a boat, I am not a statue left on a rocky shore, tested for its endurance.”8
My experience of grief, like Li’s, was a stone in my chest. Rather than coming in bursts, I carried a constant ache. Working on the exhibition was an abstract way of spending time with him every day: reading his words, studying his paintings, and piecing together an interweaved narrative of his art and life. But when he left us, I felt like I had missed the point with the exhibition: to honour him while he was still living to bear witness to it. I also felt devastated for Yan-chi, who had spent countless hours finessing every aspect of the exhibition alongside me. Her love for Hon is not only that of a spouse but also a fellow accomplished avant-garde artist in her own right. A tireless advocate for Hong Kong art,9 Yan-chi was working on the exhibition to pay tribute to one of Hong Kong’s most prolific, yet lesser-known artists. Grief caused every act to feel brutal: waking up, brushing my teeth and getting dressed for work, and arriving at the office in a fugue state, trying to tackle all the tasks that come up in the two weeks before an exhibition opens. Embracing Yan-chi at the evening memorial service, I exhaled for what felt like the first time that day.
After losing Hon, the exhibition could not help but read as a eulogy. Our anecdotes, which had originally meant simply to conjure a sense of Hon’s maverick spirit, ended up soothing some of his friends who came to the exhibition also in grief. “It’s almost like he is here,” one of his friends from his Asian Cultural Council fellowship days (1970s) said to me, placing her hand on my shoulder. “We were all so young and crazy,” another friend reminisced as her silver hair now fell gently around her face. I walked through the exhibition with people from Hon’s life, stopping to share the stories behind each painting. In Plunge and Live (1999), Hon was revisiting the sensation of falling into Iguazu Falls two decades prior, the rush of the water had sunk into his bones. Like in Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997), Hon’s special pilgrimage to Iguazu represented an encounter with a place that once seemed so far from the South China Sea he had gazed at throughout his life. The luminous Heart Sutra texts falling like rain from the orb in the center of Floating Weight (1976) were printed from books Hon had salvaged along the second-hand shops that still populate Hollywood Road in Sheung Wan. In A Place That Was (1998), Hon’s collaging of earlier coloured landscapes amidst a grayscale painting gestured at how he could no longer travel to China with the same sense of belonging he once had before 1989.
I infused relevant anecdotes from Hon’s world travels, personal inspirations, and artistic process everywhere I could. When visitors stood next to a 2-metre painting (Chasm Forever), I wanted them to know that Hon painted it on his living room floor, wearing a mask to protect himself from the fumes of the spray paint. That he only had a small plastic curtain to separate his living quarters from his art-making area. That he would finish postal work at 4pm, before speeding home to paint, often until dawn. That Hon loved the raw sexuality of Federico Fellini films, eating steamed beef balls (山竹牛肉球) at dim sum, and fast motorcycles.
For Hon, art-making was his language for processing the various aspects of his identity: using materials such as silk-screen and spray paint to give form to his questions of belonging. His subject matter ranged greatly from Buddhist texts and nude bodies, celestial orbs of light and ink-wash landscapes. Connecting all his work is an endless curiosity for the unknowable, as well as the sublime. He was responding to the rollicking sexual revolution of the 1970s, graffiti in New York City,10 Hong Kong’s spaces of worship brushing up against new high-rise buildings, while forging his way through a complicated world. Many of his air-brush paintings feature a single planet, floating in space. But after he met Yan-chi, he began painting beams of light, and women’s forms. It was only through encountering and losing him that I understood the necessity of grounding his work in his life’s stories—the works would speak for his passionate search for belonging, even in his absence.
