Interview with Alice Kok

(The following is an abridged transcript of the interview, translated from Cantonese into English.)

Enoch Cheng (EC): You just returned from South Korea where your three-channel video Family Script was shown at the Gwangju Biennale. What was your experience like at the Biennale?

Alice Kok (AK): I was only there for a few days during the opening. But the feedback was really good – especially from audiences in Korea because they have the experience of the partition of North and South Korea so they understood the feelings in the work, the separation of families.

EC: Why did you decide to do this work that depicts families who are separated in India and Tibet? It seems fairly unusual for a Macanese artist to go to Tibet and India to investigate such a topic in those two countries.

AK: No, it is not typical. But to talk about this, we must go back to my interest during my early days while studying in France. My master’s degree thesis was about post-colonialism. I was born in the 1970s in Macau, but I hold a Portuguese passport and so I didn’t need a visa to stay in France for eight years as I was a ‘European citizen’, which is very strange. By the time I graduated in 2006, Macau was no longer a colony. So I started to question: what is post-colonialism? And how can we all live in this era in harmony with such diverse backgrounds? I was particularly sensitive to issues of language. 

EC: Yes, like your karaoke piece Karabic OK, in which a singer from Macau sings the Arabic version of the French national anthem ‘La Marseillaise’.

AK: Yes, actually before that, I did a similar work for my graduation. I composed lyrics for a song called ‘Le Tableau’. The line goes like this: ‘La Limite de ce Tableau est le monde’. In French, ‘Le Tableau’ (淚打波蘿) means a work or a picture. And the line means: 'the edge of the picture is the world' which can be seen as the manifesto of my thesis, ie. what I paint is the world (I actually don’t paint, I mainly do video or installation). So I took this line and phonetically translated it into Cantonese, like a lot of street signs you see in Macau – and then made it into a karaoke version. Then I went back to Macau to ask people there to sing these lines, which literally mean nothing, but they could still sing along according to the Cantonese text. But when I showed the song sung in Cantonese to the French…

EC: They understood!

AK: Yes, they understood. There are differences in languages, but there are also possibilities to communicate through the very act of misunderstanding – with humour. For example: the phonetic translation of 'The Picture/Le Tableau' is 淚打波蘿, which means ‘hitting the pineapple with tears’, which is a funny image. We have to accept that direct translation is impossible, and embrace the differences in cultures. So if we can be more playful, we may be able to have more fun and communicate. 

EC: Can you talk a bit more about your artwork Karabic OK?

AK: I moved to Paris after graduating, and stayed in Montmartre where there are a lot of Arab and African communities – and I found that discrimination was an issue in France. People from Arab countries came to Paris generations ago because places in Northern Africa, such as Algeria, were once French colonies. But they were marginalized, particularly in the ‘50s and ‘60s when society was unstable. When I wrote the proposal for Karabic OK, I felt the strong tension caused by this vicious circle: the Arab community did not have much opportunity for education and were economically-deprived and hence, unemployed or they became involved in illegal activities. The French discriminated against these people because they felt they were not productive, and often caused trouble in society. I was no politician and had no intention of solving this problem. But as I was Chinese, I thought that I could look at this issue with ‘La Marseillaise’ following my Karaoke concept from my graduation. As I started to research further, I realized that during the First World War, there was already an Arabic version of the ‘La Marseillaise’ as the French had Arab people fight for them, which made me feel even more strongly that I had to work on this project. I sent the proposal to the Regional Delegation of Art Affairs of Paris and got the Individual Grant of Creativity to support this project.

EC: But why was it sung by a Chinese person from Macau?

AK: I was not intending to incite anything among different communities. And when a Chinese person holding a Portuguese passport absurdly sings the song (I sang the song, but I was not the actress), the work could then focus on the issue of multiculturalism.

EC: Why karaoke?

AK: I consider karaoke a product that represents our generation born in the ‘70s. We all sang karaoke at home with our families when it was first introduced, so it captures the era in which I grew up. 

EC: Did people like the work in France?

AK: It was very well-received because there happened to be a riot when I was making the work. Once the work was done, it got a lot of attention – such as newspaper coverage and radio interviews. I didn’t expect that at all. I did it out of my own experience. I lived in the Arabic area, and my door code was 1789, which was the year of the French Revolution. So that led to ‘La Marseillaise’ because it was the year it became the anthem. It was fate. 

