Personal reflections from the archivists on the Ha Bik Chuen Archive Project, as they bring to a close its Fo Tan project space.
In 2014, Asia Art Archive began working on the Ha Bik Chuen Archive, a collection of material left behind by the late Hong Kong artist. Through the collective effort of a diverse group of team members, researchers, and artists, we have been digitising and making accessible the remarkable legacy of Ha on AAA’s website: all of the exhibition ephemera collected by Ha from the 1960s to 2000s; a selection of photographs documenting exhibitions, taken by Ha or photographers he recruited; and every collage book and hand-bound volume found in his private library, which contained thousands of volumes.
The archive was moved from its original site in Ha’s “Thinking Studio” in Thirteen Streets, To Kwa Wan, to a project space in Fo Tan in 2016. Crucial materials have been transformed into digital records, and we are now wrapping up the Fo Tan project space. Parts of the archive have been handed over to key institutions, and the transfer will be completed before March 2021 (with records remaining accessible on AAA’s website during this transitional period). Before organisations come to their own decisions about how the material will be processed and showcased, we—the last AAA team working in the Fo Tan space—would like to share some personal reflections on the archive as we bid farewell.
Memory as Life Carrier
When is the end of life? This is a question I have wondered often, and one intimately related to Ha’s archive.
There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometimes in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.
—David M. Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives1
Memory has been a central concept for me while working on the Ha Bik Chuen Archive. Ha preserved exhibition documentation, printed materials, and photo records of his daily life for over forty years. Unfolding various cardboard boxes in the Fo Tan project space, one can find extensive fragments of time in every single container—Kodak boxes, folders, albums, paper bags, and so on. Ha’s thoughts, emotions, and breath seem to be capsuled in those dusty containers.
Ha must have thought about the associations that would attach to his name after he’s gone, when his body no longer exists materially in the world. The way he organised and labelled his storage spaces, as well as the mountain of photos of himself with his works—in a time when cameras were still luxury items—might provide some clues to his thoughts.
See PDF for full versions of Ha Bik Chuen photos here.
Ha not only took photos with every single work he made, he also grouped them and made a themed album of these photographs featuring himself. In the collection, Ha carefully mapped out a path which forked in various directions, but eventually all led to the memory of him. Keeping such a huge amount of photographic materials and exhibition documentation, it’s hard not to interpret this as an attempt to preserve the vanishing fragility of human memory, an attempt at halting death.
As I worked on this project, I occasionally encountered several boxes of moldy photographs. The condition of Ha’s original studio in an old tong lau was not ideal for storage, and so quite a number of materials deteriorated. The blurry and distorted images formed after prolonged exposure in the air are a metaphor for the process of memory loss in the human brain.
With the graduation gown and bouquet serving as the only traces of an important day, the melted face in the photo can barely be identified. Like the occasions we try so hard to remember, with only silhouettes or blurry fragments yielding to our mind. Faces appearing and disappearing; sometimes I feel like I am witnessing new life and death cycles.
In 1982, Ha travelled to Huangshan, China, with his friends Chan Fat Hing, also known as Fish King (b. 1939, Hong Kong), Chen Ruo Hai (b. 1927, Guangdong), and Tsui Kar Yeung (b. 1927, Guangdong). Despite its distortion, the above image reveals a cheerful atmosphere during the vacation, as evidenced by the playful pose of the person in the photo.
It is not difficult to recognise Ha, holding a camera in his right hand, even in the melted image. Putting hands on his waist confidently is a pose he often strikes.
He loved the fragility of these suspended moments, memories whose only purpose was to evoke memories.
—Chris Marker, Sans Soleil2
The vestiges of these moldy photos alarmed me, as they reminded me of the seemingly futile nature of preserving memories that died the moment we recorded them. However, the melting images also detached from their original contexts to form a new life at the same time. Perhaps memory is less an honest recorder, than a creator—instead of returning to the irretrievable past, a reborn present is created. Ha Bik Chuen passed away, but his memory was reincarnated in mine, and in other people who encountered this archive. His life became fluid, and ever-changing. So the question came again: When is the end of life? I will say every second.
1. David Eagleman. Sum: Tales from the Afterlives (Vintage, 2009).
2. Chris Marker, Sans Soleil (France: 1983), Film.
Unfolding the Perpetual Sublime
There are dozens of boxes in Ha’s archive filled with his collages and hand-bound books, but the one that captivated me most was an artist book he made. In our present context, most would probably consider it to be a zine, as it is delicate and small. It lies in a box of Ha’s personal records, with the words “Creative Research” handwritten by Ha on each side of the box. Going through it is like discovering his process of experimentation: sketchbooks containing drawings, sheets of experimental paintings, various kinds of paper. Inside a black envelope with peculiar shapes of papers pasted onto it is this artist book.
