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Isaac Chong Wai

A multimedia artist known for his performances in public spaces, Isaac Chong Wai (b.1990) explores the relativity and ambiguities of our collective norms and values, inviting us to rethink our experiences of daily life and our physical presence within society. As he exhibits a soft wall unable to stand by itself, a boat made with fences that takes on water, or inefficient, arty policemen, Chong’s practice questions the construction of our modes of representation. Time, history and the imprint of the past and even of a future-to-be also seem to haunt the artist, who constantly breaks the linear perception of temporality with re-enactment, dreams and slow-motion gestures.

Caroline Ha Thuc: This time, you are coming back to Hong Kong with quite a personal exhibition, Is the world your friend?, where you mix your own experience as a victim of aggression with today’s representations and manifestations of violence. Isaac Chong Wai: People often think there’s a gap between personal and social issues. Is art a way to put them together? When I think of my works that are presented in Hong Kong, they are all somehow personal to me, even if they might not seem so, like my recent installation A selfie that celebrated a murder incident in the no man’s land. This work features 91 crystal blocks of framed images extracted from online video footage of killers taking selfies after shooting people in international waters. After watching the video online, I could not get rid of these images. I tried different ways to deal with them: I tried drawing and painting, but I disliked seeing the images. Then I recognised that I didn’t want to see them, and this is how I decided to make a work which is both visible and invisible. From the front, since all the blocks overlap, one cannot recognise the images of them taking selfies. However, while walking through the installation, every frame stands there as if the whole motion has stopped or slowed down. For me, this work is still personal. It is something that I felt like I had to deal with through art. It shows different my thinking processes about what I imagine the event could be transformed into.

CHT: Why did you choose to testify to the violence committed against you through an art work? How do you connect these personal experiences with your other works? Is your daily life a source of inspiration? ICW: For me, it was a way out. I needed to deal with what happened, otherwise I might have got stuck with the experience, unable to move on. Still, I think I was very lucky. After a stranger used a glass bottle to hit my head, I actually asked a policeman to take a picture of me. Unsurprisingly, the picture wasn’t very well taken, so when I got home I used my camera and timer to take a picture of myself. Once I saw it, I found the bruise beautiful, with its geometrical shape and layers of colour. I think that aesthetics and appreciation, or being a stranger looking at myself, helped me to deal with this terrible experience. I won’t say these personal experiences are directly connected to my other works, yet they reflect the way I deal with events through art. I often think about how the personalisation of events might bring reconciliation, no matter if it is something that happens to me or something I wasn’t even part of. I still think that the speech The Dead: Speech on the Three World Wars by [20th-century German philosopher and writer] Günther Anders had a big influence on me concerning how to remember death in order to prevent terrible events from happening in the future. I would say that my daily life is surely my source of inspiration; it becomes a performance when art intervenes. 

Equilibrium by Isaac Chong Wai, Performance, 2012.
Courtesy the artist.

CHT: In I Dated a Guy in Buchenwald (2013) you improvised a kiss in Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald, engaging you and your partner in a provocative act that revived a time when gay people were oppressed for their sexual orientation, provoking a collision between the past and the present. Is there any idea of a healing process behind this act?ICW: A lot of people think there is a healing process behind it, and maybe there is. When I was having the date, I actually didn’t think of doing
an art work. It just felt weird that two gay guys visit a concentration camp where homosexuals were persecuted and executed. I asked if I could kiss him and after kissing him I remarked that people couldn’t do that in the past. For me it was only one of the stories of my life. Not until I had seen the news from Russia about the 100-year ban on gay propaganda [in 2012, Russia voted to ban gay parades for the next 100 years], I asked François, who I dated in the camp, to write me anything about the date. His text ended with the words “human warmth”. I think the healing process is more about how we both have looked at the event, and how we wanted people to look at the event: where is the human warmth when we look back at human history?

CHT: A few years ago, you organised One Sound of the Futures, an important public performance in Hong Kong, in which participants were encouraged to express loudly their wishes for the future. Does your practice aim to share a vision of the future? ICW: For this performance, numerous people in three different cities were invited to talk about their personal futures, all at the same time. Between the performers there was at least two metres, so that what each heard from the others was often fragmented. That means that the performance allowed for sharing while giving enough space to people to talk freely about their own futures, without always being heard by other people.

CHT: Reviving the past within the present or expressing the future in the present is an important thread of your practice. Do you see our bodies as potential bridges that can reach back the past and out to the future? ICW: Why are we told about the past? And how does it lead to the future? I am interested to find out how our bodies are able to apprehend the future while connecting ourselves to the past. This is what I have tried in the performance One Sound of the Histories, where people were invited to talk about their personal past in a public square which was built by Hitler.

