life imitates art, the conceptual installations of kwan sheung chi and wong wai yin
by Jonathan Thomson
jamini, an international arts quarterly, installation art, ICE Media Limited, March 2006, pp.44-49.
The placement by an artist of an object in an installation infuses the physical materiality of the object with a meaning that comes not so much from its original signifying system but a wider system of context and allusion. It is this ability to carry and convey meaning that gives installation art much of its power – provided of course that the installation is able to articulate ideas effectively and that its narrative is appropriate for communicating understanding. All too often we see installations that confuse profundity with complexity or insight with obscurity. As a result it is refreshing to find, in Hong Kong or anywhere, young artists who combine a truly important, fully-fledged, wellreasoned critical stance with art that is innovative, approachable and utterly unpretentious and to incorporate around it an active discourse involving publication, discussion and an effective multilateral exchange of ideas with an audience.
Kwan Sheung Chi and Wong Wai Yin are both recent graduates from the Fine Arts program at Hong Kong Chinese University. They make work that is reminiscent of the conceptual art of the 1960s that questioned the process of making art, the idea of authorship and the definition of art as a unique precious original object in an age of mechanical reproduction. However, their work is much more than art about art, and explores notions of artistic identity, time, place and the institutions of the artworld. It has a freshness and directness that gives it universal appeal and it engages with social and political issues without ever becoming hidebound by ideology.
Kwan held his first solo exhibition in 2002 at the Hong Kong Arts Centre when he was still in his final year at university. In a rather audacious move, he called his exhibition ‘A Retrospective of Kwan Sheung Chi’. This could have been seen either as juvenile posturing or as mercenary cynicism, but was instead a rather comic critical comment on the status of art and artists in the Hong Kong community. The exhibition was marked by irrepressible irresponsibility and infectious enthusiasm. Knowing full well that most people do not know the artist other than through their curriculum vitae, Kwan set out to manufacture a history for himself. Kwan notes ‘if your cv can be longer and can include major venues, it means you are a better artist and then you are seen as being more experienced, and you get more recognition.’ (In conversation with the author in Hong Kong, 6 August 2005. All subsequent quotations are also from the transcript of this conversation.)
His history was not falsified, but it did gently mock the art world and its institutions. One of his artworks ‘involved going to ten different well-known important exhibition venues to make a solo exhibition. I asked my friend to come with me and he used camera to document the exhibition for me. The shutter was only open for one second and that one second was the start and the end of my solo exhibition in that place. In each case I wasn’t going to be invited to have a longer show so I did it myself and the show was only open for one second but one second is better than none.’ He recalls, ‘The whole retrospective was that kind of work. It was all about the role of an artist.’ Other works in the exhibition explored the notion of fame and the cult of the individual (with more than a passing reference to the work of Andy Warhol) and the function of the artworld and its institutions as a marketplace for art.
In 2003 Kwan embarked on a sustained and deliberate denial of his sense of self in order to explore further the notion of an artist and the nature of artistic identity. He renounced free will and allowed his life to be ruled by chance. In a ‘happening’ that began as an exploration of the process of making an artwork, he carved a set of woodblock prints of what he called Life Playing Cards. There were four categories of card–making art represented by a brush icon, the basic necessities of life including food and sleep represented as a loaf of bread, knowledge or learning represented by a book and leisure, represented by a bottle of wine. For relief, he also included some ‘wild’ cards represented by figures from history or theology that were important to him and which allowed him to do what he wanted.
Kwan notes ‘My original idea is to use the cards randomly. If I choose a card with the brush motif, for the next hour I would only make art, in the next hour, if I chose the card with the bread icon, I can have food or go to bed and sleep for an hour. The concept began with the first card. In the first hour I made one card, then, as I only had one card, I had to choose it to make more. By the end of the second hour I had more cards and so had more choices. At the same time I took a photo every hour to document my fife at that time and the whole process. Eventually I had to give up as I was only able to sleep for three or four hours each day.’
