While it may seem farfetched to go from radiologist to artist, Ellen Pau proves that it isn’t quite the leap of change it seems. The pioneering self-taught practitioner talks to Stephenie Gee on how she transitioned from science to art and her brand-new moving image work for M+ façade
Born in 1961 to a family of medical workers, it’s no surprise Ellen Pau inherited the science gene and who on to major in Diagnostic Radiology at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. It was during her studies in 1986 that she first came into contact with art, having participated and helped in the organisation of The Alternative Film and Video Festival presented by the Phoenix Cine Club, a film society established in 1973 by a group of Hong Kong veteran film critics, scriptwriters and directors.
But though the two worlds seem to have little in common, for Pau, they seem to inevitably collide. “Both types of works require the producer to have a strong sense of visual details and they are influenced by the advancement of technology,” she says about how her background in radiology has translated to her art. “I would say radiology comes from the discovery of X-ray, a mysterious light that visualized Mrs Curie’s hand, while art comes from a different light, perhaps from the zone of awareness and free consciousness in the human mind.”
A pioneering force in Hong Kong’s video art scene, many of Pau’s creations stem from this light of awareness and consciousness. “I was inspired mainly through my everyday experience, visually, aurally, bodily and mentally,” she says. “When I was young, I had asthma and I had to lie in bed over the weekends. The only visual I had was the ceiling of the room, the light from the window and the lamp. Taking all my energy to breathe, I could only hear my own wheezing sound but I didn’t like it, so I turned on the radio and started mixing all these scenes in my mind. One of my earliest works, She Moves, is the outcome of this personal and mediated experience.”
Her latest creation, The Shape of Light, co-commissioned by M+ and Art Basel, takes this light to a whole other level. Made especially for the M+ façade and inspired by the city’s unique urban landscape, the site-specific moving image work intertwines live-action performance and striking sci-fi sequences to explore the possibilities of immaterial and material.
“Blending with the spectacular city skyline, I hope the work produces a meditative space,” says Pau. “The audience can observe the ‘the moment’ from his or her immediate surroundings, he/she may notice the on/off of window lights, change of colours and brightness of our skyline, feel the vibe and the energy from within, and connect with their inner selves.”
Almost like a spiritual journey, this thread of meditation and healing is further conveyed with The Heart Sutra, a popular sutra in Mahāyāna Buddhism that explores the doctrine of emptiness. “The heart sutra is not a symbol, it is a sutra called ‘The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom,’” explains Pau. “It is the cause for the LED on the facade to turn on. Following the study of the screen in the materialist film culture, the sutra is chanted by the movement of light to reflect on the passage of time, space and our cybernetic existence.”
With most site-specific art, the works have to be left on-site and cannot be carried into another space. But this isn’t the case for The Shape of Light, which not only takes in the physical space and location of the Victoria Harbourfront, but also the own space of the spectator.
“I was told very early on that the light of the video facade can go afar – to the ocean water, to the cloud in the sky and mountain roads,” she says. “People from The Peak can see it clearly and because of the live streaming every night, the screen will be taken into many private spaces, like on mobiles or domestic spaces over the internet.
“The work is site-specific, but also on expanded and relational terms. The sign language performer’s dance, like that of a symphony conductor, elicits the visual chanting, the mindfulness aural and the awareness of being at ‘here and now’ in their own space and time.”
For the many of us who had plans – big or small – the pandemic has caused them to be brought to an immediate and jarring halt. The same goes for Pau, who just after one month of starting production, was faced with a near-total lockdown after the city was hit by its fifth wave.
“Art Basel was postponed. M+ was closed. Everything went online, except my work at the hospital,” she recalls. “Surveys said that almost 20% of people in HK had depression or fatigue from the 2-year battle with Covid-19. I felt particularly surreal and blizzard to call from my workplace to an artist in my team who was working in another hospital. Covid strengthens our belief that the strength of healing comes from within.”
Besides her artistic practice, Pau is also invested in curatorial projects as well as the promotion and education of art and culture in Hong Kong, being one of the co-founders of Videotage, a video artist collective and archive of media art.
“Around 1988, May Fung, Comyn Mo, Wong Chi Fai and I wanted to showcase the independent video productions that were made by our friends, so we decided to organise the event under the name of Videotage, a name that the Phoenix Cine Club used for film/ video made for television,” says Pau. “We were the artists, the organisers and the funders. We were the only artist collective. After self-financing the annual screening for the first few years, we got public funding to run more programs and expanded our program to present media art.”
A seminal figure in the Hong Kong arts scene since the 80s, with her work having been exhibited widely internationally including at the Kwangju and Venice Biennale, Pau notices a huge shift in the local field of film and media art.
“I saw a growing exposure of Hong Kong independent filmmakers and artists in international festivals in recent years. Not only that, the money invested in the scene is also growing,” she says. “Art Basel has been in Hong Kong since its inception in 2013. Almost all Universities in Hong Kong provide courses on either film studies, fine art courses, cultural studies, curatorial studies, or museum studies in their undergraduate and graduate programs.
“Tickets to concerts and performances are sold out quickly. Long lines of queues [sic] for entering the museum is [sic] the new normal. All these are very different from the eighties, but as the socio-political climate changes quickly, these may also change quickly.”