What the Water Gave Me, dedicated to those I met in Venice26.11.2019 | art. , exhibition. , lifestyle.
Sai Wing Lau
Sonia (right) and Vanessa (left) saying goodbye to Annie at water bus station. Courtesy of Lau Sai Wing
I. Sonia & Vanessa, Nevodi, Junior
Leaving Hong Kong for an unfamiliar country, Italy, for two months, I came to Venice with uncertainty and anxiety on a gloomy Friday morning. While Sonia and Vanessa, former interns before me and my intern partner Annie, were explaining their working and living tips, and sharing their experiences with the Venice Biennale, I could not take in the information completely since I was overwhelmed with sentiments of separating from Hong Kong, and the greyish blue sky somehow enhanced it. Thanks to my Italian colleagues, Francesco and Jacopo, who covered the duty, the four of us were given a chance to have a proper lunch together at Nevodi, a fine restaurant close to our apartment, during the first working day. I enjoyed the moments together we had at leisure even though my mood was still pessimistic. However, the three super warm hospitable days hosted by Sonia and Vanessa dragged me out of the blues eventually. We kept mocking each other a lot for fun, which indicated our friendship has escalated to the next level. They helped me to get closer with Francesco and Jacopo and introduced me to their friends. Not to mention Junior and Sandro, a golden retriever dog and his Venetian owner who would pass by the Hong Kong Pavilion occasionally. What a fabulous start of my journey. I had to do something special for them to have a fabulous finale. On their last day in Venice, Junior and Sandro passed by again while Sonia was not there. I asked them to stay for a while and called Sonia immediately to run back in order to have a farewell hug to Junior. At midnight, I offered my Demae Itcho instant noodles with luncheon meat and spiced pork cubes brought from Hong Kong to requite them for everything. While they were packing their luggage overnight, I tried to stay awake so that I could have more time with them, but I fell asleep at the end. I woke up early the next morning, while Annie was still sleeping, I walked them to the station where they took the water bus to the train station and recorded a video of them saying goodbye to Annie.
II. My lifelong issue, What Venice did to me
A proper goodbye matters to me. It can be a blessing to both sides. It can also reduce pain and regret. The issue of separation continues to plague my life, usually followed by a sentimental journey of missing someone or places until I get used to separation or we meet again. This makes me fragile, difficult to build a new relationship with people or places, and unwilling to leave my beloved ones. A good relationship does brighten up life, but it hurts inevitably when it comes to a pause or an end. Since my cat passed away, I never dare to think of having a new one as I am too weak to face the loss again. It just like when people want to limit the frequency to pee, they reduce the amount they drink. Avoiding a start can avoid having an end. However, fate cannot be avoided. It hurt when I left Hong Kong. Leaving tears behind at the airport and a letter to myself who would return home, I told myself not to get used to and not to enjoy life in Venice so that I could say goodbye to Italy and come back casually. But the Venice Biennale experience treated me so harshly. During the six weeks’ time working for the Hong Kong Pavilion, I forgathered the friends that I did not see for years and met new friends from different parts of the world by encounters week by week. Fortunately and unfortunately, I broke my promise.
III. Encounter & Separation
The physical disconnection to Hong Kong made me feel isolated and weak, especially when I woke up at 9am in the morning every day or when I was off from work at 6pm in the evening. It felt like everything that happened in Hong Kong was in full swing or everything almost came to an end respectively. Fortunately, from time to time, there were Hongkongers that visited the Hong Kong Pavilion. Like Dorothy, a Hong Kong artist who came to Venice for visiting the Biennale and drawing Europeans’ attention to Hong Kong’s news. We shared our experiences of the Biennale and ideas of what we could do in Venice as an activist. Furthermore, I met Jim and Jeremy unexpectedly, my former colleagues from the project M+ Rover from different years. We did not contact each other for years after we finished the project, so we had a lot to talk about with what we have done in the last few years and discovered some new connections of people and events between us. Venice brought us together at a critical moment. This somehow reconnected to Hong Kong. As a result of a consolation for the soul, these connections felt timely. Saying goodbye to them was not that hard because I knew we would meet in Hong Kong later. But I do wish we could have more days and evenings to spend together in Venice because these encounters meant a lot to me.
B. Negotiated Differences
Negotiated Differences is the work located inside of the Hong Kong Pavilion venue. It is an organism that is multidimensional and joins different wooden pieces carved in recognizable shapes connected by 3D-printed connectors. It balances in equilibrium and spreads into three rooms. When the students from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) came to visit, they used their bodies, arms, and legs to imitate the structure of this organism. Even though they have different backgrounds, talents, personalities and appearances, they are very united and have the spirit of the work so I named them Negotiated Differences. They were in Venice for their research with the lead of Shirley, the artist who represents the current Hong Kong Pavilion, and Tracie, the provost of CalArts. Their presence was bizarrely important to me. In an English language group conversation, I tend to be a listener rather than an active speaker. This is due to my lack of confidence and comfort as I can not speak fluent English with proper grammar and accurate vocabulary. However, I could feel those students enjoyed my presence as they were really willing to talk to me. I took a long time to say my words, but they were patient to listen and respond. I felt comfortable and a sense of existence from every one of them. In those days when they were in Venice, I relied on them to seek for complete consolation. When they had to leave, I wrote them each a thank-you note on a set of postcards that I brought from Hong Kong. I knew that they were touched when they read their notes and as I received hugs from each one of them one by one. After they left, I was deeply depressed all day and could barely say anything . Until I was off from work, I made a video call to a friend in Hong Kong and tried to tell him about the separation. I remained silent since I did not know how to start this conversation, and then he saw and asked me if I was going to cry. Then I started weeping and could barely make out the words, but I asked, “Is a goodbye valid if I miss the one badly?” We both did not know the answer. I began to doubt the purpose of goodbye. The goodbye that I was doubtful of was not only to the students from CalArts but also to Ariuna, Chen, and everyone that I met and treasured. I began my fear for encounters and separations again.
