Chinese Artist Draws with Smoke

All images courtesy the artist.
Chak Man Lei, “Masks” (nd) (all images courtesy the artist)

OAKLAND, Calif. — Stare up at the ceiling of any bar or night club that’s been around since before indoor smoking was banned and you’ll doubtless see traces of smoke on the ceiling. Though a symbol of the ephemeral, smoke leaves lasting marks over time, whether that be buildings or lungs or anything else it comes in contact with.

Smoke is the medium of Beijing-based artist Chak Man Lei, who has been exploring different methods of working with smoke over the years. He recently exhibited his work at Where Where Art Space in Beijing and shared some of his images with me on the internet.

“The process for making the smoke drawings is actually quite simple; all it takes is a surface and a flame,” he noted in an interview with Hyperallergic. “The flame produces smoke, and since smoke travels upward, the surface to be marked on must be propped upside down in order to catch the soot deposit from the flame’s incomplete combustion.”

Lei’s “Rock Formation” series on display at Where Where Art Space, Caochangdi, Beijing

Lei relies on a wide variety of materials to generate the smoke, from torches, smoke bombs, and candles, and he considers the works “marks” rather than “prints.”

“The process is more hands-on,” he noted, “the use of material is more primitive and prehistoric in comparison to the “prints” usually associate within a clean, clinical digital printing environment.” The result is haunting pieces that look impermanent and yet carry the enduring value of smoke.

And his inspiration, which is described in a statement from his recent gallery show as a comment “on the contemporary experience of China,” draws back through the history of the country, from paintings in the Tang and Song Dynasty (approximately the 10th through 13th centuries CE) to smoke found in paleolithic cave paintings, which were no doubt intended viewed by torch light or other form of fire. He explains:

The idea that black ink is a consistently and historically-uninterrupted drawing, writing, and painting material of choice through the dynasties and periods of the past thousands of years of Chinese history fascinates me, and I began imagining what if the course of Chinese ink-based art history never took the path or the form that it has become today; what if I try to trace the origin of Chinese art not from the painterly artifacts that are familiar to us, but to earlier documented accounts of the material — as made by hand — from a much more distant past, that is, from the charcoaled hand stencils and smoke stains on the cave walls dated to the paleolithic period?

Lei’s interests in circles and rock formations takes shape in bubble patterns.
Chak Man Lei, “Skin Off”
Chak Man Lei, “Dancing in the Dark.” In 2011, Lei danced tango continuously throughout the afternoon in a popular tourist area in Beijing as part of Stephanie Rothenberg’s Travel Office art intervention.
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