Koel Chu examines how woodcut printmaking holds space for catharsis and nuanced narratives in uncertain times.
However the image enters / its force remains within / my eyes.
Standing before the wall of blankness, eighty blank papers exude an absence too loud to ignore. My eyes wander restlessly from one paper to another, imagining what the images of protest looked like before they were emptied. How expansive the void is.
In the summer of 2019, Malaysian printmaker Tekkhean Lee visited Hong Kong, and began creating woodcut prints of protest scenes.1 When the new national security legislation2 came into effect in July, protest chants and anthems became taboo. Posters and banners previously emblazoned with protest slogans were made blank, and the city’s cultural sector made uncertain.3
The city soon told its stories in other ways. People raised blank placards on streets; some used the hand emoji to signify the protesters’ five demands of the government. Lee presented a piece titled Important Times that consists of blank handmade papers—the exact ones he used to print his work. Together, they are elegiac, as if mourning the erasure of words and the silenced voices; but they also represent a persistence to continue speaking, even in hushed tones.
The experience of curating an exhibition on printmaking and society during this time created opportunities for me to connect with printmakers and understand their practices, with these print artworks and practices providing space for more nuanced narratives.
Memory and Loss
Woodcut printmaking is characterised by stark contrasts and rough lines, unlike other printmaking techniques such as lithography and intaglio, which can create more subtle gradations and intricate details. It’s not a medium favoured by most printmakers I’ve worked with, but ever since Jay Lau Ka-chun graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2019, he has devoted his time to it. His first solo exhibition, Woodcut Portraits 2020-2021: This too shall (not) pass, showcases more than fifty woodcut portraits of his friends. These portraits were not displayed as prints on paper, but as inked wooden plates with their cement recasts.
For printmakers, the action of carving can sometimes be a physical way to process emotions of loss, conveying their frustrations with irregular marks and coarse surfaces. During conversations with Lau, he always stresses his obsession with the destructive process of carving, referring to the fact that he must forcibly and violently remove areas he does not wish to print from the wooden plate. Since it has a tough surface, incisions produced by the carving knife are usually sharp and irregular, creating simple lines and bold contrasts.
If you look closely at Lau’s wooden plates, you will see jagged lines that appear almost chaotic and abstract. However, from afar, these coarse lines form simplified and distinct faces. As a relief printmaking technique, woodcut leaves embossed marks—much like scars—that imply rawness and violence, perhaps even inner turmoil. For Lau, it is a process of recollection: by gazing at his friends’ photographs and simultaneously carving on the wooden plate, he recollects the memories and emotions related to the portrait subjects, as if revisiting everything that happened between them. Behind every bold cut is the printmaker’s release of emotions; and the woodcut translates this inner cathartic experience into a powerful visual language available to the audience upon engagement.
Standing in a dimly lit gallery filled with haunted gazes from Lau’s woodcut portraits, arranged in a semicircle like sacred objects, I began to understand why, in a digital age when images can be created at will, printmakers still return to the seemingly “anachronistic” process of woodcut printing. Sheryl Conkelton, analysing the relationship between printmaking and the public sphere, argues that in modern society, the image-driven public space became a “dislocated and disembodied experience—an abstraction.”4 Printmaking, on the other hand, is quite the opposite: it is a hands-on process that demands tactile attention.
Since Lau encourages visitors to touch his artworks, people can feel Lau’s strong gouging gestures with their own hands. The carved lines feel affective and intimate, like stroking the faces of the portrayed. Some of the un-inked concrete recasts were placed near the gallery floor, making one crouch or kneel to get a clear look at them. The display setup transfigures the rough-hewn texture and graphic language of woodcuts into an embodied encounter that casts a solemn, almost funereal aura to the gallery space. The blank concrete slabs impart a message of memory and loss: what is lost collectively will not be forgotten.
DIY, Collectives, and Activism
In recent years, DIY printmaking has become a trend across Asia, forming networks of collectives that often share mutual declarations of solidarity.5 Many of these self-organised projects are directly connected to social movements, with common interests in issues like anti-globalisation, rights of migrant workers, and land justice. As Kano Ai notes, the core values of printmaking culture coincide with the essence of social movements: both are concerned with bringing social change with one’s own hands.6
Established in 2017, Printhow is a Hong Kong–based woodblock printing collective combining a DIY spirit with printmaking. They were inspired by the practices of Tokyo-based A3BC (Anti-War, Anti-Nuclear, and Arts Block-print Collective) and Taipei-based Print & Carve Dept.. Printhow’s activities include conducting pop-up workshops and creating banners or posters in support of demonstrations, protests, parades, and festivals for social causes. In the past years, they invited migrant workers to print t-shirts and tote bags at Migrants Pride and the One Billion Rising global solidarity event; they also set up tables with small carved woodblocks and ink rollers, so visitors could pop in and print on the spot. At a march on 1 July 2018, Printhow also worked with migrant women to sell printed products for Bethune House, a temporary shelter for distressed domestic workers.
