AAA’s Enoch Cheng spoke to artist James Chu about the state of the arts in Macau, his work for the recent Venice Biennale, and the different motivations that inspire him to make paintings vs. works in other media.
Enoch Cheng (AAA): Can we start with the work Harmony (2011)?
James Chu (JC): Harmony was created in 2009 for the ‘Anniversary Yearbook’ exhibition, which took place in the same year as the 10-year anniversary of the Macau handover. The exhibition came from the memory of signing the commemorative album upon high school graduation. The Chief Executive Edmund Ho Hau Wah was about to assign after renewing his position for a number of years. It felt as if we had worked for 10 years and experienced a lot, as though the end of high school represented the end of time. So I wanted to record our memories. In Harmony, I painted the face of the Chief Executive, representing the ‘harmonic 10 years’.
AAA: Obviously, there is a sense of irony of what you are talking about which leads me to think of your other work Washing Legs in Macau? Can you tell us about this work?
JC: Yes, you are right, in Macau there is no space for one to really express especially if the subject touches on social political issues. Washing Legs in Macau is an installation from ‘The Butterfly Effect – An Artistic Communication Project of Cross-Strait Four Regions’ curated by Feng Boyi. I made a replica of my own feet, putting them into a wooden tub full of Macau seawater. The whole work was installed inside a white pillar, which was made of exactly the same material as other works in the exhibition. Visitors peeked into the pillar through a peephole. While looking in, they saw the illusion of sitting and washing their own feet. This work serves as a sarcastic observation on the nouveau riche in contemporary Macau society, conveying the Cantonese idiom that ‘people wash their feet but don’t dry them’ – a reflection on the squandering behaviour of our society. When I make work like this about Macau, I wish to keep a record and proof of the changes of this city.
AAA: You were one of the artists representing Macau in Venice with your work Five-storey Mansions. How did the audience respond to works from Macau?
JC: I have to say there was not much reaction in Venice. There were only a few visitors who left messages saying they loved the work; some enjoyed the music and some said they’d been to Macau, but not much else. But when this work was exhibited in Macau, I think it had more resonance because it related to people’s collective memory about the buildings in the 70s and 80s which were developed by the government as a measure to restrict their height to under 20 metres to control social development. To me, it also reflected my parents’ experience as the construction workers who were involved in this major urban development, which has now become the landscape of Macau. For this work, I was selected as the best artist last year by a local Portuguese newspaper and for another installation In Memory of …, which I made in the 10th anniversary of the 911 attacks on New York City. The work was about my memory 10 years ago as I witnessed the incident on TV upon my recent return from New York where I had climbed up the twin towers.
AAA: As an artist from Macau—a place that receives little attention or infrastructure support for visual art—how did you become an artist? How did you decide that being an artist was what you wanted to do with your life?
JC: The reason I became an artist in a small place like Macau is probably because I was born, raised, and educated here. Incidentally, I happened to have met a lot of artists who inspired my interest in art. But as an artist in Macau today, it is difficult to focus on one’s practice particularly because the art scene is still immature. Artists struggle to make art and simply to live. In reality, we artists can only try our best to continue making better work and hopefully improve the local scene. To answer your question about how I decided to become an artist, I think in addition to personal interest, it is a personal pursuit, which sometimes comes with satisfaction. But I have not quite thought about how long this will last. As I start to grow older and see retired people in their 60s and 70s, they all look rather bored, so I feel I should continue to be creative to make life more interesting. Perhaps that is the meaning art gives me.
AAA: You wear many hats. You are an artist but you have also been a designer, a curator, and a government executive. How have you come to play so many roles? Do you enjoy them all? Which one do you least enjoy? How do you distinguish your role as an artist from these other roles?
JC: Well, to answer it simply, it was fate. Upon graduation, I intended to study architecture since my parents were construction workers, but it never happened. I took some preparatory courses. Five months later, Polytechnics College in Macau opened the first professional graphic design course. I thought instead of taking the business stream, but then decided to try design instead. Job prospects were very good; I worked for the government and was involved in different kinds of work beyond design, including curating exhibitions, and organizing activities for museums, libraries and festivals, as well as art education. After 10 years, I started to understand the local art scene more, and I realised that the government lacked a long-term policy for culture and arts development. Resources were not strategically distributed and they sometimes privileged inside circles. Although the financial input has increased, the local scene has not really improved internally, and art professionals have not been well-trained. Due to my uncompromising character, I had to fight against the bureaucracy for the betterment.
Out of my many roles, I didn’t particularly enjoy being a member of the advisory board in the government because I also had to play the middle-man and be a persuasive talker. It was extremely difficult to persuade the government to change, so it was not a popular role. Another tough role to play is that of arts administrator. During this time when we all have to work under the constraints of an under-developed market, it is like cooking with limited rice; most people are not fed well. But when one is hungry, most blame the cook.
AAA: You established ‘Art For All’, a non-profit organisation based in Macau and Beijing to promote Macau artists. Can you tell us how the art scene has changed over the years, and in what ways?
JC: AFA was set up 4 years ago in Macau and Beijing, dedicated to promoting Macau contemporary art. So far, the results have been good. In Macau we have organised solo exhibitions and published monographs of more than 20 artists, as well as securing a spot for Macau art in the regional market. I think the change in the scene over the years is that some framework have been introduced, so that artists are in step with international standards such as how the price of an artwork is established, how the commissioning system works, and the role of arts administrators in art events, standards which never existed in Macau. Also, as we try to promote Macau artists on various platforms, including group shows and fairs, artists have more motivation to create. And after the opening of a gallery in Beijing, there has been much more attention and interest in the development of contemporary art in Macau since it offers mature artists the opportunity to reach a larger audience. Although the process has been arduous, I think when we look back in 10 years, we will find that the experience was valuable to the history of contemporary art in Macau.
AAA: Your paintings of nature project a certain calm. What does painting mean to you? As an artist who uses various media, under what circumstances do you choose to paint?
JC: My work usually combines different media such as lithography, painting, photography, and installation. When I paint, I usually paint abstract subject matter, as I like to create an atmosphere—something ‘one can experience but not articulate’ as the Chinese saying goes. And the process of painting to me is a kind of exercise to improve because a painting never seems to be fully complete as long as it is on the easel—I always want to express more and pursue perfection. When I work with more objective concepts, I tend to use photography and installation for a more direct approach.
AAA: I know you are busy. Can you talk about any of the upcoming projects that you are working on?
JC: I am involved in a lot of projects indeed. For example, I am planning an exhibition involving artists from Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, which will take place at Taipei Fine Art Museum in May. As one of the five curators, I will be responsible for the work of the Taiwanese artists. After Taiwan, the exhibition will travel to Macau, Hong Kong, and Shenzhen. Meanwhile, I am also preparing for a solo exhibition in May. There are also a number of other projects which make life extremely busy but fun!
AAA: Are there any artists from inside or outside Macau that have influenced you? How so?
JC: Zao Wou Ki(趙無極) has been most influential to me. As well as Kustav Klimit and Xu Bing(徐冰). Their techniques and philosophies have been inspiring; but of course, their establishment is far beyond my reach. As for Macau artists, I have an imaginary target which is Kwok Woon (郭恒). I learn from his persistence and his openness towards life.
- Tue, 1 May 2012