Jaffa Lam (artist)
Jaffa Lam: Making art is a personal practice; as for whether to achieve “success”, that is not up to me
Interview completed on June 19, 2022
Editor: Emma Lee Images: provided by interviewee
This year, I focused on Hong Kong again due to my participation in the "Hong Kong Contemporary Art Ecology Forum" organised by the China Modern Art Archive (CMAA) of Peking University and Artron.net/Art Headlines. In the process of participating in the forum, I took part in discussions on topics such as the identity of Hong Kong people, the chronology of contemporary art in Hong Kong, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on individual artists in Hong Kong. Jaffa Lam was one of the participating artists in the 2nd Public Art Exhibition in Nanhai, Foshan – my hometown, so I paid attention to her this year as well. Her background fits my focus on Hong Kong, so I interviewed her on topics of "home", "identity" and "individual".
Q1: Do you believe in Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, or Christianity? What books are you reading lately? What music do you listen to?
A: I don't have any of the religious beliefs you mentioned. If faith is a cave of serenity, a place of peace of mind, then my faith is art. Basically anything can be resolved with an artistic way of thinking.
I don't like to listen to music with lyrics when I write, and sometimes I need to mute it completely. My favorite instruments are guqin, cello and bass mumble, and now I listen to the music made by Dou Wei: "Quick Snow Hall Music Records". Usually, I listen to ZUMBA's music when I do chores to get myself moving. When I create, I do carpentry, goldwork, masonry, sewing – all with the radio on, just like in the factory.
I usually prepare classes and find materials, read different art books, archives and history books. Recently, I've been reading books about Chinese landscape painting, and the one on my desk now is "The Bei Shan Tang Legacy: Chinese Painting" (three volumes).
Dou Wei's CD in collaboration with Indefinite is what Lam often listens to
"The Bei Shan Tang Legacy: Chinese Painting" (Volume I) published by the Art Museum and Department of Fine Arts of Chinese University of Hong Kong
Q2: How has the pandemic changed the way you work?
A: it’s given me more time to make art works on my own. In the past, creating art required working with many people, running around to check on the quality of materials and listening to explanations. Now the demand is less and scale of work is smaller, so I have more time in the studio, and the stitched pieces have become testimonies of time spent in personal practice.
Practicing at home: having to compete with my cat for territory
Q3: Theorists/critics in China say that Hong Kong people have no subjectivity/identity, but I tend to think that Hong Kong people are precisely "global citizens". Your father is Burmese Chinese and your mother is Indonesian Chinese, so you are more "mixed" than ordinary Hong Kong people. How do you think about subjectivity/identity? How does this subjectivity/identity influence your daily work?
A: My father is a Burmese expatriate and my mother is an Indonesian expatriate. They experienced the Cultural Revolution in the Mainland and immigrated to Hong Kong in the mid-1980s. Because I still have a little bit of an accent, even in 2000, colleagues laughed at my Cantonese with an accent.
In the solo exhibition "Looking for My Family Story" invited by Lumenvisum in 2015, Lam compared the old photos of her family with the historical photos of China that she found on the Internet. The photograph above shows the artist lying in the center of the gallery with her feet facing her parents' wedding photo.
For more than twenty years since I graduated from college, I have lived abroad for a period of time almost every year, except for the three years of COVID-19. I feel that experiencing in different countries is the only way for one to achieve the balance one needs in order to understand the world. However, every time when I return to the sky over Hong Kong, I am still a bit moved: from the emotions and tears I used to get to the peace of mind I feel now. Not every Hong Kong citizen is a "global citizen". It is hard to say whether identity is a piece of paper or a heart. When the heart is moving, the world is moving; when the world is moving, the heart can move or not move. When I lived in New York, I felt that it was home; but when I went back nine years later, I didn't want to go there anymore. 30 years ago in Venice, I traced the smell of the alleyways of my home in Fuzhou; but when I went there again, I couldn't smell it anymore, and I lost my preference for this city. When I lived in Berlin, I also felt like I fit in there, but I didn't try to stay, I just wanted to visit every year because it was the city where I felt most at home in for the time being. I don't really feel like a native Hong Konger, and if Hong Kong embraces me, I would reciprocate – I'm a passive person. I have gratitude for Hong Kong because it is the place where I was nurtured and trained; foreign cities are the places where I absorb nutrients from. My creation is rooted in Chinese landscape painting (the ancient Chinese approach to the landscape universe), and perhaps it is the convenience of language that has given me the opportunity in Hong Kong to plant this branch of roots in a Western form – without the nagging of the elders and inherent patterns – in order to develop the kind of works with the freedom and openness that I have now.
Lam’s work responding to ancient Chinese furniture was shown in Art Basel this year:
"Chair with one Leg Missing"
200 (H) x 52 (W) x 55 (D) cm
Discarded chair, recycled wood, recycled water pipes, stones from a confinement camp, cement, LED lights, transparent adhesive strips, wheels, fluorescent paint
Q4: Some scholars who have been working on exchanges between the Mainland and Hong Kong since the 1980s concluded that the biggest problem in their work is that "Hong Kong people do not love Hong Kong", and it is therefore difficult to gather a force. What do you think?
A: It is difficult to comment because I am not sure what those scholars have said. Can you find answers from my response to the previous question? I don't know if I am considered a 100% Hong Konger.
Lam’s work exhibited at Para Site in Hong Kong this year:
"A Piece of Red – Floating in the Ocean"
Flag: 240 (L) x 160 (W) cm
Recycled umbrella cloth from the 2014 Hong Kong protests, stainless steel flag pole, industrial fan
Q5: Chinese critics always likes to criticize Hong Kong and the West for being "lackluster", and the South criticizes "Beijing is no longer working (in art)", but they are often unable to even defend themselves. What do you think?
