By Caroline Ha Thuc
Born and educated in Hong Kong, Tang Kwok Hin keeps questioning his background, and systematically looks with suspicion at the immediate environment around him. A conceptual artist and a very fine draughtsman, he uses ready-mades and collages with the aim of decomposing reality, mixing fiction with in-depth research and personal stories. After concentrating on everyday objects, which he tried to deprive of the social meanings and functions attached to them, he has recently expanded his exploration of the discrepancy between objects’ packaging and their contents to the whole of society, considering rules, laws and traditions as wrappings and containers, allowing for very different contents.
Caroline Ha Thuc: When we met after the Umbrella Movement, you said that you felt your practice had to become more political. Two years later, and after Needs, a solo show at Gallery Exit that functioned almost like a retrospective, how has the movement affected your work? Tang Kwok Hin: This exhibition helped me review my path of growth in life and art.Somehow my practice shifted very quickly after the events in order to respond more directly to the current context. It came from the acute need to understand the structure of modernity through creation. I always make art to question or learn.
During these two years I have tried different new experiments concerning the frictions between freedom and norms, especially traditions (Grandpa Tang, 2015; Riddles of Light, 2015) and modern rules (All Things, 2015; Lying in Gardens, 2016). Political elements have become embedded throughout my works. It drove me to understand politics itself, especially the relationship between authority and culture.
CHT: Does your last exhibition, with the punning title Offhand-over, at Things That Can Happen, reflect this new concern? TKH: Yes, there is a linear relation and it is a pun. On the one hand, I keep digging out elements from my own life, memory or family, even official achievements, as materials to create. For example, I exhibited the badge that I received in 2014 under the Secretary for Home Affairs’ Commendation Scheme, which I feel is a nonsense award from the government; on the other hand I want to make works with historical artistic approaches. I feel visual artists should work on native awareness and thereby help to build a Hong Kong identity.
CHT: Do you think about the public when producing works like that? What if the audience is not from Hong Kong and doesn’t know so much about the local context?TKH: That is a big, important question to me. Despite globalisation, we should admit that culture itself is complicated and varies according to different national contexts. We should face it and accept that we have always had different models, aesthetics and preferences in life. We should learn from each other, seriously, and not superficially.
I believe we should include more contextual and local concerns in art, eventually adding more discourse or text so the audience can understand more.
CHT: Is Hong Kong always your main source of inspiration? TKH: I was born and raised here. It framed my values and vision. I also live here. I can’t make art not related to my mind. Even when I had a residency in New York in 2014, I still made a show about the Occupy movement. To tell the truth, I am willing to make art as a kind of imaginative documentation, in order to document my angles of seeing. I am willing to spend my whole life dealing with the things happening in Hong Kong.
CHT: Finding your own roots is an important thread in your practice. It deals with your own identity and, beyond that, with the Hong Kong identity. For Grandpa Tang at the Heritage Museum, you exhibited items left over by your ancestors. What was the idea behind this process? TKH: The original idea was to make works in response to the permanent walled villagessection at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. In 2014-15 I documented the festivals in my village. I discovered, again and more strongly, that festivals and other rituals only display procedures and forms. The real meanings were missing. In other words, the meaning and knowledge of tradition couldn’t be transmitted.
I appropriated things left from my ancestors and put them in containers. The new contained the old, although the new has its own meanings as well. I also exhibited some of my ancient work, for future audiences. It is about intersection and overlapping as well.
CHT: What is your opinion of tradition? On the one hand you wish to revive it, share it and discover more about it, but on the other you point out the norms and rigidity it brings with it. TKH: Tradition seems like a set of messages from different previous generations, which are somehow reachable. To tell the truth, I regard rituals from my village as a kind of history, because they are declining. Tradition is now more about modern beliefs. I feel really strong about the urgency of studying rules, and specifically traditions as old rules.
CHT: Riddles of Light shows the opposition between the moon, its reflection inside a cup of tea and the light of a lamp. Is this tension a metaphor for our perception of tradition today? TKH: This work consists of several parts, including objects and two video installations. I recorded the movement of the moon during the Mid-Autumn Festival in 2014, withoutplanning to use it for an art work. During the set-up at the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei, I realised that the moon was gradually moving to the right, and I added a lamp as part of the installation, so that the motion of the moon created an eclipse: a natural element was overlapping a modern object. In the second video, I am seeking the full moon inside my cup of tea, as a reflection from a ceiling lamp. Both videos are therefore related, especially in the sense of showing our imagination about perfection. A full moon, in certain traditions, symbolises completeness.
