“The first thing he said was that I have nice teeth,” Ma Yujiang recalls, “He liked that about me. He was always insecure about his own set of teeth, and always covered his mouth when he talked or smiled.” The “he” that Ma is referring to is Chou Meng-tieh (1921–2014), the Taiwanese poet who provided the foundation for Ma’s series of modified World War II archival photographs, a selection of which is currently on show at Pearl Lam Galleries Soho. Ma, whose exhibition “Cang Mang” marks his first solo show in Hong Kong, fits in well with the artist criterion for the gallery’s new space in Sheung Wan: he is young, hip and fresh to the art scene. His portfolio, though small, is impressive, with the intrigue of his work lying in the personal world that he takes viewers into. Ma presents himself as an emotional sponge, able to develop multilayered connections with anyone or anything. This proves to be true when hearing him speak of Chou, whom he met in 2013. “He immediately wanted to tell me about his life," Ma noted, "I didn’t even have to ask.”
Ma’s wife, a writer who used to look after and care for Chou, introduced her husband to the poet. Chou had insisted on one day meeting her husband, so soon after their marriage, she and Ma headed to Taiwan to visit the poet. They went to both his home and the Astoria Café, where Chou had been selling books and his works outdoors for many years. “He lived off only HKD 35 a week, and his home consisted of one room and a bathroom. The kitchen, bed and work area were all placed together in one room. He was simple, and lived simply. I admired that.”
The most memorable anecdote told by Chou to Ma on that trip involved cang mang, an ambiguous phrase whose meaning touches on notions of vastness and boundlessness and feeling lost and uncertain. Ma explains that for Chou, the moment he experienced cang mang was in 1948, when he “[looked] out onto the Taiwan Strait from Kaohsiung Port, as he landed in Taiwan with the youth army, as a result of the civil war. He was separated from his wife, his children, his mother and his home. He dreamt only to be able to end his days eating dinners with his mother.”
The idea behind Ma’s photographic series is as simple as Chou’s outlook and style. Ma takes images of war—be it the bombings of Pearl Harbor, the battle of Normandy or the invasion of Hong Kong—and creates an almost entirely new scene by taking out any subjects in the photographs related to war. Battleships disappear, mushroom clouds fade into mist, remains of casualties are cleaned up, and the once disturbing scenes are turned into quiet landscapes, in attempt to channel the cang mang that Chou’s poetry is known for.
One particularly representative piece is June 6, 1944, Normandy Landings at Omaha Beach 01 (2014–15). The original black-and-white photograph shows the landing of soldiers on the beach of Normandy, seen from the inside of a landing craft, and the sea spanning across the photograph is dotted with soldiers and ships. It is an incredibly busy composition, uneven and messy. In stark contrast, Ma’s version looks down onto an empty sea, the landscape so bare and close to the viewer that one is unsure where to begin looking at the image. Ma is right—emotional boundlessness and sense of helplessness is much stronger when one is confronted with nothingness.
But it is not until one reaches the second half of the exhibition, located on the gallery’s upper level, that one truly feels the guiding concept of cang mang. Past the last piece of the manipulated WWII photographs, the viewer is confronted with two, large modern-day photographs: one of the Port of Kaohsiung; and the other of the Taiwan Strait. Looking at View of Taiwan Strait from Cijin, Kaohsiung (2014), we find ourselves deep inside Chou and Ma’s “cang mang world.” The gray landscape feels endless on all sides, and there only points of measurable distance are between two hints of cliffs. Completely unable to identify where this scene is situated within this landscape, the vastness leaves viewers feeling lost and helpless.
From there, Ma presents a number of framed photographs and memorabilia related to Chou. Among them are a receipt from the cafe after their meeting, one of Chou’s poems and, most touchingly, a photograph of the poet’s grave. We realize here that the cang mang that Ma depicts in this work is not only that of Chou’s, but also his own experience of having that feeling after the poet’s death. All of a sudden, the complicated and ambiguous definition of cang mang feels straightforward, pure and even innocent. Here, it becomes evident that this series is less of a “tribute” to Chou, but rather a coping mechanism for Ma himself. Similar to his past work, the strength of Ma’s work lies in the intimate world he creates and invites viewers into. Thus, this very personal account, as seen in “Cang Mang,” serves as a successful introduction to the work of Ma Yujiang.