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Back in November, Marc Donaldson of The&Partnership agency got in touch with me about an exciting project for the Japanese car manufacturers, Lexus.

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The brief was to highlight the deep beauty of making something by hand, looking at the physical knowledge and near super-human skills honed over a lifetime of practice, and link it to the use of AI and digital manufacture. Essentially, it was a reminder that despite the inexorable increase in the digital world, ultimately it is humans who have a lifetime of knowledge who are still in charge.

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They had already commissioned a gorgeous film on the subject, called Takumi. This film follows several artisan makers talking about their craft and displaying their skills. Takumi is the Japanese word for artisan, a term earned for exceptional skill achieved after 60,000 hours on the job.

Marc’s vision was to create a Japanese woodblock poster from cherry wood that would use hand printing to embed traditional pigments into hand made paper, based on a design which he had created in the computer.

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I have to say that while I trained in Japan in Japanese woodblock, and printed large prints for several years, I found this commission extremely challenging…

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Japanese woodblock technique relies on a harmonious combination of humidity, speed and response to simple changes in the basic materials. The wood absorbs paint, and then releases it to damp paper. Too much ink, too wet paper, too much pressure, and the paper bleeds; too little, too slow, too much glue and the paper is patchy.

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Photo by Feng Ho

However, the air pressure, sunlight, temperature, the number of previous printings, the absorbency of the wood, how much glue is used, the number of brushstrokes and humidity in the brushes, the consistency of paint, the speed of brushing, the precise way the paint sits in or on the wood, all these factors vary second by second, hour by hour.

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Photo by Eoin O’Flynn

The colour had to be coaxed onto the page, like a dance of wills.

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Photo by Feng Ho

I have to admit, my first 50 prints were a disaster. It took a lot of determination to keep going, as each print took an hour, so it was days and weeks before I’d made a passable layer of colour. Having made linocuts for the past few years, it was a shock to be a beginner at a technique again.

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I had to learn how to ink up generously on the block with an almost foamy layer of ink, without leaving a drop of ink anywhere near my table, in order to keep the edges of the paper clean when they were placed face down.

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I made my own homemade recipe for ink, combining gum arabic with nikawa and pure pigment, a blend of graphtol red and ruby red, and added a tiny drop of sumi ink to help the colour depth.

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I learned to hold my elbows out a certain way to fix the edges of the paper on the registration marks accurately, and how to trust that registration mark when each poster needed two or three printings to achieve the required depth of colour. Every now and then, the registration would be out by a fraction of a millimetre, and the print would fail.

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Photo by Feng Ho

I learned that a lovely intense colour field would leak through the damp paper in the last stage and mark other areas, so I developed a way of protecting the paper with a spare sheet of newsprint to stop this from happening for the final layer of ink.

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As this technique needed solid day light and it was during the winter months that I was printing, I’d skip lunches to maximise the hours of printing. I rigged up the ceiling light to a scaffolding to give myself a bit of light boost. There were no short cuts. I didn’t get faster. I had to keep moving, at a slow pace, and enjoy the process.

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I learned to relax and enjoy the meditative brush strokes and listened to quite a few absorbing but calming podcasts to keep my mind occupied and body in the flow.

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Photo by Feng Ho

After a mere 100 hours on the job, I cannot call myself a Takumi by any stretch of the imagination, but have a renewed respect for the masters of the field!

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My mum’s from Malaysia and dad’s from Singapore, so I love visiting these countries even if they are relatively foreign places to me. My niece invited me to her wedding in May, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to catch up with family.

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The wedding was in a “Six” star hotel, called the St. Regis. We lounged around in the gap between official ceremony and evening fun, getting ourselves pampered and primped. It did amuse me to see that the epitome of luxury was a chilly air conditioning bordering on UK winter temperatures, and that the fruit bowl contained northern hemisphere waxy green apples.

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I spent some time hanging out with my brother and sister in law. They took me to a fancy cafe called Mellower Coffee, whose top hit menu item was a black coffee with a ball of candy floss suspended above. As the steam rose, the floss melted, looking like pretty rain. We tried the cake, which looked much better than it tasted. I was so happy lurking in the noisy buzz of this popular place, spending time in companionable silence.

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My sister in law was kind enough to let me come to her acupuncture session one afternoon. I was amazed by the number of needles that the doctor put in, and how calm she said she felt afterwards.

