I was quietly looking forward to M+’s opening and the display of my works in its store, when an even more interesting collaboration opportunity came along – to create “Trans-fashion” works in a crossover with one of the creators of the museum collection, Hong Kong artist Sara Tse.
Coming into Sara’s studio today to choose old clothes and discuss creative direction, I looked in and saw such soft, snowy clothes, lace, leaves, postage stamps… With her consent, I touched them hesitantly, only to realise that they were hard ceramics. A mother’s old clothes and a daughter’s infant dresses, preserved in clay slip and fired in 1260 degrees of high heat, were rid of all colours and odours, yet sealed in with all the memories and secrets of moments past.
Smiling timidly, Sara began with My Mother to recount the story of her art. Sara’s mother came to China from Malaysia to study when she was young, but was unable to return home thereafter under the political circumstances then. As such, her mother cherished the brief time she had had in her home country and everything about it. The receipts for every gold bracelet given by the grandmother to the grandchild, the receipt for one night’s hostel stay on a trip from Guangzhou to Singapore in 1955… these memories passed on to Sara and became part of the work.
On the wall hung a shirt sewn with Life Bread packaging, all done so meticulously that even the shirt label was extracted from the packaging. Life Bread symbolises a journey in pursuit of a dream, but also unfolded for Sara many a lesson of life and death. At the time, Sara led a thrifty lifestyle to prepare for a Master’s degree abroad. After a trip to the US to find the right school, she came home to the first words from her mother, “Who are you?”
“With the exhibition of My Mother, I wanted to make ceramics with my mother’s clothes. I recreated the set-up of the old house and placed in it her sewing machine, clothes, wardrobe… hoping to awaken her memories.” To take care of her dementia-stricken mother, Sara gave up on the chance for further studies, until 5 years later, when her mother lost memory of her completely. “In desperate times when even doctors could not help much, I made ceramics with my mother’s old clothes. It was a catharsis of sorts, like sending blessings. Some people make sacred statues, while I make ceramics to channel power.”
As she was choosing between pursuing further studies and caring for her mother, her brother informed her that their mother could not stay with his family. Sara was greatly disappointed. At the same time, she received Le French May’s support to spend a month in Paris. She thought of using art-making to reminisce her best memories with her brother, and to resolve the enmity in her heart. Using an old electric blanket brought over by a friend, she sewed a tricycle.
“At the time, as I sewed stitch after stitch, I fell asleep and dreamt of my brother and I being transported back to our childhood. We even fixed some childhood failings together. I woke up feeling tremendously happy. I could begin to empathise with him in his circumstance and was relieved too. To me, what is unbearable in life can always be resolved through the act of creation somehow.” The same fabric was also stitched into a teddy bear that she always held onto when she was small. The cutting left specks of irregular holes on the blanket, “Though the parts that were cut away seem to have disappeared completely, the holes illustrate the same things. I displayed the blanket after the cuts like a piece of painting, the idea of it being akin to my ceramics creation process.”
When matters fade away, memories do not drift off along with them, but may be passed on. Atop a piano was a metal box entangled with red threads, bought by Sara from a flea market in Melbourne. On each slide within the box was written a location, like India, Marseille, Switzerland… or a name or a festive event, quite possibly the adventures of a fashionable lady between the years of 1957 and 1958. The slides were then developed into photos, embroidered and affixed with ceramic cushions, thus transformed into Sara’s narratives.
Time Traveller is an extension of My Mother, this time round also making use of old furniture retrieved from an old couple’s home and ceramic clothes that display the lives of women in the 50s. This exhibition was in turn presented by Louis Vuitton and then Art Basel, and finally collected by M+. Before the opening of the museum, you may visit NOT a fashion store! at the Hong Kong Museum of Art to see Sara’s strong yet tender ceramics of memories.
As a child, Sara would often sit by the sewing machine, placing a teddy bear on the side, to accompany her mother at work. It is not hard to find needlework in Sara’s works. She is not keen on following steps, but is able to learn and create by herself. She also hopes to pass on the ideas of frugality and the love of crafts to the next generation through the Clayplay workshops and encourages her children Tiger and Sandra to upcycle obsolete items. She would often film and share the process on YouTube too.
“Art can become the medium for beliefs and love to pass on for generations, offering consolations to souls and resonating beyond time and space,” said Sara.
I look forward to seeing our memory fragments disintegrate and form new characters. See you in M+.