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Online Preview: David DIAO @Art Basel HK

Though David DIAO has been acclaimed in New York art scene as an established artist, to this day he finds it difficult to not to talk about his being Chinese, especially at a time when Chinese contemporary art has captured attention worldwide. Yet unlike many artists poised to create grand narratives, DIAO stays firmly grounded in his usual abstract artistic language and offers his personal history in a tumultuous time.

DIAO was born in Chengdu in 1943. In 1949 he came to Hong Kong and then left for New York in 1955. While his journey from Chengdu to New York was full of uncertainty, Hong Kong was essentially his transit center en route both geographically and emotionally speaking. In mid-October of 1949, a foreign friend confided to his family that he got a plane and could take them to Hong Kong if they wanted to. Soon, the seven-year-old DIAO found himself leaving Chengdu with his grandmother, uncle, and aunt, and all he could take with him was a small piece of baggage. "It felt just like the refugees fleeing to Europe today," he recalled. At that time, DIAO's grandfather was already in Hong Kong. Whether his grandfather just happened to be there by coincidence or had planned for the self-exile long ago, DIAO did not know. DIAO's grandfather was an old general who didn't feel like staying in China, nor going to Taiwan. He was jaded by war and politics, said DIAO.

Hong Kong, Tsim Sha Tsui, 2014, Acrylic and Paper on Canvas, 173 x 223.5 cm

For DIAO's family, Hong Kong meant a transportation hub pointing to other places. The next stop could be Brazil or America. They had no idea at all but knew that they wouldn't live in Hong Kong forever. They came to Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong, a desolate place then, and settled down in a new building on Chatham Road.

Canton-Kowloon Railroad, 2014, Acrylic and Oil on Canvas, 91 x 46 cm

During the fifties, Canton-Kowloon Railroad steered along the South Chatham Road, heading to Guangdong all the way through Shenzhen and Dongguan. It was the earliest railway between Hong Kong and the mainland China. DIAO lived on Chatham Road, and he often saw the train roaring past their place.

Three Points a Line, 2015, Acrylic and Vinyl on Canvas, 139.5 x 112 cm

DIAO's home, school, and church were located in an area between Chatham Road and Nathan Road. His school was two streets away from his home, a church one block away, and his life centered around these places. The nearby church often distributed cards with religious vignettes. DIAO was not a Christian, nor a Buddhist—he did not believe in any religions because he was influenced by his grandfather, who had a "scientific brain." Intriguingly, however, it was likely that DIAO's interest in art was piqued by the church's pamphlets. While other children were still playing childish games, he was immersed in his own artistic experiments such as painting on bamboo tubes.

Li Lihua (Neighbor 1950-1955), 2016, Acrylic and Silkscreen on Canvas, 122 x 81 cm

As DIAO recalled, there was a famous actress, LI Lihua, living downstairs. Whenever he walked down and looked into her house through the open door, he would see servants in white uniforms streaming back and forth and smell wafting perfume in the hallway. The scenario seemed a world away to him. "I can remember [our apartment] was located in a new five-story building on Chatham Road. Across from our house was the sea, and there were a railroad and a park nearby. LI Lihua's place was on the building's ground floor. I remember peeping into her place from outside. The interior decoration was strikingly beautiful and intact. Our unit was on the top floor, its interior simple enough. We moved in when the flat was finished but barely had the chance to paint the walls. My grandfather, a retired general of Chinese Nationalist Party, was frustrated and disappointed, but he would still have tea with his friends at Peninsula Hotel while losing every penny of his saving in the gold market."

She Was a Neighbor, 2014, Acrylic and Inkjet / Paper on Canvas, 223.5 x 173 cm

Afterwards, DIAO made a painting, where he juxtaposed the photos of his own and LI Lihua on a map of Kowloon. In his picture, he wore a T-shirt with a cowboy on it; in LI's, she was dressed as a cowgirl, which DIAO took from a film magazine. This painting is named She Was a Neighbor, but DIAO thinks it could just as well be American Dream.

Elvy's Private English School with Blackboard, 2015, Acrylic and Vinyl on Canvas, 112 x 140 cm

During his nearly six-year stay in Hong Kong, DIAO had been learning English intensively because he wanted to be admitted into a public school and because his family had been resolute to settle abroad.

Diocesan Boys' School Crest, 2016, Acrylic and Enamel on Canvas, 97 x 79 cm


DBS, 2016, Acrylic and Vinyl on Canvas, 35.5 x 51 cm

Later, he enrolled into Diocesan Boy's School, one of the conventionally prominent schools and one of the top three middle schools in Hong Kong. The artist Richard Show-Yu LIN was also an alumnus.

Chatham Rd to Franklin St., 2014, Acrylic and Oil on Canvas, 76 x 295 cm

On the eve of his twelfth birthday, DIAO left for America to unite with his father, who was a civil engineer. Why the eve? Because as soon as he turned twelve, he would be denied child's discount on the flight. DIAO's family told the personnel of U.S. Embassy: "All of us will go to America, but please give this boy his visa by his twelfth birthday. Or we'd have to pay extra fare." Not long after, DIAO got his immigrant visa, with a green card soon to follow. In 1955, the immigrant policy in the U.S. only allowed 500 Chinese people, whereas 20,000 English people were allowed. "Their racial prejudice was deep," DIAO remarked. 
By the time he arrived in America, the twelve-year-old DIAO had already been able to speak English. America represented the land of dream for him, even nowadays. He grew up and was educated there; he found the country a good place to be in.  
In 2012, DIAO held a solo exhibition in his studio on No. 72, Franklin Street, New York, and the show is named exactly "David Diao: Franklin Street, 5th fl, 1974-2012." In hindsight, the distance between Kowloon and New York, ten thousand miles approximately, seems merely a number's difference today.
Kowloon & Manhattan, 2014, Acrylic and Oil Marker on Canvas, 152.5 x 162.5 cm

Looking back, David DIAO finds Kowloon, where he spent nearly six years of his life, and Manhattan, where he has lived for over 60 years, amazingly similar, with their geographical outlook being one of the reasons. Respectively, they represent where a family's dream began and realized.



Exhibit | David DIAO Solo Exhibition

Date | 24—26 March 2016

VIP Preview | 22—23 March 2016

Venue | Booth 1D11, Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre
(1 Harbour Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, China)


Artist Talk | David DIAO in conversation with Pauline J. Yao

Date | 10:00am—11:30am, 23 March 2016

Venue | Conversation and Salon Auditorium, Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre

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