“Perfidious Fidelity” to Paintings in Tuen Mun
Sarah Maharaj’s 1994 essay, “Perfidious Fidelity: the Untranslatability of the Other,” describes the figure of translator as “tressing, cross-dressing, double-crossing, treacherous.” The translator’s split loyalty between the source language and the target language epitomizes the difficulties in cultural translation, where the difficulties do not mean an utter impossibility of translation but rather point to the necessity of holding onto the tension between the self and the other. Complete hybridity between different entities should be avoided at all cost, as it only promotes stability and thus falls into the trap of settling in sameness.
Stella Tang’s project in Lingnan University is also performing “perfidious fidelity” on the medium of painting. Since the advent of photography and “new media,” along with the recent surge of mixed-media artworks, painting has become an obsolete medium always in danger (or thrill) of being translated into something other than itself. How then do paintings in the current show demonstrate the split loyalty both to painting and other mediums?
The artist prepared fifty canvases, all in the size of 40 cm in height and 45 cm in width, to be painted in her Lingnan studio by her friends and acquaintances. For this project, she had taken a photograph of generic landscape in the New Territories—the area surrounding a four-lane road dotted with Hong Kong’s signature-style pencil apartment buildings and trees—and then she invited over forty participants to copy the photographic image projected onto the canvas. Each participant was allowed to choose which part of the image to include in the painting, the colors with which to paint, and so on.
As Participant #35, I chose to focus on apartment buildings by applying large, loose brush strokes. I did not apply intense colors—I tried not to let my layer of paint “disturb” the color tones of the original photograph. Once I was done painting, after an hour or so, Stella removed the projected image from my canvas. My painting suddenly looked naked—without the initial layer of image that had sustained the form and structure of the scenery, the painting now looks like blotches of undistinguishable grey and earthy colors. For all fifty canvases, the relationship between the original photograph and the painting is not that of indexicality; each participant translated her own portion of the photograph into her own painting, with different color schemes and brush strokes. Each painting contains a fragment of the photograph, as if to hold tight to the fleeting image of the place.
The place, although it looks anonymous, is located only few meters from the University campus in Tuen Mun. Through the framing of the scene, the photograph is devoid of locational traits. Repeatedly painted over fifty times, the scenery has obtained a life of its own by linking the participants (the artist’s students at Lingnan and the Hong Kong Art School, her friends, and Lingnan staff members). The project allowed the participants to translate the photograph into a painting, a place in Tuen Mun into someplace else. The drastic differences between each one of fifty painterly renderings creates a dynamic, imaginary scene of Tuen Mun. In these paintings of the same location, no trace of sameness resides. Rather, tense differences activate the artist studio-cum-gallery space and the medium of painting.
Art Critic and Visiting Scholar at Lingnan University