|Carol Lee Mei Kuen, 'Others Elsewhere', image courtesy the artist|
“I have 3 identities: wife, mother and artist. The inside of the home, that domestic space, has become very significant in my work”
(Carol Lee Mei Kuen in conversation with Luise Guest, April 2011)
The Artist's World"The uncertainties in life have become the source and core of my work"
(Carol Lee Mei Kuen)
Like many artists living and working in Hong Kong in these postcolonial times, Carol Lee Mei Kuen is only too aware of the uncertain and fluid state of life, of current political realities, and of her own identity. To live in Hong Kong is to be caught up in dramatic social, political, economic and cultural change which is relentless and fast paced. Her work is informed by postcolonial theory, as well as by her awareness of contemporary western art, but as a young woman she was also trained in the traditions of ink painting and this quiet and restrained sensibility also imbues her work. A number of significant personal experiences of loss, including the death of her mother, are both overtly and covertly represented in her series of ‘light’ prints. Her work is autobiographical and reflective in a subtle and non-showy way.
The artist in conversation with Edmund Lee about her 2010 exhibition ‘Intimacy’ at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery Hong Kong
Usually, I trace the shadow [of objects] with a pencil, cut out a stencil, then expose the paper [under the stencil] to sunlight. It takes about ten days if it’s placed outdoors, but then it’ll still take a longer time for the colours to deepen. I have come to the conclusion that it is only when a work is finished that its life begins – because the work keeps evolving every day. If you see [my work] again in six months, the colours are completely different. They deepen, and their contrast increases a lot. People would ask me how I keep my works, and I’d tell them that I don’t. The fundamental concept behind my work is to let it evolve. Then they’d say, “Isn’t it very risky for me to buy your work? It may vanish totally!” [Laughs] But that’s not true, either: the colour contrast will only increase, and not decrease. As long as you don’t put it directly under the sun, [the colours] will stay. An art critic has commented, the biggest difference between photography and my method is that no chemical is involved in mine. It turns yellow with time, as if it’s a “time painting”.’
|Carol Lee Mei-kuen, “Close to Dusk 16.30pm 28_12_2008”, 2008, Time and Light on Newsprint, 210cm x 240 cm, |
image reproduced courtesy of the artist
|Carol Lee Mei Kuen, 'Baby's Wear', image courtesy the artist|
|Carol Lee Mei Kuen in her Hong Kong rooftop garden, photograph Luise Guest April 2011|
Critical Analysis #1
Read the article below and answer the questions:Carol Lee Mei-kuen makes elegiac and poignant works using a most unusual technique of her own invention, reminiscent of early 19th century photographic daguerreotype or cyanotype experiments. Quite by accident, while making a daily drawing with ink on newsprint, she discovered that the yellowing of the newspaper after exposure to daylight was beautiful and, after much experimentation, almost predictable. This process of discoloration became part of her visual language, representing the passage of time and the ephemeral nature of the world and human relationships. Thus one of her signature techniques was developed. She places objects of personal significance (a baby’s dress, a scarf, a curtain, domestic objects such as lace tablecloths or kitchen utensils) onto sheets of paper on the ground to create delicate trace patterns of the sun's movement, in subtle shades of gold, yellow and warm browns. In some works sharper images are created by the positioning of cut stencils referencing traditional paper-cutting. Some include tiny, spidery drawings in black ink, revealing her original training in the Chinese traditions of ink-painting.
Essentially photograms made without chemicals, these ‘time-paper works’ are reliant upon natural forces, and by their very nature carry within them a meaning of transience, loss, and the impermanence of all things. The works are at once deeply personal, exploring relationships and the absence or death of loved ones, and also absolutely universal. In a 2008 catalogue essay Koon Yee Wang identified transience as a common theme in Lee’s work, “a paradoxical geography suggestive of exile and recluse.“
In my own conversation with Lee, she explained that a series of events in her personal life, including the sudden tragic death of her mentor and teacher, the illness and death of her mother, and the absence of her son, away at school in England, had prompted her retreat to her apartment in the hills above the Hong Kong hustle and bustle, focusing her attention on developing a significant body of work using this idiosyncratic technique. Traces of the movement of birds and insects, fallen leaves, and even tiny pitted marks caused by sudden showers of rain, can be detected on these works, many of them created on the tiled floor of her rooftop garden. They are characterised by a domestic, reflective focus on the trajectory of a life lived in relation to other people - as a daughter, wife and mother. Beautiful, quiet and profound, these simple images create a language of love and the inevitability of loss. “The uncertainties in life have become the source and core of my work”, Lee says.
Works from her ‘Threads of Luminosity’ series such as ‘Handkerchief 2’ and ‘Little Lace Frock I’ are reminiscent of the photograms of Anne Ferran, similarly imbued with the resonant meaning and significance of objects, in this case her mother’s handkerchief, and the kind of lace dress she longed for as a small child wearing hand-me-downs. A multi-panelled work such as ‘Close to Dusk’ is almost unbearably poignant, with its two empty chairs on the terrace signifying the shrinking of the family and the passage of time, as parents age and children move into their own worlds. Her material practice, using light and time on the cheapest possible newsprint paper, is in itself suggestive of the ephemeral nature of our constructed reality.
More recently Lee has returned to her earlier practice of burning holes into paper. She is currently showing with a group of artists, including Lindy Lee, at 10 Chancery Lane in Hong Kong in ‘Forces’, an exhibition exploring the idea of the five Chinese elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Lee sees the burnt paper works as another way of dealing with the passage of time and the relationships between human beings and their environments. It is similarly difficult for the artist to control – at once predictable and unpredictable in its ability to create beautiful marks on the paper, or to destroy it.