The book is titled Colour, and is filled with photographs by an unknown artist and from an unknown source. We’re able to tell it’s from the same source because the background and the colour of the photos are coherent. The title, Colour is Emptiness, in Kanji on the first page, suggests that it could be a short story from a magazine, from which Ha had taken out several pages of photographs to recreate this book. The way Ha rearranges and sequences the photos—with some requiring manual unfolding by the viewer—and also narrates and interlaces the photos with empty pages, offer them a new context and meaning.
The photographs themselves are striking. The set opens with the back of a nude female figure sitting next to a fully clothed monk with his head tilted down, praying. The contrast and juxtaposition of both subjects, one in black and one in white, and the visible sturdiness of the rock sculptures beneath them, balance out the overall composition. The arm of the female gently reaching out to the monk anticipates the next few pages.
Ha had put empty pages in the book to create a sense of emptiness. It appears that he wants the viewer to anticipate and imagine their own narrative before getting to the next page, and to explore the narrative on their own terms. To me, the first few photographs suggest that the nude female model is attempting to deflect the monk’s ritualistic ways, as she believes there is something more compelling out there in the world to explore. But she is, in fact, seeking approval for her insecurity. She then finally recognises that not everything has to be colourful and exciting in the world; the monk has shown her ways to accept herself, and she can stand tall.
It is usually difficult to slow down and observe these artworks when going through such a large number of materials as part of our archival work; but after spending almost a year in the archive, with countless hours digitising and categorising the materials, I’ve intuited certain impressions about Ha’s working methodology on his artist book and collage books. He spent a substantial amount of time and thoughts on his artistic practice—the time we spent documenting and organising all that he had made is merely a process of unfolding the perpetual sublime he had created.
Woven Hong Kong Contemporary Ceramics Art from the 1960s to 2000s in the Archive
Chu Hoi Ding
I was initially drawn by Ha Bik Chuen’s coarse and even childish tastes in art, and was curious what his studio would contain. The sheer volume of materials in the archive was stunning, but so too was the “randomness” of the materials he kept for his artistic practices, which point to the breadth of Ha’s interests over four decades.
In this sizeable archive, I spent my days exploring how each and every section mattered to Ha. As a potter and a craftsman myself, I’m convinced Ha’s experience of running a handmade paper flower factory back in the 1960s is an integral part of his biography. When I look into documentation of his artworks, especially sculptures, and the materials he used to handle and pack things in place, I was always drawn to their forms. It made me wonder what insights Ha might have on these objects, as a craftsman and a visual artist.
A ware with form is a ware with mind. Only when one can see through the visible gesture, the mind with no form gushes out. The objects present the invisible mind by the forms.
—Yanagi Sōetsu, Tea and Beauty
It was often mentioned that Ha referred to the masters of modernism as role models for artists. He stored hundreds of masters’ monographs, and imitated them to develop his artist identity, such as by creating a delicate signature of himself by tracing and analysing Picasso’s signature. The archive also shows that just like Picasso, Ha had a side interest in ceramics, although not figurative pottery. A number of publications he collected relates to Chinese and Japanese pottery, and also ceramics art events around him in Hong Kong—a nod to his interests in Asian folk art.
Below is a compilation of ceramics and related materials I found in the archive over the past two years:
Vessels for Bird-feeding
Bird feeding was once a common interest amongst middle-aged Hong Kongers, a hobby that had been disappearing since the 2000s. This simple blue-and-white floral design is often seen in the folk kilns in Southern China.
An Oribe-yaki Style Plate in the Paper Bag “Tea Ware. Plate.”
The plate is kept in bubble wrap and a paper bag for photographs, which shows that Ha treated it more as an artifact. The earthiness of clay peeking out of the uneven coat of the copper glaze and the finishing of the rim are both features of the aesthetics of wabi-sabi, echoing Ha’s proclivity towards simplicity and nature.
A Diary Mentioned Ha’s Days in the Castle Peak Dragon Kiln
See PDF of selected pages from Tian Tian Diary here.
The Castle Peak Dragon Kiln was built in the 1940s and was renamed “Workers’ Pottery Kiln,” as the workers and Leung Sum took over the operation. In the 1970s, due to the rapid competition of Chinese factories, the kiln was failing in manufacturing and started firing art pieces by artists. In the 1980s, the kiln stopped its operation.1
From February 20 to April 19 in an unlisted year, Ha wrote about his excitement and hope in producing pieces at the kiln to help with his financial situation. He described himself experimenting in ceramics as an adventurer, borrowing money and pawning his clothes to pay the cost of firing and buying raw materials. Modelling and creating suitable glaze by interacting with and learning from different people was what he seemed to value most along the journey. He wrote about the environment around the kiln at the time, and the ups and downs he felt—his wish to be unconventional in local ceramics art, and his struggles in dealing with the complexity of glaze chemistry.