A: I don't know how Mainland critics criticize Hong Kong, but I have only known Mainland artists from exchange projects and they were very nice to me. I don't know if they mentioned me when they criticized Hong Kong, but maybe the number of Hong Kong artists they know is limited.
The places you cited are all competitive cities, right? I'm not competitive, and have low motivation, and will only do what I have to do. World peace is good.
Q6: A few Hong Kong friends have said to me that M+ is not for Hong Kong. Do you have any expectations for M+?
A: I don't have any expectations either. I asked the curator of M+ at a public discussion, and she said that M+ is indeed not for Hong Kong, but for Asia and the world. Hong Kong is just a small dot in the world, so there are not many works by Hong Kong artists in their collection – that's normal, right?! I, as a taxpayer, just want the convenience of not having to take a long flight to see the works – then I want the convenience of collecting some information.
Q7: Guangzhou has a triennial this year, and I think the opening of Tai Kwun, M+, and the Hong Kong Palace Museum in recent years is something which can start a relevant discussion on the ecology of contemporary art in Hong Kong. Do you have any expectations for the Guangzhou Triennial? What is the future for visual art?
A: I don't know much about this year's Guangzhou Triennial, but I was only invited to observe in the first one. Personally, I don't have much expectation for any biennial/triennial – that's the curator's job. As an artist, I just hope that a talent scout will come and find me. I am very passive, I have no chance to look for it, so I can only follow the fate.
Tai Kwun is a venue for young artists/curators, and I, a middle-aged local artist, do not have much to do with it. I did visit it to support and learn from it, and I also encourage my students to see it.
M+ is a self-proclaimed “museum of heritage and visual arts”, and if you break down the name, you can see “heritage” and "visual arts". Hong Kong itself has a "Hong Kong Heritage Museum", which includes design, printmaking, ceramics, theater, film, cultural and heritage items, and is separate from the "Hong Kong Museum of Art". So, M+ itself has too many areas to cover, plus the positioning of M+ is to be a world-class museum, Hong Kong is just the place happens to be. Discussing the impact of M+ on Hong Kong's local art ecology is probably a fantasy for the time being. Unless M+ changes its strategy in the future, balancing the proportion of Hong Kong, regional and international artists in the collection and exhibition, can we talk about the impact on the local art ecology in Hong Kong.
As for the Hong Kong Palace Museum, the exhibition features national treasures that cannot be seen up close even in the Forbidden City in Beijing. I took the opportunity of a less crowded opening to look at it in silence and was really thrilled. However, I am not so sure about its practice of putting the latest media art and national treasures in the same hall. This is a dualistic way of thinking: the distinction between mediums and the failure to see antiquities in the context of the fundamental development of their cultural heritage. I don't know if this is due to lack of self-confidence or lack of talent. In addition, the current view of the Hong Kong Palace Museum which equates craftsmanship with the predecessor of modern design is really a bit narrow, the so-called contemporary exhibition becomes a design exhibition, which is the result of a combination of arrogance and sense of inferiority. Most Hong Kong people only know about design, not art, perhaps because the Hong Kong Palace Museum has not yet clearly positioned itself: is it to cater to the public taste, or seriously enlighten and educate the public? I only look forward to the arrival of the best from the Forbidden City, to be inspired by the wisdom of the ancestors – this is not a deliberately mystifying show of contemporary decorations can achieve.
The establishment of the three museums was supposed to foster the development of art in Hong Kong, catering for artists and citizens at different levels, looking at both local development and the development of the region and the world. However, for the time being, there is still a lack of overall consideration.
While external conditions are important, to complete a college major, one must study; art is a result of long time "immersion". As an individual artist, the spiritual future lies in personal training, believing in the essence of art; rather than catering to trends, but to inspire new trends. However, this recipe may not necessarily bring about market potentials – it all depends on individual opportunities.
Q8: What artists from which city are you following lately?
A: None. I am working on a solo exhibition, and just want to know what I have been seeking in these twenty years.
Q9: Is "locality/field-based work" the most important thing to you? How do you reflect the civilization/brutality of society on individuals in your creations?
A: Maybe I am lazy, I need to be "on the field" to have feelings; seeing is believing, it triggers my interest to study. In my creation, I need to have an object – not people, but the land, trees, rocks, buildings, etc.; they have been there for a long time; the experience of being on the field allows me to talk to these "things" and let their voices be "heard". As for the so-called "civilization/brutality", I don't try to make a binary right-or-wrong, an open dialogue is good.
When there are no invitational exhibitions, exercising, walking and seeing the scenery, watching movies and reading are my greatest pleasures. Learning more knowledge is to have more perspectives to understand the world and also to understand my own surroundings.
Lam was invited by the city of Lyon, France to participate in the city's annual light art festival in 2018. The work was made from local recycled textiles and placed in front of the local old textile bureau.
Q10: Do you see political correctness (animal protectionism, race, feminism, etc.) as a cannibalization of human intellect and civilization?
A: I think the most important thing for human beings is to have the ability to self-reflect and be critical. Too much political correctness and too many concerns can, instead, interfere with the ability to introspect and critique.
Lam’s work from the group exhibition of 31 women artists at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong, 2022:
"View Behind the Door"
170 (L) x 120 (W) x 37 (D) cm
Recycled umbrella cloth, video (1:55 min)
In addition to solo exhibitions, Lam has been invited to participate in many local and international exhibitions and residency programs around the world. In 2006, she was awarded the "Désirée and Hans Michael Jebsen Fellowship" by the Asian Cultural Council, and in 2017, the "Secretary for Home Affairs' Commendation Award".
Video Interview of Jaffa Lam | Artwork “Lost and Found” at Hung Hom Station (Source: MTR Hong Kong)