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A Holly Lee and Lee Ka-sing online magazine. Published on Fridays.
coda (work year 2020)
by Lee Ka-sing
8x10 in, 20×25 cm
480 pages, softcover, 227 photographs
(coda is a piece of original work, in the form of a BOOK)
In July 2020, I received an invitation from “The House of Hong Kong Literature” to participate a group exhibition to be held at the Pao Galleries of the Hong Kong Arts Centre at the end of the year. In this exhibition 12 visual artists will be in dialogue with 12 writers. "On the Brink of Borrowed Time: To Stay / To Flee" is the title of this event. I was invited for the “To Flee” section, responding to Leung Ping-kwan’s work.
At the end of June, I had just finished a piece of new work “domestic-life-colour-book”, a 480 pages book with a suite of photographs that I made during the lock-down period, photographs taken from March 5 to June 28. These photographs were, as Holly's description, “with touches of optimism and a lot of colours”. While I was working on the last chapter of the book, the inconceivable, cumbrous, repressive black clouds mushrooming all over Hong Kong, my moods suddenly sinked to the heavier end.
For my contribution to the exhibition, I decided to make a BOOK, instead of photographs displaying on wall. A new book, which is also an extension of the “domestic-life-colour-book”.
written by Holly Lee
When Ka-sing started to gather from his old photographs to compile a hefty volume of poetic images dedicated to Hong Kong, I was curious about the weight of the project. Taking into consideration the present antagonistic climate there, it would, undoubtedly, not towards the light.
He calls it coda, a visual poem.
Coda has a colour, or two. The word first of all, is encased in the Pantone colour of a slightly reddish - the lighter grey 409. Actually, I would hesitate between 409 and the deeper grey 410. I cannot pinpoint the exact colour because colours look inconsistent under different light sources. I am now sitting underneath a narrow, long bank of LEDs, which give out a warm yellowish light. When I walk over to the big window, with a lot of daylight flooding in, I might have to choose another number of grey, say 431. Now we consider the next part, the background colour, where the alphabets are set upon. Normally I would call it a very dull dark blue. How dull? the Pantone 539? No, it looks too primary. I would perhaps mix a slightly purplish blue 2965 with a medium grey 430. Again all these are just to give you an idea of the cover design of the book Ka-sing calls coda, which by this time, you already got a sense of no matter how free flowing it seems to be, still contains an almost unbearable weight.
Ka-sing is the kind of person who talks little, but stays focus. He could listen to Beethoven’s symphonies many times over without being bored. When I raised a surprise look that he was still listening to the same play list weeks ago, he’d say, “This is a version by another conductor, a different orchestra.” I agree that he will always find something new, or a different interpretation in the same piece of music, but I also believe that the emotion, rhythm, ebb and flow in the musical language must have played an important part in influencing him, paving the way for him to compose the work informed by his photographs, as an unabbreviated visual experience, emerged new, as a narrative, a sensorial alternate form, a symphonic poem as he'd call it.
I had an indescribable feeling, almost overwhelmed with emotions when I first saw coda on the computer screen. A body of 227 images which took about 20 minutes to sit through. A meditation. A slow down of a hurried life. For certain, anybody would feel one thing or the other after sitting patiently for twenty minutes watching the visual poem. After all, some images are universally understood and resonated, though the stories would be vastly different. That’s the beauty of the work. You cannot help but echo with some of the images you’re drawn to, there is a sense of familiarity, something long hidden in the secret corners of the mind that you could not resist to step into their shadows…
The first image in coda is a stunning fuzzy impressionistic black and white shot from Kowloon overlooking to Hong Kong Island, barely visible as mountains of lights. It starts with the celebration of the first night after the 1997 Handover in July. A night drizzling with light rain but nevertheless fireworks were still shooting off to light up the sky. The action was spontaneous, the photographer a wandering soul, following and searching the moods of the city. The image, like everything else, was never meant to be clear. The second shot shows a seemingly melt-down clock, which haunted me immediately as an object found after explosion, which then pursued by a sort of whirlwind, a quiet round object with pencil marks to a wreath of barbed wire twirled in the air, like a crown of thorns. The poetics of the images are so strong. We are being led in the dark wood round and round, sometimes quiet, smooth, sometimes rugged, dense and impenetrable.
We’re led to the pictures showing old negatives rephotographed, perforated film strips that recorded images visually and mentally invoke sound vibrations, striking different cords in our hearts. Following pages of texturing and layering we are slowly entering Hong Kong lives in the 80s and 90s, the rose garden, memories of the lives of superstars and common folks, arrows always asking the question come or go, this way or that way. And, trailing behind so many staircases, steps, writings and layerings of events the city comes to reveal itself - a wet football field, skyscrapers, trees, roads, grids in myriad forms. Sometimes it feels like a prison to break out. But there are more knotted roots, more entangled wires and obstacles. Is that the state of mind of the artist?
Perhaps it means what it means. Coda is a soft sigh exhaled gently to something past. A good-bye (again) to a close friend and the city they both left behind. It is a dialogue and a funeral song - something that’s so frequently heard in Mahler’s symphonies. The famous Adagietto in his Fifth, a love song replete with the yearnings of living and the inevitability of dying. In making coda, Ka-sing deliberately converted most of the colour photographs into black and white, with just a few exceptions - the colour he still sees and wedged in his memory, the photograph “I promise you a rose garden”, which he created as an editorial assignment for a magazine in 1990. Hong Kong, seven years into heading back to the hands of China, was full of optimism and a number of mega constructions were being proposed. They called it the Rose Garden Project. The future looked rosy, thus the title Ka-sing gave to his picture, not without skepticism. Today we are still intrigued by the thought and the picture, even so the sky has already turned grey, the promise, like the magnificent, breathtaking cloudscape, remains a scene just flew past the window of an aeroplane.
Can you live in the clouds, beautiful as it is, asked Ping-kwan in his poem. Ping-kwan was thinking about temporal, terrestrial and earthly matters at the time when he wrote the poem in 1981. He was seeing his city distancing, disappearing under the clouds after the plane took off. Forty years later, Ka-sing responded with coda, his jolts of feelings largely expressed through images, his love and memories of the vanishing city, a melancholic departure that lingers like a slow, at times turbulent tune that keeps looping itself - a mirage of desire, a smoke screen to despair. This city, often considered, undermined as transient, has become indisposable, a home lives permanently in the heart. Coda is but another chapter, a book made after another book in the same year*. The end shot is a small Big Bang. The ending is another beginning.
*Lee Ka-sing domestic-life-colour-book was made prior to coda. It was made during the lock-down months of Covid in 2020 (with touches of optimism and a lot of colours). Unlike coda, which recycled old images, all 227 images in domestic-life-colour-book were new. The book has 480 Pages, the same number of pages and images as in coda. As Ka-sing puts it, a duo.
The first 16 diptych images from a suite of 227 sequential photographs in coda
“coda” is a print-on-demand publication. The book is available for a full version Preview or Order directly from the printing company BLURB.
On the Brink of Borrowed Time: To Stay / To Flee
An exhibition presented by The House of Hong Kong Literature, featuring collaborative artwork of 12 pairs of artist and writer on the theme of staying or leaving.
Hong Kong Arts Centre
October 30 - December 6, 2020
A Holly Lee and Lee Ka-sing online magazine. Published on Fridays.
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Holly and Ka-sing currently live in Toronto with their daughter Iris, and their cat Sukimoto.