Caroline Ha Thuc writes about a body of work that uses contemporary materials to channel the energy of Chinese mythology.
(A message to the reader.)
For more than two thousand years, Chinese painters and scholars have been searching how they could represent the essence of things, beyond their visible appearance, and how they could grasp the complexities of an ever-changing world through subtle and evasive landscapes. Jaffa Lam’s own quest for the indescribable is part of this tradition. With a contemporary language and a large variety of mediums, her practice challenges our ontological constructions and perceptions, injecting doubt and fluidity in our rigid modes of representation. Her artistic and personal landscape features natural elements such as rocks, water or wooden planks that constantly transform into one another. Like an alchemist, the artist plays with the usual categories of our reality in order to upend them and escape from their exclusive specificities, chasing their inner substance through permanent states of transition.
Born in Fuzhou, China, in 1973, Jaffa Lam moved to Hong Kong as a child. She was first trained as a calligrapher and as a classical Chinese painter at the Chinese University of Hong Kong before turning to sculpture and multi-media installations. Known for her collective, socially-based artworks made from recycled materials and created mainly outside the art market system, she remains imbued with traditional Chinese philosophy. Her installations are often conceived as gardens or metaphorical landscapes, featuring natural elements such as trees, water, light and rocks, interlaced with industrial components and conceived as contemporary mirrors of our current society.
“Taishang LaoJun’s Furnace” (2022), the first large installation in the gallery, consists of about five hundred volcanic rocks molded from stones that the artist has culled along the coastline of Hong Kong from Sai Wan to Lei Yu Mum and Kwai Chung. Washed by the sea, shaken by the urban development of the city or buried below land reclamation processes, they carry pieces of the identity of the territory through their various shapes, textures, colors and history. Instead of displaying the originals, which have been put back in their natural environment, Lam chose to reproduce them using different mediums. Concrete, bronze and aluminium rocks are thus mixed up on the floor, forming an uncanny and artificial landscape. The ones cast in bronze are shiny like golden gems, while the concrete ones look common and worthless. None are authentic, but is there such a thing as authenticity? In typical Chinese gardens, rocks are viewed as mountains and none of their components are considered for themselves but for what they suggest. By casting them with diverse materials, Lam highlights the symbolic potential that lies beyond their simple appearance. Implicitly, she questions our modes of representation and the construction of our sense of belonging. What do these stones stand for, now that they have been transformed? Do they still relate to the Hong Kong territory?
The installation’s title refers to the famous furnace of Laozi, where the Taoist philosopher is said to have performed alchemical experiments. Taoism, as a religion and as a philosophy, developed along various beliefs, superstitions and rituals, including the search for the elixir of immortality. Since the Han dynasty, alchemists have been trying to turn lead into gold, or human beings into gods, yet most of the time, only poisonous remedies and worthless matter have been obtained. Through the molding and casting processes, the ordinary rocks from the coastline are here turned into pieces of art or, metaphorically, some pieces of land turned into symbolic – yet randomize – representations. Perhaps, the artist suggests, one could think anew about identity and free oneself from its spatial, territorialized definition: suffice it to transform a rock into an imagined piece of home. By mixing up values, Lam introduces complexity and confusion to our usual points of reference, opening up the field of reality in order to embrace its larger possible scope.
Reflecting the volcanic nature of Hong Kong’s territory, Lam’s sea of rocks is rough and irregular. It is filled with stoned eggs out of which small pieces of colorful fabric emerge. In the Cantonese culture, eggs are associated with a healing process, although here they resemble grenades that would be about to explode. From the start, the artist creates a tension between the past and the future: are we sent back to the origins of the land characterized by tectonic chaos and eruptions or is this a dystopic vision? Can we walk safely around? Everything remains still, though, as if time had been suspended during this ambiguous state of transition.
Still, there is nothing dramatic in Lam’s practice. Like her favorite hero the Monkey King, she likes to play tricks. The legendary animal, whose adventures are described in Wu Cheng’en 16th century book “The Journey to the West,” spent notably forty-nine days confined into Laozi’s furnace as a punishment for having stolen the peaches of immortality. However, he emerged from the brasier stronger than before, discrediting the wise man. As a child, Jaffa Lam has always admired his trickery but also his courage, curiosity and loyalty. With humor and self-derision, he perfectly embodies her own insatiable quest towards the unknown and her free mind. In fact, the whole exhibition can be approached from this epic narrative. The Monkey King is born out of a stoned egg fertilized by the wind, itself born from a magic rock impregnated by nature. Made of stone, he has a metallic gaze and is incredibly flexible: he can famously undergo at least seventy-two metamorphoses. As such, he resists any form of predetermined ontology, escaping conventional frameworks and categories. He personifies a state of permanent mutations and, beyond its trickeries, the spiritual quest for enlightenment.
Before reaching Buddhahood, the Monkey King went nevertheless through many obstacles, including being trapped under a mountain for five hundred years. This is also the number of rocks collected by Lam, as another way to record time. As she will soon turn fifty, Lam feels she is now in the middle of the journey of her life, looking for her own path and longing for spirituality. The second room of the exhibition is conceived as a meditative and more intimate space. Multicolor beams of light stem softly from the artworks, projecting a screen of sparking shadows on the wall. They favor the wandering of the mind and self-reflection. In the middle, a large and soft cocoon made from variegated recycled pieces of umbrella fabric has been hung from the ceiling. Emblematic of the artist’s socially-engaged practice, “Meditation Tent” (2011) was created in collaboration with former workers from the textile industry, made unemployed during the recession, with whom Lam has been working since 2009. Its egg shape suggests again the potentialities of a future that has still to unfold itself, and a time of suspension.