CHT: But the ceiling lamp achieves the same perfection when reflected in the cup of tea. Can modern objects be as beautiful for us as traditional ones? Can they embody the values we previously projected onto natural objects? TKH: The work deals with the issues of our era, with our deep desires for nature and origins. Modern technologies can recreate light, wind and heat, so we are safe to look at a lamp and imagine the moon. The imitated approaches somehow fulfil our original needs, and reduce our freedom just as the tradition did.
CHT: What do you think now about the issue of Hong Kong identity? Do you believe there is a stronger identity in art, in that Hong Kong artists have developed their own specificities and recognisable methods? TKH: There hasn’t been any substantial accumulation of local knowledge and culture in the past 10 to 20 years in Hong Kong, despite a few initiatives. Identity is indeed a complicated thing. Hong Kong’s identity is still a very obscure concept because education remains very conservative and does not push young people to think out of the box. If the messages from art cannot be properly delivered to more people, the identity itself might never be established.
CHT: After the Umbrella Movement, you said that you felt an urgency to act: do you still feel it? Do you think this new attitude has changed the way you define your role as an artist? TKH: The feeling of urgency has never gone but it might respond to different concerns now. I always have a strong desire to observe, arrange and find meanings. The urgency might drive me to change my tactics rapidly. Sometimes I think that I keep jumping along with the rapidity of today’s social issues, but the thread of my practice is relatively linear.
In two or three years’ time, the role of an artist could no longer be important to me. Since the show at Gallery Exit in 2015, I have understood myself much more as a human being, as an animal. I embrace my life and all kinds of emotions, and want to give up boundaries of definitions, languages and words.
CHT: Do you feel that the scope of art has broadened? Are you a kind of anthropologist? TKH: I am happy to be stereotyped in any way, including as an anthropologist. In my opinion, definitions always narrow possibilities. I don’t think that I am doing “art” any more. I feel more like doing something between the historical and the contemporary – or, if you wish, between the aesthetics of historical museums and of contemporary-art museums.
If photographs drove painting to change in the past, now the internet and sharing via social media could drive art from globalised languages and the legends of history towards a desire for brand-new, unique situations that allow us to step back and face our instincts. The general public and opinion leaders keep sharing fast, clear and usually superficial knowledge. But we lack imaginative, complicated, hard-core expressions andresearch. To me, art is still about ways of seeing and thinking, about creative and imaginative ways to tackle the directness, abstraction and depth of minds, spirits and sentiments.
CHT: How would you describe your relationship to objects? You keep collecting them in your daily life and sometimes wash them and draw on them, and your studio at home is full of objects. Would you characterise your interest in the stories they carry as a kind of fetish? TKH: Even though this is an era of virtual reality, we cannot eat a virtual hamburger. We still rely on the physical world. Objects and space create the physical world and define contexts. However, we don’t really notice it, as the virtual world dominates every moment of our time via smartphones. I would say yes to your question about fetishism: I embrace every current moment of my life; therefore I embrace every single object.
CHT: Drawing has always been at the core of your practice. Do you still draw every day? How does it affect the way you observe the world around you? TKH: Drawing is like dictation to me, as well as a method of observing and remembering. I draw nearly every day. It can be really fast or slow. I think that it fits my unstable mind, because it is able to reveal both my emotions or instincts and my rationality. My mind reflects itself smoothly through the rhythm of drawing, and through the movement of my hand.
CHT: What part does writing play in your process? Is your narrative trying to fill in the gaps left by absence – the absence of Nancy in your work I Call You Nancy (2012), for example, when you invented Nancy, a sister you never had, but also absence of family memory and so on. TKH: I probably write with the intention of creating a narrative that should fill the gaps left by the absence felt around me. It is also a way to start a creative process. I always write about my feelings in different contexts. I don’t regard my writings as statements: they are part of the works.
CHT: Much has been said about the concepts of erasure and absence in your work, but you seem less concerned with them now, at least in the form of erasing brands from objects, as you did before. At Things That Can Happen, were the void and empty spaces more important? Do you feel more concerned about space than erasure? TKH: Yes: I looked into the paradox of the act of erasing, but I feel more concerned about space.
I have done many experiments on daily objects before, in order to learn intensively about them. I was interested purely in the experiments themselves. This is one of the main reasons why I haven’t paid much attention to space before. But now I guess the targets of my experiments have eventually changed. My concern has finally merged with the idea of delivering messages through the works, stepping back a bit to consider the exhibition as a whole experience and a whole piece of work.