Interview with Tsang Kin-wah

AAA's Enoch Cheng speaks to the Hong Kong artist Tsang Kin-wah about his background, artistic practice, and his latest work


Asia Art Archive (AAA): Like a lot of active Hong Kong artists of your generation, you graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, but you later went to the UK to study Book Art. Why Book Art? How was the training there different from Hong Kong and what impact did it have on you? And what moved you from Book Art into creating wallpaper, which has formed the main body of work in your career?

Tsang Kin-wah (TKW): At first, I planned to study Fine Art in London but when the interviewer from the London Institute saw my work, which included quite a lot in book form, text and image, he suggested that I study Book Art. I thought about his suggestion and it’s true that I like the form of a book very much and had also made some works directly related to the book form or its elements, such as text, image, narration, etc. Also, I thought that there would be some classes on art theory and the contemporary art scene, and not just making books, although that turned out not to be the case. So, in the end, I spent a year studying Book Art at the Camberwell College of Arts. In fact, I spent most of my time at the printmaking studio, in museums, galleries and concert halls, rather than in the Book Art studio.

The training there was quite different to what I had before in that there was a greater focus on conceptual development. We spent most of our time having tutorials with different tutors, writing proposals, which weren’t so important while I was studying in Hong Kong. I remember being very eager to start making works and experiments for my project that my tutor had to tell me to stop making until I had finely polished the concept for the project. I found it hard to deal with this approach at first but after some time I started to get used to it. I think this experience has had quite a big impact on me and has made me realize the importance of conceptual development, so now I spend most of my time developing a concept and thinking a lot before realizing the work, even though I think, sometimes, I think too much… The training also made me realize the importance of research and of explaining concepts to the others. This is why I spend time writing down the concepts for my works and other related thoughts after finishing a group of works.

The first piece of wallpaper I made was in the second or third month of my study in London. I did some experiments related to books and pornography, such as tearing out pages from the Bible and transforming them into tile-like blocks for covering the floor, so that people could walk on and step on them. I think that’s when I started to become interested in dealing with space and also the relationship between the work and the audience.

After living and studying in London for several months, I felt quite sad and depressed because of the differences in working and living styles of Londoners and the Hong Kongers. And, for the first time in my life, I experienced a real and direct racial insult from two kids. Sadly, I didn’t have any way to release or ease my depression and sadness and the only way I could think of was through my art. So I guess these are the things that pushed me to create a piece that reflected some of my feelings during that period of time, in that particular place, where everything and everyone looked very nice and pleasant but, in fact, they were not and there were lots of dirty things underneath.

AAA: One of the obvious characteristics of your works is that you borrowed from William Morris’ floral patterns. As you said in Interior, Morris used the renewal of handicraft as a means for the rebirth of art, calling for feeling and emotion in the age of mass-production. However, you produce your work by machine. How do you instil emotion into your work? Can you define the different stages of your work from conception to production?

TKW: In some ways, my works are produced by machine, but in other ways they are not. My pattern installations could be divided into four stages: conception, image-composition on the computer, production and installation. 

Firstly, I usually find an existing pattern or image which I think has an historical or cultural background, or other stories in keeping with my ideas and concept for the work that I’m going to make. So the research is the first stage that has to be carried out in order to decide what to do and to finalize and polish the concept.

Then I start to think about the content and the texts and I arrange them to form an image based on the  pattern or image I have selected. This part of the production is mainly carried out in digital form on a computer and sometimes it takes me one or two months to complete the image because it is not easy to decide what I want to say or write. If I don’t have an idea at any one moment, I would just stop the process it until I have an idea. 

After finishing the image I then move onto the production stage. Most of the time, I print the completed images onto paper and then transfer them to the silkscreen through a series of processes. I then use the screens to hand-print the images myself onto various materials such as paper or fabric etc., which would later be used for the installation. This part of production takes about two or three weeks, depending on how many pieces I need to cover the space. 

The final stage is installation, that is to set up the work. Like the production stage, I still prefer to do this by myself without any assistants, because I don’t think others would really understand what I want to do or any amendments that might need to be made within the space. Sometimes, I don’t exactly know what to do or what changes I will have to make out until I’m there. That is why I prefer to install the work by myself. And this usually takes me from several days to two or three weeks to finish the set up, depending on the size of the venue. 

