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25 Oct 2018 / by Ellen Oredsson

The Hollian Thesaurus: A Piece of Hong Kong Photography History

Three colour prints side by side. The image on the far left depicts 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. The middle image depicts a large pink tropical flower displayed over a background of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour under a blue sky. The image on the far right depicts a woman wearing a tiara, pearl necklace, white dress, and 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 all three works, imitating the surface of an old oil painting.

The three works from the Hollian Thesaurus in the M+ Collections

In her Hollian Thesaurus series, photographer Holly Lee muses on the past and future of Hong Kong around the time of the transfer of sovereignty in 1997. The series consists of twelve conceptual photographs created between 1994 and 2000, touching on this period of intense change.

Thanks to digital technology, the 1990s was a period when conceptual photography flourished in Hong Kong, and Lee was among the pioneers who expanded the language of photography during this time. She experimented with Photoshop to create the Hollian Thesaurus in a type of photography known as composite photography. To create the series, Lee combined straight photography, photographic-sourced imagery, digital manipulation, and 19th century export painting from Guangdong.

Below are the three works from the Hollian Thesaurus in the M+ Collections. Look closer at all of these: you will discover crackling lines on the surface of the images, making them look like old oil paintings. The artist admires the paintings of the Renaissance and has an awareness of her position at one point of time in the long river of history. She uses the historical style to suggest events that will come to pass, or to recall those that already have.

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.

Holly Lee. Jinx, in Front of Hong Kong Harbour, circa 1994. Chromogenic colour print. M+, Hong Kong. © M+, Hong Kong

Jinx, in Front of Hong Kong Harbour (c.1994) was the first work produced in the Hollian Thesaurus series. In the centre is an English Spaniel which Lee re-adapted from an earlier commercial project. She combines it with a 19th century painting of Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour by British artist George Chinnery (1774-1852) as the background. In adding fine lines to the work in imitation of the surface of an oil painting, Lee creates a fictional image that recalls the China-trade paintings for which Chinnery was famed.

Jinx, in Front of Hong Kong Harbour is a metaphorical contemplation of Hong Kong's past as a British colony since the Victorian period. The work reflects the artist's psychological state and represents the general anxiety that was circulating in Hong Kong before 1997.

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.

Holly Lee. Bauhinia, 1997. Chromogenic colour print. M+, Hong Kong. © M+, Hong Kong

If Jinx, in Front of Hong Kong Harbour is about retrospection, then Bauhinia (1997) is about the present. In this work, Lee chooses to engage with the stylised Bauhinia flower emblem that appears on the flags and official seals of the HKSAR, as well as various souvenir products available at the time.

Continuing to use her distinct photographic language and the oil painting-style cracks she had been developing, the image of the Bauhinia flower is set against a contemporary Hong Kong skyline, commonly depicted in postcards and stamps. Although not overtly subversive, the work nevertheless challenges the way Hong Kong was officially presented to the outside world during this historical juncture. In this sense, Jinx and Bauhinia arguably are in dialogue with each other.

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.

Holly Lee. The Great Pageant Show, circa 1997. Chromogenic colour print. M+, Hong Kong. © M+, Hong Kong

Last, but not least, The Great Pageant Show (c.1997) is one of the most recognisable works in the Hollian Thesaurus. A continuation of her photographic language, this work returns to portraiture, which is central in Holly Lee’s practice. The model incarnates the images of Queen Elizabeth II and a Miss Hong Kong beauty pageant winner. She is prominently presented in front of a Qing court painting depicting an equestrian event in the Qianlong reign by Giuseppe Castiglione, an Italian Jesuit missionary in China between 1715 and 1766.

Not only is this symbolic of the East and West cultural dialogue on religion and power, but this photograph is also a reference to the Queen’s portrait, which is commonly seen in any colonial government office. Here, Lee cleverly employs and strategically places contemporary and historical elements together. Transcending iconography, the photograph shows how the artist considers ‘Hong Kong’ as a methodology to provoke contemplation and discussion of the city’s multiple, complex cultural identities during a watershed moment.

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Ellen Oredsson is Editor, Web Content at M+.

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