Cover Elaine Chiu with her artwork in JPS Gallery (Photo: Teddy Leung, makeup and hair: Chung Yee Maggie Chiu)

Hong Kong artist Elaine Chiu is known for her paintings and sketches depicting Hong Kong's cityscapes. She talks to Tatler about her new solo exhibition and why she wants to document Hong Kong's urban identity

Hong Kong artist Elaine Chiu's urban sketching and painting have gained her a loyal following in her home city. Exploring the themes of space, memory and community identity of the urban environment has resonated with a lot of young people like herself who also want to preserve the heritage and urban identity of Hong Kong.

Even as a student studying art history at the University of Hong Kong, Chiu has already settled on a motif to focus on: the transient and fragile nature of cityscapes. Her work is deeply personal as she injects her own memories and impressions about Hong Kong which have been deep-rooted in her consciousness and self-identity.

Now in her latest solo exhibition, titled Before Memories Expire from May 6–June 6 at the JPS Art Gallery, Chiu will showcase her on-site sketching and community art project that record the fleeting cityscape with her paintbrush over the past three years. She talks to Tatler about the memories she has growing up in Yau Tsim Mong and how her style has changed over the years.

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Can you tell us how your new exhibition, Before Memories Expire came about?

My art practice has been focusing on urban spaces and the impact of urban redevelopment. When I was notified about a solo exhibition opportunity from my representative gallery, JPS Art Gallery, to exhibit in their main space in Landmark, I want to bring my daily sketching experience and the urban issue and spirit to the gallery space. The's exhibition main concept is to transform what’s happening in the communities in the past years: how the old buildings are being replaced by new ones and the alternation of the living environment due to urban renewal. I added my own observations so that I can connect with local and international audiences that may share the same experience.

I divided the exhibition into two parts, the main part, Before Memories Expire features 12 acrylic canvas works and one sculptural work, which is fresh from my practice. This part will explore how I “preserve” and present my fading memories of the city. Most of my paintings in this series have an unpainted white background. The disappearance of the surrounding background and context of a particular architectural structure makes the fading memories, flowing and the idea of coming back together appear in front of the viewer’s eyes.

There will also be a sub-part called, The Memory Library that will show 30 of my watercolour on-location sketches and photos of my sketching activities. The exhibition as a whole presents my recent artistic research and journey in the city during the past year.

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You also grew up in Yau Tsim Mong, what are some of your favourite memories there?

My favourite memories are all the small moments from my primary and secondary school years such as having lunch in the tai pai dong and local tea houses, hunting for craft and art materials in Sham Shui Po and Mong Kok, chilling after sports day, shopping with my family and so much more. My daily, frequent and routine the urban and architectural space consolidates my memories. Yau Tsim Mong to me as a child was a dense and gigantic maze, a complex urban network that gives me unlimited imagination and exploration about urban visual culture, human relationship, personal emotion and memory.

You’re known for your paintings that highlight Hong Kong’s cityscape, why did you decide to focus on this?

Being born and raised in Hong Kong, I find painting the cityscape autobiographical and anthropological. Painting these scenes give me a way to understand myself and explore the meaning of an urban being and questions such as where do we come from, where should we go, under such rapid urban development.

By doing more and more city walks as part of my practice and research, I found the Hong Kong cityscape a visualised form of my self-identity. It's a hybrid of many different cultural roots, mindsets and ideologies, as observed in multiple-language neon signs, typography, architectural styles and even food styles. To me, painting the city, digging deeper into its culture, is a soul-searching process.

On the other hand, it's also interesting from an anthropologist angle. In Hong Kong, you can see older forms and modern forms of living, ranging from the traditional village such as tanka boathouses, to tenement houses in the pre-war period, art-deco modern style and international, contemporary housing. Walking along one single street of buildings across decades could be a time-travelling exploration. I often imagine and wonder how one’s life is like inside a particular style of structure and design. I question whether different architectural spaces generate different ways of living and identity as well. The city enables me to imagine our urban development and look for the answers if the old way better or moving forward is better.

