FLOATING SIGNS: Art as Life, Life as Art

Wolfgang Kubin (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn)

Almond Chu searches for timelessness in his art.

One has to take into consideration that Almond Chu’s way to photography was not a direct one. He started as a painter and still draws his sketches before he takes his photos. What can be seen in his drawings is that he outlines his photos as a theatrical play that has to be performed on a stage. The same is true for his videos and installations, which he, however, only regards as a minor form of exercise or preparation for his photographs. Almond Chu, who used to paint in oils daily from dawn to dusk, finally gave up this strenuous enterprise when he discovered that he just learnt a Western technique without any spiritual enrichment. He regained his confidence in his art when he was introduced to the camera called Hasselblad. It was its square format that decided his way in the end. That is why one might still conclude that the change from painting to photography was just a change from one frame to another, from rectangle to square. It was, however, also a change of places: from Hong Kong to Japan. The most influential person was his Japanese teacher Iizawa Kôtarô and, finally, Japanese life style. Though the encounter with New York was a turning point for Almond Chu in 1993, Japan was and is still more influential than the New World. In 1983 he left Hong Kong for Tokyo. When he had lived in the former Crown Colony he first studied graphic design at the First Institute of Art and Design, then traditional oil painting in evening courses. In both cases he did not get what he wanted to find. In contrast, by studying photography at Tokyo College of Photography from where he graduated in 1986, he did not only satisfy his artistic needs, but also got deeply involved in the theory and practice of “simple things.”

As is well-known Japanese culture completed the Chinese idea of simplicity in art and life. This aesthetic attitude, first in fashion during Song Dynasty (960–1279), preferred the unadorned manner, the plain style. In this respect, things of everyday life could become art as well. Being content with “eating, drinking, chatting,” as Almond Chu puts it today, was the background of many masterpieces of Chinese poets, painters, essayists about one thousand years ago. The same is true for Japanese works of art during the past several hundred years.

As a student Almond Chu was under the spell of the American artist Robert Mapplethorpe. He is still often characterized by art magazines as the “Chinese Mapplethorpe,” but when he was in New York for three months he turned away from this idol. He discovered that his endeavours were more a kind of “activity” than art. They were “too simple”, i.e. too simple in the bad sense of the word: it was a kind of superficial simplicity, a simplicity searched for, not the simplicity that is very complex. In his own words:

“I had always thought it was important to have a prop – a pistol, a pen or whatever – when I was doing a portrait”, he said. “I think that after my experience in New York, I understood more about the importance of simplicity in a photograph.”

One might think of the portrait of “Allen 1993,” a male nude with a pistol in his mouth, and compare it to any later portrait of a flower. In the latter case we can speak of true simplicity that reveals simplicity naturally found on the surface, but not a constructed kind of simplicity that has to be searched for in its depth.

In New York Almond Chu enjoyed for the first time in his life a period in which he could totally devote himself to pure aesthetic questions.

Almond Chu speaks of the inner life that even things enjoy. It is this inner life that allows the things to have a look at themselves, as he comments his photographs. This look at oneself might only be possible by the use of three artistic devices: first by the reduction of the colours to white and black and sometimes grey, second by the reduction of forms to the form of an egg or the round form, third by making use of a mysterious light. By these means the object of the photographer wins a kind of dignity that is called “the dignity of isolation” by one critic. Why isolation? Flowers, animals, vegetables, fruits as well as portraits and nudes are not imbedded into their surroundings, they are rather cut off from their neighbourhood and seem to rest only in themselves. As pure form they represent the basic forms of life: light and dark, round and square, creativity and sexuality. These basic forms can be reduced to two forms: black and round. Round things have been regarded as beautiful since man began to exist: they seem to be complete in themselves. At the same time they symbolize the beginning of life. Black is the sum of all colours for Almond Chu. He comments further:

Black represents what I feel. Its function in my photos is space, space to think. It is not meant as a definite statement.

The colour black and the round form are the two essential elements of the triptych “Patrick and the Egg” (1993). In this photo the head of the doctor Patrick Lee and the egg have the same form and the same colour. The magic that colour and form evoke, is created by the frame which is square and by the background which is almost completely black. If this is, as one critic called it, “man’s search for perfection”, it would also be right to say this is man’s search for the very first moment of life when everything began.

It would be very easy to explain the aesthetic ideas behind Almond Chu’s photography from a Chinese point of view. One is tempted to subsume the recurrent motifs and devices of black and white, of square and round, of man and woman, of life and death under the principle of Yin and Yang. The invisible force behind these opposites or correlations would be Dao or its emanation qi 气, the breath of life. The clear lines and the plain objects with their pure, simple and calm forms would require an interpretation that follows either the ideal of emptiness (kong 空), which is manifested in the arts of the Tang Dynasty (618–907), or the ideal of dan 淡, an unadorned style of daily life as developed during Song Dynasty. But one would be completely wrong by doing so. When asked about any kind of influence on his artistic ideas, Almond Chu would totally deny drawing any inspiration from Chinese conceptions. He would rather speak of Dali, Man Ray, Magritte, and French surrealism as being important for his early beginnings, but he now prefers to dismiss any theories except for minimal art and the philosophy of simple things. He even speaks of smashing all previous models and theories, so that it will be possible to see something that no one has seen before. In order to fulfil this aim, he does not want to fill his works of art with additional meaning. Critics therefore have characterized his art as an art without depth. True depth, however, cannot be seen, says Almond Chu. What he means by this has to do with the aim of his art. His purposes are timelessness and eternity. For a postmodern age, which denies permanent values, this sounds as if he set his sights too high. Nevertheless, Almond Chu, claims independence from time and space for his photographs. Sometimes his pictures are completed in his mind and still have to wait for years before they get their final shape in his studio. In this sense I have characterized the general principle that underlies the art of Almond Chu as metaphysics of forms. Only this helps to explain the mysterious light of his flowers and the sculpture-like bodies of his nudes. The forms seem to be removed from their objects; they seem to be independent and find everything in themselves. Whereas (post-)modern art favours the destruction of beauty, Almond Chu rescues beauty. Though he says he is an atheist, his commitment to eternal beauty gains a somewhat religious attitude. One of his exhibitions was called “Zen and Flower” (Chan yu hua), with the blossom symbolizing the transgression of life, sex and death.

“My attitude towards life”, says Almond Chu, “and my claim for life have formed my creative direction.” In this sense the arrangement of his world in black and white is not an artistic device but an inner attitude, and his décor is a dialogue between life and art. What is true for his art is true for his life, too, and vice versa. Daily experience is the source of his inspiration. Almond Chu prefers simple things. As simple things find their basic manifestation in black and white, in square and round, in clean and silent.

The above essay is excerpted from:
Floating Signs: Art As Life, Life As Art in Contemporary Hong Kong
Wolfgang Kubin, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn
Performing Cultures in East Asia: China, Korea, Japan

©Peter Lang AG, Europäischer Verlag der Wissenschaften, Bern 2005