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13 Apr 2023 / by Chan Kwan Yee

Beyond Photography: The Art of Conceptual Photography Pioneers Lee Ka-sing and Holly Lee

Colour print of an English Springer Spaniel dog viewed in profile, staring upwards, in front of an old-fashioned harbour with wooden boats and mountains in the distance. Fine cracks appear across the work, imitating the surface of an old oil painting.

The Hollian Thesaurus series consists of twelve conceptual photos. Jinx, in Front of Hong Kong Harbour is the first work in the series and a metaphor for the history of Hong Kong as a British colony since the Victorian era. © M+, Hong Kong

Husband and wife duo Lee Ka-sing and Holly Lee were at the forefront of changing perceptions about photography in Hong Kong in the 1990s when it was still considered a primarily journalistic or documentary medium.

They achieved this through their own artistic practices, and their collaborative approach to publishing, which was a unique platform in which images were deployed in cross-media artworks. Their most representative works, completed around 1997, use recognisable ‘Hong Kong’ elements that can evoke deeper associations reflecting the unease of the time.

At significant historical junctures, we tend to refer to documentary photography as presenting a certain truth for future generations to understand the past. By contrast, revisiting the conceptual photography works of Lee Ka-sing and Holly Lee today, provokes more emotional responses.

Creative Imaging from Multiple Angles

With a creative mindset established in other fields—Lee Ka-sing has a background in graphic design, and Holly Lee is trained in literature—their approach to images did not follow the traditional rules of art or photography. In 1985 Lee Ka-sing was invited to write a column for the influential photography magazine Photo Pictorial, edited by Mak Fung. Initially Lee wrote about specific photography assignments as case studies, but gradually expanded his writing to include exhibition reviews, as well as articles on photographic theory and practice, often with Holly Lee as a collaborator. With his background in design, he also provided the layout for his column with images. In 1987, he also began to write a column for Photo Art, edited by Yau Leung.

As the content of his writings expanded, he proposed to Sylvia Ng, the executive editor of Photo Pictorial, that his original three-page column be developed into a 16-page stand-alone publication on alternative photography. Dislocation, as it was titled, was distributed for free with the magazine and ran from 1992 to 1999. It was a ground-breaking platform for cross-disciplinary collaborations between photographers, writers, poets and designers, creating works that challenged the conventions of documentary and commercial photography at the time. It is recognised today for being an important document or archive of conceptual photography in Hong Kong at the time.

Photograph with a magenta hue consisting of superimposed images. An aerial view of a town features in the viewer's upper left and the lower half. In the middle ground, an illustrated boy with a topknot kneels with palms together before a woman holding a baby. Her attendant raises a vase behind.

The title of the work The City at the End of Time is a metaphor for the situation in the early 1990s as Hong Kong faced its handover to China in 1997. In 1998, the new Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok opened and Kai Tak Airport ceased operations. This work explores the processes of change and transition in the lives of Hong Kong people in the 1990s. © Lee Ka-sing

Tina Pang, curator of Hong Kong Visual Culture at M+, observes, ‘In those days, the circle of creative talents was relatively small. What set Lee Ka-sing and Holly Lee’s practice apart is their interest in creating the conditions for different forms of expression to emerge. They were inclusive in their approach, including images related to popular culture and encouraging creative collaborations with artists that did not ordinarily work in photography, such as Kurt Chan Yuk-keung and Choi Yanchi, among others, to do things they wouldn’t normally do.’

They are pursuing a way of expressing images that is beyond the single focus of photography.

Tina Pang

One important collaboration was that with the well-known poet Leung Ping-kwan (Yesi). Lee Ka-sing designed book covers and illustrations for many of Leung’s poetry collections including The City at the End of Time of the title of the same name. The image is crimson, and Lee superimposes an old Lunar New Year painting subject, Guanyin Bestowing a Son, over a drawing of the Kai Tak Airport runway. It exemplifies Lee’s technique of assemblage and the superimposition of unrelated images reminiscent of the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte. In many of his images, he will use props such as maps, figurines of Mao Zedong, apples, old-fashioned eyeglasses, umbrellas, and books in a surreal manner, drawing out different associations through the juxtaposition of images.

While Lee’s works may be described as photographic in nature, he is in fact selecting and editing images. He often used a photocopier to create the overlapping of images and text in a single composition. When isolating the objects, details, and colours of the image, it is always possible to weave the associations together—a process that resembles a treasure hunt. Yet taken as a whole, that sense of clarity and disconnectedness will become blurred. No matter how deliberate the composition is, what stimulates the viewer is an ambiguity that is as entangled as it is unassuming.

