on Conversation with a Friend I

An established designer and a Brand consultant from Hong Kong, Ted Yu is also a curator and an event organizer. Wearing many hats he is naturally and fully aware of realism, yet he is a dreamer and idealist nicely balanced. His keen interest in the arts over the years has him thought about many issues which artists are constantly concerned about and perhaps also struggled with, hence, conversation with him is inevitably but enjoyable.

In Coffee Club located in the quiet corner off hustle and bustle Holland Village, he recounted his experience of curating and organizing an exhibition in Hong Kong for a Mainland Chinese painter just a month ago in December last year whose paintings are enormous. “Size does matter,” he opinioned. For a while I thought like most curators I have come across he would go on to tell me the bigger the better. Contrary to that, he said there is an optimal size to every piece of art and big does not always equate to good.

Artists produce big work more often than not to impress viewers and collectors, and perhaps to flaunt their resources. “After the “wow”, what is next?” he questioned but later admitted that it is not always easy to discern the optimal size; still, it is an issue artists should ponder about more instead of making big work for the wrong reason(s). He cited artists have transformed a grain of rice into stunning work. They must have thought about the size that anything bigger the result achieved would have been short of the spectacular.

This reminded me of an artist friend who did an installation about “Memory in Cups” for her final year project in University. She had set up more than 80 cups to present her concept and reminisced would have added more for greater impact if she had not run out of time. To her amazement, her professor critiqued the installation would have been stronger with just 3 cups and that the scale actually served to weaken and distract viewers from the strong concept.

From my own experience, scale of work is intimately related to space. Perhaps I create work very often for commission where I have knowledge of the space in-situ, dimension of my work is often determined by the space therefore. On the other hand, to establish the optimal size can indeed be quite a struggle when I create work without an exhibition venue in mind. Working in my pigeon-hole studio, the scale of works may look good but it is possible they may appear too small in an exhibition space in the future. However, I do appreciate where Ted comes from when he insisted dimension of artwork has more to do with the composition and not so much the space. Perhaps that was what it meant when a critic once said of Beethovan’s composition “A little noise that makes big sound…”

Sound is one of many forms of expression and so is language. Most of us would not question that language is a powerful and indispensable tool to connect and communicate with other people. Hence, it is not surprising we find our experience in foreign lands more meaningful and engaging if we are able to speak the local language. Yet, to Ted, language is not the most effective way of connectivity between people and it actually serves to handicap at times. He cites the Buddhist Scripture as an example. The Scripture is a written record of conversations between the Buddha and his disciplines. Usually it started with a precept from the Enlightened but to enhance understanding, example upon example followed to clarify the meaning of the precept. Soon we as readers find ourselves losing tract of the original doctrine, instead of apprehending it becomes confusing and incomprehensive.

The more supreme forms of connection, Ted offers, are through revival of our neglected sensory, body language and pictures. Visiting the World Expo in Shanghai last year, he found himself checking out hung fabric columns in a pavilion. Every fabric column was empty with nothing at all to see. Not getting it most people came in and did not hesitate to get out of the column in an instance but Ted felt connected with the intent of the artist/designer and lingered inside taking in the very subtle scent each column had to offer.

While on a trip in Japan, he chanced upon a very tiny eatery managed by an elderly couple. No longer able to articulate in Japanese, he did not let this shortcoming rob him from getting his message how he had enjoyed the meal across to the owners by using body language. Before they realized it, Ted and the couple were communicating back and forth through drawing! They might not have understood each other fully but he believed they had successfully grasped the essence of what they wanted to say to each other and the whole experience, without words, was actually very beautiful and magical to him.

Our dialogue on role a curator plays and development of an artist are particularly interesting to me. The current paradigm of an artist creating and for most to ultimately sell his/her creations sometimes with the help of a curator’s promotion is not always agreeable to Ted. He proposes his view on this model, “curators are not salesmen” he emphasized and artists should not be in a hurry to sell their works. Curator has the ability to thread a link with artworks seemingly sharing no commonality and therefore are able to give artworks layered meaning and exposure, which should be the priority before permitting the works to be collected. This is a more natural process to him. To push the envelope, the perfect model is actually artists not sell their works at all but to be entirely collected by museum post mortem!

As an artist, while I agree with the fundamentals of the model I lament that it is an impractical ideal. For the model to work, it not only has to take care of an artist’s finances thus allowing and sustaining him/her to continue to create in his/her most natural and free state but also settle the expansiveness of storage for the entire body of work in his/her lifetime. Viewing from the museum’s perspective, the ideal also poses many issues funding will presumably be enormous and again storage space with regulated temperature to preserve and store such volume of works will be required. Hence, how many late artists’ entire body of work could museums collect if going by this model?

Onto the development of an artist, Ted said “artists should not be too greedy and abuse their freedom to creativity in experimenting too many different media and ideas. Artist must exercise control if they seek to achieve mastery.”

While it has its truth that control may lead to mastery for some artists, freedom with control can be oxymoron to other artists. There are artists who enjoy creating works with similar themes and media all their lives, others need to move on with experimentation of different materials and ideas to satisfy many voices in them. One artist friend once told me that he soon felt bored doing the same old same old. He needs to do something completely different to stay stimulated.

Control and freedom will always be an interesting push-pull. In the description of Jackson Pollock’s work he the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York said found the extraordinary balance between accident and control. And the renowned Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s (1875 - 1961) concept of the unconscious psyche and to say it should be allowed to speak but the voice should be modulated by some controls.

In nature where thing seems so free and random, in scrutiny, it is not totally devoid of orders and rhythms - There is a daily rhythm of sunrise and sunset, the rhythm of the seasons, the rhythm of so much natural life from seed to flower, to seed again. In Hinduism, there is the cosmic rhythm of the ages, the rhythm of the universe which is created, sustained, destroyed and recreated. Perhaps many great artists who transcend forms could do so because they are tuned to this universal rhythm.

So does control limit creativity? Do we need control in order to be free? The view that creativity is the result of abandoning all boundaries has been my philosophy, but along the way serendipities have shown me that that structure does, though not always, allow extemporization which creates something much greater than the original intended form. In such instances, I do support the notion that boundaries and controls can actually lead to a greater sense of freedom, creativity and mastery.


Mei Ling, 2011-01-13

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