Ever-changing identity: Artist Chow Chun-fai and his works are always ‘something in between’

At first glance, Chow Chun-fai looks nothing like an artist.

Wearing a simple striped t-shirt, Chow sits next to his laptop in silence, as he arranges his paper documents into order. Beside him are giant bookcases containing books on topics such as history and art.

It is quite hard to imagine the person who is absorbed in his paper works now is the award-winning local artist, Chow Chun-fai.

“I know it looks a bit strange that I work like in an office,” he says with a laugh. “Maybe you expect that I’m with all the paint on my shirt.”

With multiple identities in the art, cultural and political sector, the artist is always on the go, and defying expectations. This coming week, Chow is organising the programme “Art On Road”, in which art works will be displayed on trucks all around the city.

In fact, event organiser and artist are just two of the many identities that Chow has claimed. He is the chairman of Fotanian Artist Village, a community of artists who transformed areas of industrial buildings into studios. On top of that, he is also a member of the Factory Artist Concern Group, and a former candidate for a Legislative Council election.

“Yes — it was quite an important decision that I tried to be an artist, but it doesn’t mean that I would be fixed as that one identity,” he says.

‘I’m open to any media’

It is often said that an artist’s artworks reflect his personality. For Chow, his artworks are as multifaceted as he is.

Chow is best known for his long-running series “Painting on Movies”, in which he paints scenes of Hong Kong and Chinese movies since 2006 and overlays them with a quote. From Ann Hui’s Love in a Fallen City (1984), to Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer (2001), these reproduced stills capture the city’s post-handover identity crisis on canvas.

In these paintings, Chow spent quite some time experimenting with enamel paint — an industrial paint for everyday use but not for art.

“I tried to echo [with] the old billboard made in the cinema, that we had the hand-painted billboard at the gate of the cinema. Those painters, they never use oil because this is too slow. So they used industrial paint to make those old billboards,” he says. “But of course now we have all the E-print, and all those banners.”

Unlike many traditional painters, Chow is neither frightened by technology nor defined by the conventional dichotomy of genres. His works of the “Photo Installation” series are somewhere between installations, painting, parody and collage.

“I’m open to any media, so that’s why I’m not only doing painting, but also photography, performance,” he says.

In March 2014, Chow reproduced the Italian Baroque master Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus (c.1605–06) using the photo installation method, whereby he replaced all the characters’ faces with his own face. The work was exhibited alongside the original painting at the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre.

However, the artist calls it a “coincidence” that so many of his works were inspired by Italian classical paintings.

“It’s quite difficult to identify, or to categorise different mediums,” he says. “So you can see that what I am doing is always something in between. I mean, it’s in the middle of different media. I do paintings from movies while I make photos from fresco paintings from different cultures.”

‘It could be worse’

Between 2007 to 2010, Chow set up a studio in Beijing. Although not being very far from home, the artist experienced a great culture shock, not from the art scene, but from his everyday life, such as a “queuing-up day” during the Olympics, and the difficulty of finding a small studio.

“As in Hong Kong, we know so many differences between mainland Chinese and Hong Kong. But when I was there, when I experienced those funny things, I know much better about the differences,” he says.

Two years ago, Chow was invited to talk about his election in Guangzhou Museum by an art magazine in China. Before the talk, he received an official memo from the Propaganda Bureau saying that any citizens from Hong Kong and Macau were not allowed to talk in public in June.

Yet, Chow says it was quite normal for this to happen in China, and people knew how to react, so the Museum simply changed the venue to a private museum.

“I would not say that I was being censored, but I know some of the works would never be able to show in China. There’s even no opportunity to be censored,” he adds.

Chow says “it could be worse” in Hong Kong, because any artists or institutions would not know how to react in cases of censorship, but the community at large is “still learning.”

Violate a wrong rule’

In Fo Tan, around 100 studios and 400 artists are contained in the industrial neighbourhood, including Chow’s studio. However, these artists may be sued for using the industrial space illegally.

“But when it’s illegal, I would say there’re only two situations. One is that we are doing some bad things. For the other situation, there are some mistakes on the rule. So we violate a wrong rule,” Chow says.

Since there are no bureaus in the government structure that deal particularly with arts and culture, Chow decides to run for a seat at the Legislative Council (LegCo) in 2012, but lost to the former chairman of the Arts Development Council Ma Fung-kwok.

Chow says the voting system of the functional constituencies is a “middle-aged system”, since individual artists cannot register as voters if they do not belong to a company or a group.

“For me, to run [for] the election is to expose these kinds of mistakes [of the functional constituency system]. Most of the artists did not realize it before,” he says.

However, despite Chow’s active involvement in politics, he does not believe in political art, because it is too slow and direct.

“I think for political art [it’s] too slow that it actually doesn’t react to the actual happenings,” he says. “Because of the change of the local environment, not only for the artists but even for the general public we are more concerned about the political situation. So it just generally and slowly becomes the subject matter which appears in my work.”

Refused to have taxis in his works said to be symbols of local identity, Chow said he was just painting his personal life — as he used to be a taxi driver.

Chow, who looks nothing like an artist, an event organiser, a former District Council candidate or a taxi driver, said labels kill artists.

He says: “Of course I know how to project myself as a Hong Kong artist, like I can always paint the Victoria Harbour. I can always show something which is very obvious about my own identity.”

“But I think this is not what we are trying to do in our own world,” he adds.