Photograph showing an overhead view of a closed umbrella resting on the folds of white fabric. The wooden hook handle features in the upper half with part of the black canopy in the lower half. An apple lies on our right, above two newspaper clippings on the umbrella's canopy.

Lee Ka-sing uses archival pigment and inkjet printing to create This is Not an Apple. © Lee Ka-sing

‘Both artists have pursued a way of creating images that go beyond a single focus. Instead, they try to capture the multiple perspectives that is common in literature or poetry. A single word can be read in different ways or represent multiple meanings,’ said Pang. Likewise, Lee Ka-sing has described his use of collage as being inspired by the experience of reading poetry, making it possible to approach an image from multiple angles.

A Collage of Contemporary and Historical Cultures

While Lee Ka-sing’s strength lies in still-life photography, Holly Lee uses portrait photography in a series of twelve conceptual photographic works known collectively as The Hollian Thesaurus. Made between 1994 and 2000, this series reflects on Hong Kong’s past, present and future. The Great Pageant Show from the series subtly questions identity and history in an overtly humorous and satirical way. Although the protagonist in the photo is dressed up as a Miss Hong Kong pageant winner, her pose immediately reminds the viewer of Queen Elizabeth II.

Colour print of a woman wearing a tiara, pearl necklace, a white dress, and a blue sash with royal medals on it. Behind her is a historical Chinese painting of horse riders in a grassy field. The woman has a tattoo of one of the horse riders on her shoulder. Fine cracks appear across the work, imitating the surface of an old oil painting.

The protagonist in The Great Pageant Show combines the characteristics of Queen Elizabeth II and a Miss Hong Kong pageant winner, symbolising the impact and intersection of Chinese and Western cultures in terms of religion and power. © M+, Hong Kong

On the arm of Miss Hong Kong is a tattoo of a horse from the Qing Dynasty imperial court painting Ma Shu Tu (or The Equestrian Skills Show) by the Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining), who lived in China between 1715 and 1766. Castiglione was a highly influential artist in the Qing court who introduced naturalistic paintings of plants and animals and one-point perspective in painting. ‘Holly combines contemporary and historical cultural elements, presenting compositions rich with meaning’, said Pang. Lee emphasises the association with historical painting by giving the surface of her work the cracked texture of an oil painting, somewhat ambiguously creating an association between the material fragility of Hong Kong’s past with its present and future.

An image always evolves day to day with the photographer’s story, society, city, and culture.

Tina Pang

In 1995 Lee Ka-sing and Holly Lee established the OP (Original Photograph) project to create limited edition prints of works by contemporary and early-generation photographers such as Yau Leung, Ngan Chun-tung, and Mak Fung. OP acted as agent and distributor of the photographers’ works. At the time, photographic works were not yet recognised as works of art in their own right. To Pang, this foresight is characteristic: ‘Lee Ka-sing and Holly Lee were real pioneers, not only in their own artistic work but in creating platforms for collaboration in publishing and advocating for the value of photography as an art form. From their OP Gallery on Prince’s Terrace, they both preserved and exhibited important works by current and previous generations.

Colour print of a large pink tropical flower displayed over a background of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour under a blue sky. Fine cracks appear across the work, imitating the surface of an old oil painting.

In Bauhinia, in Front of Hong Kong Harbour, Holly Lee places a representation of the bauhinia from the Special Administration Region’s emblem above the skyline of Hong Kong, questioning the ways in which Hong Kong should present its image to the world before and after the handover. © M+, Hong Kong

Although they closed the gallery in 2000 to relocate to Toronto for their daughter’s education, their influence in Hong Kong remains very much alive. Their work highlighted a cross-disciplinary way of working in photography that recognised the medium’s potential as an artistic medium, paving the way for photography specific galleries and the establishment of the Hong Kong International Photography Festival first launched in 2010.

The Chinese version of this article was originally published on 7 February 2020 in the Hong Kong Economic Times. It is presented here in edited and translated form. Originally authored by Chan Kwan Yee, translated by Diane To, and edited by Shadow Wong and Tina Pang. All works: M+, Hong Kong.

Chan Kwan Yee
Chan Kwan Yee
Chan Kwan Yee

Chan Kwan Yee is a writer, editor, and reporter who founded the creative studio Weak Chickens. She is one of the authors of the book An Elephant Walking on a Ball. Her playwriting credits include Hey My Old Friend, Stay in Touch for the ÉLAN Lost Child Project HK, presented by Tai Kwun in 2020, and I Will Die in My Home for SPOTLIGHT: A Season of Performing Arts, also presented by Tai Kwun, in 2023.

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