Gavin Au: Hong Kong’s influence on photography

Recently honored with the Gold Winner of Asia Photo Award, Gavin Au is one of China’s upincoming names in photography. Based out of Hong Kong, Au offers an interesting perspective on being a young, asian photographer. Visually, his work is at the same time culturally representative of China, it’s “peeping” for example, as well as international, as seen with his stamp “collection.” And in the following interview, he depicts influential elements surrounding his work like artistic freedom versus repressive politics in China and appropriating tintypes into his own modern style.

What is it to be a Hong Kong based artist today?

Artists have a great observation and sensitive to the things that happened around. They care about the community more than the most people. To me, Hong Kong is my base to develop art and for art creation. The artworks which explore the local culture and respond to the social, this is called Hong Kong’s local artists. In recent years, there has been a phenomenon in Hong Kong, most social movements are initiated by local artists.

What does your 2007 Hong Kong Institute of Professional Photographers prize consist of?

Asia Photo Awards is a very important award in Asia. It provides a channel for more Asia photographic artists to know about the artworks from different Asia countries and exchange art news with each other. It plays a certain role in promoting Asian photography culture. When I got the Gold Winner of Asia Photo Award, I had just graduated from RMIT University (Major in Fines Art), so it was a great surprise! This Gold Winner of the Asia Photo Award gave me opportunities to present my work in different Asian countries. Because of more people knowing my art, the piece “UPSKIRT” has even been the cover of a well-known photography magazine “CHINESE PHOTOGRAPHY”. All of these experiences were really great!

Your work speaks of the need you feel for individual recognition and freedom of expression. Can you speak about these challenges and being an activist?

Hong Kong has an easier time maintaining human rights when compared with mainland China. Freedom of speech in Hong Kong is still present, I can publish any articles or present any artwork in public without being prohibited or arrested. Of course, the government does not interfere to your artwork and also will not respond to your comments.

Your series “Still Sitting of the Wall” has been greatly exhibited and published. What will be your next series? Do you think it will have as much success?

First of all, thank you for so many people like and have resonance to my ”Still Sitting on the Wall” series. My recent new series of works is “Collect Stamps”. It is an artwork to explore the human desire. Investigate the “Peeping” common phenomenon in Hong Kong. This series of work was just presented in the HONG KONG INTERNATIONAL ART FAIR 2011. Luckily, the feedback was great! I think people can get the message that I’m trying to deliver in this series of work. If we open the HK newspaper, peeping almost happens every day! Sometimes in the bus, MTR train, toilet or even escalator. This is a very common and sensitive social issue in Hong Kong.

In my “Collect Stamps” series, the image appears in the shape of a flower. When you take a look at it desire will force you to collect more and more. You will not feel satisfied until you got everything stored in your private album. But as you know, it’ll never end for you’ll never feel satisfy. “Collect Stamps” actually is another chapter of “Upskirt”. This series of work gives people a feeling of different country flags because once we think of a stamp, we must think of different countries.

During the HONG KONG INTERNATIONAL ART FAIR, lots of people asked and were eager to know what’s next in my coming artwork. I am currently invited by the Art Promotion Office from the government to cooperate with a series of works about the community. Everything is still processing. The Art Promotion Office will announce the details later.

An artwork about “Peeping” in society

Collect Stamps, Peeping on Barbie skirts, 1000 x 1000 mm, 2011

Starting from the invention of photography, it carries the function and intent of peeping. From undercover agents who sneak into the enemies’ base to stalkerazzi who doggedly pursues celebrities, peeping has its functionality and place in our society. Peeping was originated from our desire and curiosity; it is an evolution beyond our regular eyesight and perspective. So many people are intrusively peeping into other people’s lives, we have slipped into the generation of peeping. No matter how moral, ethical and well educated you are, the temptation of “Peeping” is simply irresistible. Although we cannot affirm the legality of peeping, we cannot deny peeping as a function of modern photography; notwithstanding its moral and ethical stance, peeping has been an important component of the cultural of photography. What I have done in the series of “Upskirt”, is a peculiar expression on the ethical paradox between “beauty” and “filth”, a sensitive social subject expressed through the innocent doll figures. The delight of being legal and illegal is comparable to the contemplation after Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”, even if the act of peeping has not gained general reorganization, it does indeed have it’s function in our society. In this veiled world when truth is always being ignored and disregarded, who doesn’t want to have a peep?

