True to type

Top News | 17 Jul 2020

The hustle of city life often leaves little time for us to enjoy traditional art and its unique beauty. But one positive side of the Covid-19 stasis is that it has provided us with a chance to slow down and appreciate traditional culture.

One place to do so is The Mills, which is presenting new pieces at its Tsuen Wan space, involving cyanotype artist Garling Lai and wufucai master Jody Kan.

Cyanotype, also known as blueprint, originated in 1842 but was gradually replaced by photography. "Cyanotype is an old printing process," said Lai.

"The mixture of two powders will turn blue under the sunlight, while the covered parts will remain white. Thus, it was used as a method of 'photocopying' in the past."

The technique was used to record objects in a one-to-one ratio because photographic film was expensive at the time.

However, as technology advanced, cyanotype became obsolete.

"Cyanotype has a lot of downsides - sunlight has to be sufficient to print, powders have short shelf lives and the final product cannot clearly show the details of the objects," said Lai.

Lai picked up cyanotype when she was in her 20s and fell in love with it, despite its old-fashioned nature. "I learned about it online for a father's day exhibition in PMQ about five years ago," she said. "I spent two months before successfully working it out."

Now, instead of printing on paper, she often prints on textiles, which was her major in college. As soon as she created her first piece, she continued to dig into the craft and even started teaching classes.

Just like cyanotype, wufucai is another forgotten craft. "When people talk about traditional Chinese clothing, qipao and cheongsam often come to mind," said Kan. "But qipao and cheongsam came after the Qing Dynasty. How can they represent the long Chinese history?"

She then found wufucai, which represented Chinese heritage more.

"This form of dress doesn't really have a name, but as it is made with five pieces of cloth, someone named it wufucai," said Kan. She teaches her students how to make wufucai at her workshop at The Mills, but merging the craft with cyanotype was a first.

"At the end of last year, I was still creating works in Malaysia as I like to make records of traditional local craftsmanship with cyanotype," recalled Lai. "One of my works, a Nyonya costume, attracted A Story of Wandering curator Him Lo." And so the collaboration between Lai's cyanotype and Kan's wufucai began on Lo's introduction.

Lai started to learn the art of wufucai from Kan and came up with the idea of printing her wufucai in cyanotype. "I spent four three-hour lessons learning how to make a wufucai from Kan and made my own for this exhibition," said Lai.

The shape and details of the apparel are the same, but the fabric was different as the wufucai had to be used for cyanotype.

"I made it with a very transparent textile so that it can appear in different shades of blue under the sunlight," she said.

Lai was fascinated by the art invovled in the process of making of wufucai and recorded the craft's meticulous steps in her textiles in cyanotype. "I printed a complete wufucai first, then removed some parts and printed them on the textile."

She also printed the tools used to make wufucai, such as the ruler and needles, to tell a more comprehensive story about the traditional craft. "There are also some white dots on the textiles that I tried with powders," she said.

In addition to the textiles, the cyanotype artist created a visual diary to illustrate the creation process and made a cyanotype print of Kan's traditional button collection.

Not only was Lai captivated by the craft, but also the culture within.

"Kan asked me during the first lesson where clothes came from. I didn't know how to answer the question," the textile major recalled. "Apart from learning how to make wufucai, I also learned a lot about the story behind it and the culture of traditional Chinese clothing."

Kan relates traditional clothes to Chinese culture. "The Classic of the Rites has a chapter talking about robes and the virtues they imply," she said. "We follow the requirements of the compass and square, the line, the balance as well as the steelyard when making wufucai."

To explain the theory behind clothing, Kan often quotes classics like The Exploitation of the Works of Nature and The Classic of Rites. "There is still a lot to explore," she said.

Those interested in exploring the cyanotype pieces by Lai may visit A Story of Wandering until August 31 at The Mills.

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