EC: Why did you go to Tibet and India afterwards?

AK: When Karabic OK was gaining a level of success, some people recommended that I make a series so that I could position my status as an artist. But I always remember what Duchamp said about how repetition is the death of an artist. So, I wanted to move on.

When I was in France, people often asked me about the issue in Tibet. I didn’t have much of an opinion at first. But I started to become interested in Tibet and also, incidentally, in India. When I visited my family in Macau during the holidays, I had arguments with my father about the Tibetan issue (this was when I was still young and radical). He insisted that Tibet has always been a part of China in history, but I thought the issue was more complicated as the language in Tibet actually comes from Sanskrit. I was puzzled but did not know how to set things straight, so my father could easily challenge my view as I had never been to Tibet. And so I thought I needed to go and try to look into the issue.
I knew that there was a place in the north of India, at the foot of the Himalayas called Dharamsala where the Dali Lama, and a lot of refugees from Tibet were staying. And I wanted to go to both Tibet and India, so I signed up with a volunteer service in Dharamsala and meanwhile, I tried to develop a work without having any goal.

EC: What did you do there?

AK: I taught English to a community of female carpet weavers in the refugee camp. Although language was an issue, we communicated through very primitive human connections. We developed an intimate relationship – they were all like my mother taking care of me, and I always liked to share my thoughts with them. I still did not know what I wanted to do with art, but I wanted to know why people like them wanted to stay in such poor conditions in the refugee camps. I then found out that in the ‘80s when China was still not very stable, some Tibetan families would pick one strong member of their family to follow a leader to climb through the mountains of the Himalayas to see the Dali Lama. For their faith, being able to see Dali Lama is a great blessing. But the trip was very dangerous and people would die. For those who could make the trip would be very happy and they are still happy because of their faith and they could really learn about Buddhism.

However, they could not go back to their family because of the sensitivity of their religion and experience, although they kept applying for admission to China each year. And after all these years, when these people were in their 40s and 50s, they would not be able to climb the mountain again. I felt this great sadness and irony because when I was studying abroad, I could visit my family every year. And for me, I could go to Tibet with my Chinese Home Return Permit but for them, the Tibetans, they could not go home.
I wanted to help. I pondered on the thought for a while. As I said, I did not intend to do the job of a politician or to criticize the government. I was an artist. Art to me is about human conscience. All I knew was that those people really wanted to see their families and I had my mini-camera which I realized could be used for raw footage.

What happened was beyond my original plan. Initially, I had thought of doing some research and observations first, and then I would return to France with my experience and apply for funding for a project in Dharamsala, be it a video or documentary. But by that time, I had no such concern anymore. So I just used the camera to film the refugees and passed their messages to their families in Tibet as if I were a messenger. That was my main purpose because communication of any kind was practically impossible – letters could not be delivered, the Internet was not accessible, and telephone calls could be traced or wiretapped, so one had to be very careful. 

EC: How long did the project take?

AK: Nine months: three months in India, three months in Tibet, and then the rest through Chengdu, Sichuan, Chongqing, Guangzhou and Macau and at last India, like a round trip. 

EC: Were you afraid?

AK: Look at my head [she shows her forehead]: fifteen stitches. I took a bus from Dharamsala to Delhi and on the way, the bus stopped for us to go to the toilets. I don’t actually remember the accident anymore because of the shock [from the impact] on my forehead, but I was told afterwards that I fell down into a hole by the mountains while I was going to the toilet. 

I was terrified, but I had to do it. I thought it was a golden opportunity. If I had this plan and didn’t do it, I would regret it for the rest of my life. You know, I cried the whole time. I did not understand a word they were saying in Tibetan, but the emotion was so overwhelming – I looked at these families, all concentrating on the footage, even on small screens or on the camera in the cases where there wasn’t a television or electricity. It no longer mattered if it was political, or if one is Chinese, French, Tibetan or Indian; everyone knows what family love is – it is something universal.

EC: Throughout these projects, did you consider yourself a Macanese artist or a French artist?

