Collaboration in art has a long history in China. It was common practice among literati at their intellectual gatherings. In addition to composing poetry and connoisseurship, they would playfully join in painting as a way to exchange repertoire and ideas. But aside from entertainment and amusement, there were cases that called for thoughtful artistic pursuit and determined by with clear intentions. One of the most famous and earliest collaborative works was Reading the Stele by 10th century painters Li Cheng and Wang Xiao.
Famous for his depiction of pines and forest, Li painted withered trees while Wang added the figures and horse. This work exemplifies art partnership by skill sets and sentiment. At the imperial court, artists would work on major commissions by the emperor to document his reign and activities. Wang Hui (1632-1717)'s monumental Kangxi Emperior's Tour of the South brought together leading court painters in an ambitious attempt to chronicle the emperor's state visit. Housed at the Palace Museum in Beijing, it remains the finest court commissioned handscroll in history. In the modern era, collaborative works extended to political propaganda, often with acclaimed artists working hand in hand to glorify the new regime and thus endorsing the idea that all art must serve the party. Guan Shanyue (1912-2000) and Fu Baoshi (1904-1965)'s The Land So Rich in Beauty comes to mind as the prime example. Even chairman Mao inscribed the work to celebrate its importance and relevance.
In terms of collaboration by status, Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) and Pu Xinyu (1896-1963) were the epitome of compatibility and esteem. Famously known as “Southern Zhang and Northern Pu”, despite their vastly different brought up, Zhang and Pu met at the pinnacle of their careers and created joined paintings with seamless integration of style and motifs. Their ability to reconcile methodical differences, harmonize composition and retain individuality contributes to their enormous success. They were truly the “dream team” of their era.
The present exhibition of Wai Pongyu and Hung Fai reveals a new kind of collaboration. Both artists use ink, paper, brush and pen as their primary tools. As peers, their creative style represents the dominant trend in contemporary Hong Kong art – to capture the essence of ink through the unrestricted exploration of traditional mediums. The Same Line Twice series began in late 2016 first is their first attempt to bring together two similar yet vastly different interpretations. While the most important aspect of their art is the “line”, the collaborative intention goes beyond the surface. Here are my three observations:
Before the paper:
There are no preliminary sketches or meticulous preparation. This is a common practice by these two artists. However, the conceptual framework is well thought out. Like a movie, when “action” is called, both artists begin working simultaneously and sometimes on their own clock. This method ensures their painted lines travel individually and freely until they meet. The converging point represents the climax and tension that brings to mind the Creation of Adam by Michelangelo (1475-1564) at the Sistine Chapel.
Beyond the surface:
When most collaborative works present only juxtaposition or harmonized composition, Wai and Hung chose to unveil the process as much as result. The painting requires reading beyond the surface and gives clue to the spiritual and intellectual interactions that ultimately lead to confrontation, embracement, collision and compromise.
Behind the scene:
In essence, the collaboration between Wai and Hung is a form of “Action Painting”. The resulting work often emphasizes the physical act of painting itself as an essential aspect of the finished work or concern of its artists. Neither representational nor pure abstraction, not even a script from a book or a play on a stage, the work is a street-encounter that sparks new life from accident. It is nature working at its best.
The Moment of Truth and Correspondence to the Object
Same Line Twice by Wai Pongyu and Hung Fai stand alone as the most thought-provoking series by two mid-career artists. The paintings not only shed new light on the intention of art collaboration, they bring forth the conceptual pairings of xieyi (suggestive) painting and Abstract Expressionism, and self-awareness and sub-consciousness. The paintings are not meant to portray objects per se or even specific emotions. Instead they are meant to touch the audience deep in the subconscious mind, evoking a sense of the primeval and tapping the collective sense of an archetypal visual language. By painting "unconsciously" and spontaneously, Wai and Hung successfully create a powerful arena of raw emotion and action, in the moment.
To derive creative concept from original thought is rare among contemporary artists. Doing so in collaboration is therefore truly remarkable. It is delightful to witness Wai Pongyu and Hung Fai approach this new series. They supported, challenged, commiserated, and inspired each other at every step, from an initial private commission to the development of a full mature series. I would like to extend my gratitude to the writers in this catalogue: Anselmo Reyes, Paul Serfaty, John Yiu and Olivia Wang. Their passages and essays explain the origin of the series, their poetic inspiration, and broaden the meaning of art collaboration in a historical, political and cultural context. Their contributions are an integral part of this groundbreaking exhibition.