Illustration by Lisk Feng.

Art-Making in a Troubled World

Hong Kong
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

How does a person—for example, Kafka—sincerely believe that he must throw away his fate (and to him, to throw away his fate is to stay close to the truth), that he must become a writer? Perhaps this is an impenetrable mystery. And if there really is an answer to the question, then it can only be said that this mystery comes from some sort of artistic license (an ability to indiscriminately influence every moment or every outcome—positive or negative).

—Maurice Blanchot, “De Kafka à Kafka” (1981)

Last night, I was watching the news on television before bed. Reports on the boy rescued from war-torn Syria, the ailing dog in Taipei that was abandoned, agitated mainland Chinese women and pro-establishment politicians in Hong Kong were all muddled together in my head as I went to sleep. I woke up with a sharp pang of heartache. I opened my eyes, but the glaring rays of the morning sun forced me to shut them again.

I started tending to my daily chores soon after. Flickering scenes of the Syrian boy, the dog, the women and the politicians were still on my mind. Apart from profound anguish, I don’t have much else to offer to the sufferings and the tragedies of the world. With the bit of time I have left after the demands of day-to-day life, I try to do some reading, some thinking, maybe even make some art. These activities have become my top priorities.

Despite my faith in the power of art, the greatest challenge in my artistic practice is this constant, agonizing doubt: does the joy I derive from art-making mean I am turning a blind eye to the unfortunate state of our world? Is it sheer apathy to engage in such activity? Or even cruelty? This nagging guilt is, quite frankly, not helpful—possibly even detrimental—for creativity as well as for life.

I am perfectly able to participate in social movements and protests, and to contribute to charities. Compared with creating artworks, these actions are probably more effective and direct in terms of making a difference in a pained world. But I have not elected to do any of that—I remain committed to my reading, my thoughts and my work.

I sometimes meet new people, or chat with friends who are activists. Frequently in these conversations, I feel somewhat remorseful when talking about my peaceful, unperturbed life as an artist. My work allows me the luxury to remain in comfort, meditate on feelings and explore materials and colors. I can consider the quality of thought, the narrative of emotion and the impact of an artist’s work on her audience. The problems that plague me are limited to choosing mediums and hues.

I would never defend or rationalize my decision to stay in this role, in this line of work. I know that a truly honest description of an artist’s work evokes feelings of emptiness and hypocrisy; it is as if we are over-thinkers with fetishistic material attachments. However, deep down, I do believe that there is meaning in art, that art will compel people to realize the value and dignity behind the smallest, most negligible things. Through aesthetic experiences, some of us might even regain sensitivity to curiosity and wonder, a concern or an appreciation for forgotten aspects of the world. Thus, in treasuring every detail in our surroundings or our relationships, we might eventually find beauty in life.

However, I am still unwilling to share these ideas with others. A slight furrowing of the brow, an expression of skepticism or an innocuous follow-up question might easily tear my conviction apart. Therefore, I choose the path of quiet commitment. I avoid all scenarios in which my views might be debunked or challenged—an approach that, I admit, makes me feel dishonest and cowardly. If even an artist can’t be courageous and candid, then that must mean there are very, very few courageous, candid people left, coercing us all to come to the warped conclusion that the world is beyond salvaging. Since I do not agree with that conclusion, and because I want to uncover hope, I gather myself, search for renewed confidence, put my trust in the potential of art—and hurry back to work.

Translated by Denise Chu.