Interview: painter Ko Lap connects Hong Kongers to literature to fight against the “feeling of helplessness”

For 66 consecutive weeks from September 2020 to last December, Ko Lap barely left his apartment.

Each week, the artist delivered to Ming Pao’s Sunday supplement a new painting – each inspired by an original writing – accompanied by the article, poem or short story from which it came.

Koh Lap. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Unlike most illustrations in print these days, Ko’s pieces were all created with water paints instead of computer graphics. “If I have to make changes, I have to start all over again,” he said.

To make room for the painting, he had to get rid of two wardrobes and almost all of his clothes. He needed an entire wall to hang his paintings.

“Clothes were the easiest to throw away,” Ko said, because they meant little to him, unlike books. This left Ko’s small apartment sparsely furnished, with only his bed, a chair, a bookshelf, a small closet that also served as a table, and a shelf for his computer and TV.

Ko usually spent Monday through Wednesday communicating with the writers and brainstorming painting ideas.

In the three days remaining until Sunday, he slept only a few hours and worked tirelessly to complete each piece of art – aided by a steady stream of music, coffee and other caffeinated beverages.

Koh Lap. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Ko, who uses a pseudonym, said the painting process was very painful, but not for the above reasons. Worse, he said, is that it forces him to delve into the depths of his mind and face what people generally choose to avoid: “your own flaws, weaknesses and dark side”.

“The difficulty is that you really need to dive into an ocean of trauma,” Ko said, “you’ll be horrified because you know it’s going to be painful, but there’s no other way.”

The painter said it was the only way for others to see his sincerity and resonate with his works.

stand firm

Ko was organizing a 21-day exhibition of his paintings for Sunday Mingpao at a gallery in Sham Shui Po when he met HKFP, and he said he had been almost sleepless preparing for the exhibition, as well as a number of media. interviews.

But no matter how many times Ko talked about his designs with reporters, he told HKFP he would never get used to being interviewed. Ko said he was a very introverted person and usually didn’t talk when he was in a large group or with strangers.

During his interview, Ko often looked across the room while speaking and only made eye contact when asking questions.

Koh Lap. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

He even finds his paintings “embarrassing”. “Because you are basically naked in the eyes of others. You have to peel yourself off for people to look,” he said, as his work expressed his deepest thoughts or emotions.

“But there’s no other way, I know I have to finish my job,” the painter said. “I need to change myself to make things better.”

Ko has been a graphic designer for most of his career. Then, in 2020, the artist’s life took a sharp turn. He quit his job and devoted all his time and energy to this project.

He said he realized painting was his way of making his voice heard and “doing something”.

When painting, Ko first coats the canvas with plaster to allow the colors to flow freely through the rough surface. At this point in the creative process, Ko said he had no control over his work and felt like he was asking for divine guidance.

Koh Lap. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Destiny is one of Ko’s main inspirations. “In this current era, [people] sharing a sense of helplessness… one’s own strength can’t make a big difference,” Ko said. “Most of the time, you can’t do anything but do your best.”

The artist recalled an ancient tale he had once heard, about a saint who, when asked what quality made him holy, pointed to a young servant who served the tea politely and meticulously. “This is a saint, because he did his best in his role,” replied the saint.

“We don’t need heroes. What we need is to hold on and do our best,” Ko said.

Ko Lap handmade this spinning lantern. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Because the Sham Shui Po Gallery was not large enough to house the 64 paintings, Ko set up a private space on the top level of a former tenant building in Prince Edward so his writer friends could view his work – c This is where he met HKFP.

Although it is not open to the public, the artist has always paid great attention to detail in its decoration.

A curtain of semi-translucent vertical banners bearing memorable phrases from the 64 writings that inspired his paintings separated the room in which his paintings hung. There was also a hand carved rotating lamp to add to the atmosphere of the place – which took painter days to do.


Ko’s position, he said, was that of an intermediary between the 64 writers he collaborated with and Hong Kongers who needed the company of their literature.

Each week during the months-long project, Ko contacted a different author and invited him to write about the city. “I hope the theme is related to Hong Kong,” he told the writers.

To his amazement, it seemed to him that everyone had a tacit idea of ​​what to write. Ko said the collaborations made him feel like Hong Kongers had become more connected to each other in recent years due to the depressing social atmosphere.

Koh Lap. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

“The trauma became our mutual identity,” Ko said, adding that was why her project went so smoothly. In May, a book of his paintings and accompanying writings was published. “Many people support us, many bookstores also wrote comments to recommend our new book,” he said.

The connections between Ko’s paintings and the writers’ literary works go below the surface. Ko said he intentionally avoided simply illustrating everything the author wrote about, as he felt it wouldn’t have added an extra layer of meaning.

Instead, Ko would spend a few days going back and forth with the writer to grasp the hidden message he wanted to convey, and then respond with his works. “It was like chatting with a friend,” Ko said.

While explaining his creative process, he stood up and pointed to one of his paintings on the wall. The work, titled “Ring of Mobius”, depicts a forest with blood veins like “trees” and a human heart lying in the middle of a pond in the center. The scene is dominated by a vivid crimson tone, in which a white circular swing park and some human and animal figures stand out.

It was his response to a play written by Wong Pik-wai, one of the rising names in Hong Kong’s literary scene, which Ko greatly appreciated.

Painting by Ko Lap for Wong Pik-wai. Photo: provided.

Wong wrote about Kwun Tong’s redevelopment, but through their conversations, Ko learned that the sense of loss at the center of his story actually stemmed from a childhood experience. Wong was unable to visit a playground when she was a girl and the feeling has been etched in her mind ever since.

“You have to speak with her heart to heart, only then will you understand that she wasn’t really talking about the redevelopment itself,” Ko said. “So I deliberately drew a playground for her.”

Ko said he hoped that when Wong saw this painting, she would see what was buried deep in her heart and that the conversation they had could act as a form of healing for both creators.

power of tenderness

Although human emotions are a major component of Ko’s work, the humans depicted in his painting are always very small. These characters are also faceless, their emotions only expressed through their body language.

Ko said he was largely inspired by the late German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch, who was good at turning everyday gestures into artistic expressions. Ko said his job as a painter is also about feeling the emotions behind people’s body movements.

One of the human figures in Ko Lap’s painting. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

When Ko invited Ricky Yeung, a heavyweight in the local art scene, to write the foreword for his new book, Yeung also noticed the unique perspective in Ko’s work and his presentation of human characters.

“Ko Lap seemed to want to keep the audience out of the scene and instead ‘calmly’ observe the world,” Yeung wrote, adding that viewers of Ko’s paintings would feel like angels gazing at all living beings while standing. on top of a skyscraper. .

Ko said he liked Yeung’s portrayal and it was his intention that his work not convey extreme emotions. “I hope [my work] is soft. I believe in the power of tenderness, which brings hope and love,” Ko said.

“Whether [I] drew some smashing stuff, all i did was say a message to you,” Ko added.

Instead, the painter said his aspiration was not to tell readers anything, but to help them see their own trauma.

“When you bravely face the painful reality, you can feel that you are somehow healed,” he said.

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