Conceptually speaking: how artistic expression set me free
by Kevin Kwong
South China Morning Post, Oct 13, 2009.
Mixed and matched
Two Hong Kong artists explain how their refusal to conform helped make them the dynamic artistic duo they are today.
Doris Wong Wai-yin and Kwan Sheung-chi both took refuge in art. Wong studied art at university because she thought the course would spare her from sitting exams, which she hates. Kwan chose art as a career because he detests routine. But the couple found each other, and artistic success, by refusing to conform.
“It’s great that one can do art and get something out of it,” says Wong.
The pair have won much acclaim for their individual and critical approach to creating art, and were this year awarded an Asian Cultural Council grant to join a residency programme in New York City.
Wong says her non-conformist personality has led her to find comfort in a career free of rules.
“I was an art teacher for 18 months and I couldn’t accept the rules imposed on the students,” says the 28-year-old of her teaching stint at a secondary school between 2006 and 2007. “I questioned why the boys had to keep their hair short, for instance.”
Since most jobs are bound by rules and regulations, she feels more at ease being an artist.
“I was actually more interested in film when I was at college, but I hate taking exams so I chose to study art at university, naively thinking it was all going to be coursework, but I ended up sitting more exams because of art history,” says Wong, a fine arts graduate from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Wong’s work spans painting, sculpture, collage, photography and installation. Her piece entitled 100 Hong Kong Artist Museums was showcased at the Hong Kong Museum of Art this year as part of its exhibition Louis Vuitton: A Passion for Creation. The series of 100 paintings, each depicting a symbolic museum dedicated to a local artist, is Wong’s tribute to them.
Wong is the first recipient of a collaborative award from the Asian Cultural Council and the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. She will take part in a five-month residency at the International Studio and Curatorial programme this month. Since 1963, the Asian Cultural Council has funded more than 5,000 artists from the region on cultural exchange programmes.
Margaret Cogswell, one of the panel judges, says the artist has an expansive way of thinking beyond traditional studio practices. The judges were impressed by her 100 Hong Kong Artist Museums because it pays homage to artists whom she feels have influenced contemporary art in Hong Kong.
“[We] appreciated her sense of humour and way of putting even her personal relationships in art historical context,” says Cogswell.
Kwan, a fellow Chinese University fine art graduate, was awarded the Starr Foundation Fellowship by the Asian Cultural Council. He became an artist because he didn’t want to be trapped in a nine-to-five routine.
“Art is what I do best,” Kwan says, adding that he’s an accomplished cook, although he doubts he has what it takes to become a chef.
Kwan often finds inspiration in the people, events and everyday objects that he sees around him. The artist also has a deadpan sense of humour. In his biography statement, Kwan says he was named the “King of Hong Kong New Artists” in 2000 but managed only to graduate with third-class honours in 2003.
But there is little doubt about his talent. His installation Ask the Hong Kong Museum of Art to borrow “Iron Horse” barriers: I want to collect all of the “Iron Horse” barriers in Hong Kong here for last year’s Looking for Antonio Mak exhibition at the Museum of Art was lauded for capturing the conceptual spirit of the late local sculptor.
Kwan currently has a show at Gallery Exit entitled No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again, his first solo outing in seven years.
“Art for me is a continuous process of understanding,” says Kwan, who turns 29 this week. “I may create an art piece that I don’t fully understand now, but in a few years, it will make more sense. Most of the time I want to be absolutely clear about what I do, but if there are surprises to be discovered later, I think that’s great.”
His art also helps him understand himself more, he says. In the past couple of years, Kwan has been using art as a social and political critique – he is a founding member of hkPARTg (Political Art Group) and Woofer Ten, both of which focus on linking art with local politics, social issues and communities – but his latest works are more personal.
In the video Artwalk Drinking Challenge 2009 Remake, which is part of his solo show, Kwan “re-enacted” a task that involved drinking a large amount of alcohol. In the original challenge, the artist dropped into 15 participating galleries with a group of friends during this year’s ArtWalk before being the first to pass out.
“There was no winner, just one loser,” Kwan says.
When he repeated the challenge later, this time just drinking alone in front of a video, he didn’t fare any better. In fact, he became depressed.
“It’s hard to explain,” the artist says. “I just felt very lonely because I had no one around me. The experience indicates how much I don’t want to lose my friends and the people I love.”
Kwan and Wong were on the same art course, but Wong was in the year below. “I was fascinated by [Kwan] because I heard all about him but had never met him. He used to skip most of his classes,” Wong says with a laugh.
“We are both very conceptual in our approach,” says Wong, whose work continues to investigate “what is real and what fake, what is art and what isn’t”.
Although they appear in each other’s work, the pair mostly work separately. There was a time when there was tension between them as they tried to understand each other’s artistic language, and even saw themselves as rivals.
“Then we realised what’s important is not who’s the better artist but the art we produce,” says Kwan.
The pair plan to marry next year but in the meantime will make the best of their New York residency.
“We don’t know what exactly we will do yet,” says Kwan, “but we are sure it is going to be a worthwhile experience.”