A painter of mesmerising still lifes, Sarah Lai has injected a slender touch of melancholy into her latest work. She tells Edmund Lee the importance of being contemplative.
On the face of it, the change in Sarah Lai’s artistic practice over the past couple of years has been drastic. In her 2008 and 2009 paintings of the sea – from the two sets respectively named The Sea and Sea (night series) – showcased at her 2009 Gallery Exit show titled Towards the Sea, there’s nothing but the surface of the water, frozen in a state of quivering tranquillity. The pieces were hypnotic in their meticulous craftsmanship and, perhaps more significantly, the vacuum of thoughts that they seemed to invoke in the viewers. Two years later, the sea is still there in her oil-on-canvas painting Safety Island (2011), although the limelight has now been taken over by a floating platform in the centre of the frame. So, has one of Hong Kong’s finest still life painters gone a bit, um, ‘conceptual’?
“On the contrary – and speaking in a really hackneyed way – I’d say that I’ve put more imagination into my [new] works,” the 28-year-old responds to our teasing when we meet at her current exhibition at the gallery, which takes its title from the painting. “Before, I was merely reflecting the [objective] state of things, but I’ve put more of my personal thoughts into the works this time. I develop strange ideas when I keep staring at certain things.” In her 2011 painting A Drowsy Car, where a car lies upside-down on a softly-coloured meadow, Lai is imagining it to be ‘taking a nap, bathing in the sunshine’. Her tendency to depict objects that have lost their functions is again evident in two other works, Surveillance Camera (2010) and A Freezing Cold Flag (2011), which respectively shows a CCTV camera in broad daylight and a flag on a snowy golf course.
But that hasn’t always been the case. For Lai, a 2007 graduate from the Fine Arts Department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the laborious process of painting – rather than the impulse to invent or provoke – has long been the motive behind her choice of the art form. “I’m a very laid-back person,” says Lai, giggling. “I may go out and walk around and…” She pauses, her mind apparently too relaxed to come up with more examples about relaxing. “I feel very comfortable in that state, and it’s something that I need, but it also makes me question my own existence. Sometimes it’s like, I’m too laid-back!” She laughs. “When I paint, it gives me a chance to really focus. I feel like I’m putting in an effort in real life. It gives me comfort.”
The muted colour tone, the absence of people and an overwhelming sense of detachment have come to characterise the majority of Lai’s work, which the artist describes as her relationship with her surroundings in the role of a passive bystander. Citing Italian painter Giorgio Morandi as her role model, as well as Edward Hopper and photographer Stephen Shore as her spiritual influences, Lai maintains that the delicate atmosphere of frustration in her paintings may indeed be a funny experience if you look at it calmly. “It is about an individual’s relationship with the world,” she says of the mostly unpopulated sceneries. “I want to hint that, when you’re looking at a painting of mine, you are actually alone in the world.”
Notwithstanding her special interests in the sea (“It’s great to look at!”) and the course of ‘contemplation’ (“It’s called ‘spacing out’ if you put it less elegantly.”), the painter may be put into a small group of recent CUHK graduates who share seemingly very similar concerns in their placid and intimate works on strictly personal concerns. “We may have similar focuses because of the same atmosphere that we work in, but if you look closer, [you’ll notice] the work by each of us is indeed very different,” says Lai, who then likens her peers to water bottles. “For example, Morandi has painted little bottles throughout his life, and he’s talking about exactly this: the difference in similarities. We’re actually all alike, but even the slightest detail may have distinguished us from each other.”
Safety Island is at Gallery Exit until Dec 23.