Exclusively at the Asian Art Museum, Past Continuous Tense (2011) gives audiences a chance to connect important works from historical masters, many in the museum’s collection, with an exploration of contemporary themes of global significance.
After years of research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s New Asia College library, Lam (Chinese, b. 1978) carefully rendered ink paintings from great masters, including colophons (artists’ inscriptions or collectors’ stamps) onto 52 planks of simple plywood spanning 52.5 feet. Instead of ink and brush, however, he employed an extraordinary technique: blowtorch and charcoal to score the intricate drawings into the wood, overlain with ashes to recreate the gauzy effect of paint on silk.
Guest curated by Mia Yinxing Liu, Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History at Johns Hopkins University, Past Continuous Tense introduces audiences to layers of encounter and transmission: the natural world was first mediated through past masters of ink painting, then re-mediated by a learned few into the art books and painting manuals that Lam drew from for this work.
Lam’s montage of artist historical references, rendered at a scale both intimate and lifelike, produces an arresting interactive experience with both history and nature, at once contemplative and problematic. The artist’s forest, created from canonical imagery of the past, invites reflection on our relationship to nature, our current era of ecological devastation, and the relationship between the virtual and the real. The use of fire on wood is a keen reference to the fragility of both our cherished artworks and lived natural environment.
Drawing its title from English grammar, Past Continuous Tense conveys an ongoing action that already took place, but perhaps one that continues to impact our present. “Lam’s work is both prophetic and nostalgic,” says Abby Chen, Head of Contemporary Art at the Asian Art Museum. “Past Continuous Tense reckons with issues of change in the name of a ‘progress’ whose benefits often raise more questions than they answer.”
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