(From left to right, top to bottom) Vinhay, Saiwing, Dominga, Cameron, Jenny, Morgan, Casey, Freddy, Emily, Mantis, Adam and Woohee were imitating Negotiated Differences in the main street. Courtesy of students from CalArts
C. Someone I Left Behind
“Is a goodbye valid if I miss the one badly?” I asked the same question to Ziqi, a Chinese exchange student that I met when she visited the Hong Kong Pavilion. She said it was an incomprehensible question. She did not deny the purpose of goodbye but just could not understand why on Earth was there someone so sentimental. To some of her closest ones, there was no chance for her to say goodbye. Ziqi is a mature, rational and straightforward person. I enjoyed chatting with her about anything. She inspired me that a goodbye matters when the one that is being farewelled matters. My problem is that I never get used to the cycles of encounters and separations. In another evening, Ziqi invited me to join a hotpot gathering with her friends. We had a joyful night and I was so pleased with meeting them. I realized that I should not worry about how sentiments will affect myself and that I have to enjoy those moments with anyone at any place. It is not worth avoiding a start to avoid having an end. Unfortunately, my problem might be transferred to Ziqi. She began to feel sad when I was about to leave Venice. I felt sorry that she had to go through what I had. She and her friends had become someone I left behind.
D. The Companions & The Wise Man
There were three companions who had the same date of arrival and departure as me. One of them is Annie, and the other two are Wendy and Jo-Anne, ambassadors of the Singapore Pavilion. It was amazing to have companions who went through completely different adventures during the same period so we could share the different tastes of life. The presence of companions made the leaving easier as we shared the same suffering of leaving, even though our paths were not the same.
There was another companion who was always there. Francesco has worked for the Hong Kong Pavilion for years and remembered all the names of the participating artists and exhibition interns. Since he has met and farewelled so many people, I believed he must know how to deal with the sentiments of missing someone well. He thought about this issue seriously for several minutes and said, “You’re missing someone because you had someone in your heart and you lived with someone. You have a memory of good moments of being together with someone at someplace. And you realize you’re missing something good, about which place and what people, and then you know what is good for you. This sentiment and feeling can then be converted into something positive. Emotion has its high and low, and that’s life. I prefer that rather than a flat emotion. It’s not easy, and life either. It’s not easy for me too.” On the next day, Francesco introduced me a Portuguese word “saudade”. It is a complex emotional state that words in other languages could not translate it completely. There are many different kinds of descriptions on Wikipedia. In Francesco’s version, it means to enjoy the state of missing. Giving one of your personal belongings as a present to someone you will miss so much is the best goodbye that Francesco believes. It means passing your memory to the one who receives it. That could be the same reason why he brought fresh vegetables from his farm to Annie and I, why Wendy and Jo-Anne gave us a jar of homemade chilli sauce, why I wrote notes to my friends from CalArts, why I gave my rice cooker to Ziqi and why I offered instant noodles with luncheon meat and spiced pork cubes to Sonia and Vanessa.
(From left to right, top to bottom) Shared bottle, Annie’s bottle, Spoon Victoria, Francesco’s bottle, Saiwing’s bottle, Spoon Imperial, random coffee cups were imitating Playcourt, an installation of improvised badminton court located in the courtyard. Courtesy of Lau Sai Wing
IV. What Negotiated Differences Gave Me
Part of Negotiated Differences collapsed once during my six weeks of internship. Some parts of the wooden pieces and 3D-printed joints had disconnected. A week after, Shirley came to fix the parts on Monday, which was my day off, but I decided to stay and assist Shirley. We reconnected the parts by adding more wooden pieces and connectors to form a new structure. When a joint is seen as a place or an event, like the Hong Kong Pavilion or the Biennale, it allows for space and possibility to let different wooden pieces to be plugged in, and the wooden pieces become human, like us. People come to gather and separate from a place or an event. Connections and disconnections become encounters and separations. When there are disconnections, there is room for new connections. There is no certain start and end in this organism, the same as life.
The part of Negotiated Differences that I like the most. It is like a typhoon shelter and the gesture of embrace. Courtesy of Lau Sai Wing
V. Ice & Sheeta, Nevodi, Junior
Taking reference from Sonia and Vanessa’s welcome lunch, Annie and I arranged a proper dinner together at the same restaurant, Nevodi, to welcome Ice and Sheeta, the interns after us. In those three days, we introduced and explained our working and living tips, shared experiences of the Biennale, and passed on the leftover homemade chilli sauce to them. When Junior and Sandro passed by again, I rushed out for a goodbye hug. For the present to Francesco, I had planned to give him my tote bag with printed Chinese words of “I’m sick” originally. However, he has so many tote bags already from working so many years for the Hong Kong Pavilion. As a result, I chose to give him some green tea as he always drank Chinese tea. I asked Sheeta a favour to get a pack of good quality green tea from Hong Kong in advance. Although I did proper goodbyes to all of them, I was still unwilling to leave. In the evening that I had to leave, I was quiet and a bit depressed, and Sheeta felt it. She cooked and invited me to join the dinner with Ice and her friend. What a fabulous finale of my journey, I hope I did give them a fabulous start. I believe I wrote this blog with the mood of saudade.