Sun, Sep 18, 2016 - Page 4 News List

A quiet artist’s work creates a big noise in Hong Kong

NY Times New Service, HONG KONG

“I’m very polite. One must be polite,” artist Tsang Kin-wah (曾建華) said in an interview last month at his spare one-room studio in an industrial area of Hong Kong.

“I used to never swear in real life, so I did so in my art,” he said.

Tsang, 39, caught the attention of galleries and museums with his student work at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Camberwell College of Arts in London. What appeared from a distance as meticulous illustrations of flowers and paisley patterns were, on closer inspection, angry, vile strings of obscenities in English.

It was surprising, and not a little unsettling, coming from this quiet student from a working-class Christian background. Tsang has since become an important part of the art scene. His work appeared at the 2015 Venice Biennale and is sought after by museums and collectors.

Tsang, soft-spoken and almost painfully courteous, said he still has a hard time reading aloud the offensive words in his art.

His latest work, the first exhibition commissioned for the US$3 billion West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong, might prove to be his darkest yet. The immersive multimedia installation, Nothing, opened on Friday last week at the M+ Pavilion, the first of a planned 17 cultural spaces in the 40 hectare district.

Viewers will enter Nothing through the pavilion’s shiny stainless-steel-clad terrace overlooking Victoria Harbor.

Tsang has covered the interior with a similar surface, effectively creating a self-reflective experience for visitors. It is a clever way for an introverted artist to interpret a public space.

Inside a darkened exhibition hall, film scenes (prisoners walking in a circle in A Clockwork Orange, for example) and clips from YouTube (a donkey trembling under a heavy load) are projected on the walls.

Tsang’s artwork is not overtly personal or confessional, but the feelings of outrage and inequality are clear.

His family members moved from China when he was six and they spent years in the transient life of many migrants. At one point, a slum fire burned down their wooden home.

“All I remember was standing outside in a park, knowing everything was gone,” he said.

“I started drawing because I had nothing else to do,” he said. “All I wanted was to be an artist.”

His path was not easy: He recalls being bullied during his first experience overseas, as a student in London.

His debut on the art world stage came at the 2001 Hong Kong Biennale, where he presented inked stoneware with classically rendered Chinese figures, which, on further inspection, were seen to be engaged in private bodily functions. In White Cube, at the John Batten Gallery in Hong Kong, he painted the walls with insulting phrases aimed at targets including materialistic rich girls and art dealers. He won the US$25,000 Sovereign Foundation Asian Art Prize that year.

Tsang was the first local artist that Pearl Lam (林明珠), a Chinese gallery-world pioneer, chose when she opened her Hong Kong space in 2012. For that solo show, he created Ecce Homo Trilogy, a multimedia installation that recalls the phrase attributed to Pontius Pilate when he presented Christ before his crucifixion, and the title of a book by Nietzsche. It features video of the 1989 execution of former Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu, which deeply affected Tsang when he saw it on the news as a child.

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