In the 1970s a similar idea informed the international cult bestseller The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart. Rhinehart’s proposition was that a person could escape their typical narrow existence by systematically letting chance destroy their normal way of doing things: by making lists with actions that might be taken and letting the roll of the dice determine what action would be taken. The protagonist includes outrageous options on his fists and soon finds himself leading a life of depravity marked by mayhem and murder as he descends into madness. Fortunately Kwan never gave himself those sorts of options. For him the only alternatives were those ordained by the cards.
In this work Kwan sought to explore the role of an artist and the nature of art. ‘What is an artist? Everybody can call himself an artist. Does it need the other person to confirm it that you are an artist or not? I’m not interested in expressing ideas in any straightforward way. I prefer to have something that refers to my life. It may only be a very minor thing but it can combine together [with the viewer] and reflect something – maybe it’s not important but it is my interest or my value judgements. I don’t want to impose my ideas or my life on others but instead offer it for sharing.’ Kwan’s work, which now only exists as a photo journal, a diary and the set of woodblock prints, recalls an observation by playwright Bertold Brecht – ‘Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.’ Kwan’s use of art and chance to fashion his own reality allows us to consider the role of both in our own lives. And in these troubled times it also leads us to consider what it is that actually drives those who confuse conviction with belief.
Kwan’s work also explores the nexus between art and text and uses repetition as a constant reminder of the passage of time and as a metaphor for life. ‘Repetition gives the work power. Life itself is all about repetition. I compare the life of an artist with that of a factory worker.’ In a series of works all called I am artist, he wrote that phrase, in a tiny, meticulous script, over and over in a number of commonplace school exercise books. In some works the words were in Chinese, in others English. In a Statement which forms part of the work, he offers to write the phrase repeatedly and to charge the buyer a fee based on the actual time spent by him engaged in this work. All income will be reinvested in the project. His matching of price to time and quantity requires consideration of art as product and his work as an industrial application of art. The handcraft quality of his writing and the way it registers the passage of time recalls the work of Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara but without ever falling into his formulaic ways.
In a similar work, titled I Wore a Shirt to Work, Kwan wrote ‘I am artist’ over and over on a sheet of fabric until it came to resemble printed pinstripes. He then had a friend make the fabric into a shirt which he wore to work at his clay job in an office. His replication of business attire and its subsequent exhibition as an art object (together with documentation of its more prosaic use) is an ironic observation on the status of artists and the inability of most artists to make a living wage from their art. His work is a critique of the process of production of meaning. It ‘is something about art work, not the artwork itself. It’s about art work and about the artist and the circumstances of the art field.’
In his most recent work called Teapoy, he delves, like an archaeologist, through layers of memory and history, to explore the cultural contexts that give rise to the creation of new work. His work is a deceptively simple installation that combines text, archival photographs, oral history technical drawing and a re-constructed domestic object into a work that explores family values and the origins of identity. The work is the product of a collaboration between the artist and his mother, on their shared memories, on her background in technical drawing and his critical examination of what is an artist. Kwan’s critical practice recalls the seminal conceptual work of Joseph Kosuth and works such as One and Three Chairs in which a chair, a photograph of a chair and a greatly enlarged dictionary definition of a chair were exhibited side by side in an exploration of the meaning of art. In his work Kosuth sought to demonstrate that the ‘art’ resides not in the object but in the idea or concept of art. Kwan is similarly interested in the question of how meaning is constructed but he is also concerned with the question of who makes art and the interaction of other people, places and things as part of the work’s cultural context.
Wong Wai Yin makes work that calls into question the role of art in our economic structure and the arbitrary value given to works of art. She forces us to think about notions of quality, utility and value and challenges our belief in the credibility of one of the most important middle-class pastimes, in Hong Kong in particular, that of shopping. Wong takes the ephemera of our daily lives; the things we take for granted in our wallets or handbags, the everyday bits and pieces we pick up from the supermarket, and the things we throwaway and re-presents them to us transformed into original hand-crafted works of art. She does this in ways that are wanton, witty and whimsical. At times we may not even be aware that she is doing it. Her work is playful, irresponsible and capricious, and as a result, completely engaging.
