Fabienne Francotte cut out pages of her notebooks and shared it with the world. The result is I Don’t Know But I Remember at Saskia Fernando Gallery in Colombo (February 21-March 20, 2020). Inside the gallery, images of women lined the white walls. Some peered back at me straight on while others refused to acknowledge me. They are pretty and mysterious, and they are all real–women Fabienne had met in Sri Lanka and other parts of the world. As an artist, as a woman, Fabienne stripped herself bare–like “the creatures in [her] notebooks, [she is] vulnerable, bearing the scars of life with dignity.” A stunning 60 year-old-woman, Fabienne lives unapologetically. When I am 60, I want to be full of joy and life, just like her.
At 37, I am crippled with fear and anxiety. I can’t commit to my writing career full-time, worried that without “legitimate” work, I could not afford to have a room or money of my own. I stubbornly refused to quit my job–it brings me an illusion of independence while using it as an excuse for not writing. Fabienne is an inspiration to me, as a woman, as a writer and as a creative. This is my tribute to her. I am 60 in 2020: I don’t know, but I remember.
I am 60, and I am the product of our global village. Before the age of 11, I had lived in Japan, Taiwan, and Canada. As a young adult, I moved to the U.A.E., Bahrain, and Hong Kong to pursue my career as an academic librarian. Then I moved to Sri Lanka with my husband to expand my horizon as a writer. In my 30’s, the global village started to close in as its citizens erected walls. The physical walls weren’t nearly as effective as the psychological and mental ones. Invisible, albeit nationalistic borders were created to separate those who are different, those who don’t belong. As a woman, as an Asian, as an expatriate who calls wherever she is home, I shifted from one stereotype to the next, fighting one bigotry after another. I did not fit into any boxes as a young person, and now, as a 60-year-old, I have long ago given up on the idea of boxes and borders. Like my cat, I nap on top of cardboard boxes and ignore all boundaries, visible or not.
I am 60 and a woman writer. I do not live in the shadow of my own self-doubt; I do not question my creative abilities. I have money to buy pens, notebooks, and antique jewellery. I have a room of my own, with my favourite writing desk and teak shelves filled with inspiring books. I start projects without worrying whether or not I will finish them. When anxiety strikes, instead of succumbing to it as it did in my youth, I kill it and feed it to my work. I am 60 and I work fast–I don’t have time to procrastinate. When I was 30, I felt I had at least 50 years ahead of me–the work could wait. Now at 60, I am lucky to have 30 more. I need to finish my work now so I can make more.
I am 60 and I love myself. Though my youthful looks have faded, I embrace a new beauty that has emerged. I wear black, which flatters my figure. I put on the most outlandish and beautiful earrings I can find to offset the black. I don’t care about what other people think of me; I approach anyone as a potential collaborator and a friend. I have boundless energy. I am not afraid to give parts of myself away. I offer my love and support unconditionally to those who benefit from my attention. I am 60, and I am living my best life.
Thank you, Fabienne, for showing me how to live my best life.
Studying an acrylic painting of green shrub and concrete, Dewey Punk Pickles knows right away what she’s looking at—a pathway in Wan Chai she passes by during her morning runs to Victoria Harbour. Yeung Tong Lung’s brush strokes remind her of Cézanne’s obsessive and repetitive dabbing of paint. However, unlike Cézanne, who took up to 100 work sessions to complete a still life, Dewey doubts this artist had put in as much effort.
Dewey is at Wan Chai Grammatica: Past, Present, Future Tense, an exhibition celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Wan Chai Arts Center, Hong Kong. Lately, she has attended many shows and openings to enhance her skills as an art writer. For a Hong Kong-based writer who doesn’t want to work in finance or PR; art writing is her best bet.
As a Wan Chai resident of almost seven years, Dewey is interested in how artists see Hong Kong from the past, present, and future. Looking at an acrylic painting by Galylord Chan, she recognizes that this is an image of Vicotria Harbour of Old Hong Kong— the low-rise, not-skyscraper buildings, the old-timey clothes hanging to dry, and the airplane flying near the mountains on the Kowloon side where the old Kai Tak airport used to be. Though she wasn’t alive in Hong Kong during that time, she’s seen enough of Fan Ho’s photographs to get a sense of what Hong Kong was like in the past.
Chan’s painting looks as though the viewer is viewing at the harbor from the mountains, and the artist uses child-like lines to render the cityscape, evoking a sense of innocence. However, there is a depth to it too, like the way the artist illustrates the stacking of concrete buildings in Kowloon to show its population density. Also, by placing a ferry in the middle of the painting, the artist highlights the importance of ferries in Old Hong Kong—before the MTR (the reliable and inexpensive transportation system of Hong Kong), people relied on ferries to get from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon and vice versa. These days, the Star Ferry that takes passengers from Wan Chai to Tsim Sha Tsui has become a relic from the past. Although Dewey thinks it’s romantic to ride the Star Ferry, she only does so when she is not in a hurry.
