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Wing Po So 蘇詠寶

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.

Portrait of Wing Po So in her studio. Courtesy the artist.

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.

CHT: Do you see everything through a medical eye? WPS: 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.

Flow by Wing Po So, Installation view at Tai Kwun Contemporary, 2018. Courtesy the artist and Tai Kwun Contemporary.

CHT: 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? WPS: 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.

CHT: During your residency at de Sarthe Gallery in 2019, you created a large, womb-like sculpture. Was it inspired by anything from nature? WPS: 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.

From the Body to the Body Through the Body, detail view at de Sarthe Gallery, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

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.

CHT: You practice kung fu, and energy flows matter a lot to you. How do you wish to embody these flows in your artworks? WPS: 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.

CHT: 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. WPS: 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

CHT: The title of your book is also From Space to Space: do you see medicine and art as vehicles for travel? WPS: 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.

CHT: 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? WPS: 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.

Sea Ear Hi-Hat by Wing Po So, detail view at Blindspot Gallery, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Blindspot Gallery.

CHT: 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? WPS: 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.

CHT: 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? WPS: 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.

CHT: 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? WPS: 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.

CHT: 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? WPS: 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.

Interior by Wing Po So, detail view at Tai Kwun Contemporary, 2018. Courtesy the artist.

CHT: Are you engaged in any form of research yourself? WPS: 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.

CHT: 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? WPS: 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.

CHT: You’ve said your dream is to exhibit in the British Museum? WPS: 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。


CHT: 在你的實踐中,你將許多細小的自然元素放大並轉化為不同的形式、質地和比例。為什麼你會對變形產生興趣?是什麼決定你的選擇?蘇詠寶:中藥與轉化有莫大關係,例如將生物轉化為有用的藥材,又或在細胞水平上分解生物的有用屬性分析化學成分。重點是將我們的個體系統與連接我們的更大系統聯繫,並探索我們與大自然的融合。在任何時候,生態系統都會同時經歷許多化學和物理變化。


CHT: 2019年在德薩畫廊駐留期間,你創作了一個大型的子宮狀雕塑。作品的靈感是來自大自然嗎?蘇詠寶:「鬚」有很多重意思。粟米鬚是長在粟米末端的啡色長鬚,是粟米的生殖器官,讓雄性遺傳細胞沿著它與卵子連結受精。我們通常會看不起粟米鬚,因此我想創造一種將人與粟米鬚之間關係顛倒的體驗。




CHT: 我知道你有練習功夫,而能量流動對你來說非常重要。你希望如何在作品中體現這些流動?蘇詠寶:我想在我的作品中融入循環、流動和能量的概念,而動力學機制是我一直在探索的主題。第一次使用藥材成分進行藝術創作時,我就在作品中加入了動力學的元素。我認為藥材成分是會不斷進化的材料。




CHT: 你的書名為《微物萬狀》,你認為醫學和藝術是旅行的媒介嗎?蘇詠寶:對我來說,藝術創作就像旅行一樣,帶我去不同的地方見識不同的人,一點點連結語言和知識,形成空中的星座滿足我的好奇心,如像尋寶一樣。我喜歡我的實踐可以成為一種通道、運輸工具或入口。

CHT: 許多你的作品都是需要透過多感官來感受,感覺你想邀請觀眾先用他們的身體來試驗作品。你認為藝術是一種情感和實驗的結晶嗎?蘇詠寶:我認為感官的部分是對中藥的反應,這完全取決於每個人的觀察能力、敏感和想像力。我的創作過程同樣牽涉很多白日夢,亦有很多東西需要探索,比如聲音藝術。在藥材店製作聲音主要是透過工具和天然材料之間的動能作用,我很想探討這些元素的關係,亦希望透過生化過程發現更多關於氣味的知識。

