In Stephen Wong Chun Hei’s paintings, the city of Hong Kong reflects artificial, supernatural, and even gaudy, colors. Indeed, it is as if nature and the city are both plugged into the same electrical outlet, reflecting the same neon shimmer and shine. Meretricious Hong Kong is easily distinguished from a once insouciant nature that now exhibits its own razzle-dazzle. The city represents both the transgression and transcendence of nature, along with its exultation of nature. The city was implanted within a natural environment and the perception of nature is transformed and heightened for the urban viewer by the relationship. This is apparent as well in his new paintings in A Mirage of a Shining City, at Tang Contemporary, which is based on the Fo Tan area of Hong Kong, once an industrial center now occupied primarily by artists and where he and his partner for this show, Chow Chun Fai, reside.
In Wong’s work, super-enriched colors are enhanced with a type of luminescence, and the real presence of the city accentuates the élan vital we may not fully sense when we engage nature on its own terms. Although Wong enjoys hiking and sketching before coming back to his studio to paint, he was apparently inspired during the pandemic by satellite images from Google Earth, and by painting from above the reciprocal power relationship between the natural environment and human construction (according to a profit-driven motive) can be more keenly discerned. It is significant in his work that along with various human-made structures such as domiciles and institutions, hiking trails and means to escape the city for the mountains are often presented.
More than anything, we are engaged by the colors and forms of these paintings. According to Edmund Burke, the beauty in art causes one to want to own it; the sublime astonishes and awes the viewer into a state of speechlessness. It is the artificial radiance of the paintings which arrests our attention and brings the experience of the city to us in a flash of recognition without the mediation of language. The artist holds a mirror up to reflect the most fulfilling experiences of the city to us, minus the poverty, suffering, struggle and conflict (which cannot be seen from a bird’s eye view). Perhaps the paintings are an attempt to suggest that even the more troubling aspects of the city add to its energy and excitement and are a challenge for us to pursue more meaningful and humane engagement in the city.
By focusing on the interrelationship between Hong Kong and its surrounding countryside and imputing a type of video game animism to both, Wong helps save the relevance of the ancient art of landscape painting. He adds an extra dimension to the “Dream Journey” in traditional Chinese painting. Although inspired by David Hockney’s experiments with the landscape, he brings his understanding of the nature of Hong Kong and its challenges to infuse these paintings with a different meaning from Hockney’s countryside images. How does the transcendence of Hong Kong as an especially dynamic world city alter our perception of and need for nature? After all, biodiversity has been losing ground in Hong Kong since the early 1970s. Is Hong Kong moving toward a sustainable relationship between the city and surrounding environs?
If Wong’s work presents a type of subjective mirage dealing with Hong Kong and Fo Tan, Chow Chun Fai follows with his own fantasy creations within the city drawing upon Hong Kong as a nostalgic stage for well-known and classic films. Chow dives into the popular genre of Hong Kong Cinema which has reflected the complex moral and social ambiguities of the city as well as helped shape or reinforce expectations for life in Hong Kong for many in and outside the city. As a tip of the hat to his friend, Chow borrows from Wong’s supercharged palette to reference various scenes or characters from films in contemporary Hong Kong.
In one painting we see the Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung characters from Wong Kar Wai’s film masterpiece In the Mood for Love. The film attempted to capture the ethos of a lost Hong Kong from the 1960s, as a setting for a story about the loss of companionship and compassionate love. Chow shows the fictional characters in contemporary Hong Kong (the first 7-Eleven came to Hong Kong in 1981, long after the setting of the film). The city is portrayed as something relatively permanent while a deep but ephemeral moment of grief occurs within it. Or, is the grief meant to be portrayed as relatively permanent as well, as the characters have reappeared suddenly in contemporary Hong Kong, even though they separate and never reunite again in the actual film? Are all of these film characters interlopers in contemporary Hong Kong? We even see Travis Bickle from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver walking toward a traditional Hong Kong taxi to begin his day.
More than one canvas is given over to the 1990s comedy The God of Cookery. This is a romantic comedy in which Temple Street Market factors largely. It involves everything from beef balls to the Hong Kong triad to Shaolin monks in an epic journey for one character toward both greater humanity and greater cooking skills (there seems to be a correlation in the film between the goodness of one’s heart and one’s ability to provide culinary excellence). We see various scenes from the film depicted at one time in the vicinity of a 7-Eleven, which seems to represent to Chow an aspect of Hong Kong’s current state of being. They do seem to be everywhere in this city.
So what might it mean to have these interlopers from past films appearing now? Obviously and literally these characters show the changes Hong Kong has been through and they point to changes yet to come. They also might represent the timeless values of Hong Kong and how the people of this unique city created their own culture as a blend of ethnicities, cultures and motives. So both mirages (the outside and inside mirages of the city) allude to something very real – Hong Kong has been and will continue to be a world-class city that radiates with its own unique and often otherworldly brightness.