The series of ” Upskirt ” expressed people’s curiosity over others and the desire of possession.” Collect Stamps “focused on the rapacious instinct of human, similar to the stamp collector’s plentiful collections germinating from his first collected stamp, his desire will not be satisfied until he has got everything stored in his private album.

Can you talk about the old technique you use for your STILL SITTING ON THE WALL series? And why you use it? Is it a choice that goes beyond a simple aesthetic choice?

Actually, the old technique – Tintype- that I used for (Still Sitting on the Wall) is part of my another project “Journey into the Past”. It is an on going art project about photography. What we leant about photography was delivered by the former people. Starting from the invention of photography, it’s been through many different kinds of photography method. With advances in technology, many old traditional photography methods were eliminated. But as an artist who always uses photography as a medium, I think I should personally experience the process of photographic history by myself. I believe I should be the one who decides which method is good for me; it shouldn’t be the choice of the new technology manufacturers or anyone else. So I started my ongoing photography art project ”Journey into the Past”. The journey this time is tintype. I think the mood and the tone of tintype is very suitable to present the helpless situation of “Still Sitting on the Wall”. Still sitting on the wall and watching the uninterrupted construction going on. We are pushed by the torrent of times, standing on top of this narrow “Wall” with only confusion, without knowing what to do. Now we can only sit still on this borderline ever after.

Catch; kidnap; arrest; elimination.

In the past year, freedom has been going remote from us, civil rights activists, human rights lawyers, dissident writers and journalists in China were suppressed even more. Nobel peace prize receiver Mr. Liu Xiaobo was incarcerated; Leader of the “Home for Kidney Stone Babies” Mr. Zhao Lianhai was “granted” a medical release from prison; Mr. Tan Zuoren was imprisoned; Human rights lawyer Mr. Liu Shihui was beaten up; Jasmine protesters were restrained, human right was severely violated and suppressed in China. Private homes in Hong Kong Ma Sik Road Village were broken-in but ignored by the Police; Villagers in Kam Tin were defending against the Government outsourcing guards – the ideology and human values are completely distorted.

When humanity is turning severely low, it reminds me of “Sitting on the Wall” created by the Chinese photographer Weng Fen ten years ago. The young girl is sitting on the “Wall” with her back facing the camera, looking into the new little town with curiosity and desire. At this moment, that little town has turned into a metropolis: globalization, political ideology and commercial culture coexist, chaotic but prosperous; this girl is right at the borderline of utopia, fascinated with the future.

This “Wall” maybe something as simple as everyday life, but for many people it’s the beginning of a nightmare, it represents the happening of the “Land Enclosure Movement”, signifying the redevelopment of common land, segregating people from their homeland, then people can only glance at their homeland standing on top of the “Wall”. Ten years past, the world was not much more perfect than before, only with uninterrupted construction going on. We are pushed by the torrent of times, standing on top of this narrow “Wall” with only confusion, without knowing what to do.

I think no matter what the young girl was fascinated about or even if she felt trapped in a maze, now she can only sit still on this borderline ever after.

In this exhibition, I created a new D.I.Y. camera named Mr. sad and a portable outdoor darkroom to explore this “Still sitting on the wall” tintype series and tried to present one set of his artworks as a response to the phenomena happened in China and Hong Kong in past year (2010).

Do you think that current photography is going towards the trend of old techniques?

I do think that current photography is going towards to the trend of old techniques. I’ve noticed that more people are moving towards learning the old photography methods. I believe it’s because of the popularity of digital cameras. More people like to take photos nowadays; naturally, more people would be interested in the traditional photography methods at the same time. This is a natural tendency when photography culture is getting more popular. I think it is a logical trend.

How did you feel when the Hong Kong Hertiage Museum bought one of your pieces? Is this important for a young artist?

When artwork is collected in a museum, it means your creation has become a part of a history and culture. Hong Kong Heritage Museum has one of the most important Photograph Collectors and to get their attention is an affirmation of my artwork. This is very important to a young emerging artist. I feel very honored; it already collected several of my pieces.

How do you view private collectors of your work?

I am very pleased for sure to have some private collectors buy my work. Their presence represents Hong Kong’s art market is beginning to mature. This has an important impact on the entire cultural development. If the art market is mature, it also means that artists can be more self–sufficient. If artists can create art without any external financial assist, then the artwork’s content can be more free.

Interview by RD & LG

Link to Gavin Au’s Website