Woodblock printing has its benefits for street workshops: not only can printing skills be easily acquired within a limited time, but printed matter is also reproducible, allowing organisers to repeat the printing process quickly to cater to passers-by and reach out to a wider audience. With these woodblock workshops, Printhow forged connections with minority groups, for instance the intersectional community of migrant domestic helpers and LGBTQ+ people at Migrants Pride. In August 2019, Printhow printed woodcut wristbands in support of the city-wide strike; four months later, they created flyers for the rally against the deportation of Indonesian journalist and migrant domestic helper Yuli Riswati. A year later, they made posters to support the detainees of the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre (CIC) during their hunger strike.
Traditional printmaking methods may not be as efficient as social media, but prints stand out amidst the sea of computer-generated graphics. As artist, activist, and founder of Justseeds Artists' Cooperative and Interference Archive Josh Macphee writes, handmade prints carry an affective power because we see the evidence of the human hand in them.7 When juxtaposed against flickering digital images, prints connect more powerfully to the people: the process of drawing, carving, and printing contains a physicality that represents the collaboration between individuals producing images for a shared purpose. Printhow writes, alongside images of the posters on Facebook: “Art can let us see each other, and fight for freedom together.” The collective support for minorities that might otherwise remain invisible in mainstream media becomes evident on print at protests, perpetuating a sense of shared purpose.
In the summer of 2019, Hong Kong Open Printshop and sculptor Jaffa Lam invited a group of volunteers to re-rub frottage prints of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The woodblocks were seven-metres long, and it took around twenty hours for volunteers to complete the prints in rotation; more than sixty people signed up for the printing. They each held a heelball—a waxy glob of black crayon used for shining shoes—and rubbed the paper against the woodblock to make impressions. While doing so, volunteers had to sit on the floor, bend down, and rub with a lot of strength in order to capture the contours of the texts clearly. Printing was done by repeating the same movement, relentlessly tracing the Declaration character-by-character as values like “freedom” and “dignity” gradually took shape in front of the volunteers’ eyes. This process was publicly displayed at the atrium of the multistoried Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre. If you looked down from any of the floors above, you would have seen the prints spanning the entire open-air space—its monumental scale proclaimed a togetherness. Upon closer inspection, however, you would see rubbing marks in different directions, all divergent from one another. These marks reveal the hands’ movements during rubbing, much like a record of the individual labour behind the artwork. The frottage prints become a visual stand-in of the independent corporeal processes of printing, and a collective contemplation on the values of freedom and human rights it embodied.
Some, like the Sabah-based collective Pangrok Sulap, leverages the performative potential of printmaking to engage with the audience and challenge institutional structures. Founded in 2010, Pangrok Sulap is a collective of artists, musicians, and social activists. In the spring of 2019, they were invited by the Centre for Heritage Arts & Textile (CHAT) to host workshops and perform as part of CHAT’s inauguration programme. During the residency, Pangrok Sulap visited Chi Kee Sawmill & Timber in Kwu Tung, Sheung Shui. With seventy years of history, Chi Kee is one of the few remaining industries of its kind in Hong Kong, providing raw materials to other industries. Pangrok Sulap subsequently combined the history of Chi Kee and CHAT, and created Live and Survive (2019), a three-metre-long woodcut print on fabric that depicts their observation of the impact of land development on cultural preservation in Hong Kong. In their banner, the city appears to be nothing but skyscrapers seen from afar: in what seems to be a tense standoff with the police, protesters hold placards with slogans “PROTECT THE HOME LAND!” and “HERITAGE NOT DEVELOPMENT” as sharp bulldozer blades raze farmlands. Upon seeing this print, one may recall the protests against the construction of a high-speed rail running through Choi Yuen village, or more recently, the government’s development plan for northeast New Territories that involved demolishing villages and evicting residents. When creating the print in the atrium of CHAT, not only did Pangrok Sulap carve the blocks by hand, they also performed original folk music and asked visitors to step and dance on the inked woodblock to print without relying on any presses or machines. This collective gesture encapsulates what Josh MacPhee calls the “anachronistic” qualities of printmaking, as a counter to machine technologies.8
Pangrok Sulap’s art can be seen as reflective of the hands-on, participatory attributes of printmaking, in lieu of the popular image of the artist as a lone figure out of reach. As Eric Triantafillou writes, printmaking diversifies the way we interact with art by disrupting the “dominant logic of exchange” that dictates the dichotomy between art producers and consumers.9 In the age of mass production, Pangrok Sulap’s DIY ethics can be interpreted as an alternative to market logics and the neoliberal developmentalism also much resisted by land activists in Hong Kong. It is worth noting that rather than simply publicising social commentary via their art, Pangrok Sulap brings the previously hidden labour of producing prints from the studio to a public space, rejecting the idea of the genius artist hidden away in the ivory tower of aesthetics. The visibility of Pangrok Sulap’s works celebrates the labour of production and instigates interaction in the public arena. On the day of printing, I watched as visitors gathered around the atrium of CHAT—curious faces looking down from upper floors. People of different age groups took off their shoes and danced on the woodblock. Pangrok Sulap’s practice opens up possibilities and modalities of collective production.