By appropriating low value things or bits of junk and re-making them as hand-made, hand-painted objects, she breaks down boundaries between gallery-exhibited art and daily life. An installation of her work in a gallery exhibition called ‘Sculpture Non-Sculpture’ comprised a discarded supermarket shopping, bag full of groceries and a couple of tabloid newspapers in a polypropylene bag that were left lying about in the gallery a backpack hung casually over the back of a chair and a rubbish bin full of rubbish shoved into one corner. On entering the gallery, we are obliged to think ‘Where’s the art?’ It is only after close observation that we realise that the objects lying, about are not everyday found objects but have been hand-made by the artist. The Supermarket Shopping Bag is remade by the artist in white cotton and hand painted by her to resemble the original, complete with shop logos and advertising messages. Inside are a collection of objects all sewn together Out of white cotton and painted to look like the original. The Newspaper Apple Daily is hand-painted on tissue paper and replicates the look of a local Hong Kong daily, tabloid, including masthead, headlines and photographs, which is the essential visual quality of the original, but not the text, which is after all only reportage.
Similarly, the Schoolbag is hand-made in cotton and-painted to replicate an everyday backpack. Inside the sewn bag are a cotton mobile phone, water bottle, pack of tissues and wallet, complete with hand-made credit cards, identity cards and money. Rifling through these ‘personal’ possessions is an intensely voyeuristic experience but at the same time one which we feel invited by the artist to engage in as an effective act of communication with her. A similar feeling accompanies our encounter with Rubbish Bin. A real bin is placed on the floor. Leaning against the wall is a real broom to add veracity to the ensemble. Inside the bin is a handmade cotton bin-liner and a number of pieces of packaging made out of painted card. Rooting around in the bin like some vagrant gives one pause and an acute feeling of self-consciousness. Relief comes with the knowledge that this is a new way of experiencing art.
In a catalogue note the artist describes how she engages in a private performance with the art and the original. ‘I bought stuff from the supermarket. I brought the fake things with me when I go shopping. Are they really art if they are just things from the store?’ The answer is of course yes, as they have been transformed by the deliberate act of the artist into a critique of the commodification of art and the commercialization of culture.
Another installation in an exhibition titled ‘Building Hong Kong: Red White Blue’ involved her making a replica of the cheap polypropylene woven fabric that has come to be a found in marketplaces everywhere. In her work In the Construction Sites, she critiqued the ubiquity of the material itself, its value, use and function in dally life, and notions of authenticity and value in art. She also challenges notions of the readymade as art and the role of the art museum in conferring authority on art. Her fabric is actually made of hand-painted acrylic stripes on thin cotton duck. The artist took the imitation fabric to a number of real building sites and photographed it in situ performing its normal functions of covering a pile of sand, protecting other building, materials or just laying about. Back in the gallery these photographs formed part of an installation that juxtaposed the real with the fake and the fake with the real. The discombobulating nature of the fake real world was further heightened in the gallery space by the addition of a bright orange witches’ hat fabricated out of cardboard and contact paper, and cement pavers that were home-made in fast food container moulds. Wong puts the art into artifice and achieves a poetic statement with the simplest of means.
Both Kwan and Wong bring their subjective sensitivity to bear on objectified materiality in ways which are intelligent and intelligible, individual and universal. They critically examine the application of contemporary, theories of art, looking at the intrinsic properties of objects and their external and relational properties and attributes, and notions of authorship and identity. Despite (or perhaps because of) their youth, they are symptomatic of a growing sophistication in Hong Kong contemporary art.
Jonathan Thomson is an art historian, critic and consultant. He lives and works in Hong Kong.