Firenze Lai’s ‘situation portraits’ depict vulnerable figures in day-to-day scenarios. Her unique style deviates from grander narratives of previous generations, featuring one to two characters with indifferent expressions, usually sitting alone in different urban settings around Hong Kong.
The image in Firenze Lai’s The Bone Setting Clinic doesn’t reveal much. Just looking at the picture alone, one can hardly even tell it is situated in a bone-setting clinic. Sitting with knees bent, a man dressed in a bright red top and maroon trousers wraps his arms around his thighs and curls up on what looks like a sofa blanketed in black cloth. His back is against a bed-like structure covered in grey tiles, and beside him is a slate-grey backdrop resembling a wall with an open window that looks out to a deep darkness. The protagonist’s blurred face and disproportionate body do not call to mind any particular character. In fact, it is not even clear whether the figure is the patient or the doctor. Neither a landscape nor a portrait painting, this work is an example of what Lai defines as a ‘situation portrait’.
Landscapes portray the natural environment, whereas portraits focus on people. In both cases, viewers may not be able to connect or find resonance with what’s depicted. Lai’s situation portraits, however, position people in day-to-day scenarios. By delineating how people adjust their bodies in response to their surroundings and mental states, the works prompt viewers to put themselves into the characters’ shoes and relate to the way they behave in the depicted situations, evoking a feeling: ‘I probably would have acted the same way if it were me’.
Lai’s unique painting style stems from her detailed observations of the daily environment and her reflections on the relationship between people and the city. This sort of introspection and intimate depiction of the connection between humans and their surroundings deviate from the grander narratives that were the focus of artists from the previous generation. Lai’s paintings usually feature one to two characters with indifferent expressions in an uncomplicated composition. For instance, The Bone Setting Clinic can be divided into three simple horizontal parts: in the foreground is a white floor, the middle part is occupied by the red figure, and the background is the dark window. Tranquil and without a trace of noise, the image evokes the lingering loneliness and desolation that reflect the feelings of those who live in the city.
Lai’s paintings often feature the human body in public spaces. The figures usually have small heads, long torsos, and distortedly large feet that are at odds with real-life proportions. Lai particularly loves depicting people sitting alone in different urban settings around Hong Kong, including betting facilities, parks, buses, cinemas, MTR trains, clinics, and museums. In portraying these different scenarios, she shows that the act of sitting alone can be viewed as a sort of universal experience.
Many of the figures depicted in Lai’s works have entangled limbs, crossed legs or, like in The Bone Setting Clinic, arms wrapped around their legs or knees (this body position is also spotted in Lai’s Betting Station  and Ripple ). According to psychologists, confident individuals hold their heads high, puff up their chests, and adopt an open body posture to reflect their inner strength. Conversely, when feeling desolate or depressed, people tend to shrink themselves by burying their heads in their knees and hugging themselves tight. While not necessarily pleasing, paintings that depict individuals in these vulnerable states can be viscerally moving.
Whether sitting, standing, or running, the figures in Lai’s works are mirrors of our own mental states. Looking at them is like seeing ourselves.
The Chinese version of this article was originally published on 10 May 2023 in Ming Pao. It is presented here in edited and translated form. Originally authored by Lap-wai Lam, translated by Sophia Lam, and edited by Dorothy So.
Image at top: Firenze Lai. The Bone Setting Clinic (detail), 2012. Acrylic on canvas. M+, Hong Kong. © Firenze Lai