Dewey looks at an ink and acrylic painting by Luis Chan that reminds her of classic Chinese ink paintings. She’s always enjoyed the serene mountain scenes created by the elegant strokes of a calligraphy brush. This one before her is a modern take of an old form, a painting of hilly Hong Kong Island with the sea and Kowloon in the backdrop. There are a few buildings in the picture, but the hills are mostly bare, except for a crazy tree with blue, yellow, and red leaves. In the harbor are junk boats with crimson sails, and at the foot of the hills are some obscured figures— they look like they are carrying something.
Other objects that remind Dewey of traditional Chinese landscape paintings are over-the-top dioramas created by MAP Office. She stops before a snow-capped mountain made of mini plastic palm trees covered in glue. All around the hills are soldiers wearing green uniforms and white helmets who have climbed towards the top using ropes secured by divers down below. The diorama depicts a scene of an invasion—the soldiers are storming around the Godzilla-like monster on the top of the mountain, trying to destroy it. Dewey thinks that this work shows the transition between old Hong Kong moving to a more contemporary Hong Kong.
Dewey’s favorite diorama is the landscape of seashells, fan-like corals, and a sand dollar covered in shiny pink beads, plastic palm trees, faux pearls, and female figures performing lewd acts. Some of them are lifting their skirts to show their asses; some are standing around naked sticking out their tits, others are sitting on the ground, submitting themselves to the male gaze. This glittery, pink world reminds Dewey of the neon lights on Lockhart Road, where young women from southeast Asia in short short skirts holler at Gweilos to entice them to stop for a drink.
Dewey stands before Xyza Cruz Bacani’s photographs of street scenes of Wan Chai. They are typical scenes of the neighborhood: Laborers hanging out on the steps of the Southorn Playground, a Gweilo (Cantonese slang for a light-skinned European descent) passed out on the infamous Lockhart Road, (Wan Chai’s red light district), and a couple kissing on the crowded sidewalk off Johnston Road. The image that captured Dewey’s attention shows the closing of an iconic Wing Wah Noodle Shop in Wan Chai. The store sign made up of four Chinese characters were covered carefully with characters printed on white paper, “gloriously finished business.” Wing Wah had been serving tantalizing wontons noodles and mouthwatering braised pork knuckles for the last 68 years. She’ll miss Wing Wah’s wonton noodles, especially after a night out.
Dewey enjoys these images because it’s fun to identify the locations in her neighborhood. They are current, like something she’d see in her day-to-day life. However, in her mind, they lack that unique little details that make her love the photographs. Or, perhaps she’s too fixated on identifying the locations to find the details.
So far, Dewey has explored the past and the present of Wan Chai. However, the only object in the show that reflects any inklings of Wan Chai in the future tense is MAP Office’s aquarium tanks stacked on top of each other. There is nothing special about the tanks, except when she bends down to take a closer look. Upon seeing at the construction projects outside of the window through the tank, Wan Chai has been turned into an underwater world inhabited by fishes. If the government and corporations don’t stop with the reclamation projects, Dewey thinks, we’d all have fishes as our neighbors.
There were a lot of artworks in the three-level exhibition space. There are photographs of Hong Kong skyline floating over a pint of beer by South Ho Siu Nam. There is an installation of leftover Indian food on banana leaves by N.S. Harsha, its realistic qualities grosses her out a little. There are more paintings, installations, and photographs, but after a while, her mind checks out.
Thinking back, Dewey wonders if Wan Chai Grammatica was an exhibition of quality. As a budding art writer, she needs to be analytical of her observations. She likes many of the objects in the show, though she is aware they are the ones she can relate to based on her own experience. She wonders if she would have enjoyed them if she didn’t live in Wan Chai. Also, she is also keenly aware that she hasn’t paid attention to everything in the show—there are just too many damn objects.
Yes, the exhibition makes an effort to show Wan Chai from the past, in the present, and what the future might hold, but, but Dewey’s not sure if the show has cast a new light on how she sees the city she calls home. Many of the objects illustrate Wan Chai’s multi-cultural identity and its colonial past. There are also some reflections on its seedy reputation and over-consumption. Many of objects also evoke a sense of nostalgia while documenting Wan Chai frozen in time. None of this is revealing or challenging though, Dewey thinks to herself. She’s not quite sure what deems revealing or challenging, but she’ll let you know when she comes across it.
Dewey Punk Pickles doesn’t understand art. She’s never studied art in school though she was a librarian at an art and design university. She goes to art exhibitions because it seems like the cool thing to do. All the cultured, intellectual, creative types, the type of people she associates with, are all going to drink wine at the art opening.
Dewey goes to the JC Contemporary at Tai Kwun to see Beijing-based artist Cao Fei’s show, A hollow in a world too full. Tai Kwun used to be a prison complex back in the colonial days of Hong Kong. The Jockey Club spent a fortune restoring and renovating the previously abandoned space. Dewey thinks it’s ironic that the institution that makes its bucks luring Hong Kongers with horse racing and gambling is now the city’s peddler of art and culture.