So I would say that the first half of the process doesn’t really relate much to the idea of handicraft renewal. Some people have even suggested that my works or images could be made from a printer, or that I could ask a technician to help me finish the process, because many artists produce their work in this way. But personally, I don’t think this is the way I want it to be done as it would completely change the work and its meaning. Once my involvement and intervention is taken out of the process I think the works would become too cold and inorganic. So, in order to stay in line with the main core of the work, human emotions and feelings, I insist on my personal involvement, especially for the last two processes, production and installation, even though I perform all the stages by myself most of the time anyway. In some way my emotions and feelings are injected into the work while I’m printing and installing the works, as most of them reflect my own personal feelings and emotions towards different kinds of things and issues. When I’m tired, careless or a bit lazy, the images become more bold, unclear or even incomplete, but when I’m really concentrating on the work it becomes very clear and looks perfect. So all the images are actually like a kind of record of what is in my mind and how I feel during the making and printing processes.

AAA: You use controversial language in your work, often commenting on the ills of materialistic culture. But at the same time an ambiguity is created by the fact that your work is favoured by traditional public museums as well as the commercial sector. How do you feel about that? Can you share some of your experiences?

TKW: For a museum exhibition, I think people are more open-minded or more ready to accept my work, as they understand the concepts and reasons for using controversial language in my work, which is actually forms the core of my work. So I am usually not asked to follow their set ideas and I am left to do what I want to do. The commercial sector is a bit different and, in fact, I don’t really think that they favour my work. I guess what attracts them are the pleasant images and the combination of image and text in my works, but definitely not the language that I use. Sometimes they treat me like a designer and ask me to use nice words and beautiful images to decorate their store, or whatever. In Hong Kong it is a common phenomenon to treat artists as designers, expecting them to follow a set of ideas and make nice things. If this were the case, I would simply stay away from them and I prefer not to do that kind of work. Some are more open-minded in that they would give me the freedom to choose the texts and enable me to work with the space, which makes me feel a bit more comfortable. But generally, I don’t treat this kind of work in the same way as my personal work or art as there are often limitations and restrictions on writing the texts or there may be lines that I can’t cross. Apart from that I am happy to collaborate with the commercial sector as sometimes it does allow me to think in a different way and to deal with a different kind of space rather than just the very typical white cube of galleries or museums, which may be good for me if I want to develop my work and push it further. 

AAA: Apart from Hong Kong, you have often exhibited widely and been collected in Japan and Europe. How do audiences from different region and language backgrounds respond to your works? What have been some of the best or worst responses?

TKW: Usually, I’ll leave the place where I am exhibiting straight after the opening, so it’s a bit difficult for me to know how people respond. I only have a very brief idea from the people visiting during the opening.

The best response I have had was probably from my solo exhibition in Paris in 2008. During the opening, a guy approached me and I thought he was going to ask me about something related to the exhibition, but he actually asked me a question on one of my works from the series Attempt at a Revaluation of All Values. This is a series of digital works that I made based on Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings related to Christianity, in which I changed some of the figures’ finger gestures, facial expressions and body gestures. I had only showed them on my website, so it was quite surprising for me to have someone in France visit my exhibition in Paris in order to find out the answer. Also, one visitor mentioned that he would keep an eye out for my work in the coming five years having visited my exhibition.

I think the worst response was from a woman I met in Shanghai in 2004. While I was taking a rest after installing my work, a woman came in and looked around the space, at my work and the catalogue. Then she looked at me with scorn, turned her head to her friend and said, “That’s the artist…”

AAA:  Most people focus on aspects of your work either involving William Morris or foul language. Has anyone focused or commented on other elements in your work?

TKW: I don’t think that many people focus on the aspect of William Morris in my work. Some don’t really know who he is or what his ideas were about. Sometimes, people are just attracted to or focus on the image or pattern that I have used. And actually, not many people talk to me or give me much feedback. Most of the time, I can only know what people think about my work by reading articles and reviews of my works or exhibitions. I guess I seem to be quite shy and people would prefer to talk with their friends or other people. But sometimes people ask me what happens to my installation work after the exhibition has finished, or they might suggest that I use different kinds of text and language, etc.

AAA: From your writing, you often refers to books about signs and signifiers. Do you read a lot of books on the subjects? What other books or art forms inform your work?

TKW: I have only read a few books about signs and signifiers. I mainly read books on philosophy, politics, literature, etc. Besides reading, I like music a lot. A few years ago, I listened to rock music a lot and now I also like classical, ambient, movie soundtracks, etc. I like to watch films as well, especially those by Jean-Luc Godard, Gus Van Sant, Pedro Almodovar, etc. These are some of the art forms that I like very much, so I guess they are often in my mind and directly or indirectly affect or inform my work in some way.