Teh Tarik and Mahathir in the Midnight café

After a long bus journey I arrived in Malaysia to see my mum’s side of the family. We ended up drinking Teh Tarik in the midnight cafe, and reading about the shock victory of Mahathir, who had just won a second term in office at the ripe age of 92. In hot countries like Malaysia, the night time is peaceful and cool, it’s a good time to get snacks once the appetite returns. I love the way people enjoy this time of the night together.

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Malaysian food, even breakfast, is the best. Every now and then I long for a bowl of fresh slippery salty noodles in gloriously bright purple plastic bowls, lit by the flicker of neon cut by a whirring fan. My cousin and I had a quick bowl before we set off for Singapore together in the car. The cafe had a little scrawny cat who poked around under my table; I wanted to take him home.

I’m still working on some more of these prints, and they have brought back good memories of fun times with family. I know that taking pictures would have been more immediate, and accurate, but these slower images bring back the sounds and smells and heat of the place… for me, at least.

 

Last year, when I was on a residency in China, I made a series of fifty water-based woodblock prints (mokuhanga prints) which ended up becoming an animation called Smiley Rock.

Smiley Rock still frame

The technique of printing successive thin layers of watercolour is called bokashi and some of the frames for the animation were made from progressive stages of the printing process. I took photos of the print, while printing fresh layers of colour, so that you can see how the colour builds up. I edited the piece in the Royal Academy Schools in Piccadilly, London, and talented musician Eliot Kennedy made the music for me.

Smiley Rock frame being photographed for the animation

The animation is currently being shown in West Yorkshire Print Workshop, as part of their group show called Japan, until 1 September. Read about the show here or at https://www.wypw.org/blog/japan/

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Smiley Rock is also coming with me to the IMPACT conference in Santander, Spain next month… I’ll be showing the animation alongside some of the frames. Watch this space!

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You can watch the animation here or go to https://vimeo.com/237974015

 

Oh! I’m so happy to be included in the Tokyo Mini Print Triennial!

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She Dreams of Flowers (2017) by Wuon-Gean Ho. Linocut, 15 x 20 cm

Have a look here to see the prizewinning works and here to see a list of the artists selected (yes, it’s loads of people, but I am still pleased to be in it!)

Tama Art University Museum

Date: (Sat.) Oct. 27, 2018 – (Sun.) Dec. 2, 2018

Open Hours:10:00 – 18:00 (last admission at 17:30)
Closed:Tuesdays
Admission free
1-33-1 Ochiai, Tama-city, Tokyo, Japan
Tel. +81-(0)42-357-1251
Access:7 minutes from Tama Center Station (Keio Sagamihara Line, Odakyu Tama Line, Tama-monorail)

I’m very tempted to go over and see the show, as they will have a full programme of printmaking events running alongside…

The Novosibirsk International Triennial of Contemporary Graphic Arts in Russia: Oh, What a fancy sounding show! I’ve seen some technical and graphic excellence from Russian and former Soviet Union artists, and imagine the show will be full of excellent work.

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I’ve been invited to take part by a curator of the digital section, Derek Besant.

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For those who know my work, it’s resolutely analogue, except I do make many of my prints into animations! So, the use of digital software qualifies me to take part.

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I’ve submitted Shadow Boy and Shadow Girl, as two sets of still frames (nine frames per panel) and the animation on a flash drive. Fingers crossed the film works over there!

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The Novosibirsk International Triennial of Contemporary Graphic Arts runs from 14 Sept to 4 Nov.

If you’d like to see the animation, it’s here:  https://vimeo.com/208883758

 

 

Buckingham Palace is beautiful, golden, sparkling, opulent, baroque, rich. If it were a dish it would be molten duck egg yolks, velvety on the tongue… However, I was thinking how even though it’s filled with life-like marble statues, their ghostly pallor and illusion of softness might make one yearn for the reality of a living, breathing, messy, optimistic dog.

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So I made this print, which is of my friend’s ornate chair in her living room, one that kind of resembles a throne, and her happy dog, Lily. It was a lovely experience to sit in such a grand chair, and have Lily leaning on my legs. In way she was half mascot, and half protector, fully present.

I sent one of these prints to The Queen to thank her for inviting me over. I hope she didn’t think I was being blasphemous…

Last Sunday I was invited to give a talk at the Association for Group and Individual Psychotherapy in London, which got me thinking about the nature of the image, and how it can play an active role in life and society…

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Farmhouse in Changsha, 2015. Photo by Wuon-Gean Ho

When I was thinking about how images are seen by the viewer, I realized that the intensity of looking long and hard at a print could amount to some sort of love or devotion. Rural homes in China may lack surface pattern and decoration, yet many have a framed picture of Mao on the wall. Set up high against the ceiling, the face is instantly recognizable, yet because his eyes are facing a vantage point that cannot be met, there is an inscrutability to his gaze. I imagine generations of people living in the household being constantly aware of the presence of Mao, represented by a bit of ink on a piece of paper. The situation is probably similar with other households across the world that include an image of a religious figure, for example, such as Jesus or Mary: images which brought the impossible/ incredibly important/ into the home/ humble daily life. 

