Wing Po So’s studio is tiny and very tidy: between a large collection of shells, dried molluscs and plants, various other species rest on shelves in glass jars, all properly labelled. The Hong Kong artist, who grew up in a family of Chinese medicine practitioners, also surrounds herself with essential books about Chinese medicine, including a two-volume work dating from the Ming dynasty. Her practice confronts this scientific background with her personal observation of nature, as she transforms and creates organic yet surreal sculptures and installations.
Caroline Ha Thuc: You grew up spending a lot of time in your parents’ traditional Chinese medicine shop in Hong Kong, and this family background plays an important part in your art practice. When and why did you decide to draw from this experience and to become an artist? Wing Po So: It was due to the closure of our family’s shop in Soho [in 2012]. I spent all my childhood in this medicine shop and in the neighborhood. Several months after the closure, my parents decided to rebuild the shop in another location, and I started to make artworks out of medicinal materials.
The experience of growing up in a medicine shop in one of the most rapidly changing districts of Hong Kong shaped a huge part of me. I have processed and handled herbs for as long as I can remember. My father and I would push uphill a metal trolley carrying a mountain of merchandise purchased from wholesalers in Sheung Wan several times a week. Together with a few other kids nearby, my brother and I built whole continents on the street.
This experience is the best gift I have ever had. When the Mid-Levels escalator opened in 1993, the neighborhood turned into an entertainment hub consisting of fancy restaurants, bars and trendy stores. The medicine shop became more symbolic, like a miniature version of the city as a whole. For me, it has the ability to transform in time and space. It is a kaleidoscope through which I look in order to see the outside world.
Do you see everything through a medical eye? Unfortunately, I don’t have a medical eye. I have never had any medical training, so I can’t really see things medically. I am always inspired by the way my parents handle natural materials. They would for instance save every part of a fruit, including its seeds and the outer skin, after eating it, for future processing. I have this fantasy that all these seeds, fibres and various body parts from plants are the raw materials for constructing some larger systems.
However, while I have been so close to all these ingredients in my everyday life, I do not know much about their medicinal usages and properties. In fact, to work with herbal materials artistically makes me more curious to study them scientifically. I learn little by little about their chemical components and their very complex system and network. In return, this process expands my artistic exploration and vocabulary.
In your practice, you enlarge many small elements of nature, transforming them into different forms, textures and scales. Why are you so interested in metamorphosis, and what guides your choices? Chinese medicine has a lot to do with transformation, for example the transformation of a living organism into a medical material used for its useful properties; the breaking down of a useful property at a cellular level in order to analyse its chemical components., The idea is to treat our individual systems in relation to a larger system that connects us and to explore how we are integrated with nature. At any given moment, the ecosystems go through many chemical and physical changes all at once.
I am interested in the systems that could connect all existing elements. It is exciting to think that the body is a universe, while the whole universe could be an atom, and atoms are tiny universes.
During your residency at de Sarthe Gallery in 2019, you created a large, womb-like sculpture. Was it inspired by anything from nature? The word “silk” has several meanings. Corn silks are long brown threads that grow on the end of maize. The material called corn silk, being a reproductive organ, allows male genetic cells to travel down its tunnel to reach a single egg, and fertilisation occurs. I wanted to create an experience that would invert our relationship to corn silk, which our gaze normally looks down upon.
What people normally take as food waste is something that our family puts aside as precious in our kitchen. My family would save a lot of leftover fruit parts, including corn silk, and dry them next to the gas cooker. Corn silk is commonly used in Chinese medicine. It is very soft to the touch and, after drying, it gradually transforms in texture and colour. It is a monoecious species that has both male and female body parts. It is so interesting to think that corn, a species so close to our daily lives, can reveal to us the origin of life and the evolution of organisms.
I also feel there is something maternal in your sculptures, especially in the series Interior (2017-18) featuring big half stones that seem to open up and split.
It is more about some imagined organs with architectural forms that would be able to create city landscapes. The idea that the body is a city comes from my interest in reading medical and animal anatomy books. At a microscopic level, it’s easy to see architectural forms, maps or canals in bodies.
You practice kung fu, and energy flows matter a lot to you. How do you wish to embody these flows in your artworks? I’d like to incorporate ideas of cycle, motion and energy in my works. The kinetic mechanism is something that I consistently explore. When I first started using medicinal ingredients in making art, I incorporated kinetic elements in my works. I like to think of the ingredients as something that is always evolving.
Your 2018 solo exhibition Six-Part Practice at Tai Kwun combined vertical lines with curves, feminine forms with masculine gravity, evoking at the same time a jungle under the rain, an urban environment by night and the interior of an alien.
It is a depiction of my fantasies about the medicine shop. The shop is like a portal with a lot of hidden drawers, making art like a treasure hunt. I wrote a little poem that depicts my thoughts:
Every medicine cabinet drawer contains thousands of universes
Within every little organ lives a cosmological system
Creation is like travelling to place after place
Bringing me to the luminous surface of the skin
Or inside the interior of the body
Watching blood flowing inside the body
Or listening to the oceanic breath of seashells
The title of your book is also From Space to Space: do you see medicine and art as vehicles for travel? Art-making to me is really like the idea of travelling, taking me to various places, meeting different people, connecting the dots of languages and knowledge to form constellations in the sky – to satisfy curiosity. It is like a treasure hunt. I like the idea of my practice being linked to a passage, a transporter, a portal.
