Mixing it with Picasso

Paris inspired actor Stephen Au to pay homage, writes Katie Lau

Actor Stephen Au Kam-tong's photographic exhibition in tribute to master painter Pablo Picasso will no doubt raise eyebrows. How much more varied can this local celebrity's pursuits become?

While he has dabbled in painting and photography in private, he is certainly best known as a television actor and an avid supporter of the Bruce Lee legacy. In recent years, he has also taken up scriptwriting, directing and stage acting.

But the man of modesty disagrees that his interests are too diverse.

"It seems I do a lot of stuff but it all comes down to one thing ─ performing arts," he says.

Last November, Au spent five days in Montmartre, a hot artistic hub in the heart of Paris, to research his role of Picasso in Theater Space's Cantonese adaptation of Picasso at Lapin Agile, Steve Martin's zany play about an imaginary encounter between Albert Einstein and Picasso in a bar. Au's time there opened his eyes to the fascinating life and times of the artist.

"The play doesn't require me to have a deep understanding of the man ─ but I ended up knowing a lot more about him," he says.

"The trip inspired me to delve into his life and work. He was formidably gifted ─ nobody will again paint the way he did."

Au didn't just photograph Parisian street scenes and landmarks, he infused his pictures with computer-generated effects to give them reddish tones reminiscent of the artist's vibrant Rose Period. "Picasso was living in Montmartre when he met one of his great loves, Fernande Olivier, who made him very happy and became the subject of many paintings. His Rose Period is humane and compassionate, when he started to paint not just upper-class life but those from the lower ranks ─ clowns, buskers, artists and musicians. It's a special period to me."

But Au came home with more than he expected. The experience of walking down the cobbled streets of Montemartre sparked a vivid flashback to his childhood.

"I was alone with nobody to share my feelings. I just watched my feet walking and looked around. Then I was overcome by intense emotions. It was a rare moment. I recalled some of my happiest days as a kid, playing on the merry-go-round. It was all innocence and bliss," he says.

Another unexpected experience was his accidental discovery of the Cafe Royal, a place rich with bohemians in the early years of the last century. He loved it so much it became a significant part of the exhibition being staged at Fabrica Features Hong Kong.

Tucked away in the basement of the United Colours of Benetton store on Nathan Road, Fabrica Features was established by the fashion label as an international network through which artists could gather, exchange ideas and promote different art forms.

Au spent three days and plenty of his own money transforming the little-known 400-foot space into a smaller version of the Cafe Royal.

His artwork, including a short film of scenes in Montmartre with a soundtrack of Josephine Baker tunes, was integrated with the cafe's decor in what he describes as "a multi-media exhibition."

"It's not just about Picasso but having a place for people to slow down and relax. I want them to feel like they are in France. Everything happens too fast now, people are too busy making a living. We have forgotten how to be happy," he says, eyeing the children playing around the carousel on the screen.

"Children let themselves go. It's hard to find this in adults. It's sad if you push yourself too much and settle for a life of no quality, living just to pay your mortgage."

Au's enthusiasm for the new venue is likely to see him do more there.

"I'd like to stage some shows here ─ either a highlighted version of the Picasso play or an abstract dance performance. Local artists find it hard to make themselves known because of a lack of venues. You might think the space is not big, but it's actually larger than McAulay Studio and Fringe Club. I want more artists to have more opportunities to express themselves."

Au has been synonymous with martial arts legend Bruce Lee and made a name for himself passionately extending the icon's legacy, having directed an independent film and written a stage play inspired by Lee's life. Still fresh in many people's minds is his participation in the 30th anniversary events marking Lee's death.

But Au says he does not want to be overshadowed by his Bruce Lee-related work any more.

"It's [become] a disaster. I don't want to talk about him any more. That's why I have turned down many Bruce Lee-related projects. He's not my priority now," he says.

This is not to say he has lost his respect for the kung fu star.

"At the time I felt a sincere urge to do something. I love his philosophy on life and his faith in overcoming struggle. He's a role model and I want him to influence people in a positive way. But I don't worship him," he says.

"It's too limiting for an artist to focus on one thing. I am a performer and can't be restricted by just one medium. That's why I am frustrated in TV now because there is a lot of typecasting." That prompted him to turn to the stage in 1996.

"I have a lot more choices in the theater world and a kind of satisfaction I can't get in TV."

Revolving Montmartre of Picasso. Until Sept 18. Fabrica Features Hong Kong, basement of United Colors of Benetton, 23 Nathan Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui. Tel: 2367 6856. More info about the actor: www.stephenau.com


-- from Weekend, The Standard: July 23-24, 2005 --