BASTIEN MAHON, HKong Garden, 2014, oil on canvas, 120 × 160 cm. Courtesy Mur Nomade, Hong Kong. 


Sarah Lai & S├ębastien Mahon

Mur Nomade
Hong Kong

Looking for an escape from the heavy workload at the office? Here is a recommendation for you: “Radiance,” an exhibition that resulted from Hong Kong artist Sarah Lai’s six-month collaboration with Beijing-based French painter Sébastien Mahon. A cultural exchange project presented as part of the 2014 Le French May festival in Hong Kong, the show was installed on the top floor of The Pulse, a newly built mall located along the Repulse Bay beach, which is slated to open at the end of this year. The exhibition venue, which faces the sea, echoes the show’s theme and enhances the visitor’s visual pleasure.

The artists shared their thoughts and inspired each other artistically and culturally, with the intent of conceptualizing the notion of glimmering radiance in their work. Lai even traveled to southern France to study the phenomenon of winter light, which brings about warmth amidst cold weather. Though their collaboration lasted half a year, Lai and Mahon’s individual painting styles still shine through in the resultant tranquil landscape and still-life paintings.

All five artworks done by Lai are pale but bright, picturing everyday imagery like a glass of water or the surface of the sea. Looking at the paintings for the first time, one may think that the artist’s palette consists mainly of three colors—white, blue and gray. Yet, upon closer inspection of the drinking glass in 04:39 PM (2014), for example, one would see that the bottom of the cup is actually drawn with more than those three colors. Referencing photographs that were taken during her visit to France last December, Lai carefully copied the transparency of the glass and the reflection of sunlight onto the canvas. The unidentifiable surface upon which the glass is placed suggests a sense of “isolation” that can also be seen in Lai’s other paintings. As with her previous works, the still-life artist plays with subjectivity and objectivity, urging people to form unique interpretations of her paintings of mundane objects.

SARAH LAI, 04:39 PM, oil on canvas, 22 × 183 cm. Courtesy Mur Nomade, Hong Kong. 

SARAH LAI, Sparkly, 2014, oil on canvas, 71.5 × 107 cm. Courtesy Mur Nomade, Hong Kong. 

Given the same topic of light, Mahon took a different approach, and in the exhibition he shows us his own imaginary world. Inspired by Lai’s close observation of the reflection of light in a glass, Mahon conducted a research involving different color combinations and produced six expressive paintings in a wide range of hues. The French painter skillfully uses contrasting colors, such as orange and blue, to show various intensities of light to create different moods.

The pacific-blue shadow and amber buildings in the foreground of Mahon’s HKong Garden (2014), a fantastical depiction of the Hong Kong cityscape, shows the sudden emergence of gold, architectural objects along an anonymous, mountainous shore. Their alienation from Hong Kong proper correlates with the isolation conveyed in Lai’s glass of water. Portraying the panoramic view of Hong Kong as filtered through Mahon’s imagination, this painting plays an important role in the cultural-exchange program between the two artists. Stone-like buildings stand out on the canvas, while small human figures atop the mountains seem to be leaving the scene, undisturbed by the arising city. Painted with elastic brush strokes and earthy tones, Mahon’s paintings are a combination of realism and abstract expressionism, demonstrating people’s desires to go somewhere filled with peace and harmony and far from the busy city.

“What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present.” This TS Eliot quote included in the curatorial statement alludes to the metaphor of light as long-lasting time. Time “shines and lasts like the sun on a prolonged twilight,” explains the exhibition’s curator, Caroline Ha Thuc, and the stillness in Lai’s works responds to this statement. Her work Sparkly (2014), a painting of golden radiance reflected on a water surface, is shown side-by-side with a two-minute video featuring the same subject matter. The painting looks like a screenshot from a film; in fact, both works are of real scenes, with the video piece shot in Hong Kong and France. The sparkling radiance on the water surface plays with our time perception, causing the audience to forget about the passing of time and want to stare at the image forever.

In spite of the cold colors applied to Lai’s works, the shining sunlight depicted in her canvases gives the viewer a warm and calming feeling, just like when one stands under the sun in the winter. Moreover, the white, luminescent color in her works is not necessarily less enticing than Mahon’s rainbow palette. In fact, white is a hue made by combining all the colors of the visible spectrum. Lai’s white light may not be a pure “white,” but viewers can still mentally infuse her still-life paintings with additional colors and project their original stories onto the works.

“Radiance” organized by Mur Nomade is on view at The Pulse until July 1, 2014.