'Nocturne' Emma Fordham, 'Construction Series' 2013

Hong Kong based artist Emma Fordham recently exhibited her work at Art Labor Gallery as part of their recent 'I Love Shanghai' exhibition, where her innovative use of mixed media and aggressive painterly style drew a lot of plaudits. We had a brief chat with her about her latest project, 'Construction,' which takes on the modern metropolis in all its dynamism and brutality.

Your work at last year's ‘I Love Shanghai’ exhibition at Art Labor Gallery was really well received. How did you first get involved with Art Labor Gallery?

Art Labor was one of the first galleries I went to when I moved to Shanghai in 2009. I really like the artwork there, they always show interesting and high quality stuff. When I had created a new series of construction-inspired paintings I wanted a gallery owners opinion on this new work, so I asked Martin Kemble at Art Labor to come and have a look. I had not shown these paintings before, except for in a studio exhibition, so I was very pleased when he wanted to include the largest one in the recent I Love Shanghai exhibition.

When you were living in Shanghai, did you find that there were a lot of opportunities to showcase your work?

If I compare the art scene in Shanghai with London where I previously lived, the scene in Shanghai feels much more open to newcomers. People take a genuine interest in what you do and take the time to talk to you about it. The scene is also smaller and you get to know people quite quickly. I think if you are out there and going to events and shows and get talking to people you will find that there are quite a few opportunities. There is also a good vibe with many smaller, off the cuff shows and exhibitions. In the studio where I worked alongside four other artists and designers we used to put on our own shows and parties, creating our own opportunities.

'Site I' Emma Fordham

More recently you have moved to Hong Kong. Do you think there are any major differences between Shanghai and Hong Kong? And what about their art scenes?

Having just moved to Hong Kong I feel that the art scene there is much more polished. There are more big international galleries showing internationally renowned artists. You get to see some fantastic artwork. But at times it also feels a little too slick and lacking that edge. I think part of the problem in Hong Kong is that rent is so extortionate, meaning that galleries might not risk showing more experimental, non-profit work, but opt to show more traditional, sellable artwork. On the other hand this forces artists to find new ways of creating and showcasing their work. There are a lot of pop-up exhibitions. I recently went to a small guerrilla style show where all the artists had created work in a micro format and installed it in small nooks and crannies around the lanes of Wan Chai.

'Crane V' Emma Fordham

‘Construction’ seems like a departure from some of your previous projects, both stylistically and thematically. Why did you choose to take on the urban environment at this stage in your career.

When I first moved to Shanghai I was completely blown away by the speed and scale of all the construction going on everywhere. I had an hours commute to work each day and in the first year that meant having to navigate through the construction of the new Hongqiao hub by Hongqiao airport. It was often complete chaos as our staff bus would be re-routed daily through this enormous building site. It was fascinating to see these massive flyovers and high speed railway tracks going up on a day-to-day basis. Whole new satellite towns were also erected around the airport during this time. The whole thing fascinated me and completely changed my painting.

For ‘Construction’ you have managed to hone a unique painterly language through combining several different media in each piece. Was this something that you developed over time, or is it a direct reaction to the material and texture of the subject matter you are dealing with?

In the construction paintings I wanted to use fast and direct painting techniques to reflect the speed of the actual construction. I developed a way of dragging the paint across the canvas with a squeegee, giving me the basic shapes of the buildings. In contrast to that I used the much slower and precise technique of paper cutting for the cranes and scaffolding in the pictures. I could then use these intricate stencils in combination with spray paint to create ghostly impressions or collage them straight onto the canvas. Working with paper cut-outs and stencils is something I have done before, but I quite like the fact that paper cutting is a traditional craft here in China and that I can combine it with contemporary imagery.

"When I first moved to Shanghai I was completely blown away by the speed and scale of all the construction going on everywhere... The whole thing fascinated me and completely changed my painting."

Are your urban landscapes depicted from life or do you work from other source material (photographs etc.) in order to construct the scene?

I take a lot of photographs, quite often just snaps from the window of a bus or a taxi. I'm very old school and don't manipulate anything using the computer. Instead I photocopy the pictures in different sizes, then cut out and collage them until I have a composition that works.

Do you have any immediate plans to get involved with another exhibition in Shanghai or Hong Kong? Anything in mind for your next project or do you feel that you want to pursue ‘Constructions’ further?

I've not yet exhibited in Hong Kong, but have just set up my small studio in Aberdeen on the south side of Hong Kong island. There are lots of old, industrial buildings in this area containing local industries and businesses. Quite a few independent, creative spaces and galleries are starting to open here too, so it's an exciting place to be. I hope to get involved in some of the cultural events in the area and I'm also planning on opening up the studio for small shows and workshops this year.

'Site VI' Emma Fordham

Would you say that your move to Hong Kong influenced your switch to depicting urban, populated landscapes, or was it a project you had in your mind for a long time before?

In Hong Kong you still see construction, but not anything like the scale you see on mainland China. It doesn't matter since I've found a new and fascinating subject matter! I live on Lamma Island with a view over the Hong Kong shipping channel and all day, every day you see these massive container ships gliding through on their way in or out of harbour. They glide past carrying hundreds of sealed, multi-coloured containers, just about to start or just about to end some epic journey across the oceans. They are sealed up, silent, and very mysterious. They will be my next project.