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What are some notable pieces that will be part of this exhibition?

The first piece is called Urban Fabrics. It's the first painting of this exhibition series, which is also the largest work of the series. It's a combination of two old streets in Sham Shui Po, Ki Lung Street and Tai Nan Street. These streets are famous for their fabric and leather shops. Around 2014, almost all signboards in the streets were taken down because of the new regulation. I painted this acrylic work in the style of watercolour, to convey the transparency, which shows the dripping and passage of time.

The second piece, Shek Kip Mei Street is an acrylic work depicting a rounded corner tenement house in Sham Shui Po. To me, tenement houses encompass the endangered organicity of the cityscape. The sticking out structure, handwritings on the facade, shows the flexibility of space usage and the close interaction of the architecture with its inhabitants. I highlighted its facade and also its interesting geometry by leaving white and abstract shapes.

Finally, the last piece I wanted to highlight is Melting Memories as it's my first attempt at making a sculpture. It's a wooden sculpture with resin and other materials. I want to turn my impressions of a disappearing Hong Kong-style building into a 3D model and work that reminds people of its existence.

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What is your creative process like when you paint?

My creative process always starts with a community walk and sketching. Sometimes I go to a specific building because of renewal news, such as Yue Man Square in Kwun Tong and Kai Yuen Terrance in North Point. Other times I don’t have specific goals, I wander around a district like Sham Shui Po or Tai Kok Tsui. I enjoy joining my friends who also sketch and we begin the day by choosing a local restaurant for breakfast and then starting a conversation with the shop owner and then we sketch. I usually bring a small camera with me to capture small detail and texture which becomes handy for my studio painting.

Urban sketching is an integral part of my practice to gather audio, visual impressions and interact with the community. During the one to two hour period of sketching, I build up my understanding of spatial relations, characteristics, and temperament of a particular district. After that, I bring all the impressions I got back in my studio to create bigger acrylic work based on my sketching experience.

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How has the pandemic affected your work in the past year?

The most important lesson the pandemic has taught me is the preciousness of human touch and connection. I used to think I always have time to go here and there. With less movability and more social distancing restrictions, I wouldn’t have thought travelling in the city or visiting a specific place is such a difficult thing. In the past year, I travelled less or even none at all. I spent more time developing my own art style and thought more about what I want to say. Before Memories Expire is a baby born under the pandemic.

I remember when we first met as students, you were still trying to establish yourself as an artist. How has your creative style evolved since then?

I think my creative practices and style changed and developed a lot comparing to the time we first met.

This year and this particular exhibition mark many breakthroughs in my art style, from watercolour and sketching to acrylic and even my first sculpture. Although my art is still centred around my interest in urban sketching, architecture and community, my style has evolved from being more descriptive, to more expressive. I want to convey a stronger mood.

In my recent artwork, I employ the language of watercolour, including the dripping and the overlapping of transparent layers into my acrylic paintings. I want to keep the rustic, dusty dark brown tones to deliver the feeling of memory relics. I attempt to explore the organic, original materiality, and texture of my medium.

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You had a lot of solo and group exhibitions in the past, what makes this one different from the rest?

This exhibition is so much more exciting and challenging! It marks many of my firsts such as the first time to show my acrylic and sculptural work. It is also my first “Basel exhibition”. I truly hope everyone who visits will like it.

An additional artist-in-conversation event, titled "Before Memories Expire: In Conversation with Artist Elaine Chiu" is happening on 18 May from 4–5 pm at the JPS Art Gallery where Chiu will talk about her working process, inspirations, and trajectory as an artist. You can register for the event here.

Before Memories Expire is on view from May 6–June 6 at JPS Art Gallery, Shops 218–219, Landmark Atrium, 15 Queen's Road, Central, Hong Kong.

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