Many of your works are multisensory, as if you want to invite viewers to experiment with the work with their bodies first. Do you think that art is above all an emotional and empirical encounter? I think the sensory part is a response to the origin of traditional Chinese medicine. It is all about one’s capacity for observation, sensitivity and imagination. My creative process involves also a lot of daydreams. I still have still a lot more to explore, such as sound art. Sound-making in a medicine shop is mostly about the interaction between tools and natural materials through kinetic energy. I would like to explore the relationship between these elements. I also hope to discover more about smell through biochemical processes.
A contradictory feeling arises from your installations, which look solid and vulnerable at the same time. The material that you are using seems very fragile, and you often play with transparent surfaces. Is this a reflection on the vulnerability of life? The natural materials are generally quite fragile, but at the same time they have their healing properties. Working with natural materials is quite a challenge, but it can be quite flexible as there are so many various existing forms available. I have been collecting some potential materials and making small, experimental drawings inspired by them. My whole thinking process is very material-driven, often involving the transformation of the materials themselves. I like to work with herbal powders, given their fragile quality and their strong smell and sense of physicality, but it has been always a mess to work with powders when installation and durability are under consideration.
For your project on Lamma island, Invisible Island (2021), you collected different living species on the shore as a form of inventory of the local ecosystem. You displayed them not in their original form but after modifying their conditions through biochemical reactions. Why did you choose to present them this way? Initially, I wanted to clean an aged grocery store to house the specimens, but I could not find a suitable store. My work is shown in a Chinese seafood restaurant close to where the restaurant displays its giant fish tanks instead. All the specimens I collected on Lamma island have undergone a decellularisation process in order to remove their inhabiting cells, leaving an extracellular matrix scaffold of the original tissue, which can be used in tissue regeneration and organ implantation. For example, I used sodium dodecyl sulphate, a detergent used to remove cellular components and debris from the tissue. All these specimens will turn semi-translucent, and I placed them on shelves in a glass cabinet that resembles a fridge. My idea is to create a hidden portal for the specimens, as a way to travel between the living Lamma island – the restaurant – and the invisible, hidden Lamma island. The empty shells can be perceived as voids that convey hollowness yet also possibilities. The scaffolding provides the necessary conditions to facilitate the growth of something new. It is a gateway to regeneration, to imagine a world anew.
You have been working a lot with algae. Why? Do you feel that people do not know about them? Were you attracted by their history? I think I just wished to dig into something underground. The underwater world is full of bizarre and unknown forms. I am attracted by algae’s profound diversity, full of oddities and curiosity. Algae have been notoriously hard to classify in the Apollonian world of scientific taxonomy. Photosynthetic, they are neither plants, animals nor fungi. Some are single-celled while some colonise. Some have sex, while some divide or fragment to grow new individuals. Some even survive from primitive ages and live among us.
Making art, for you, seems to be a synonym for learning, and you also love collaborating with researchers. Do you see art as a means to produce and transmit knowledge? Making art for me is a way to respond to my curiosity. The process is very much about connecting dots of multiple languages and knowledge, in order to form constellations. I think art is a contribution to knowledge.
Are you engaged in any form of research yourself? Recently I have been doing some research on nanostructured materials. It takes me a long time to digest a large number of research papers. I am interested in the unique quality of these materials, between materiality and immateriality, and also for their potential to combine with other natural materials. Besides, I am attracted by their ultralight quality, well connected structures at a nano scale and biomedical applications. I have some materials in mind and I am considering the possibility of fabricating them with laboratory equipment.
You define yourself as a storyteller. At Tai Kwun, you collaborated with Dung Kai-cheung, who is famous for his work Atlas, depicting a fictional Hong Kong. At the same time, you refer to scholars like Alan Lightman. Do you write yourself? Why do you mix fiction and reality? I am not a writer, but I think I am creating an alternate reality based on my experiences with nature and the living environment. I have been surrounded by all kinds of natural ingredients. However, all these ingredients always appeared different when used as medicinal materials than they did in their living forms: they were often dried up, cut into pieces, worm-bitten, burnt and incomplete. Mixing fiction and reality allows me to convey this unfamiliarity with and alienation from nature and the living environment.
You’ve said your dream is to exhibit in the British Museum? I am fascinated by the Wellcome Collection, which combines the worlds of art and medicine. I have never been to London. I went to the US for college because I have relatives there, and it’s good to be away from home for some time. Visits to different artists’ studios were memorable. The experience of living in the US made me wonder more about my own city. It was at that time that I consciously started to recollect fragments of my childhood growing up in a pharmacy store.
Caroline Ha Thuc：你從小在父母一間香港藥材店中長大，這種家庭背景在你的藝術實踐中發揮了重要作用。你是什麼時候決定從這段經歷取材，並成為一名藝術家？為什麼會有這樣的想法？蘇詠寶：這個想法大概由我們家位於蘇豪區的藥材店[在2012年]結業開始萌生。我整個童年都在這間藥材店和附近一帶的社區度過，關店幾個月後，我的父母決定在另一個地方重開，我便開始使用藥材創作藝術品。
CHT: 你看待所有事物時是否都會以醫學的角度出發？ 蘇詠寶：很可惜，我並沒有醫學頭腦。我沒有接受過任何醫學訓練，所以我無法從醫學的角度看待事物，但我經常都會受父母處理天然藥材的方式啟發。他們會在吃完水果後保留水果的每一部分以備將來加工，包括種子和外皮。我經常幻想這些種子、纖維和植物的各個部分是要用來建造出一些更大的系統。