September 27, San Francisco — From December 16, 2022 to September 18, 2023, the Asian Art Museum invites you to step into some of East Asia’s most unforgettable forests. Hong Kong-born and Vancouver-based artist Lam Tung Pang’s gallery-spanning installation, Past Continuous Tense (2011), unites a millennium of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese nature scenes scaled up from the picture page to near life size.
Exclusively in the Asian Art Museum’s Doris Lee Gallery, Past Continuous Tense is a chance for audiences to connect important works from historical masters, a number of whom are in the museum’s collection, while exploring contemporary themes that span the Pacific.
Following years of research in the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s New Asia College library, Lam (Chinese, b.1978) carefully rendered the ink paintings he selected there—including colophons (artists’ inscriptions or collectors’ stamps) and publishers’ multilingual captions—onto 52 planks of humble plywood spanning 52.5 feet. Instead of ink and brush, however, he employed a blowtorch and charcoal to score the intricate drawings into the wood, overlaid with a dusting of ashes to recreate the gauzy effect of paint on silk.
The artist’s faithfully recreated forest delicately reimagines the possibilities of traditional allegorical landscapes in a time of ecological devastation, cultural flattening, endless digital and mechanical reproduction of art, and the rise of political violence concurrent with the decline of artistic freedoms.
“There is a Chinese proverb, ‘One tends to see only the leaf in front of one’s eyes, not the entire forest,’” says exhibition curator Mia Yinxing Liu, Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History at Johns Hopkins University. “Through his interplay of scale, material, and setting, Lam suggests that we should always try to see both the leaf and the entire forest together. The view of the forest as a whole conveys the strength of tradition, history, and the march of time. But close up, each singular tree or branch, copied from books but with a brutal scorch instead of subtle strokes of ink, ruptures that peaceful and elegant illusion of the whole—we see both a story of the grand forest but become aware that it is comprised of smaller fragments, a view of a decomposing past that is somehow reenergized by the artist’s modern methods and imbued with his own modern anxieties.”
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. Intimate encounters with original artworks have long been an indispensable component of painting connoisseurship in East Asia. The handscroll format, compared to Western easel painting, lends itself to a personal, tactile experience with the viewer, and many celebrated painters in the past were themselves also experts and collectors with access to historically important works. “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,” explains Liu.
Yet Lam had studied these masterpieces mostly as printed images or projections in lecture halls. His experience as a student in London, at St. Martin’s School of Art, offered new opportunities for primary access to “real” paintings, first-hand encounters that kindled Lam’s urge to directly engage with the art of the past.
Past Continuous Tense was a commission by the Hong Kong Arts Centre. It includes fragments of trees from multinational Asian artists: Korean painters such as Yi Ching (1581-?), and Japanese artists such as Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), and Kawase Hasui (1883-1957). In fact, Lam’s panels of trees recall the celebrated byobu folding screen by Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539-1610), The Pine Trees Screen, deemed to be the first of its scale depicting only pine trees, now designated as a national treasure of Japan.
Lam references at least 14 Chinese painters dating back to the 12th Century in his work. These references are described in greater detail via a publication that will accompany the exhibition. Works referenced by Lam from artists Liu Yuanqi (1555-1625?), Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), and Zhu Da (1626-1705) in the Asian Art Museum collection will be on view when Past Continuous Tense opens later this year.
Past Continuous Tense is the second installation by Lam Tung Pang at the Asian Art Museum. His first, A day of two Suns (2019), explored the shifting urban territory of Hong Kong and was acquired by the museum for the 2021-2022 exhibition Memento.
“Lam’s work is both prophetic and nostalgic,” says Abby Chen, the Head of Contemporary Art at the Asian Art Museum. “A day of two Suns documents a city, and a system, in the process of fading and awakening, and Past Continuous Tense reckons with similar issues of change in the name of a ‘progress’ whose benefits often raise more questions than they answer. It’s rewarding for our audiences to be able to see how a singular artist grapples with today’s challenges by showing that even the treasures of the past possess layers of complexity that speak to our most pressing contemporary concerns.”
About the Asian Art Museum
Located in the heart of San Francisco, the museum is home to one of the world’s finest collections of Asian art, with more than 18,000 awe-inspiring artworks ranging from ancient jades and ceramics to contemporary video installations. Dynamic special exhibitions, cultural celebrations and public programs for all ages provide rich art experiences that unlock the past and spark questions about the future.
Our mission is to celebrate, preserve, and promote Asian and Asian American art and cultures for local and global audiences. We provide a dynamic forum for exchanging ideas, inviting collaboration, and fueling imagination to deepen understanding and empathy among people of all backgrounds.
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Image: Past Continuous Tense (detail), 2011, by Lam Tung Pang (Chinese, b. 1978, active Hong Kong). Charcoal, image-transfer, and acrylic on plywood. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Acquisition made possible by the Kao/Williams Family Foundation, 2020.20a-zz. © Lam Tung Pang. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.