The entrance of JC Contemporary and its lobby is full of pretty, well-dressed people. They stand in clusters, chatting while sipping on their wines and beer. Dewey stands with her husband, Mean Dean, while drinking a glass of white wine. For free wine, it isn’t bad at all, she thinks to herself. She says hi to some friends, people she knew when she was a librarian. Then, with Mean Dean, she walks up to a grand staircase leading to the exhibition space. The place still smells like fresh paint. She has no idea what to expect.
Rumba (2015-2018). Video capture from the exhibition.
The first things Dewey encounters are some seemingly mindless yet hyper-aware disc-like robot cleaners roaming on a minimalistic landscape. They navigate the narrow passageways from one island to the next without aim but always swivel at the edge of the raised platform.
“I don’t get it,” Dewey thinks to herself, “what are these Roomba vacuum robots supposed to say?”
She keeps these thoughts to herself as she doesn’t want the people around her to hear her stupidity and ignorance. She clutches her exhibition catalog, hoping to glean some insight from it. But she has trouble reading while walking, and Mean Deans has already moved on to the next room.
The next room is a darkened theater. On the wall outside, it has a sign indicating that only those over the age of 18 are allowed to enter. The film shows a post-apocalyptic fantasy world filled with miniature architectural sets and figurines. Dewey sees the derelict golden arches of MacDonald’s restaurant and abandoned Porsches. There are people in this film too, and they look scared, in pain, or like zombies. Then, the scene changes and a man and a woman start to have a conversation in French. Dewey feels a little voyeuristic at this point as she stares at a pair of figures fucking on the screen. The woman is on the top riding the man. Dewey can’t help but notice that it looks like the woman is riding a metal rod, the rod is the man’s dick. Riding a rod doesn’t sound like a pleasurable experience.
Dewey is not bashful or anything, but while the film is fascinating on some level, it lacks plot. It doesn’t have a beginning or an end, and things are happening randomly. Sitting there in the dark room, she starts to feel sleepy. She curls up next to Mean Dean and falls asleep.
She wakes up when Mean Dean stands up to go to the next room, which has distressed walls with grey, peeling paint. Close to the back wall is a desk with an old-timey lamp on it. The lamp is on. Dewey sees a black rotary phone, a glass ashtray with two boxes of matches, and a file on a prisoner open for all to see. Behind the desk is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II hanging crookedly on the wall.
“Ah,” Dewey thinks to herself, “this must be one of the offices when Tai Kwun was still a prison.” This she understands and thinks is interesting. She feels that she understands culture and history better than art.
At this point, the exhibition space has closed. Dewey Punk Pickles and Mean Dean leave the exhibition, having seen only half of it.
A week later, Dewey returns to the JC contemporary. This time, she reads the exhibition catalog before going to the show, so she has some vague idea of what to expect. After seeing the vacuum robots, the film with the zombies and the fucking couple, and the prison room, she finds herself on the top floor. There are two screens flashing with animations. She looks at one of them for a while. It looks like a city in China but like a Chinese city on crack. It has a crazy, over-the-top color palette, and the perspective spins as if we are seeing the city from a drone. At one point, Dewey sees Tiananmen Square. In the place where Mao’s portrait should have been is a picture of a panda. She chuckles.
She doesn’t bother to look at the other screen in the same room. Instead, she climbs down the grand staircase and continues the exhibition.
The next exhibition is another film, and according to the catalog, it is called The Prison Architect, a newly commissioned work. The film is only a part of the work, as it also includes installations that span three floors. The film takes place in Tai Kwun in the past as Victoria Prison and in the present as Hong Kong’s hub of art and culture. The protagonists of the film, a female prison architect and a male poet-prisoner, exist in parallel realities–she lives in the present while he stays in the past. Cao creates illusions in the physical space by installing prison-style bunk beds, the same ones from the film, in the theatre, which allows Dewey and the other people watching to immerse themselves in Cao’s imagination.
Dewey recognizes the prison office where the poet-prisoner is getting yelled at by a crude, mango spewing guard. She becomes excited that the exhibition is coming together through this film. The open file she saw during her last visit must belong to this poet-prisoner.
In another scene, she notices that the prison architect is slicing her mango carefully in her modern Hong Kong apartment, and placing them in a bowl. Later on, there was the poet-prisoner, holding a half-peeled mango.
She wonders about the mangos.
Dewey has her Eureka moment in the scene that takes place in a starkly white room that looks familiar. There are three ghost-like prisoners with painted faces that are spinning around the poet-prisoner as if trying to suffocate and swallow him.
“Oh! That’s in the same room where the Roomba cleaners are!” She shouts inside her own head, “the robots might be a representation of the prisoners prowling in a random yet cognisant way.”
Dewey feels pleased about making this connection.
The rest of the exhibition doesn’t interest Dewey Punk Pickles as much, now that she feels like she’s figured it out. She walks down the grand staircase and notices fake mangos dangling.
At home, Dewey tells Mean Dean about the exhibition and what she figured out. Then she remembers the mangos.
“What is up with the mangos?” She asks.
Mean Dean tells her that there used to be a massive mango tree in the Victoria Prison complex, and the guards used to eat the sweet, meaty fruit from it.