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Tang Ying Chi : Art for Communication
by Eliza Lai

(for original copy, please refer to the book 'there is gleam of light in the mountain far away')

Tang Ying Chi's (b. 1956) art has found a unique voice in the Hong Kong art scene, yet it is not that easy to categorize. Since her emergence here as an active practicing artist in the early 1990s, Tang has managed to forge a distinctive painting style of her own which is marked by a blend of scratching/layering strokes with fragmented figurative images, often accompanied by meaningful inscriptions appearing inside or outside the images. While Tang's brushstrokes are spontaneous and her hues highly sensuous, one would be fallen short of neglecting the rational side of her artistic conception should one dubs her simply as an expressionist or an abstract painter. The disparate elements, both visual and verbal, that co-exist in her works are meant to complement each other formalistically as well as conceptually to confide to us certain feelings that have been in store in her heart. As much as we would be attracted by her individualistic visual idiom, one ought not to forget that she is a serious thinker and always has a message to tell behind her seemingly smudge-work.

Born in Hong Kong, trained in the U.K., and active as an artist-curator since her return to this former British colony in 1989, Tang has been groping her way towards maturity by exploring a variety of means and media. Disregarding the techniques, media, or styles she may adopt, at the heart of much of her work is an essential concern with power and an implicit appeal for an equalitarian dialogue. This concern with power, be it social, political or cultural, might be represented as the encounter/confrontation between an individual and the state, the colonizer and the colonized, the common people and the elites, or just the two sexes. Such an encounter/confrontation between those in power and those under control is metaphorically put forward as an issue of vision – as the conflict between ‘seeing' and ‘being seen.' While the artist tends to voice out her opinion on this problematic issue by means of verbal inscriptions, a predominant reference is drawn to the context of Hong Kong. Tang's reliance on words and images to conduct an active dialogue with the Hong Kong society actually coincided with a local artistic tendency emerged in the 1990s when a good number of artists happened to show a simultaneous interest in manipulating the visual and verbal elements to address various issues of import to the people of Hong Kong, notably those in connection with the 1997 handover. Oscar Ho Hing Kay (b. 1956), Lee Ka Shing (b. 1954), Warren Leung Chi Wo (b. 1968), and Phoebe Man Ching Ying (b. 1969) are just a few patent examples to have made use of both elements to respond to the political and cultural changes in this territory during the transitional period. Their emphasis on the use of words in delivering extra-formal meanings helped create a distinct scenario in the development of Hong Kong art in the past decade. With the advantage of hindsight, we might say that Tang's art is a cultural product evolved out of the above artistic tendency and the crucial political moment in the history of Hong Kong.

Tang's attempt to contextualize art within the society can be traced back to the very beginning of her artistic career. From her early pieces We are Nice People (1990), As a Hongkongese (1992), Land, Power and Love (1993), Memory and Identity (1994), New Situation, in the Name of Power (1994), to her more recent ones such as Beauty, Happiness and Intelligence (1996), Seven Colours of Rainbow (1997) and Hong Kong Map (1999), her major thematic concerns have revolved around the issues of what actually constitutes the notion of ‘power' and ‘identity,' and the definition of ‘country' and ‘citizenship.' Underlying them is her quest for a just and fair (hence, utopian) society in which everyone has the right to speak and to enjoy an equalitarian dialogue with each other. Tang's modus operandi has been consistent, which is to work on a number of closely related works about the same time and then present them as a series under a collective title in order to let the audience see and read their contents as a whole.

As aforementioned, Tang's works are always embedded with a message and their contents are often alluded to obliquely through a combination of visual signs/symbols and words/letters. This overt conceptual concern for idea and language may be ascribed to her artistic training at the Goldsmith's College, University of London, in the late 1980s. One may recall that the 1970s was the heyday of conceptual art. In 1971, Jon Thompson was appointed by Goldsmiths as Head of the Fine Art Department, a post which he turned out to have taken up for twenty years till 1991. An artist and a theorist, Thompson deemed it wrong to institutionalize the generic practices themselves and upheld a novel teaching that focused on “the intermarriage of concept and material.” Under his new programme, art students at Goldsmiths were encouraged to move between disciplines and place an equal emphasis on both form and idea. As the students were taught through individual tutorials and group seminars by practising artists, they were also made aware of the context of their art practice. This method of teaching proved to be fruitful to the students as they were led to develop an intellectual as well as a critical dialogue with their own works. Tang's art has apparently inherited some of the conceptual traits from this liberal tradition of art training at Goldsmiths.

In spite of the fact that Tang's visual-verbal clues might at times appear to be too enigmatic to decode, it is nevertheless challenging for the viewer to exercise his/her imaginative and intellectual power in unravelling them. The style that she has managed to establish is one that rejects pure formalistic and pure conceptual pursuit, but one that consciously fuses a painter's visual sensibility with intellectual quality. Yet Tang is not an artist complacent with her artistic achievement or any one established style. All through the years, she has been assiduously trying to broaden her creative diversity by playing with different formal properties and art forms. The most noteworthy experimentation she has carried out is probably her play with colours, ranging from monochromatic hues to rainbow colours. Parallel to her play with colours is her successive exploration with a wide range of art forms, including sketches, drawings, mixed media and collage works, and lately the art of needlework.

Tang's most recent series, entitled Visual Veil (2004), witnesses her shift of focus from working in two-dimensional to three-dimensional scale. Unlike any of her previous series, the present one is made entirely out of coloured fabrics which is deprived of any visual and verbal means commonly found in her works. The fabrics are cut in different shapes (mostly squares and rectangles) and are adorned with, or spoiled by, as one may put it, random, dense, intertwining lines that are stitched across them by the artist with the sewing machine. As some of them have been cut in ‘wearable' forms, one may put them on as robes (e.g., The Lady Likes to Put on this Fabric to See the World) or head-dresses (e.g., This Man's Veil and Kid's Veil), and look through them, if one wishes, for a disrupted view of the outside space. While some can be worn, others can be hung up as curtains or folded up as a long scroll to be compressed into a suitcase. Tang has the diversified uses of her fabric works documented as photographs for viewing in her solo exhibition. When one enters the exhibition venue, one can take a look at these photographs on display, or else look through the fabrics by the windows to get a partial view of the outside world, or even wear the garments in person. Rather than making the painterly marks herself, the artist this time has relied solely on the machine to do the quasi-pictorial work for her. Her control, it seems, remains confined to her choice of fabrics (perhaps threads, too) and the directions those stitched lines should go. Compared with her earlier series, the present one by Tang is far more interactive in that the audience is invited not only to see, but also actively participate with their own bodies in completing the works. No doubt this is a new mode of communication opted for by the artist to provide an alternative platform for mutual sharing and communication between the maker and the viewer. Visual Veil is a series which is stripped of the normal artistic qualities and money value attributed to a work of art. It is a series which provokes us to think about the intricacies involved with space, especially the discrepancy between ‘looking from within' and ‘looking from the outside'. In a similar vein, we are also roused to think about how people from different countries and cultures should come to look at and understand each other on a more equal ground without unnecessary bias and prejudice.

To Tang, art is neither sacred nor aesthetic. It is a matter for communication. With an open mind towards artistic creation, Tang is never authoritarian or compelling in respect of the interpretation of her works. On the contrary, she leaves the viewer great scope in fathoming the meanings of her works from their own cultural perspectives and with their personal experiences. Tang once said: “Art does not belong to any one single person or individual group, but someone who is willing to accept and render it as part of his/her life.” Visual Veil is a testimony to her striving for such an ideal.