Art

Instant Photographs Stripped of Their Instantaneity

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Almond Chu, “Self-portrait No. 6” (1985), instant film, set of four, 7.4 x 10cm each (all images courtesy Blindspot Gallery)

HONG KONG — A Permanent Instant at Blindspot Gallery in Wong Chuk Hang gathers works by 10 artists raised or born in Hong Kong who have experimented with the medium of instant photography. Nearly 70 years have passed since Edwin Land invented the Polaroid, which allows anyone to print a photograph in a minute from snap to finish. Despite the medium’s slow death over the years (in 2008, Daido Moriyama even had a “bye-bye polaroid!” exhibition at Taka Ishii Gallery in Tokyo), with the rise of the digital and Photoshop, and thanks, in part, to the Impossible Project which has taken over the manufacturing of instant film, the Polaroid often makes fashionable comebacks.

While greatly popular with families, instant photography has also been widely used in art, including Ansel Adams’s landscapes, Andy Warhol’s celebrity portraits, Robert Rauschenberg’s bleached films, David Hockney’s “joiners” collages, and André Kertész’s incredibly sophisticated and playful compositions. In Hong Kong, photographers and artists have also embraced the medium’s constraints (square format, white frame, no zoom) and possibilities (time-sensitive texture, saturated color palette, quality of a photo-object), either for experimentation or as an art form on its own.

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Installation view of ‘A Permanent Instant: instant photography from 1980s–2000s by Hong Kong artists’ at Blindspot Gallery

Some works on show, which span from the 1980s to the 2000s, are indeed mixed-media paintings. In Joseph Fung’s “Garbage bin,” the details of the photographed trashcans are painted over and scratched, and in his “Clay Figure” (both 1988) a little figurine lies on its side, surrounded by small markings over smudges, maybe water. Both compact canvases play on the confusion of mediums, styles (realistic and abstract markings), and point of views (from above, from the ground or sides), and offer a wide range of perspective points that pull the gaze irresistibly into the small square.

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Joseph Fung, “Garbage bin” (1988), instant film, 10.7 x 8.8 cm (click to enlarge)

Painter Hon Chi Fun similarly draws us into a miniature world in his Untitled 06, 01, 12, 09 series (1983), where he opened the back of the film and added collages — cut out from the polaroid box itself — thus creating distorted Droste-like effects through semi-abstraction and recognizable elements (clouds, shapes, a blurry interior). The overall results are magical.

Aside from Wing Shya’s “Kaboom” (2000s), a hypnotizing video that flashes dozens of close-up Polaroid portraits taken by the artist, most of the artworks on show are stripped of their instantaneity. Instead, they are laboriously worked over either in material ways (scrapping, marking, stuffing, collaging, painting the light-sensitive film) or through subject matter, resulting in elaborate scenes, as in Wong Wo Bik’s 1981 series, where she used textiles, staged objects, and fabric-covered people to create a colorful and textured haunting narrative.

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Hon Chi Fun, “Untitled 06, 01, 12, 09” (1983), mixed media, set of four, 10.7 x 8.8 cm each

There are also the deceptively simple subjects, like the 16 milk bottles in Hisun Wong’s Milk Bottles Collection (1995), created from film transfer on paper, which appear in a very diluted and clear palette, as translucent as pencil drawing. Despite their cold tones and nearly archival presentation (each bottle is portrayed against a white background that appears grayish/bluish against the off-white paper), the empty glass containers, rigid and clean against a pale, frail-like, trembling background, resonate with strong emotional contents.

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Hisun Wong, “Milk Bottles Collection (1995), instant film transfer on watercolor paper, 75 x 55 cm (click to enlarge)

Also setting a sensitive mood, in “Self-portrait No. 6” (1985), a young Almond Chu is seen naked, holding white cloths as he tries to fit his limbs inside the frame. The films are scribbled over on the sides with signatures and signs, imposing an element of spontaneity to the dramatic poses which are both vulnerable and awkward. The sharp quality of the instant film is rather striking in these shots — a reminder of the versatility of the photographic language so dear to many of these artists.

All of the artists here — a number of them being pivotal players of Hong Kong’s contemporary photographic and artistic scene — reveal instant film’s potential by playing with depth of field, transparency, dramatic compositions, optical illusion, and manipulation of viewpoints or physical objects. All tricks cater to this specific branch of photography that produces non-reproducible objects. Inherently one of a kind, the works’ limited sizes don’t seem to restrict artists’ imagination and ingenuity. On the contrary, it appears that instant film acts as a window to a very expansive and varied landscape of creativity.

A Permanent Instant: instant photography from 1980s–2000s by Hong Kong artists continues at Blindspot Gallery (15/F, Po Chai Industrial Building, 28 Wong Chuk Hang Road, Wong Chuk Hang, Hong Kong) through April 23. 

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