Hong Kong Artist Movana Chen On Making Art During The Pandemic
A hiker gets lost in the Siberian tundra. Thick snow blankets the ground. Clouds billow threateningly overhead and the temperature plummets to minus 25C. She panics.
A woman in Hong Kong is presented with a key. She carries it to the Sicilian city of Palermo, where a hand-drawn map leads her to a lone blue house on a sun-drenched hill. The key fits.
These sentences might read like they are ripped from the pages of novels, but they are true stories from the eventful life of the wonderful, wacky Hong Kong artist Movana Chen—and she has plenty more. “I have so many stories, so many,” says Chen, 45, laughing. “I love life on the road.” Chen spends up to ten months a year travelling, gathering materials and ideas to fuel her art, which takes the form of drawings, paintings, photographs, videos, performances and, most famously, installations created from woven paper. Her latest pieces are being shown this month at an exhibition at Flowers Gallery in Sheung Wan, opening on September 8.
A highlight is a new paper installation, the latest work in Chen’s ongoing Travelling into Your Bookshelf project. For this series, she makes striking pieces using long strips of paper torn from books that Chen has collected on her travels and knit together as if they were wool. From afar, the resulting sheets look like a scarf or rug.
Sometimes Chen hangs her knitted creations from a gallery’s ceiling or wall; other times she molds them into sculptures she calls Body Containers—human-sized cylinders that look like beautiful, delicate sarcophagi. Whatever shape Chen’s knitted pieces take, words and letters are almost always still visible on the surface, mixing English, Chinese, Cyrillic and Hebrew characters into an unintelligible mix, like the voices from the Tower of Babel.
In Chen’s art, paper is a subject in and of itself, not merely a blank canvas on which to draw, write or paint. By tearing pages from books and cutting, ripping and folding individual sheets, she hopes to encourage viewers to think more deeply about this everyday material. She also loves paper because it is the conduit for language and stories, two things universal to every culture, which have united people throughout history. “All my work is about making connections,” she explains.
When she visits other countries, Chen often asks people she meets to give her a book that is especially meaningful to them for her to use in her art. Asking near strangers to donate a treasured possession to be destroyed is a big request, but they rarely refuse. “Then, when I’m working, I don’t just remember the story, what’s happening inside the book, but also the person who gave it to me, what it meant to them, my friendship with them, where I was when I read it,” says Chen.
Chen’s innovative use of paper, and the stories she finds embedded in the material, have consistently impressed critics and curators. “She gives another form to the shredded paper, creates an additional layer of meaning, and salvages the memories contained in printed papers, which would otherwise have been lost to oblivion,” says Mizuki Takahashi, the executive director and chief curator of the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile (CHAT) in Hong Kong. CHAT is currently exhibiting one of Chen’s pieces and in the past has hosted workshops in which Chen teaches members of the public to knit.
Chen previously wove many of the Travelling into Your Bookshelf pieces as she journeyed, clacking her needles in quiet corners on trains or guesthouses. But the works for the forthcoming show were made in Chen’s studio in Chai Wan, where she has remained since March due to travel restrictions. “This is my base and Hong Kong is my home,” she says. “But a friend said to me, ‘Your projects are about travelling. Now the world has stopped, you can’t travel again, what’s going to happen to your work?’”
It has not been easy. “Normally I can control the knitting very well—I learnt to knit from my grandma when I was about ten,” says Chen, who made her latest works using books and maps she collected on trips in late 2019 and early 2020 to Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the UK and Portugal. “The material was the same this time, but my mental [state] was different. The mood in the world, the pandemic, every day there is difficult news, so my knitting is always damaged.” So instead of making one long, uninterrupted weave, she has knitted small sections at a time. Before the show, she will sew them all together like a patchwork quilt.
She has distracted herself from the news with music and films. “Two nights ago, I watched The Two Popes. I was sitting here knitting and crying,” she says, her normal megawatt smile disappearing for a second. “Because I can’t go out and do other things, some days I’ve been knitting for ten hours. Sometimes it’s 2am or 3am and I’m still knitting.”
But being forced to stay in one place has had its benefits: Chen has had time to experiment with other materials, resulting in a new series. “It started as a postcard project called How Are You?” she says. “In January and February, I was still abroad. Everyone was saying ‘don’t go back to Hong Kong’. Then I came back in early March and the situation changed—other places got the virus and Hong Kong was better at that time. I was worried about all my friends around the world, so I made 100 postcards and sent them to 100 friends. I drew a rainbow on every postcard. It let people know I was thinking of them. Some of them have written back. You can express things in handwriting you can’t on social media.”
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Inspired by her friends’ joyful responses, Chen began painting on large canvases, some of them as tall as her. She painted bands of earthy colours, like muted, abstract versions of the rainbows on her postcards. Similar calming shades repeat throughout these pieces: burnt orange fading to sunny yellow, and khaki slipping into forest green. “When I was studying fine art, painting was my major,” she says. “No one really knows that. By my first exhibition in 2005, I’d already started working with weaving and sculpture and photography. I’ve never exhibited paintings.”
Chen hopes the physicality of all of her new works will encourage gallery-goers to consider the importance of touch. “All of my work is about connecting in real life, with real touch,” she says. “Because the world has stopped, we can’t go out, we’re all at home, we’re now online more. You feel connected, you see people on your screen, but it’s not the same. We’re missing real moments.”
Perhaps predictably, the moment Chen misses most is packing her bags and jumping on a plane. She fondly recalls a 2012 trip to Palermo, where she took part in an artist residency and stayed in a memorable blue house that stuck out among its neighbours. “There were 2,000 people in the town; I was the one Asian,” says Chen. “At the start, I knew no one. By the end, I knew everyone.”
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Chen also reminisces about the start of her Travelling into Your Bookshelf series in 2009. She was already knitting paper, but was considering the idea of asking people to donate books when one day she stumbled on a blog by a Korean publisher with that title. “I emailed him and said, ‘Can I use the title of your blog for my project? And can you give me one meaningful book from your bookshelf?’ That’s how it started. I travelled to Korea and he gave me the first book, Gone with the Wind. He knew nothing about knitting, so I taught him to knit.”
Another trip inspired the exhibition’s title. “I was hiking in Siberia, it was minus 25C. I got lost, but I met a girl. I couldn’t speak Russian, she couldn’t speak English, so we drew in the snow with a stick. She told me to follow her, we walked 8 km, she took me out of the forest, she saved me.”
So, partly as an homage to this mysterious saviour who carved pictures in the snow with a lost stranger, the show’s title contains no words. “It’s just a symbol,” says Chen, smiling mischievously. “Before letters and languages were invented, how humans communicated was to draw symbols on rocks—it was easier to understand each other. I make lots of friends when I travel, even when I don’t speak the language. People speak different languages, so they seem different, but really most people are the same, most people are friendly.”
Chen digs through a pile of notebooks and pulls out a sheet with a drawing of the symbol. It looks like an ancient rune. “To me, it means Movana’s exhibition,” says Chen. “But it can mean anything; everyone can read it differently. What do you think it means?”
Movana Chen’s exhibition runs from September 8 to November 7 at Flowers Gallery, Hong Kong
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