CHT: In Rehearsal of the Futures: Police Training Exercises (2018), policemen are trained in slow motion, breaking down the movements of violence. You told me these are utopian practices, taking place in a future when, you hope, there will be less violence. At the same time, your deconstruction of the movements emphasises each gesture and might exacerbate violence. Are you playing on this ambiguity? ICW: I don’t know if I should hope that violence be reduced. I don’t know if it would be a good idea to have no confrontation, or to not even allow confrontation to happen. Violence exists not only physically; it is also inherent to different structures. I believe violence will not disappear, but we can look at the different forms it might take. The work itself shows that soft power and soft violence will still go on in the future, with the proposition that riot police will still be trained, but in an artistic way. Here I think the work is more about questioning the gaps between our imagination of a so-called utopian version of police
training exercises and the actual ones.

CHT: To what extent would you connect this work with Hong Kong? ICW: When I produced the work, I did not localise it to any specific place, since police have a shared global identity. When it is exhibited in different places, I believe that visitors are able to connect their memories of the police acting in the virtual world and in their own city. 

CHT: You have been working a lot in public spaces, inviting participants to walk with you in the streets in slow motion, forming improvised lines or expressing themselves collectively. What led you there? ICW: Collectivity is important in Chinese culture. In Hong Kong, I feel like I don’t live as an individual, but more as someone who represents his family. Hong Kong is a city where people don’t have much space, and it is impossible to ignore the physical presence of others: even if we are in a packed car, we twist our body in order not to have any physical connection with strangers. The distance between strangers was one of the themes that I investigated earlier, and it did influence how I think of the presence of bodies in public space. The series Equilibrium (2012) was an important turning point for me, when I started to ponder how I could get closer to people or gather people though performance.

CHT: Some of these performances invite participants to engage in very simple gestures, yet because they are acting in public and collectively, their performance becomes almost automatically an expression of their freedom. At the same time, you give them very clear instructions, and this freedom can only be expressed within the framework set by you. Are you pointing out the power of the collective or the possible freedom of individuals within the collective? ICW: Freedom is always a difficult word, and I think only the participants will be able to testify. I believe that the performance provides a structure, in which participants are able to express what they would like to. Often participants have told me that they were grateful for the experience. This is probably because they had an unusual experience, allowing them to do what they usually don’t. It might lead them to rethink their body’s presence in public space. Most of the time, collective movements create a sense of inclusion, while exclusion takes place via individual decisions. What if all these so-called exclusions become an inclusion? How can we all belong to a collective while expressing different points of view? I am interested in how heterogeneity composes the structure of a collective which is often interpreted as homogeneous, and in the ambiguity that constructs the notions of individuality and collectivity.

CHT: In the performance Help! Help! Help! (2016) you explored the idea of solidarity: who would help others? How did you think of this staging and what did you discover? ICW: I enjoyed doing this piece. When we see someone who performs the posture of asking for help, lying on the ground and raising his hand, should we help? If we do, what is the nature of this help, considering that the performer does not, in fact, need help, since he is lying down of his own choice? When we see other people helping the performers to get up, what are they doing, and how can it impact our own behaviour? The performance questions the politics of help at large by
challenging the concept of help.

I Made a Boat in Prison – A Journey to the Shore by Isaac Chong Wai, Installation, 2015.
Courtesy the artist and Blindspot Gallery.

CHT: In your performances the subject is never isolated. You explore how individuals are tied to society, but you also emphasise a positive feature of collectivity: solidarity. Would that be part of your utopia? ICW: I think of solidarity as one important element when it comes to how I think about ourselves and others. However, I am not sure if it is a definite positive feature reflected in the work itself. Holding the posture of surrender or of being arrested both reveal a weird ambiguity between help and violence: helping someone to surrender? Helping someone not to surrender in a violent way? Being together and helping each other are not absolute positive things; they can sometimes go very wrong as well.

CHT: Your Haribo Wall (2017-19), a wall made with Haribo Goldbears, is a wall but also not a wall, since it is so soft that it cannot stand by itself and so is constantly under construction. What did you wish to express through this unusual installation? ICW: The gummy candy Haribo bear is elastic, flexible, sweet, soft and accessible to kids and adults, while it travels everywhere in the world. I am fascinated by the mobility and accessibility of such a small object. When we think of a wall, we think of something that doesn’t move, but this wall keeps travelling from exhibition to exhibition.

CHT: Playing with contradictions is not new in your practice, and the wall reminds me of the boat that you made with fences taken from a prison in Weimar, Germany in I Made A Boat in Prison (2015). It’s an open boat and doesn’t float. It embodies both freedom and the impossibility of such freedom. Just like the policemen who hit people in slow motion without hurting them, do you aim at revealing a world embedded within deep illusions? ICW: I think the works more reveal clashes of representation, through which we are able to question our status quo, as those clashes are out of the norm.

CHT: Do people take your work too seriously? Would you like to introduce more humour into it? ICW: Some people have said that my works got so serious after I lived in Germany. It is true that when I was in France, you could see me strolling with a goldfish [in his 2013 performance/video La Promenade du Poisson Rouge, created in Toulouse] and everyone found it funny. I do think humour is important: never stop laughing.

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