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Pao Hui Kao balances fragility and sturdiness by using paper as a medium
Taiwanese designer Pao Hui Kao’s Paper Pleats collections tread the fine line between delicacy and sturdiness, art and function
Image: © Studio Mass. Courtesy of Spazio Nobile

Pao Hui Kao balances fragility and sturdiness by using paper as a medium

25 Seasons is an ongoing solo exhibition currently on view at the Spazio Nobile Gallery, Brussels that showcases Kao’s exploration of paper as more than just a fragile material.

by Mrinmayee Bhoot
Published on : Jan 23, 2024

An iterative, patient, deliberate method is what it takes to work with paper as a sculptural medium. There is something meditative in the act of folding paper, watching as something beautiful emerges from the process. Working with paper in any form can feel cathartic, even the act of painting, watching as landscapes emerge from a two-dimensional surface. This pensiveness and delicacy is what one experiences in going through Pao Hui Kao’s current solo exhibition at Spazio Nobile, an art gallery in Brussels.

The exhibition brings together 50 pieces of paper furniture and lacquer paintings by the Taiwanese artist and designer. The two collections on display till March 17th, 2024 at the gallery include Paper Pleats and Lacquer Leaf. The latter is a collection of abstract wall hangings that are made of successive layers of crepe paper hardened with rice glue and Urushi lacquer. Starting from black to green and vibrant hues of red, purple and orange, the paintings give one the sense of watching the colours of summer turn to autumn to winter and to summer again.

“Using the paintings of Dutch painter Van Gogh as a reference, the chromatic research intensifies as I paint my trays for the 25 Seasons over the months. I studied Van Gogh by categorizing his works by season, allowing me to observe the evolution of colours in his paintings through his landscapes. The palette of the Dutch painter, the country where I have settled, was also strongly influenced by Japonism. Thus, I complete my cycle of seasons by bridging two cultures to which I feel I belong,” says Kao on her inspiration for the evocative colours of the paintings.

Emphasising and transcending the connection between humans and the natural world, the title of the exhibition draws on the 24 seasons or the lunisolar calendar common to Asia, with Kao’s work an act of rediscovering these natural cycles. The 25th season added by her corresponds to astronomical phenomena such as eclipses and solstices. Each layer and colour, and her treatment of the material showcases how time is a central theme in the artist’s work. The repetitiveness of pleating allows one to fully appreciate the unfolding of time, almost unendingly. In the Paper Pleats series, forms emerge from the unending pleating of, and extended experimentation with tracing paper, rice glue, Urushi lacquer, and coloured pigments.

Permanent yet temporary, fragile yet sturdy, functional yet beautiful: Pao’s craftsmanship and her research on materials and their evolution shines through in her treatment of the delicate tracing paper for Paper Pleats. The paper, rolled and adhered with rice glue and resembling the intricate structure of sea sponges, is formed in a honeycomb structure that allows it to be used as furniture. The translucence of the paper gives it an airy quality that feels fragile, and yet the strength of the honeycomb means that each artefact is functional. The pieces on display, which include bench and table designs, emphasise the techniques used for their creation through vertical and indeterminate lines, akin to “furniture-landscapes.”

This unique technique of creating furniture designs with the paper was previously awarded a finalist position by the Loewe Craft Prize in 2022. Kao discovered the traditional, time-honoured technique of treating paper with Urushi lacquer– a substance extracted from a Japanese lacquer tree–while she was in a residency in Fukushima, Japan in 2019. She spent three months under the guidance of an Urushi craftsman.

Dovetailing tradition with contemporary design, Kao embraces the imperfections that come with practising the technique in the Netherlands, where the climate is not suited to the materials. She says, “Instead of strictly adhering to traditional methods, I introduced an element of playfulness. When something didn’t turn out as expected, rather than sanding it away, I sought to communicate with the imperfections, sometimes even adjusting my original plan for that piece.”

Some view paper as fragile and transient, but through Kao’s designs, it comes to life in myriad forms. Even so, as one juxtaposes the delicate, translucent furniture with the lacquer paintings in the colours of the seasons, one cannot help but feel a sense of impermanence and the beauty of it. These dichotomies–of function and art, tradition and contemporaneity, material and immaterial–add to Kao’s work. They ask one to pause and contemplate on what the unfolding of time means, how the seasons change, and what it means to create something from fragile paper.

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