When working with Hon’s personal memories, ambiguity was inevitable: some were from thirty or forty years ago. There are concerns with accuracy, as well as the tendency to lean too heavily on an artist’s biography. While every effort was made to verify the hard-facts around Hon’s career, there were some unverifiable anecdotes that constituted vivid aspects of his character. For example, Hon allegedly hosted a 1970 New Year’s party of such epic proportions that the institution supporting his then-residency sent him a thick carpet as sound insulation. Passing on stories from Choi and the circle of professors, art critics, and other artists Hon surrounded himself with is an imprecise art, but it was a concession I felt was warranted. It was necessary to contain as much of Hon’s vim and vigour as possible into this last exhibition mounted during his lifetime.
Before losing Hon, I felt bound by notions of respectability, and of not being too “emotional” at work. After all, how many times can one cry in the office before it becomes too much? But something shifted in me after Hon’s passing. Allowing myself to feel vulnerable in connecting with Hon not only as an artist, but as a human being, helped me present his works in a more personable context, one that was premised more on his life and process, rather than attempting to historicise his trials and tribulations. As the history of Hong Kong art continues to be collectively written, I saw my role as presenting as much contextual and of-the-moment atmospheric details as possible.
In Ling Ma’s Severance, the protagonist describes how her mother once shared a memory of her husband’s childhood “as if she had absorbed her husband’s memories as her own. Or maybe she was trying to speak for him, to keep his memories in circulation.”11 By framing each work in relation to Hon’s life, relationships, and travels, our curation of the exhibition was an attempt to keep Hon’s memories, as relayed by his loved ones, circulating through time, long after his passing.
A tall and elegant woman, one of Hon’s oldest friends and supporters, remarked with misty eyes to me at the exhibition, “We used to have such heated discussions about literature and art, over coffee in the basement of City Hall, where the museum used to be. I remember Hon and Irene [Chou], debating there with me on Sundays.” Forty years later, those languid afternoons were as bright in her memory as the colours in Hon’s paintings.
Kaitlin Chan was formerly an Assistant Curator at Asia Society Hong Kong Center, where she co-curated A Story of Light: Hon Chi-fun in 2019.
1. Hon was a member of the Modern Art and Literature Association, which actively produced publications and exhibitions, as well as cultural gatherings, from 1958–64.
2. More on the Sally Jackson Gallery: https://aaa.org.hk/en/collection/search/archive/ha-bik-chuen-archive-sally-jackson-art-gallery/sort/title-asc.
3. Eva Kit Wah Man, "The Notion of 'Orientalism' In the Modernization Movement of Chinese Painting of Hong Kong Artists in 1960s: The Case of Hon Chi-Fun," in Issues of Contemporary Art and Aesthetics in Chinese Context, 57-64.
4. Hon Chi-fun, “Poem: Old Paintings,” in Secret Codes: The Art of Hon Chi-fun (Hong Kong: Leisure and Cultural Services Department, 2005), 26.
5. Interview with Hon Chi-fun, artist, conducted by Shum Longtin, Hong Kong Art History Research Project, Asia Art Archive and Hong Kong Museum of Art, 2013, http://aaa. org.hk/en/collection/search/archive/ hong-kong-art-history-research-project-interview-3416/view_as/grid/ sort/title-asc.
6. See "On Artists' Doubt—To Friends in Circle Art Group" in Asia Art Archive Collection, https://aaa.org.hk/en/collection/search/archive/ha-bik-chuen-archive-circle-art-group/object/on-artists-doubtto-friends-in-circle-art-group.
7. See New Currents, a magazine published by the Modern Literature and Art Association Hong Kong from 1959-60, Asia Art Archive Collection, https://aaa.org.hk/en/collection/search/archive/hong-kong-art-history-research-project-1958-64-the-modern-literature-and-art-association/object/new-currents-issue-1.
8. Li Yiyun, Where Reasons End (Random House, 2019), 56.
9. Choi Yan-chi founded the contemporary art space 1a in 1998.
10. Hon was granted a 1970 John D. Rockefeller III (now Asian Cultural Council) fellowship to study printmaking at the Pratt Institute, New York City.
11. Ling Ma, Severance (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 189.