From ruins to Venice: Heidi Lau brings Macau around the world

By Cara McCarthy, Associate Editor

The Mazmanian Art Gallery hosted the fifth installment of its Tuesday Talks series with artist Heidi Lau Nov. 17 via Zoom.

Lau was born and raised in Macau, China and moved to New York when she was 17 to earn a Bachelor of Education in Fine Arts degree from New York University, according to Mazmanian Art Gallery intern Haley Donahue. 

Her artwork has been displayed in places such as the Museum of Arts and Design, The Art Museum of Chinese America, and the Macau Museum of Art. She has also been awarded the Emerging Artist Fellowship at Socrates Sculpture Park in Venice, and the Martin Wong Foundation Scholarship.

Lau began her talk by describing it as a “stream of consciousness” biography, showing her research, and talking about her latest exhibition which is on display at Martin Brown Los Angeles Gallery. 

She said one of her biggest inspirations came from Macau because of its history. 

She shared a photo from her portfolio of a place in Macau and described it as a “tunnel in history.” In the photo, Lau said you can see the original city wall, an ancient temple, a Catholic cathedral, and a modern day casino. She said these all signal different periods in Macau’s history in one photograph.

Lau said around 450 years ago, Macau was just a small fishing village until Matteo Ricci came to the city from Portugal. From there, she said Macau became a city full of “religious mononyms.”

She said she sometimes thinks about her work as “an author trying to piece together fragmented narratives that were never complete in the first place.”

Lau shared that she believes she grew up in ruins in Macau and, because of that, found herself taking photos of houses that looked similar to the ones she grew up in.

She described the homes as “vessels of different times” because many of the houses photographed were built in the 15th century.

She said much like her family, these structures have “agency of their own productivity and wisdom … whether they can communicate that with us or not.”

Lau shared an exhibition she did in Venice titled “Apparition.”

She said while it was “a great honor” to be part of the show, it was also “extremely intimidating.” 

Lau said the fact that the exhibition was intimidating made her want to “push that comfort level even further by really thinking about my own family and the role they take in Macau.”

She added at the time she thought her family’s role in Macau was “invisible.”

Lau attempted to make the exhibition seem as if you were walking through a “mythical entrance” into the space. 

A fountain in the middle of the courtyard, where the art was displayed, was meant to represent a snake goddess. 

In the story of the goddess, she had to slay a mythical turtle and use its legs to prevent the sky from falling. In the exhibition, the fountain is at the center of the courtyard and the “turtle legs” are around her. 

Lau said she had created this exhibition before she knew it would be on display in the courtyard and said it was a “miracle” the sculptures fit “perfectly.”

The final part of the “Apparition” exhibit included a video of her grandmother. 

She said, “Whenever we [her and her grandmother] would go into a public restroom, she always said ‘excuse me’ to herself.” 

Lau said that meant her grandmother was saying “excuse me” to the spirits because “they [her and her grandmother] had no right to be there” and her grandmother would use it to scare Lau into respecting the spirits.

Lau showed her latest project titled “Spirit Vessels,” which opened in Los Angeles this past summer at Matthew Brown Los Angeles.

She was unable to attend her residency program at Long Beach State University due to the California State of Emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Within 10 days I had to leave this residency that I had been saving up, and honestly preparing for, for the past two years,” Lau said.

She said due to New York’s stay-at-home order, she was unable to go to her studio to work on her projects and volunteered to be an essential worker during the pandemic. Eventually, she created the pieces for the exhibition from her 500-square-foot apartment. 

According to her statement at Matthew Brown Los Angeles, “Lau succumbed to the depths of her own interior – which manifested as conversations prodding below the surface of physical and mental states.”

The statement also read, “In a sense these miniature buildings are self-portraits, drawing from the influence of colonial architecture in Macau, which illustrate the passage of time with their own diminishing materiality.”

Many of the works in this exhibition are modeled after ancient temples and Han Dynasty tomb burial sites with smaller and finer details embedded into the ceramic material.

She said she was inspired by the Han Dynasty tombs because they are a piece of permanent architecture and history in China, opposed to the wooden buildings she grew up in – which could burn down easily. 

Lau said, “I really want to make sure that people who see my work can get something from it, whether they know the background story or not.”