“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.
“It’s a work about perception,” Lam said. “There are very few contemporary artists who are true intellectuals, who are reading philosophy. His work challenges people’s belief in religion and politics.”
She added: “He’s not a commercial artist; he’s an institutional artist.”
Tsang seems largely uninterested in marketing himself or selling his work through the usual channels. As he dreams up more large-scale installations, his studio remains stacked with unsold or unfinished smaller works.
Still, he is seeing his star rise.
His work has been acquired by the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo and by high-profile collectors. In November, he will be the only Hong Kong resident included in Tales of Our Time, an exhibition of Chinese artists at the Guggenheim in New York.
The genesis of Nothing was a commission given to Tsang by the Hong Kong government to represent the city at the 2015 Venice Biennale in Venice, Italy. His response was an eerie multimedia installation called The Infinite Nothing, also inspired by Nietzsche. It had little of the boyish playfulness of his early paintings.
The M+ Pavilion initially planned to reuse The Infinite Nothing for its 2016 opening, but it proved hard to take a work custom-made for a historic Italian building and adapt it to a shiny new Hong Kong art space.
In Venice, Tsang used light and sound to make viewers feel as if they were walking through a torrent of water, an effect impossible in Hong Kong. “You can’t just cut and paste,” he said.
A voracious reader of the morbid and obscure, Tsang began scouring books and online texts for inspiration. On his home computer is a folder of materials that led to Nothing, including documents on Sisyphus, Japanese kamikaze pilots and a 1775 English essay on suicide.
“I don’t want to be obvious,” he said when asked about those references to death and suicide. “A viewer should not be able to see an artwork’s meaning immediately. One needs patience.”
Tsang has left his hardscrabble youth far behind and he now flies to art events in Europe, Japan and the US. However, he still has a bedroom in his parents’ Hong Kong apartment and works out of a rented room nearby. The unair-conditioned studio has a minimalistic work space in the front — his only indulgence seems to be an Apple computer — and a single bed in the back.
“His work is not about commercialism and it’s not about ego,” Lam said. “He’s found his fame and he hasn’t changed. He’s exactly the same.”
Tsang has barely mentioned to his parents that he was the sole artist chosen for the government’s largest cultural project in years.
“Their comment is that I should not use such bad language in my art,” he said, adding, “I think they may know I am showing at M+ because they saw it on the TV.”
An Australian university student who has never visited China and has only a modest social media following would seem an unlikely target for the Chinese government. However, when a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman personally denounced Drew Pavlou at a news conference, it was just the next phase in an extraordinary campaign against the 21-year-old that has fueled concerns over China’s targeting of critics overseas. Pavlou first placed himself in the superpower’s sights when in July last year he organized a small sit-in at the University of Queensland, where he studies, to protest against various Chinese government policies. Since then, the Global
‘ASKED TO MOVE OUT’: Indonesian coast guard personnel argued with a Chinese vessel over territorial claims after it entered the country’s exclusive economic zone An Indonesian patrol ship confronted a Chinese coast guard vessel that spent almost three days in waters where Indonesia claims economic rights and that are near the southernmost part of China’s disputed claims to the South China Sea. The Indonesian Maritime Security Agency on Friday night detected Chinese ship 5204 entering Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in what Indonesia calls the North Natuna Sea. The agency sent a patrol ship that closed within 1km of the Chinese coast guard vessel and they communicated to affirm their position and their nation’s claims to the area, Indonesian Maritime Security Agency head Aan Kurnia said. “We
BEFORE WINTER COMES: Snow cuts off roads into Ladakh for four months or more each year, so the crunch is on to get food, tents and high-altitude equipment to Leh From deploying mules to large transport aircraft, the Indian military has activated its entire logistics network to transport supplies to thousands of troops for a harsh winter along a bitterly disputed Himalayan border with China. In the past few months, one of India’s biggest military logistics exercises in years has brought vast quantities of ammunition, equipment, fuel, winter supplies and food into Ladakh, a region bordering Tibet that India administers as a union territory, officials said. The move was triggered by a border standoff with China in the snow deserts of Ladakh that began in May and escalated in June into hand-to-hand
Since her personal telephone number was posted online, Hong Kong democracy advocate and Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions chairperson Carol Ng has received menacing calls from strangers and been bombarded with messages calling her a “cockroach.” She is not alone. A sophisticated and shady Web site called HK Leaks has ramped up its “doxxing” — where people’s personal details are published online — of Hong Kong democracy advocates, targeting those it says have broken Hong Kong’s National Security Law. Promoted by groups linked to the Chinese Chinese Communist Party and hosted on Russia-based servers, HK Leaks has become the most prominent “doxxing”