AAA: You seem to work very hard and exhibit often. What else do you do besides making and showing work?

TKW: I don’t think I work very hard and, in fact, some people have asked me to work harder at making my paintings, so it’s really difficult to say whether I’m hardworking or not. Sometimes, I just spend my time surfing the internet, playing with my cat, playing my guitar, listening to some music, reading or tidying up my space, etc.

AAA:  Your latest work It Would Be Better If You Have Never Been Born shifts from the medium of print to projection and sound. Can you explain what made you change your mode of practice in this instance? 

TKW: I have been making pattern installations and using the medium of print and silkscreen since 2003. Even though I quite like the overall effect, I’m a bit tired of it after so many years and wanted to try something different. In fact, I’m not the kind of person who can make the same kind of work or use the same medium for many years. So, after a certain period, I tried to use tape to form some text and stuck them directly onto the floor and wall to create an organic flow of text inside a space. After that I cut text out directly from clear or black vinyl by using scissors and, for the work I made in Tokyo in 2006 I also added a light projection. After that, I added some sound or music to my installations as I realized that this could create a certain kind of atmosphere for the audience to experience. So I made BLACK! BLACK! BLACK! in Paris, I Love You More Than Anything Else In The Whole World in Manchester and also HE come from the Sky … or The Sea … in Helsinki in 2008 by using a similar elements and mediums to test the overall effects and possibilities. Then, over time I started to use a different kind of medium, video, and that is the basis for my latest work It Would Be Better If You Have Never Been Born which is a video installation of moving text and sound.

Personally, I think it’s quite a smooth and natural shift from one medium to another and, in fact, I’ve been thinking about moving text and sound for quite a long time. I had done some very simple experiments before but at that time I didn’t think I was ready to do that kind of thing because I thought it would be a bit flat and shallow simply to put my texts onto different mediums, or make them into moving images. It could be quite funny and playful but that’s probably all. In fact, I quite like the effects and the atmosphere created after adding sound to my text installations and after finishing the works, as I mentioned before, I thought it was probably time for me to realize the idea. Also, I think, more importantly, my every day experiences and thoughts on humanity and life show me what I can do and what I have to do with these experiments and mediums. 

AAA: Compared to some of your previous works in which a room is filled with textual-floral patterned wallpaper, you have approached how you use a space differently. How do you feel the different approaches enhance or restrain you and your style, or even the way you relate to your audience?

TKW: Yes, the approaches are quite different. I think the way I deal with space is relatively straightforward and more simple in my previous pattern installations in that I usually just cover the whole space with my images or patterns. I mainly focus on the physicality of the space and visual impact of the work in conjunction with the content, wording, historical and cultural reference and linkage with the site, city and country. I have previously said to journalists that the works look saturated. But in my latest work It Would Be Better If You Have Never Been Born and some previous text installations, I think I have taken a different approach in my use of the space. Although visual appearance is still important I don’t think it’s as important as before. I’m more focused on the invisible elements and the atmosphere now. In some ways, I guess I’m now freed from the visual side so that I can now leave the space empty or the wall blank, which is what I did for the Tokyo, Paris and Manchester exhibitions. In fact, even if I haven’t put anything on it visually, the space isn’t really empty or the wall isn’t really blank. It’s a bit like Chinese painting or calligraphy in that sometimes the blankness is more important, more crucial. It helps to create spaces for spirituality and, with the sound or music added, it even creates an atmosphere so that the whole space, even the air, seems to be filled with the texts and emotions in a very subtle, invisible, but dramatic way.

At the same time, these changes altered the way in which audiences viewed and experienced my work. When they look at my previous pattern installations they would get the overall effect immediately and could be easily drawn into staying there to look at the detail and what the work is about. For my latest work, it’s not easy for the viewer to get the whole idea unless they spend some time watching the whole video, the beginning to the end, because it changes and evolves from time to time. Sometimes, they may need to watch it several times in order to get a clearer idea and to understand that the work and the video is quite slow and quiet until very late on in the work. So even though it just lasts for about seven minutes it does require patience to see it through. Otherwise, the audience will only think it is a boring work or that they don’t really understand it at all.


Wed, 1 Jul 2009

In light of the current COVID-19 situation, AAA Library will remain temporarily closed till 5 February.