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An Emerald Thread

by Valerie C. Doran

It is a bright, hot Hong Kong morning in the early summer of 2006, and I’m riding on the Mid-Levels escalator. It is carrying me slowly up and away from the bustling, bristled streets of downtown Central district into a cooler, more tranquil world of leafy green trees and white stucco buildings, tiny shops and quiet residences. I’m on a mission to find the romantically titled Prince’s Terrace, the location at that time of Sin Sin Gallery, and to view some paintings by a young Balinese artist named I Gusti Ngurah Buda, who has recently shown there. In 2006 it is still relatively rare for a Hong Kong gallery to show serious Indonesian contemporary art, and I am intrigued. If the work makes sense to me, I will write about it.

The morning air is sultry and golden, and the escalator ride seems to go on forever. I’m being lulled into a kind of trance by the heat and the slow motion and am longing for a cup of strong tea to wake me up. It occurs to me that Sin Sin is not overly concerned about centrality as a condition for her gallery. Finally through the tangled branches of an overhanging tree I catch a glimpse of a large plate-glass window graced by an interesting assortment of drawings, small animals in quick rough strokes. This, finally, is the gallery, located on the near corner of a little plaza right next to the escalator. This plaza, or ‘terrace’, is lined with low, old buildings, cream-colored with wooden window frames and a special Hong Kong patina of graceful shabbiness. There is a scattering of small shops on the ground level, a French café, and residential flats above. The only person visible is a middle-aged gentleman of indeterminate nationality in a linen suit, drinking coffee at a single table outside the café. The cement squares of the terrace are flecked with the green of little tufts of grass growing up through the cracks. There is a kind of stillness that is more than simple quiet. It feels like a strange oasis.

I walk back over to the gallery windows and stand there in a bit of a quandary, as I am unable to locate the front door. The only entryway I can see is a heavy metal door that seemingly leads to a series of flats, and the door is locked. There are several buzzers, but I see none marked ‘Gallery”, so I just knock on the plate glass window and hope for the best. After a minute or two a young woman dressed in minimalist black opens the metal door. In her elegantly cut jacket and chic, loosely draped trousers she looks like some vision emerging from the subconscious of Rei Kawakubo. She smiles and apologizes for the confusion. The gallery does not have a separate entrance, she explains, as technically the building is residential. Goodness, I think: a gallery with no visible door.

I follow the young woman into a clean white space broken up into little eddies of morning light and the first thing that catches my eye is a number of small ceramic pots glowing with green rice plants, scattered on shelves and small tables around the gallery. They are fresh and luxuriant, of a deep, clear emerald colour that is almost musical in its resonance --an incongruous and beautiful note. They captivate me and it takes me a minute to notice the art hung about the two rooms of the gallery. On display is an eclectic mix of works --drawings, paintings, ceramics by European, Japanese, and Chinese artists, clearly reflecting a very personal taste. Sin Sin just hung this show, the assistant explains to me. But the Balinese artist’s paintings are in the storage area upstairs. We walk up a wooden staircase into a long low room filled with bookcases, pieces of carved furniture, rough, powerful sculptures and stacks of wrapped paintings. She pulls out two or three large works and unwraps them, revealing semi-abstract landscapes in glowing reds and oranges, overlaid with sudden white patches and strong black strokes: essences of a field, a village house, a doorway wavering in the rain. I Gusti’s paintings are incandescent with an interior energy, like the rice plants downstairs. I decide I will write about them.

The gallery assistant asks me if I would like to meet Sin Sin, who is working at her design atelier down the hill. We begin to walk down the endless runnel of steps parallel to the Mid-Levels escalator, towards the little side street in Sheung Wan where Sin Sin has her atelier and where, a few years later, she will move her gallery when Prince’s Terrace space has to close. But in essence, I have already met her. Because this this is how it is with Sin Sin: you walk away from the spaces she creates with many different threads held in your hand. And you come to understand that these threads are what she weaves the texture of her life from. The atmospheric location, still rooted in the fading soil of Hong Kong history. The striking design of the clothes the assistant is wearing. The rice shoots in the clay pots. The mix of artists, Asian and European. The textured language of the Balinese landscapes. You can follow the thread of any one of them and it will reveal a whole dimension of the way she lives her life, of its texture and colour. And so as I write this, I am choosing which of the threads I encountered on my visit that day, to follow now, into the future.

It is February 2012 and I am travelling with Sin Sin in Indonesia. This is a working trip to visit artists’ studios for a show she has invited me to curate with her. We land first in Bali, and our car travels over a twisting, bumpy rode through emerald-green rice fields lined with village houses and walled gardens. Sheltering behind one of these is Sin Sin’s villa, a gracefully designed structure built in traditional materials, open to the air and bordered by a rice field that nestles alongside it. The pots of glowing green plants she surrounds herself with in Hong Kong are sprouted from the seeds of that field. At sunset we see white birds circling.

We fly to Jogjakarta the next day and drive for several hours to the town of Muntilan to visit the artist Pande Ketut Taman, who lives in the shadow of the live volcano, Mount Merapi. In the distance we can see the crest of the volcano and the undulating lines of the ancient temple of Borobudur, only several miles away. It is raining but we stay outdoors the whole time, protected by the roof of a large shed that serves as Pande’s sculpture studio. We drink tea and eat the fruit Sin Sin has brought as a gift. His beautiful wife and children come out to say hello. Sin Sin teases the children with easy familiarity and they giggle happily. We look at Pande’s powerful paintings of Borobudur and his sculptures carved from the trunks of downed trees. Later he leads us down some stone steps to a small terrace below his garden where he practices tai chi in the mornings, facing the temple. You must come and practice here with me sometime, he says to Sin Sin.

Back in Bali, we drive to Ubud and stop in a village kampung to visit Sin Sin’s friend, the German artist Peter Dittmar , who lives there with his Japanese wife. Many years ago Peter designed and built his house on the edge of this high promontory, towering over a rushing jungle river far below. Peter explains that he and his wife must get ready soon to attend a ceremony at the local temple where he is a patron and is expected. But first we sit and drink cups of strong coffee on the terrace outside his house, looking out at the dizzying vista of the wild river far below. White birds appear in the misty air over the water. They fly away and circle back, fly away and circle back. Those are herons, says Sin Sin.