CHT: 你的裝置看起來既堅固又脆弱,產生出一種矛盾感。你所用的材料看似很脆弱,而你亦經常以透明表面創作,這是為了反思生命的脆弱嗎?蘇詠寶:天然材料通常都很脆弱,但同時它們也具有治療的特性。運用這些材料是一個頗大的挑戰,但它們的不同形式亦令創作變得更靈活。我一直都有收集一些可能有用的材料,並以它們為靈感製作小型的實驗性繪畫。我的整個思考過程都是由材料控制,經常會因應材料本身的變化而下決定。我很喜歡使用藥粉創作,因為它們非常脆弱、帶有強烈的氣味和質感。但在安裝和耐用性的層面上,粉末總是很難使用。

CHT: 在創作南丫島作品《透明島嶼》(2021年)時,你收集了岸上不同的生物作為本地生態系統的庫存清單。你並沒有透過原有的形態展示那些物種,而是透過生化反應將它們改造。為什麼會選擇以這種方式呈現它們?蘇詠寶:本身我想清理一間陳舊的雜貨店來存放標本,但一直找不到合適的商店。我的作品最後在一間中式海鮮酒樓展出,恰好放在酒樓的大魚缸旁邊。我在南丫島採集的所有標本都經過細胞脫除技術處理,去除其棲息細胞,留下原始組織的細胞外基質支架,作組織再生和器官移植。我使用了十二烷基硫酸鈉——一種去除組織細胞成分和碎片的清潔劑。所有標本都變得呈半透明狀,我將它們放在一個類似雪櫃的玻璃櫃的架上,目的是為標本創造一個隱藏的入口,在生氣勃勃的南丫島、餐廳和隱形神秘的南丫島之間穿梭遊走。標本的空殼是傳達空虛和可能性的空隙,而支架就是新物種生長的必要條件。它是通往重生的人口,亦是重新想像世界的大門。

CHT: 為什麼你一直在研究藻類?你覺得人們不了解牠們嗎?還是被牠們的歷史所吸引?蘇詠寶:我想我只是想探索地下的東西,因為海底世界充滿奇特和未知的形狀。藻類充滿了古怪和奇異的特性,牠們奧妙的差異非常吸引我。眾所周知,藻類在科學分類的世界中很難歸類。牠們會進行光合作用,但既不是植物,亦不是動物或者真菌;牠們有些是單細胞,有些是寄居的;有些會交配,有些則會透過分裂或粉碎繁殖;有些甚至從原始時代起就一直生活在我們之中。

CHT: 藝術創作對你來說似乎是學習的代名詞,你亦很喜歡與研究人員合作。你是否將藝術視為一種生產和傳播知識的手段?蘇詠寶:藝術創作是一種滿足我好奇心的方式,這個過程仿佛是將多種語言和知識連結形成星座。我認為藝術是對知識的貢獻。

CHT: 你有從事任何形式的研究嗎?蘇詠寶:最近我在進行一些關於納米結構材料的研究,需要很長時間消化大量的研究論文。我對這些材料介乎物質與非物質之間的獨特品質,以及它們與其他天然材料結合的可能性很有興趣。除此之外,它們的超輕質量、在納米級水平的良好連接結構和生物醫學應用亦很吸引我。我心目中已經選定了一些材料,正考慮用實驗室設備製造它們。

CHT: 你將自己定義為一個說書人,在大館與以描繪虛構香港的作品《地圖集》而聞名的董啟章合作。同時,你又提及過艾倫・萊特曼等學者。你會自己寫故事嗎?為什麼要把虛構和現實混在一起?蘇詠寶:我不是作家,但我認為我正在根據我對自然和生活環境的經驗創造另一個現實世界。我一直都被各種天然材料包圍,但所有這些材料在用作藥材時都會與它們生存時的形式不同,通常會被曬乾、切碎、蟲蛀或燒焦,並不完整。混合虛構與現實讓我能夠傳達出這種對自然和生活環境的陌生和疏離。

CHT: 聽說你的夢想是在大英博物館中展出,對嗎?蘇詠寶:我非常喜歡融合了藝術和醫學世界的威康收藏館,但我其實從未去過倫敦。去美國讀大學是因為那裡有親戚,可以離家一段時間不錯,而參觀不同藝術家的工作室亦令我很難忘。在美國生活的經歷讓我對自己的城市更加好奇,亦正正由那時候起我開始重拾自己在藥材店長大的童年片段。

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