Ha also mentioned visiting two other ceramics factories named “Kin Sheng Ceramics”2 and “Luen Ngai Decorative Porcelain,” and his thoughts and feelings about dismissing the workers of his paper flower factory.
The archive traces the history of contemporary ceramic art in Hong Kong, and shows how the artform started to take off in the 1980s. As Ha visited exhibitions in Hong Kong, he captured early moments in the careers of now renowned ceramists, and the many remarkable ceramics art institutions and events in Hong Kong.
- Sup To Yan (1983)
- Sup To Yan Ceramics Exhibition (1983)
- Lau, Lee, Liang (Triptych Exhibition) (1985)
- The First Tea Wares by Hong Kong Potters: Tea Wares by Hong Kong Potters Exhibition (1986)
- Li Wei Han: Theatre of Clay (1993)
- First Exhibition of Hong Kong Modern Ceramics Society (1994)
- Porcelain-Like Skin (2001)
Ha collected over 130 copies of ceramics art exhibition ephemera from the 1960s to 2000s. A selection of pioneering exhibitions by influential institutions and studios is organised chronologically below. More ephemera of artists’ solo exhibitions—such as Ju Ming, Rosanna Li, Mak Yeefun, Fiona Wong Laiching, and Annie Wan Laiguen—and that of self-initiated group exhibitions—like Clay to Clay III, Down to Earth: Ceramics Exhibition of Five, and Sup To Yan Ceramics Exhibition—have not been included on the list due to space constraints, but are worth browsing in Ha’s collection.
1. Sally Jackson Gallery
Sally Jackson Gallery is the earliest gallery found in the archive that exhibited ceramics art. Ha organised materials from here in a yellow Kodak box labelled “Sally Jackson Art Gallery.” It contained the following ephemera:
- Old Shek Wan Ceramic Exhibition from 15th–19th Century (1967)
- Ceramic Work By Chan Chung-kong (1969)
2. Fung Ping Shan Museum, The University of Hong Kong
3. HC in Ceramics Course, PolyU
It is seldom mentioned that the Hong Kong Polytechnic University was a pioneer academy in providing courses dedicated to ceramics art. The two-year curriculum was found in 1981, and ran for ten years.3 A generation of ceramics artists including Annie Wan, Terrence Lee, Yim Waiwai, and Alan Lai are all graduates of the programme.
4. The Pottery Workshop
The Pottery Workshop is a renowned ceramics art institution. With extended branches in China now, it first began in Hong Kong at the Fringe Club in 1985. In Ha Bik Chuen’s collection, one can find solo and group exhibitions of local ceramists curated by The Pottery Workshop.
- Joy in Clay ‘90 — Invitation (1990)
- 'A Celebration of Ceramics' The Pottery Workshop 15th Anniversary Exhibition — Invitation (2000)
- Clay in a Loony Tonny Way: An Exhibition of Works by Zunzi — Invitation (2001)
- To Dream The Impossible: Contemporary Ceramic Pillow Exhibition — Invitation (2003)
I-kiln was founded in 1997 by the artist Chan Kam Shing, and remains to this day a very reputable ceramics-learning studio. It is also noteworthy that they started doing Raku-firing in Hong Kong in the 1990s.
- Flash Point: I-Kiln Studio Ceramic Faculty Exhibition — Invitation (1997)
- Having Fun: Ceramics Exhibition by I-Kiln Studio — Invitation (2000)
- The Art of Fire: The Fifth Anniversary of Raku — Invitation (2001–02)
6. Wood-firing Ceramics Workshop
The site of the wood kiln is believed to be located in China, as reference was made to this in the biographies of the artists. This is rare exhibition documentation of wood-fired pottery in Hong Kong.
7. Contemporary Ceramic Society Hong Kong
A group of ceramists founded the Contemporary Ceramic Society Hong Kong in 1992.
- Clayworks: The First Exhibition by the Contemporary Ceramics Society (HK) — Catalogue (1994)
- The Contemporary Ceramic Society (HK) 10th Anniversary Exhibition — Invitation (2002)
1. "Interview: The Only Remaining ‘Dragron’ in Hong Kong: The Extinction/Reborn of Tuen Mun Castle Peak Dragon Kiln," StandNews Report, 2018.
2. Dennis Dung, "A Walk in Castle Peak: Kin Sheng Brick Factory," May 27, 2020.
3. Tang Hoichiu, "Authentic Kiln Fire and Local Sentiment: The Ceramics Art and Installation of Rosanna Li," 2018.
As the last team in the Ha Bik Chuen Archive’s Fo Tan space, we deeply appreciate how the larger art community has been contributing and enriching the archive—creating the ground of what and how we’re able to approach and learn from Ha’s artistic and archival practice.
Chu Hoi Ding is Team Leader of the Ha Bik Chuen Archive Project. Jane Cheung and Ethan Lo are Archive Assistants for the Ha Bik Chuen Archive Project.
- Collection Spotlight
- Thu, 11 Feb 2021