All art begins with blankness. For printmaking, however, it is about remaining in this state of blankness most of the time until a print is finally pulled. Before the moment when paper is removed from the matrix, not even the most experienced printmakers can be entirely certain about the outcomes, as there are countless factors that can influence the results, such as levels of humidity, temperature, or quality of paper. Often numerous unsigned impressions of trial proofs are produced before the printmaker determines whether the plate is ready to be printed. In exploring the therapeutic advantages of printmaking, Lucy Mueller White calls this distance between the beginning of a printmaking process and its final product the “therapeutic distance.”10 She sees the uncertainty of the printmaking process as frustrating but freeing, giving printmakers an opportunity to slow down and see images in a new light.
Since it is impossible to accurately predict how a print will turn out, for some artists like Chan Yi-ting, the printmaking process can be a part of the artwork as much as the final print. In the project Asphalt Island, Chan dwells on the traces of the 2019 protests on the streets. Since June 2019, uneven pavements have been ubiquitous in the city; protesters dug out bricks and the government filled potholes with cement afterwards. Chan captured these pavements with photography, and subsequently printed the image layer-by-layer in soft, pastel tones, constructing dreamlike scenes based on reality. To create a screenprint, the printmaker must deconstruct the image, mix colours, and test out the effects of overlapping layers, before finally creating separate matrices (screens) to print each colour. This means that to produce just one print requires a lot of experimentation and fine-tuning; but even with trial-and-error, the outcomes are usually unexpected, at times serendipitous. Prior to exposing the screens, Chan had to analyse and manipulate the images digitally to make it blurry and seemingly out of focus. She revisited and deconstructed moments she captured again and again, seeing the images each time with a fresh perspective.
For her, the multi-step process of screenprinting is almost ritualistic: a cycle of coating the mesh screen with light-sensitive emulsion, exposing the design onto the screen, rinsing away emulsion not covered by the design, applying ink on top of the screen, printing with a squeegee, and repeating the same process for another layer. By the time Chan finally produced a print, not to mention the complete edition, the repetitive procedures had already washed away most of the emotions associated with the scenes.
Like the blank papers, Chan’s cement-filled pavements emerge as a metaphor of whitewashed protest vestiges. As we walk past them every day, perhaps our memories of what happened there will inevitably fade, but Chan’s Asphalt Island offers a chance to keep those memories alive—no matter how impervious the prints have to be in order to remain in today’s political environment. Void does not always have to mean emptiness. It can be a receptacle—one that compels a renewed mode of viewing that puts openness before instant recognition.
Koel Chu is a writer from Hong Kong.
1. Lee's prints showed masked figures bracing the smoke with their umbrellas, light rays emanating from the top of Lion Rock, Guy Fawkes masks and banners with protest slogans on full display.
2. The legislation criminalises any act of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign and external forces. Violators can face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
3. Public libraries started to pull out books authored by pro-democracy activists, while the quarterly magazine Breakazine cancelled its publication of the issue on freedom of speech in July 2020.
4. Sheryl Conkelton, “Print and the public sphere,” Perspectives on contemporary printmaking: Critical writing since 1986, edited by Ruth Pelzer-Montada, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018.
5. Kano Ai, “Trans Local Networking of DIY Art Collectives from Asia to Europe—The Case of A3BC,” FIELD 8, Japan’s Social Turn Vol. 2 (Fall 2017).
6. Kano Ai, “How to Sustain a DIY Artist Collective?: In the Case A3BC,” Mapping on the Development of Self-Organised Woodcut Collectives in Inter-Asian Context, 2nd edition, 2019.
7. Josh MacPhee, Paper Politics: Socially Engaged Printmaking Today, United Kingdom: PM Press, 2009.
9. Eric Triantafillou, “Printmaking as Resistance?,” The Brooklyn Rail (May 2010).
10. Lucy Mueller White, Printmaking as Therapy: Frameworks for Freedom, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2002.