I was told: “Come to the New Territories”. I didn’t know quite what that meant, but it sounded like a promise of adventure.
The painter Firenze Lai (born in 1984) lives in Hong Kong, specifically in the New Territories. I had already made several attempts to meet her, in vain, after seeing her work exhibited at places like the New Museum in New York in 2015 during the Triennial, at various fairs, and then at the Venice Biennale in 2017.
Her art is striking and characteristic: it features simple forms in bright colours, often depicting humans in situations of unease or solitude.
I wanted to know who the artist was behind this new genre of painting. I was told: “Firenze Lai is like this, Firenze Lai is like that”. In short, she seemed to be utterly inaccessible in the depths of her New Territories.
It was one of her very first collectors, the architect William Lim – he designed the new building in Hong Kong christened H Queen, which houses Hauser & Wirth, Zwirner, etc among others, and opened at the end of March – who helped me to get in touch with her.
I soon arrived in the New Territories, and it turned out to be nothing more than a bustling district on the outskirts of Hong Kong where people work and store things in warehouses.
There I met this young woman in her studio, situated in a large warehouse building, and she wasn’t wild in the slightest – apart from the fact that she refused to appear on film – she was uncommonly pretty, endowed with a refined simplicity, extremely articulate and extremely determined.
I wanted to understand how she had created this oneiric universe verging on the nightmarish, in which characters living in a world of colours see certain parts of their body deformed.
Where had Firenze Lai come from and how had it led her to invent such a unique and powerful world?
Her work reminds me of the reproduction of a painting from the 1930s by a Chinese artist glimpsed by chance in a book, Pang Xunqin, who had studied in France and was most probably influenced by the surrealist movement.
Around the same time, in Brazil, an exceptionally talented woman named Tarsila do Amaral was also painting people who seemed distorted, as though in a house of mirrors at a funfair ( see soon my report about her and the show dedicated to her at Moma). But that’s another story…
This is what Firenze Lai told me:
“I always thought I would become an artist, ever since I was five years old. It was like an impulse, an instinct.”
And yet in her younger years she didn’t often get the chance to see works of art.
Firenze comes from an extremely modest Hong Kong family.
All her life her mother has worked in a restaurant where the speciality was snake soup. She recalls how her nails are deformed by the toxins found in these creatures that she has to clean all day long.
The first artworks that she saw were Picassos exhibited in the auction houses, before the auction. Picassos that were often of a poor quality.
Her mother refused to let her be an artist. It wasn’t a stable profession. She took lessons at an art school in Hong Kong for two years and set out to become a book designer. The work was good, but she only earned a very modest salary of 5000 HK dollars (roughly 515 euros) a month. At night she started to paint and draw. It was around 2006. She had a tiny desk, which dictated the size of her artworks. She began discovering art and its history through artists like Francis Bacon.
“I felt like we had something in common. Perhaps a way of going beyond suffering.”
She also speaks, later on, of her shock on seeing the Portrait of a Man by Anthony Van Dyck, during a visit to London’s National Gallery. “When I left I went straight to Portobello to buy myself a reproduction of the work.”
It’s still in her studio, not far from a postcard of a Russian Orthodox icon.
2011: Becoming a professional artist
This was the year when the prominent Chinese gallery Vitamin Creative Space in Guangzhou began exhibiting her:
“I left my job in book design. I wanted to devote myself full time to my work as an artist. My style, strictly speaking, hasn’t really changed, even if the medium and the size have. In 2011 I went back to oil painting.”
“Each figure that I paint is the same person. It is you and I. A universal character taken at different moments. We aren’t aware of it but we unknowingly adopt certain attitudes. So, for example, my mother doesn’t sit like I do. I have a sofa at my disposal. She has only ever used wooden chairs. The drawing of the seated figure will decide for you how to sit. I re-transcribe these attitudes which describe the person.”
Enlarging certain parts of the body
“When I open my eyes every morning I can’t see my own face. The face is the ultimate point of disappearance. Our feet are the point of contact with the world and we don’t even realize it.”
“I take photos all the time. I take pictures of hand movements, attitudes, things like that. When I was in the metro recently, for example, I saw a particularly nervous looking man”. She then shows me the video she took of a man hunched over his briefcase. “I’m not interested in his portrait but rather his attitude.
When I begin a painting, I try not to repeat myself, in other words I try not to repeat the combinations of colours that I create on the canvas.”
The details in the composition
“The details are not important, nor are the surroundings. My mind works like that: colours, some shapes. I don’t want to put too much effort into the representation of details. I want to express the physical experience. The portrait is not important either, for me. Emotion is not only expressed through the face.”
Description of a painting
“That’s my sister and I caught in the typhoon. Two unidentifiable beings in a turbulent environment.” She points at a twisted hand. “That’s the most important part of the painting”.
A finished painting
“I have difficulty knowing when a painting is finished. I take it, I look at it a lot. Sometimes it takes a few days to complete. Other times it’s a very long process”.
When attitude becomes painting.