How to ensure history won't be forgotten? FP writer Wai-leung Lai turns to the concrete contribution of an object-based approach in installation art – his follow-up on his last piece on the show “Mending Years” (2023.06.28-07.12, 5-person group show at JCCAC), to assert the place of the non-expert in completing an art event as a form of social commemoration. 據點作者黎偉亮要求「歷史毋忘」要具體，也許在以「物」為軸的場域特定展覽《縫補歲月》中，他找到了裝置藝術所盛載的一點貢獻。(Editor's notes)
**feature image主體照: Evans Chan's Sewing Breasts (left), Shan Luk's Siu Fung Sin (right above), and Linda Lai's Domestic Moonlighting (right below) at “Mending Years” (courtesy of Elaine Wong, Winsome Wong, Shan Luk and Evans Chan)
**English translation by Linda Lai
On the Mending Years, and How to Fill in the Gaps of History | Wai-leung Lai
Lift the black veil and walk into the dark space. On the wall is a projection of a window frame, motionless it seems, and bursts of soft music fills the room. I can’t tell whose music it is, and I’m not even sure if it’s the background music of I Am Here, in the Cold Wind. Rather, the quiet environment makes me stand still in front of the image for a long time. Watching and listening evoke streams of thoughts. I can’t help wondering what the artist's intention is: the flow of sound is the movement of time. Time flows continuously, but what about the cold and frozen image of the window? Does it symbolize the exhaustion of the body and mind in the process of life? Or does it express the isolation and loneliness of the contemporary individual? The answer is not important, and I'm not going to look through the program notes for clarification. The Elaine that I know is a person of soft and refined thoughts, but I don’t think it’s fair to infer her creative intentions based on this subjective impression of mine. The point is that the work gives me the space to think, to experience the feelings that bounce off my chest, and to delve into someone’s world of creation. As for the message brought out by the work, it is up to the viewer how to make sense of it.
Winsome Wong's work Blanks in the Picture is a different form of expression. The videos and photos are the life records of her father and his own parents. In the old pictures, males are always in white shirts and trousers, their hair neatly combed, and in a perfect upright posture, sitting or standing, the style of the older generation, I suppose. Winsome once told me about her grandfather, a typical working-class man who supported himself and his family by cutting hair for others. Now he is over ninety years old and his physical condition frail and deteriorating. Looking at those yellowed photos, I naturally think of my own mother who is also of the same age and has had similar experiences, also struggling to walk the last journey of life. What weighty thoughts.
Coincidentally, both the works by Shan Luk and film director Evans Chan feature a sewing machine as the anchoring object of their installation. These human-powered "machines" have long since been eliminated by new technology, and today they seem to be completely "antiques" of a kind -- although back then in the 1970s, they were many housewives' tool to livelihood in poor families. When Shan Luk gave a guided tour of the exhibition “Mending Years,” she mentioned that her grandmother hand-made siu fung sin (little phoenix dresses) at the Li Cheng Uk public housing estate and was well known in the area for her exquisite skills. Under her grandmother’s influence, Luk also fell in love with this craft. She proudly and joyfully introduced the other main element of her installation Siu Fung Sin -- a little phoenix dress she sewed by herself. Evan Chan’s mother took orders from a factory to process bras back in the 1970s. The main body of his work is a series of bras with a cup cut off, surrounding a rusty sewing machine; an extension of these key elements is a moving image sequence projected onto a string of chest-covers (old-style Chinese bras) hanging from the ceiling. The interspersed images are the stories of people of his mother’s generation and the famous actress Fong Yim-fun with her opera song “A dewy, fragrant stem of red radiance.” Director Chan told me that his mother died of breast cancer, and Sewing Breasts is a tribute to his mother. It was a time said to be difficult -- families generally with many children constantly struggling to survive. Apart from busying themselves with housework and child care, these keepers of the household also worked desperately to help to make ends meet. The pain of labor is certain, but I suppose they might have felt lucky to find extra means. When work opportunities came, it wouldn’t matter if they were already exhausted, as they would complete any “orders” with highest efficacies. This is no fantasy of mine: when I was a child, there was also a sewing machine at home, which my mother used to sew clothing for "dolls" by factory orders. Day and night she worked, and finally put her group of children together, not a single word of complaint.
Those were the hard days and like an ocean away, and how does it taste like when recalled? In any case, these women are a great bunch in society.
The exhibition “Mending Years” portrays a specific moment of history. The group of five artists took the approach of assembling physical objects that have existed as the creative axis to reproduce the past not only as aura, but also as myriads of events through old photos, sewing machines, bras, a folk outfit (siu fung sin dress) and, as in the case of Domestic Moonlighting (Linda C.H. Lai), bamboo poles for carrying loads, scales, towel wraps, plastic beads and more, leading to an alternative view of productivity. These everyday objects assert their presence beyond symbolic resonance. They not only overcome the distance of time, but also make vague memories solid and distinct. “History” stands in the exhibition gallery as relics -- yet their presence silently tells stories about themselves and their owners. Sharing the same space, the visitor is invited to immerse in a forgotten piece of history through the interaction of vision, sound and objects, supplemented by texts.
The past is a long time, and its protagonists are all sojourners. Many of them have passed away, and those still in their journey would not be able, or willing, to offer us any interpretation. I suppose most of them feel that their past deeds are insignificant and not worth mentioning. But as we add up what they have done, the concrete things they actually accomplished form the solid ground of society on which we stand, generation after generation. Let’s say the merits and demerits of historical figures are always arguable. But the gaps in history must be filled, and I gather that artists are bound to the task of documentation as they create artistically. Otherwise, "history should never be forgotten" will remain empty words. //