AAA's Phoebe Wong and Janet Chan speak to Hong Kong artist Amy Cheung about her vision and through this, find an artist who strives for perfection in her work, seeks truth and trust in the larger world, and is currently demoralised by opportunities in her hometown.
AAA: How would you define yourself as an artist? Hong Kong artist? Chinese artist? International artist? Female artist? Multimedia artist? Young artist? Up-and-coming artist? Established artist? Devil's advocate/artist?
Amy Cheung (AC): A biological symptom, a geographical relation, the description of my toolbox, age, career level, etc, have little relevance in defining me, although I am known for being a devil—for the magnitudes of troubles I create for each project.
I see it almost a necessity for an artist to be an outcast.
If your question is a multiple choice, I probably will choose none of the above, even though all of them contain different levels of factuality. Our actions of denial, provocation, arousing suspicions, challenging common beliefs, speaking the unspeakable, fighting for certain rights/wrongs, disrespecting celebrated values, or defining the unnameable may inevitably upset or cause embarrassment to the establishment. If my work can scatter definition for a moment and bounce viewers out of their old presumptions into re-defining their world again, I am half-way to where I want to be. It doesn’t matter what you call me.
AAA: Your works are not totally conceptual but show intellectual and intuitive concern about certain subjects, for example, war, utopia/dystopia, dreams, women’s identity, labour, environment issues, urban interventions, etc. What drives you to make work about these subjects?
AC: I work with issues that move me, annoy me, shock me, enlighten me, frighten me, make me dream, make me love, make me cry. What drives me to work is often a very strong gut feeling and a clear mission. If I don’t do anything about it I feel like I might explode soon. Can’t everyone see there is a big gap between what the world is and what the world should be? A powerful creation: ‘wow’, the world might wake up and reflect. I believe in art’s unique transcendental impact.
I am not good with words, yet I wish to express clearly and honestly, so I try different mediums and forms of communication to portray the vortex of my mindscape, perhaps that’s why it often leaves traces of what’s on my mind at a given moment—be it ideological, political, urban, social, literal, scientific, psychological, spiritual, existential or poetical. On the other hand, I like to explore the unknown and see the work spellbind; a dive into my own & the viewers’ possible worlds (Ivory Parables Amid an Amnesiac's Skin, 2005, Atom Ocean: Once we are Dead we Don’t Have to Worry About Dying Anymore, 2006, and Ashes unto Pearl, 2008).
AAA: In your work I detect a rather strong sense of distrust and dystopia. Do you agree? And if so, where does this world view come from?
AC: I think utopia, trust and formlessness are a few key concepts that frequent my contemplation.
I also pursue utopia, yet I see many people in the same boat simply being abused because of having such dreams. Great pain, injustice and suffering are often the result (Untitled/The Population, 2002 and A Bleeding Toy from Childhood, 2006). Utopia/dystopia; aren’t they two sides of the same coin? They are not born to exist alone, their very validity is to be defined by their counterparts and the game’s dynamic. I don’t have a static world view, it’s shifty and circumstantial. It depends in which territory I have been placed/choose to be. The ‘victory’ I seek in this game has no form. My perceptual judgment is cloudy and vulnerable so each portrayal of my world view inevitably includes its own downfall (Remaking the Character, the Game and the Horror Elements, 2002).
An infrastructure of power, which today exists for its own sake, seems to be able to generate trust or distrust. The powerful can give an illusion of trust-worthy-ness and, in some cases, they can define truth and reality (Prohibited, 2000) Trust the flux of truth? Trust government regulation? Trust social system? Trust free market? Trust religion? Trust science? Trust money? Trust love? To whom should I entrust? How did we come to this conclusion in which we trust now? Yes, perhaps I am a very distrustful person, although my secret dream is to be able to trust the world unconditionally. Right now, my heart is my only refuge to host trust.
AAA: Comparing audiences from two different international shows that you have just participated in—the Venice Biennale and the Guangzhou Triennial—do you find any significant differences in their reaction to your work?
AC: Perhaps the foundations of both works are very different, so as the responses. In Venice, for Devil’s Advocate: A Song and a Landscape (Part 1), 2007, the audience can go inside the darkness of a big refrigeration unit (with a temperature of -15C) They had a close encounter with a tall six-arm ferris wheel turning ever slowly at an almost unperceivable speed, and with a glowing glass-ball at each end imprisoning an icy, sleeping elderly person. As a viewer, you were shut inside the om of an absolute soundless fridge, almost freezing to death. For some, they complained of the feeling of danger. What if the lock broke? What were the sleepy old folks doing? Why were they here to begin with? What were they? Where are we? Will the wheels turn eternally? What if there is a power cut? Were we all in afterlife? These were some of the questions. I think audience in Venice seemed be more experiential. They appreciated the sensation of the work, and liked to involve themselves in their own creative terrain and responded imaginatively.