Visitors are also invited to sit on one of Lam’s installations, “Lost Limb Chair” (2022), a hybrid chair typical of her work that interweaves natural and industrial recycled materials. For a long time, the artist has favored functional pieces of art and she has created a series of organic chairs and benches, mainly based on abandoned pieces of furniture and carved out of found wooden planks. Here, a factory spotlight is transformed into a personal moon that casts its rays above the seat, bringing a piece of night—or flow of dreams, into the room. It also functions as a guiding light for lost people and migrants. The wooden and concrete base of the chair is indeed mounted on three legs and one wheel, crystalizing the hardships to leave one’s place, or the tensions between the desire to flee and the heaviness of one’s own culture and past. The moon, although artificial, aims to ease this path. Like a treasure, a tiny landscape and a secret rock are hidden inside one of the armchairs. A migrant herself, Lam has always opted for light materials or movable items. Praising the idea of a mobile identity, she does not wish to be bound to any specific territory, yet she reflects on the complicated contradictions between this aspiration to freedom and the deep need for a private shelter that one can call home.
“A Piece of Silence from Standing,” also nicknamed “Moving Faith” (2022), consists of an extension of a typical factory trolley that one sees everywhere in Hong Kong, developed as a long stained-glass oval window made from umbrella fabric. A portable spiritual comfort that everyone could easily bring along. A warm light flows from this church-like window, whose pattern represents a young horsetail pine tree. Planted by the British in Hong Kong during colonial times, this specie is also the one from which wooden pallets are made, a basic medium very much used by the artist for its low cost and easy availability. The artist plays here again with the correspondence between various forms and materials in order to blur their usual functions and to extend their interconnected potentialities. The tree grows out of an industrial artefact while the seams of the fabric recall its fibers. For Lam, this moving church is not dedicated to any specific god but to nature which keeps inspiring her. Its title echoes the well-known Chinese proverb saying that “faith can move mountains,” referring to patience and determination as virtues. To its great surprise, and after being imprisoned for five hundred years, the Monkey King was freed by a monk whom he had no choice but to follow on his pilgrimage to India to bring back Buddhist Scriptures. He who kept treating religions with irreverence had to adapt himself in order to finally make his way towards enlightenment.
Water is perhaps the element that best symbolizes these combined feelings of resilience and flexibility. Slowly, it shapes the rocks from the coastline, it digs gently the bark of trees and erodes the soil, always making its way despite obstacles that prevent it to flow. The last room celebrates its polymorph and metaphorical features. The polished and mirrored surface of “A Piece of Good Water II” (2017), for instance, evokes the ocean’s unfathomable abyss. Made from stainless steel, the sculpture resembles sea waves that seem to unfurl with plays of light and shadows, alternatively hiding cavities or revealing inconspicuous crests. As a complement, the womb-shaped sculpture entitled “A Piece of Good Water” (2017) values the softness of water as a source of life. The multiple interwoven veins of the wood look like tiny rivers that would nourish the new life in-being. If one gets closer to this round and maternal sculpture, one could hear the artist’s heartbeats that stem from the inside. By connecting her own life with a piece of recycled wood that she patiently carved, Lam emphasizes the symbiosis that links human beings with nature, perceived as a single unity. For many years, she has been trying to give to wood the movement and features of water. Recently, she realized she had to stop controlling her chisel and let go. With “A Piece of Silence from Lying” (2022), she just followed the natural wood grain, delicately rounding its nods and embracing its slopes and deviations. Again, making one with nature.
In her quest for the true essence of things, she also tries to make them all equal. This is how such a fantastic vessel as “Somersault Cloud” (2022) was created. The sculpture involves an authentic scholar rock mounted on a trolley, on top of which flies a group of clouds. The latter is made of very thin fragmented pieces of wood, painted in white and smoothly carved in order to give them the appearance of floating vapors. Their light ripples recall a subtle flow of water as well. The cloud somersault allows the Monkey King to fly above clouds and to travel as far as one-third of the circumference of the Earth in a single leap. Here, such a flight might be impeded by the five heavy wheels of the structure. The scholar rock, usually a symbol of wisdom, does not share the Monkey’s liberty of movement and ability. Rather than being swiftly transported by the clouds, it must carry them, holding them like a cumbersome flag. At best, these forged clouds could be used as a sail, suggesting that the wind, thus nature, could supersede profound philosophy in identifying the right direction.
As an ultimate pirouette, the artist placed the sculpture at the very end of the exhibition, near the exit sign, as if the mobile wisdom would roll down the stairs. Alternatively, the volcanic rock could be seen as sending viewers back to the starting point of the show, with its large sea of stones. Isn’t time circular and don’t things repeat themselves? “Does heaven turn? Does the earth sit still?” asks Zhuangzi, and so could ask Lam wittily.
This essay is reproduced courtesy of Axel Vervoordt Gallery.
Jaffa Lam, Chasing an Elusive Nature, Axel Vervoordt Gallery, 15 October 2022 – 7 January 2023.
About Caroline Ha Thuc
Dr Caroline Ha Thuc is a French Hong Kong-based independent art writer, researcher, lecturer and curator. Ha Thuc’s field of research focuses on research-based art practices and the emergence of alternative modes of knowledge production in Asia. Her book Research-based art practices in Southeast Asia: the Artist as Producer of Knowledge has just been published in the UK (Palgrave Macmillan, London 2022).
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