Choi Yan Chi

Born 1949 Hong Kong


Choi Yan Chi is a multimedia artist, educator, and curator known for her early instigation of conceptual art in Hong Kong. Yan Chi completed a BA Fine Art and a MFA in Painting at the Art Institute of Chicago (1972–8). She works across various media, including installation, performance, and painting, to produce work that has been inspired by the postmodern and deconstructionist theories of the 1970s and 80s. Her exhibition An Extension into Space (1985) at the Hong Kong Arts Centre had a radical impact on the contemporary arts scene in Hong Kong. Her pioneering role in this field is evidenced by her giving the translation of ‘installation art’ in Cantonese. In 1998 Yan Chi co-founded the arts organisation 1a space with funding from Hong Kong Arts Development Council. The non-profit independent art space was the first of its kind in Hong Kong. Extensive travel abroad has informed her understanding of personal cultural identity, which she explores in relation to Hong Kong as an important theme of her work.

Artwork Information

Drowned Books (2019) is part of the ‘Drowned’ (1989–97) series of readymade installations by Choi Yan Chi that explore themes of identity and home in relation to Hong Kong citizenship. The series began in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square incident on 4 June 1989, where student protests in Beijing led to massacre at the hands of the Chinese government. The series initially ended with the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Yan Chi explains how, during this period, ‘the people of Hong Kong never stopped agonizing over their future’. The events ‘rattled [many] to the bone. Through Drowned, I wanted to convey a sense of trauma’. Yan Chi is especially interested in the different ways viewers interpret the series, especially in relation to book censorship and national histories. 

For this version, Drowned Books, the artist asked twelve women in Cambridge and twelve in Hong Kong to choose a book which was significant to them and to explain their choices in a short text. These texts were then brought together in a leaflet. At the heart of this artwork lies a paradox. The act of submerging the books in oil simultaneously preserves yet makes the interior text inaccessible, to be viewed only by title without knowledge transmission. Preservation is also paired with destruction via oil as a medium, due to its flammable nature.

The diptych Bubble Dream (2004) can be seen as purely abstract or, as the title suggests, a floating arrangement of whimsical objects. Bubbles evoke the ephemeral due to their short-lived nature. In this way, they reinstate the notion of a ‘dream’ as an imagined or fleeting alternative reality. Painting is the historic core of Choi Yan Chi’s work, as the medium that she first studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. This diptych therefore constitutes a subtle yet informative expression of the immense emotions explored by Yan Chi in her oeuvre – including Drowned Books – in relation to her ongoing artistic exploration of ‘Chinese-ness’.