AK: No. Especially after Family Script, I don’t care about who I am anymore – I could be an artist, editor, writer, or a teacher by the job that I currently do, but I am ultimately a person. 

On the first day in Dharamsala, I met my teacher, a Buddhist master. I really liked the philosophy of Buddhism, which profoundly spoke to my questions in life. In Buddhism, I believe everything is a practice for a spiritual being. I know that as an artist, there is a path to follow with one’s CV, and that’s why I left Paris. Considering the quantity I produce each year, which is around one work, I cannot be a ‘professional artist’.

EC: Your works after Family Script seemed to shift towards a different direction such as this The Duet.

AK: Yes, my artwork has changed 180 degrees. Since the experience with Family Script, I have been practicing Buddhism and meditation. As an artist before, I normally tended to start with a concept derived from the thinking process. But this method was limited to me because I felt the restraints of my thought. But in meditation, my thoughts could settle and there seemed to be more room to develop. Before realizing The Duet, I had taken a lot of raw material of light and shadow after visiting my teacher in India. When I returned to Macau, I had to do a work for an exhibition about Utopia at the Ox Warehouse. One week before the exhibition, I sat down to meditate and this composition – images of the sun and the moon caused by the light rays of a sunset filtering through leaves, and captured on video – came through, which to me was more like ‘art’ because it was very intuitive. In Chinese, we use the characters for sun and moon together to mean ‘light’ or ‘enlightened’ and it was like a response to what I had learned from my Buddhist teacher.

EC: Your teacher saw the work?

AK: Yes, I always send him a copy of my works as a present. We have this kind of art exchange, my teacher and I. I did it during a residency in Korea in October 2009. I was very stressed out before the residency because in Macau, one always has to deal with frustration from the chaos, of materialism and casinos in society, which is rather difficult for Buddhist practice, especially for a student like me. During the residency, I had a dream where my master gave me a toy which produces rain. I woke up and thought of the dream, which led me to think about where I was – the Sunshine Mountain. Sunlight and rain come together and become the rainbow. In Buddhism, the rainbow is often used as a metaphor of ‘the nature of the mind’ which is the ultimate goal that one has to learn. The mind is the light and the nature of the light comes from all the colours of the rainbow combined. I really liked this idea and put some water in bottles by the window where, as the name Sunshine Mountain suggests, a lot of sunlight would come through and cast curves of rainbows on the floor, forming one rainbow mountain after another and eventually disappearing in the dusk. And this became the Rainbow Project.

EC: So now your direction is very different from the works you did before, which tended to be very provocative in the sense that they instantly stirred emotions in your viewers.

AK: Yes, my works now are more contemplative. But I only see this as a process. I am not anxious anymore about my career as an artist, and let myself mature through practicing Buddhism. Art and practice become one entity. By the time I am fifty, I may have come to realize something and can then share something with people in retrospect.

EC: I read a text that you wrote about how the Macau government was beginning to take over the art scene, by recruiting artists into the civil service. How do you see it now?

AK: I was radical then because I was concerned of the gap that the early development of cultural policy might agitate, and the function of artists would be gone in Macau if they were all tamed by the system. But when I returned to Macau, I realized the problem was education. The young generation doesn’t even realize there is any possibility in art. 

EC: I know that there is no art college in Macau and there aren’t a lot of places to see art. If one would like to study art, art education or going abroad are some of the only options.

AK: Yes, that’s the path for a lot of artists of my generation. The closest we could get to learning about art was through design degrees at the Polytechnic University in Macau. I was lucky that I met Frank Lei at the Polytechnic who had returned from France and taught us from his own experience. 

EC: And how about now?

AK: I am now teaching photography and drawing in the design departments of two universities, so at least there are more courses related to art. Nowadays, studying is not encouraged and Macau is becoming more and more materialistic. For example, my students in design may have pressure from their family because you can actually earn a fair amount of money from working in a casino, so why study? So we are facing another kind of situation.

EC: Why did you return to Macau?

AK: Perhaps because after Family Script, I wanted to see my home. I did not like it at all when I first returned; I often had stomach ache. But my Buddhist teacher encouraged me to return and learn from here. I think the reason I could go abroad and have all the experiences was because of my home – my open-minded parents and Macau. I hope I can make some contribution here.


Wed, 1 Dec 2010

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