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Vvzela Kook

By Christie Lee /

I’d expected a philosophical explanation for Hong Kong artist Vvzela Kook’s quirky name, but it turns out that it was all due to a technicality. The artist had wanted to call herself vuvuzela, after the African horn, but on realising the domain name was taken, took out the two “u”s.  

Kook’s art, however, is rather better thought out. Research is key to her artistic process. During our conversation, she repeatedly describes her works as projects rather than videos or installations, and says she spends the bulk of her time reading, researching and mapping the details of her projects in her mind. It’s similar to the artistic process of fellow Hong Kong artist Samson Young, for whom Kook works as an assistant.

Born in Dalian, a port city on the southern tip of Liaoning province in northern China, the 29 year old received her BA from Hangzhou University before reading for a MA in Creative Media at City University in Hong Kong.

We chatted at her new studio in Ngau Tau Kok.

Fragrant Little Haven by Vvzela Kook, Video with stereo sound, 4 mins 15 secs, with audio track of (We’re Bound For) Botany Bay by Trad.Arr P.M.Adamson, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

Christie Lee: Why did you decide to stay in Hong Kong? Vvzela Kook: At the beginning, it was more like I didn’t want to go back to China. But after doing more and more research into Hong Kong, and visiting historical sites like the Gin Drinkers Line in the New Territories, I really wanted to stay. In a way, I wouldn’t know how to make art if I were to go back now. The cyberpunk aesthetics you see in my art: I was deeply influenced by the cityscape of Hong Kong – the lights, the different neon signs. My art wouldn’t be like that if I was living in mainland China, especially now, when the Chinese government is mandating uniform storefronts.

CL: Does Samson Young have any influence on your artistic process? VK: I think it’s inevitable that he’d have some sort of influence on me. I’m drawn to his research into Hong Kong and the city’s history, but we also perceive the world differently. Trained as a composer, he perceives the world sonically. My works, on the other hand, place more  emphasis on the visuals, the storytelling, with all the  futuristic and fantasy elements. Sound is often in the background. 

CL: A few of your recent pieces are about Hong Kong history, such as Confidential Records, which also has strong sci-fi undertones, specifically cyberpunk. VK: I visited the Kowloon Walled City, and even though I hadn’t experienced what it was like when there were still people living there, I wanted to do something with it. I was really into fantasy and detective tales when I was younger: you know, Harry Potter and the like. Having that ability to control every little detail that happens in this alternative world excites me. So I decided to build a virtual world in parallel to the world we live in.

CL: Humans are never the focus of your art. Even if they do make an appearance – the tiny astronaut figures in And if your head explodes, for example – they aren’t in the leading role. Why is that? VK: I suppose I focus more on situations. In the case of And if your head explodes, it’s about that split second before human beings enter the picture.

CL: So you aren’t interested in depicting the human experience? VK: I am, I just like to express human cruelty, for example, or angst, through seemingly calm situations. 

Specimen II: Aquilaria sinensis by Vvzela Kook, Installation view from Fragrant Little Haven, Hand-made soap (apricot kernel oil, coconut oil, shea butter, rice bran oil, sunflower oil, water, sodium hydroxide, mica powder in various colours), glass specimen dome, 2019. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Yi Yi Lily Chan.

CL: Like Fragrant Little HeavenVK: Yes, as it is essentially a project about Hong Kong as a colonial city. I started to grow my own plants when I decided to settle in Hong Kong. I was not trying to colonise the place or anything. You know how there is a Flower Market Road in Hong Kong? It made me think: there are so many flower markets in Hong Kong; why is only one called Flower Market Road? I bought a map and tried to pin down all of the streets named after a flower or plant. There are about 120 in total. All these streets have their own histories, whether it’s related to colonisation or the development of the city. One of the ways the British colonised Hong Kong was by naming streets in a pretty way to dilute the cruelty that they’d inflicted on the local population. For example, Hollywood Road was the first road built by the Englishmen when they arrived in Hong Kong.

CL: Like Fragrant Little HeavenVK: Yes, as it is essentially a project about Hong Kong as a colonial city. I started to grow my own plants when I decided to settle in Hong Kong. I was not trying to colonise the place or anything. You know how there is a Flower Market Road in Hong Kong? It made me think: there are so many flower markets in Hong Kong; why is only one called Flower Market Road? I bought a map and tried to pin down all of the streets named after a flower or plant. There are about 120 in total. All these streets have their own histories, whether it’s related to colonisation or the development of the city. One of the ways the British colonised Hong Kong was by naming streets in a pretty way to dilute the cruelty that they’d inflicted on the local population. For example, Hollywood Road was the first road built by the Englishmen when they arrived in Hong Kong.

CL: Did you visit all 120 locations? VK: I wasn’t able to gain access to some of them: Fairview Park, for example. It has a street named after the lotus, another named after the bauhinia and a third called Pinery Road, but it’s a gated community. 

Confidential Records: Dual Metropolitans by Vvzela Kook. Dual-screen audio-visual work,
9 mins 50 sec, 2016-2018. Courtesy the artist. 

CL: Was Fragrant Little Flower also the first exhibition when you expanded your oeuvre into objects and installations? VK: Yes – for example, one work comprises a map of Central, a vintage Hong Kong geography book, a 3D map of Hollywood Road and debris that represents Hong Kong’s first ever reclamation. It’s a way of bringing together different times in a still object or image, something that I’ve always been interested in doing.

CL: And you’re launching the second phase of the project soon? VK: It’ll be part of Asia Society’s To See the Forest and the Trees group exhibition. It’ll be about trees. Probably a mix of video and objects.

CL: Do you have a specific tree in mind? VK: No. As I told Chantal [Wong, curator of Fragrant Little Heaven], this project has everything to do with plants but also nothing to do with them. It isn’t about the plants themselves; rather it’s about the history of Hong Kong – how certain plants were used as vessels for colonisation.

Installation view of Fragrant Little Haven by Vvzela Kook, 2019. Courtesy the artist.
Photo: Yi Yi Lily Chan.

CL: Is Hong Kong’s colonial history your main interest as an artist? VK: I think so. You know Dalian was occupied by the Japanese and Russians at different points in time, but you don’t really see the Japanese or Russian influence there, because they were only there for a very short time.

CL: Could you tell us about your two residencies in the latter half of the year? VK: The first one is the Sula Artist in Residence. I’ll be living in a lighthouse in Sula, an island on the northern tip of Norway, for a month. It’s a defunct lighthouse that’s been turned into a hostel. I’m going to do an architectural mapping project. The second one is at the Confucius Institute in Nuremberg. I’ll be doing research on German industrial ruins.


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