Issue 1: Research Festival

Yearning for the idealised past

An essay analysing the concept of the past, nostalgia and memory.

The past is omnipresent, and its surrounds and saturates us. We are the product of all our experiences since we are at any moment the sum of all our memories.”

David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country

Every scene, narration, and action from earlier times retains residual content that helps evolve our sense of identity and familiarity in the present. This idea explains that current familiarity with something could evoke recollection and memory as we immediately recognise that our past experiences belong to us. Part of my longing and yearning for the past is evoked by the present familiarity connecting to my own experience, such as the surrounding milieus resembling my hometown, and the visit to a Japanese garden in London.

Yearning for the past

Yearning for my family, hometown, previous living habits, and moments in Japan became more and more intensive in my heart and suffused me in every present moment. Yearning recalls the memory of the past and beyond generates an idealised version of the past. ‘The past’s difference is, indeed, one of its charms: no one would yearn for it if it merely replicated the present’ (Lowenthal, 1985). The past is inaccessible and no longer exists. I only retain diluted memories and fragmentary chronicles of prior experiences that I treasured the most, which compose my idealised past that reflects my psychological condition and the sense of ambiguity between the idealised past and present needs.

Nostalgia and Present needs

Nostalgia is a form of intimate narrative underpinned by an ideological sentiment. It is not just a desire for the past; it recreates an ideological past with fantasy and imagination. As Alan R. Hirsch stated,’ the present reality, no matter how good, can never be as good as an ideal – which Nostalgia has created’ (Hirsch, 1992). Nostalgia contains the quality of granting bygone time a manufacturing appeal.

As Svetlana Boym stated, ‘There are two types of Nostalgia, restorative and reflective. Restorative Nostalgia inspires you to go back and change or recreate your past, while reflective Nostalgia allows you to accept your memories for what they are’ (Boym, 2001). I understand that the process of my yearning is full of positive memories, and I tend to accept and embrace the inaccessible past that heightens my pursuit of the idealistic past. As Tim Wildschut mentioned in a press release, ‘Nostalgia raises self-esteem which in turn heightens optimism. […] Memories of the past can help to maintain current feelings of self-worth and can contribute to a brighter outlook on the future‘ (Wildschut, 2013). This sense of optimism evokes my pursuit of the past, and I instil such emotion into my painting, reflecting the good moments of the past.

My idealised past

Different things and places surrounding me in London evoke my yearning for the things that I treasured in the past. Apart from yearning for home, my past experiences in Japan also ground me deeply in my heart. Living in Hong Kong, a location close to Japan. I almost visit there three to four times a year as a tourist. I regarded Japan as my hometown, even if it sounds weird.

Old photos serve as surrogates and present evidence of the past. I refer to several photos that interweave memories and longing for Japan. I regard it as a behaviour of revisiting the past. Every time I review the old photos, the ideal residuals of the past are recalled. Once I select a couple of photos, I would trace the relationship among those fragmental memories via drawing. This step could explore the possibility of weaving different sentimental memories into an ideal one. It is a process of healing, and each particular trace of the past gives existing meaning, value and a sense of longing.

The metaphor of my work

The garden is a mould nature that possesses the ideal and pure metaphor. As Jemima Montagu stated,’ Gardens have also played a talismanic role in British culture, offering fertile imagery for art and literature across the centuries’ (Montagu, 2004). In my work, I employ garden imagery that implies the dreamlike quality of paradise, reflecting the ideal’s spirit and serving as a talismanic symbol. 

A garden is a place for mystical thinking, spiritual renewal and contemplation. It connects and refreshes our souls and even provides spiritual solace to humans. In Western and Eastern garden traditions, gardens have always been considered spiritual places. In Western iconography, the idea of the garden has been defined by the Biblical story, the Garden of Eden, a place associated with paradise. In Asian culture, the zen garden is also a place to connect with the Buddha as a Pure Land Paradise. 

“Paradise is a word adopted into Greek from old Persian, where it meant ‘an enclosed park or garden’ […]  Paradise is a garden: a garden is a paradise. We can make a paradise on earth by making a garden” (Nicholas, James and Emma, 1996). Gardens are human art implying the state of an ideal, like a paradise, where people’s minds dwell and people can find peace and harmony.

Setting and colour of my work

In my painting, the composition conflates different segments and traces of the past based on present desires. It is not a depiction of an actual scene; more or less, it is a combination of different decoratively fragmented images reflecting the psychological condition revolving around the idealised past.

‘Nature was the new ideal, symbolic of an innocence and purity free from the vanity and corruption of man – untamed, and therefore untainted’ (Montagu, 2004). As I pick up the shapes such as trees, mountains, flowers and vegetation as indispensable elements of my paintings, as they could respond to the imagery of the garden. These shapes are conspicuous because they are rooted in my memories of the charm of my past. They often come up as ornamentally patterned shapes. I avoid depicting their actual appearance; instead, I would weave the quality of remembrance with a manufactured appeal, like idealised shapes.

The Trip, Kyoto I

Acrylic and watercolour on canvas
100 x 120 cm
The Trip, Yasaka Shrine

Acrylic and watercolour on canvas
80 x 60 cm
The Trip, Kyoto II

Acrylic and watercolour on canvas
120 x 200 cm

Anderson, H. & Chambers, E. & Higgie, J. (2013) Hurvin Anderson : reporting back. Birmingham : lkon Gallery Ltd

Andersson, K.M. & Hentschel, M. & Jelinek, E. (2012) Mamma Andersson : dog days. Bielefeld : Kerber

Boym, S. (2001) The future of nostalgia. New York: Basic Books

Doig, P. & Lampert, C. & Richard, S. (2016) Peter Doig. Rizzoli Classics : New York

Haley, E. (2017) Yearning in Grief and Loss. What’s your Grief. Available at: (Accessed 22 February 2022)

Lowenthal, D. (1985) The Past is a foreign country. Cambridge University Press : Cambridge

Montagu, J. (2004) Earthly delights : The art of the garden. Tate etc. Available at:  (Accessed 10 November 2022)

Nicholas, J., James, A. & Emma, C. (1996) Cultures of natural history. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Wildschut, T. (2013) Back to the future: nostalgia increases optimism. University of Southampton. Available at: (Accessed 13 September 2022)

About the author

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Curtis Chan Hon Hei is an artist who graduated with an MA in Fine Art Painting at Camberwell College of Art and is based in London. His work reflects a psychological condition revolving around the idealised past and present desire. Follow his work at @curtischan_art and