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17 Jul 2021 / by Tina Pang

From the Collections: ‘Memento (White Shirt)’ by Au Hoi Lam

Colour pencil and acrylic painting on linen of a large green square with a smaller, slightly curved, lighter green square in the middle. An even smaller and lighter green square sits slightly off-centre in the middle. A grey border sits just inside the edge of the work.

Au Hoi Lam. Memento (White Shirt), 2014. Pencil, colour pencil, acrylic, and linen. M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2014. © Au Hoi Lam

Memento (White Shirt) by Au Hoi Lam is in the M+ Collections, but what is it, who made it, and why did M+ acquire it? Tina Pang (Curator, Hong Kong Visual Culture) explains.

Can you introduce this work?

Memento (White Shirt) from 2014 is a painting by Hong Kong artist Au Hoi Lam. While it appears simple and even clinical in composition, its minimal qualities are in fact the very same qualities that give the work its emotional weight. Set on a hand-painted grid of white lines on a dark grey surface are two thin transparent layers of dark and light turquoise green acrylic paint anchored with a pale square of colour in the lower right of the canvas. The softer edges of the light-green layer give this part of the painting a feeling of movement and transparency, recalling a sheet of fabric being subjected to the whims of a breeze. Traces of writing, notes, and doodles in pencil, only just visible beneath the thin paint, emphasise this material transparency, and hint at what may lie beneath the surface of what, or who, we think we see.

In the short exposition below, written ten years before Memento (White Shirt) was made, the artist shares how the act of painting is intimately connected to her personal experiences and feelings:[1]

‘When I paint, I like to recall what I have experienced, review what I have dreamt of, remember what has come to pass, think fondly of those I love, mourn what has become no more, summon my joys and griefs, and scrutinise what has affected and disturbed my body and soul. All these thoughts and feelings are transformed into traces, colours, textures and images on my canvas—they have become a visual representation crystallised on palpable material, written by my own body and soul.’

Close-up of a painting. A light green square can be seen on a darker green background. Doodles in pencil can be seen all over the painting. Most of the doodles are unreadable, but a letter “K” can be made out in multiple places.

A closer look: detail from Memento (White Shirt), showing the notes and doodles the artist has left visible under the paint. © Au Hoi Lam; M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2014

Close-up of a painting. A light green square can be seen on a darker green background. Doodles in pencil can be seen all over the painting. Most of the doodles are unreadable, but a letter “K” can be made out in multiple places.

A closer look: setail from Memento (White Shirt), showing the notes and doodles the artist has left visible under the paint. © Au Hoi Lam; M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2014

Close-up of a painting. A light green square can be seen on a darker green background. Doodles in pencil can be seen all over the painting. Most of the doodles are unreadable.

A closer look: detail from Memento (White Shirt), showing the notes and doodles the artist has left visible under the paint. © Au Hoi Lam; M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2014

Close-up of a painting. A light green square can be seen on a darker green background. Doodles in pencil can be seen all over the painting. Most of the doodles are unreadable, but a letter “K” can be made out in multiple places.

A closer look: detail from Memento (White Shirt), showing the notes and doodles the artist has left visible under the paint. © Au Hoi Lam; M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2014

Close-up of a painting. A light green square can be seen on a darker green background. Doodles in pencil can be seen all over the painting. Most of the doodles are unreadable, but a letter “K” can be made out in multiple places.

A closer look: setail from Memento (White Shirt), showing the notes and doodles the artist has left visible under the paint. © Au Hoi Lam; M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2014

Close-up of a painting. A light green square can be seen on a darker green background. Doodles in pencil can be seen all over the painting. Most of the doodles are unreadable.

A closer look: detail from Memento (White Shirt), showing the notes and doodles the artist has left visible under the paint. © Au Hoi Lam; M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2014

Close-up of a painting. A light green square can be seen on a darker green background. Doodles in pencil can be seen all over the painting. Most of the doodles are unreadable, but a letter “K” can be made out in multiple places.

A closer look: detail from Memento (White Shirt), showing the notes and doodles the artist has left visible under the paint. © Au Hoi Lam; M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2014

Close-up of a painting. A light green square can be seen on a darker green background. Doodles in pencil can be seen all over the painting. Most of the doodles are unreadable, but a letter “K” can be made out in multiple places.

A closer look: setail from Memento (White Shirt), showing the notes and doodles the artist has left visible under the paint. © Au Hoi Lam; M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2014

Close-up of a painting. A light green square can be seen on a darker green background. Doodles in pencil can be seen all over the painting. Most of the doodles are unreadable.

A closer look: detail from Memento (White Shirt), showing the notes and doodles the artist has left visible under the paint. © Au Hoi Lam; M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2014

Close-up of a painting. A light green square can be seen on a darker green background. Doodles in pencil can be seen all over the painting. Most of the doodles are unreadable, but a letter “K” can be made out in multiple places.

A closer look: detail from Memento (White Shirt), showing the notes and doodles the artist has left visible under the paint. © Au Hoi Lam; M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2014

Close-up of a painting. A light green square can be seen on a darker green background. Doodles in pencil can be seen all over the painting. Most of the doodles are unreadable, but a letter “K” can be made out in multiple places.

A closer look: setail from Memento (White Shirt), showing the notes and doodles the artist has left visible under the paint. © Au Hoi Lam; M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2014

Close-up of a painting. A light green square can be seen on a darker green background. Doodles in pencil can be seen all over the painting. Most of the doodles are unreadable.

A closer look: detail from Memento (White Shirt), showing the notes and doodles the artist has left visible under the paint. © Au Hoi Lam; M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2014

Can you tell us a bit about the artist?

Au Hoi Lam was born in Hong Kong in 1978 and is an artist whose primary practice is painting. A graduate of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Fine Arts Department, she is known for creating environments or tableaux through her paintings that are presented as remnants of lived experiences or relationships.

Colour pencil and acrylic painting on linen of a large light pink square with a light yellow border. Two darker pink semi-circles sit across the bottom. A thin border of brown and white lines surrounds the entire piece.

Au Hoi Lam. Memento (She Can't Remember), 2014. Pencil, colour pencil, acrylic, and linen. M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2014. © Au Hoi Lam

Whether fictional or autobiographical, Au’s works read like portraits of her emotional life, diaries of experiences enacted and executed in muted pastel shades that establish an immediate intimacy with her audiences, and the melancholic passing of time. Au’s work blurs the boundaries between what may be art and the treasured mementoes and keepsakes of an event, a person, or an experience.

Why was this item collected?

Au Hoi Lam is one of the most respected artists of her generation, widely admired for her delicate, thought-provoking paintings and environments. Her works reveal a deep understanding of the histories of abstraction and minimalism, and can be said to share a lineage with American artists such as Agnes Martin, for whom minimalism and abstraction is a way of ordering a rich and complex emotional life, and Cy Twombly, who reduced painting to a form of marks, scribbles, and signs on otherwise blank canvases. A closer reading also uncovers how Au’s paintings possess a strong Hong Kong sensibility. Through the artist’s adaptation of some of the conventions associated with the tradition of ink painting—transparency, layering, and the use of calligraphic mark-making—Au not only appropriates; she also challenges the orthodoxy.

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Tina Pang is Curator, Hong Kong Visual Culture at M+.

  1. 1.

    Au Hoi Lam, ‘Painting & Me’, Au Hoi Lam Painting Journal (2004).

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