Lee uses burning as a drawing tool to create line, mark and colour in works such as ‘Burning 7’, which despite the gallery’s description is not physically attached to the canvas. Rather it is floating on the air, moving in the slightest current. Lee burnt each small square of paper separately and then joined them to create the larger work. The black figures are made of paper burnt to dust and glued to the surface, symbolising our transient presence in the world.
Luise Guest, 'Traditions, Tensions and Transformations', in The Art Life, January 2012
- Explain the process that Carol Lee Mei-Kuen has invented and developed to create her works on paper
- How did her discovery of the process come about?
- How are Chinese fine art and folk art traditions referenced in her work?
- Select ONE work by Carol Lee Mei-kuen and write a paragraph of critical analysis - you will need to:
- Describe the work - what do we see?
- Explain how she has made this work
- Analyse its visual qualities - elements and principles of design such as composition, line, shapes, spaces, patterns and the use of light and shadow are all signficant aspects of the choices and decisions that she makes for each new work
- Interpret some possible meanings for the work, making sure that you refer to what the artist herself has said about her practice
See her work referenced on the Ocula web site and portal.
Watch this film clip in which the artist discusses her practice
(in Cantonese with subtitles)
(in Cantonese with subtitles)
|Carol Lee Mei Kuen, Family Dinner II (Bowl) 2010, |
Critical Analysis #2
Chinese Art Critic Carolyn Cartier describes Lee’s work as challenging ”the relationship between artist, art and viewer.” With meticulous attention the artist explores topics such as childhood memories and personal intimacy relationships. She investigates the philosophy of life and the flow of time, expressing her emotions and attachments with the surroundings by playing with light, shadows, found objects and space. In her own words: “Domestic life may be full of trivial details but it is so real. Paths of family members cross with one another without a specific order. I explore and seek in the multiple layers of relationships. As images develop slowly on paper, the works turn the memories and experience into something tangible, allowing them to be recorded and preserved. This is a special relationship between time and space, in which time is transformed into a physical space. The artist says, "Time passes, and life goes away. Light moves along with time, tracing its own tracks and collecting memories of days and nights. I preserve moments from the flowing river of time. The completion of a work means the beginning of its own journey. As for me, its creator, I will keep making my works until my life fades into the uncertain eternity."
Critical Analysis #3
She places A4 and A3 sheets of newsprint paper in the sun, partially covered for long periods of time, averaging 3 to 4 months. The result is a matrix of luscious shades of shadowy ochres and golden siennas with off-white sections that are not exposed to the sun. The light-sensitized sheets of paper (about 100 in all) are then placed to form an evocative mapping of fragmented areas. In the centre is a smaller “map” that has been lifted up and framed. On this smaller map are many small black shadowy figures. Each one of these figures is plotted onto the individual sheets of the larger map. The work has an elusive monumentality of loneliness and is crowded with the dark forms of bodies emerging like apparitions from the shifting glow of the backdrop.Koon Yee-wan, ‘Skirting the Borders: A Preliminary Sketch on the Issue of Gender in Hong Kong Art’ 2008
|Carol Lee Mei-kuen, “Burning 7”, 2011, Burnt Paper on Canvas, 66cm x 80 cm, |
image reproduced courtesy of the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery
- Write a hypothetical dialogue between Carol Lee Mei Kuen and Australian artist Anne Ferran, in which each artist explains the key motivations and intentions which drive their practice. You can find out more about Ferran's practice on her website http://anneferran.com/
Anne Ferran, Untitled from the Longer than life series 1997-99 gelatin silver photogram (114.5 x 104.8 cm)
image source: National Gallery of Victoria
|Carol Lee Mei-kuen, “Little Lace Frock I”, 2009, Time and Light on Newsprint, 110cm x 79.5cm, |
image reproduced courtesy of the artist
- Select TWO works from her website www.carolleemk.com and explain the IDEAS and ACTIONS of the artist.
- What are some of the significant influences on Carol Lee Mei Kuen’s practice? – annotate ONE example of her work to show how these influences are demonstrated.
The Cultural Frame and the Practice of the Art Historian
Examine works by THREE artists from the list below:
Carol Lee Mei Kuen
Select TWO specific works by each of your chosen artists, and answer the questions below:
- Account for the ways in which notions of identity, gender and/or postcolonialism are represented by each artist, referring to the specific works.
- How does each artist apply elements of artistic practice which connect her with her cultural heritage?
- How does each artist challenge traditions and conventions of art practice?
Look at ‘Killing Time’ by Ricky Swallow and compare it with ‘Dinner #2’ by Carol Lee Mei Kuen. How does each work evoke memory and the passage of time through its materials, techniques and visual codes? How does each work reference historical art and photographic conventions in which layers of meaning are embedded? Read more about 'Killing Time' - click HERE
|Ricky Swallow, 'Killing Time', 2003 - 2004, laminated jelutong, maple, 108.0 x 184.0 x 118.0cm (irreg.) |
source: The Art Gallery of New South Wales
|Carol Lee Mei-kuen, ‘Dinner II’, 2008, Time and Light on Newsprint, 79.5 cm x 110 cm|
Image reproduced courtesy of the artist.
A BIG QUESTION:If you were the curator tasked with putting together a new exhibition of Carol Lee Mei Kuen's work, what would you call the show? Which works would you feature in the catalogue? Why?
Write the opening sentences of your catalogue essay, which should explain why her work is significant and interesting to audiences.