The audience in Guangzhou wanted to know the correct explanation and the true meaning behind the work. Anyhow, Ashes unto Pearl, 2008, is a work with a very different starting point. I interviewed more than 100 people about their ultimate questions, their ideas of a formless pearl, truth, freedom, solitude, death, etc. The work enables me a very participatory journey with my audiences because we walked together, and the dynamic interaction with them constituted an important part of the work. The exhibition includes a life-size burning incense sculpture of myself placed inside a sphere (2.8 metres in diameter) and covered in charcoal. The sphere has many holes to enable the incense smoke/smell to dash out while viewers peep into the same holes to view the burning sculpture. 188 small mirror-like speakers broadcast participants’ responses to the ultimate question in a murmuring ambience, because of the many different languages, provoking a very strange Tower of Babel mood around Mars. When I was at the opening, many viewers took pictures in front of the work with a big smile and a V sign, asking me what it means. It was a very carnival-like atmosphere.
AAA: In your installation works, scale is an element that stands out — such as your fabrications of a real-size shipping container, taxi and tank. Size and scale seems to be an ‘inherited’ constraint for Hong Kong artists, as not many local artists can afford to create large-scale works. You seem to be the exception. How do you get around these constraints?
AC: First, I think patience and belief. Second, I don’t particularly see scale to be a constraint because I consider dissolving any constraint and overcoming all difficulties as part of my job. Finally, I don’t agree that Hong Kong artists see size as inherited constraint, as I notice many of their works are subtle, delicate, graceful and complex. Their works’ optimal scale seems to arise from a conscious decision, not because of constraints. In art, nobody wants to be big for big’s sake, we are not competing for a Guinness record. When I have a calling to make a work I need to make, the work’s internal logic tells me the size it should be. For the three works you just mentioned, each work cost me a few years in writing proposals, wading through kilometres of beaurocratic procedures and, too often, I need to sell my soul to commercial projects to raise funds. Tragically, I was born very stubborn and I am obsessed with perfection for each single detail. Not only does scale need to be respected, but the conceptual accuracy, physical properties of the material, technological embodiment, collaborators’ visions, and the ambience of the installation’s exhibition environment all need to be perfect. There is no other way for these installations to come into existence and establish respectable dialogue with our reality. They need their own integrity. If I compromise a little in every step of the process—size, material, site, technology, time, money, I kill the aura of the work and then what’s the point?
AAA: What is the most intriguing comment on you or your works that you've heard from local or international critics/curators? Do you respond to comments personally? If so, how?
AC: Somebody I respect a lot in the art world called me a ‘star’ after my first exhibition. That almost killed my career. For a few years, I felt I had to be a ‘star’—whatever it means—and there were too much pressure and I couldn’t make anything. I would harass everyone with the tiniest of an idea before making anything and no idea was good enough. That was horrible! Finally, I couldn’t cope and ran away from the gallery system. I escaped to devote my thought in working with the general public, made happenings, performances, for a wide range of passers-by who don’t expect art. Gradually, I rebuilt confidence and finally I can say now I don’t care where my work is, provided the circumstance fits the work’s integrity and rationale. I welcome comments, however I prefer a non-intervention policy. I respect individual freedom to re-invent from where I took off.
AAA: What are you working on at the moment?
AC: There’s always good days and bad days at work and now these are my very bad days. Last week, I was informed that a show I was very excited about in New York has been cancelled due to the global financial situation and a major sponsor had pulled out. I am in a dark mood as I arrive at this last question. I take a moment to reflect on myself as an artist here: I have been making many works, yet I still cannot buy my bread through art. I have no upcoming show, no money carried forward from past shows, and not even one piece purchased by any Hong Kong museum or institution after all these years. I feel too depressed, tired and frustrated to think of a future. Why should I continue to work in art, to work here? My energy is running out and it’s becoming too naive (maybe even stupid?) for a middle-aged woman to continue being idealistic and work under deprived conditions as a committed artist on my home soil. I would like to retire.
I am praying I will change my mind tomorrow, as much as I am praying for other Hong Kong artists to stay in the field to see the success of Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District Project.