All Wong Perng Fey could do was paint. He recalls this vividly. When the wind howled and beat relentlessly against the metal doors of his studio in China, making them rattle, all he could do was wrap himself tighter in his cheap wool jacket purchased from the local market, and paint.
“The others next door, in the next courtyard and the next compound, might very well be doing the same. Perhaps they were dipping their brushes into the oil, or pressing their hands into moulding clay sculptures, or perhaps shaping metal or wood for their installations. We knew what we were here to do, or maybe we did not. But the association of hundreds of other artists within the same place, pursuing the same path, gave everyone a sense of belonging. It made the lonesome life of surviving the harsh Beijing weather less so,” recalls Wong, 43.
He describes the Heiqiao art district, a community where artists create, work and live, as messy and chaotic on the surface, overrun with stray dogs and rubbish everywhere.
“But it had the right kind of energy for making art,” he says.
“The artists were young and unafraid to experiment and venture into new ideas. The presence of a greater art community among our circle pushed us to keep moving on. And among ourselves, we encouraged each other and generally the mood is joyous and supportive one.”
Many an evening might be cold and dark, but spirits were always high. Against a backdrop of flickering shadows cast by fire from the rubbish dumps, glasses clink and music and laughter continue late into the night.
“During the daytime, when not exhausted from the previous night, I would paint. I know my neighbours and other artists would be doing the same,” says the Kuala Lumpur-born Wong.
There are not many things that can beat this sense of camaraderie that he found himself a part of. For seven years, this was his reality.
But the village he called home for all these years is now no more.
Heiqiao art district no longer exists; the studios and warehouses were demolished last year, its artists and the dreams they nurtured in this place are now scattered far and wide.
“Heiqiao existed because of dreams and desires. It was an idea built through the minds of many, a place where people projected their dreams, a place where one could continue dreaming despite the pervasive sense of impermanence. The conflicts that surfaced from this dilemma is hard to ignore yet many still kept dreaming. Perhaps the hint of irony exists within my works as well,” he reflects.
Wong’s solo show Impetus at Richard Koh Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur, comprising six large paneled paintings, is one grounded in reality and fuelled by bittersweet nostalgia. Even in a land where change is swift and inevitable, news that Heiqiao would be demolished was still disorienting for most.
“We were anticipating the eviction, but I was hit by a sense of loss and displacement. We all knew the community was going to be dispersed and there probably would not be any other place like this one. I felt emotions I kept buried for years being stirred up once again. This was what prompted me to relook at the memories I made in Heiqiao and to put my feelings down onto canvas,” he says.
This was, for the most part, unplanned.
When news of the demolishment reached Heiqiao, it was with a heavy heart that Wong started on dismantling the partitions that sectioned his studio space, and sent his paintings to the framers to be packed into wooden crates.
The studio was stripped bare, the only thing serving as a reminder of its past purpose were remnants of oil paint on the walls and floor.
“All that was left behind was the accumulation of oil stains which marked the space like scars, a reminder of the violence that had once taken place. But it was embedded with fond memories and footprints left throughout my time here,” reminisces Wong.
So strong was this feeling that he felt compelled, once again, to paint, and to capture the emotions surging through him on canvas. When other artists were moving out, he made arrangements for empty canvases and unfinished panels to be brought back into the studio.
Moving out could wait for a bit.
Wong wanted to examine the meaning of his presence in Heiqiao through this new body of work. He describes how he drew from his memories and channeled them into the layers of paint and imagery he was building.
“This series caught the energy I was engulfed in … it is a witness to my my inner struggles, the forceful breakup from a familiar environment, and my coming to terms as these memories linger in my mind. I started painting in winter and it was deep into spring the following year by the time I completed these paintings. By then, I could finally begin to envision a new place of hope,” he says.
Wong might have moved on to another part of Beijing, but he finds the demolishing of old villages in China quite heartbreaking. He notes that some of these villages are hundreds of years old, many with original courtyard houses intact.
Wong cautions: “Once these villages are gone, future generations can only get a glimpse of them through photographs. This is short-term gain in the name of urbanisation and there is little hope of seeing a reversal of this trend. The pain will only be felt in the future, like how people miss their hutong and city wall and gates that once guided the ancient Beijing city.”
Impetus is on at Richard Koh Fine Art, No. 229, Jalan Maarof in KL till Jan 20. Open: 10am to 7pm. For more info, call 03-2095 3300 or visit www.rkfineart.com.