The intensity of the transformation of the printed image into an object of power and authority shows us how prints on paper can be transformed into an icon with the look of love, or the loving gaze. Importantly, the figure depicted usually does not return the look of love, allowing the loving contemplation to continue. The viewer can fantasize about the thoughts of the viewed and start to imagine a relationship.

 

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Vintage Postcard from Pinterest, unknown source

 In a practical way, relationships have started and flourished as a result of the trade of images. Joan Fontcuberta, the photographer, writes in his book, Pandora’s Camera, of how his father met his mother. It was the custom in Spain in the early 20C for young men to have a photo printed of themselves to send to girls that they fancied. Fontcuberta says that his father’s photo was a winner, a dreamy Hollywood rendition of a handsome young man. Her mother would have had the chance to look at him without the fear of meeting the real person, and begin to idolize the image, and imagine a relationship developing. Her gaze could have caressed his cheek and traced the outline of his jaw, smoothed the unruly eyebrows… When she did eventually have a chance to get to know him better, there was already an amount of affection in the mix.

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Agatha Bas (1641) by Rembrandt van Rijn

Then that got me thinking to how often lovers have depicted their loved ones. One only has to think of Rembrandt and Reubens, Freud, Picasso, Dali, Hockney and Bacon to think of how artists have taken the opportunity to caress the flesh and illuminate the skin of their loved ones. The movement of paint on canvas with a brush is like the application of cream to skin, like the grooming of fur, like the licking of lips. Look at Renoir’s flickering depiction of light and shadow on skin of his nude female models. Hockney’s clear depiction of the angle of the neck, the incised outline of the pencil mark must have reverberated in his mind as a virtual tracing of the muscles and shape of the body. It’s not just a mechanical rendition of muscle and form, it’s an involved description of what is there in front of him.

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Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) by Lucian Freud

The intense gaze of the artist deconstructs and reconstructs the figure, making the portrayal of the subject a sort of intense familiarization. I wonder if the act of portrayal might also cause the artist to fall in love with the subject. I also wonder if the portrayal of a fragmented/ split/grotesque individual might result in contempt in the artist for the sitter. It certainly seems to me that Lucian Freud had much contempt for his portrayal of a benefits worker, not only does his gaze look down on the body, sprawled in an ungainly way on the sofa, but also that his treatment of the folds of flesh is reverberating with repugnance.

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Film Still of Anwar Congo from The Act of Killing (2013) by Joshua Oppenheimer

Truly repugnant individuals have been portrayed in surprisingly sensitive and loving ways. In Joshua Oppenheimer’s film The Act of Killing, the camera spends a long time lingering and looking at the chief protagonist, serial killer Anwar Congo, as he recounts his exploits during the Indonesian massacres in 1965-66. Unlovable from his actions and his behaviour, the long intense gaze of the camera, that does not seem to blink or become diverted by other issues, allows the viewers to develop some sort of connection and ultimately try for a connection or a kind of empathy.

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Film Still from Like Water for Chocolate (1992) directed by Alfonso Arau

But why am I telling you about this? I don’t make anything like this at all! I wanted to talk about an aspect of image making that is to do with the casting of spells. The creation of a print does involve a certain amount of time and energy in its formation. During that time, the artist can invest hopes, dreams and prayers in the fabric of the ink. In the film, Like Water for Chocolate (1992) the youngest daughter, Tita is forbidden to marry her true love, Pedro, who is offered the hand in marriage of the middle sister instead, which he accepts so he can be close to Tita. When Tita is making the cake for the wedding, she cries into the batter; and as the cake is consumed by the guests, they are all overcome with sadness and sickness and grief.

I wonder whether the printed image could be a repository of hopes and desires, and perhaps even convey the thoughts and emotions of the maker which were experienced while the image was being made.

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Scarf Blur (2014) by Wuon-Gean Ho. Photograph and performance.

Whether this is because the paper retains the energy of the making process, or whether the energy of the shape and lines is able to convey this mysterious message to the viewer is something I’m still looking into…