THE ASIA CONVERSATIONS:
Kwan Sheung Chi with Christopher Schreck
CHRISTOPHER SCHRECK: You were recently awarded the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award. Considering that a number of your past projects have critiqued such prizes and the celebrity that comes with winning them, I’d be curious to hear how it’s affected your practice thus far. Has your perspective changed at all?
KWAN SHEUNG CHI: I worry that the more my work is exposed to the public, the more it’s being misunderstood. My actual experience with Hugo Boss and the Rockbund Art Museum wasn’t bad. I didn’t feel uncomfortable about working with them at all. But I don’t think I earned the award because what I’ve been doing recently is particularly good. I’ve been doing what I’ve wanted to do throughout my career, and that hasn’t changed. It’s just the way that people look at me and my work that’s different. I don’t want to be known as the winner of the Hugo Boss Asia prize. I just don’t think that’s a good way to judge a person.
CS: At the same time, I felt that your winning the award was interesting, even encouraging, given the fact that of all the nominees, your work seemed to be the most overtly and aggressively political.
KSC: I’m not sure whether I was the most political artist there. I’m still not so familiar with the work being made in Mainland China. But I did have several pieces of work censored by the Shanghai Cultural Bureau, so I was prepared for the worst even before the show opened.
CS: I’ve read a bit about that incident. I’d be curious to know not only the nature of the censored works, but your reaction to that experience, and whether it affected your desire to participate in the exhibition.
KSC: I was told that I couldn’t show a video work that documented a flag-raising and -lowering ceremony in which I used the clothes drying rack from my home. There were numerous flags included—PRC, British, HKSAR, and so on. I had kind of expected that to happen. But a few days later, I was told that two more works would not be allowed in the show: one was a video about different ways to commit suicide, and the other was a set of posters for visitors to take away: a map of Hong Kong that could be folded into a globe that only reads “HK.” I felt disappointed by this, mainly about the lack of freedom in China and how it affects the artists living there. It’s bad for art to have so many things it cannot touch upon, and it’s even worse to think that artists might censor themselves just to avoid such trouble. But even when that happened, I didn’t want to withdraw from the exhibition. I wanted to react to it instead. That’s really what my practice is about: reacting and responding to these situations. Even if I cannot exhibit a single work, I can still make a statement and let the public become aware of it. So I made some new works instead, which were still political, but in a different way. For example, I thought, if the country won’t allow us to talk openly about politics, maybe it will allow us to talk about money? So I made a video entitled ONE MILLION (2013), which shows my hands counting bank notes until it reach one million. I also made two minimal works. One is a completely dark video, where I went to the museum at night and shot at the location where my original proposed work would have been installed. The other is a stack of white paper for the visitor to take away. The dimensions of the paper are 89 x 64cm, although the museum converted that measurement to inches when they submitted it. I think many of my previous works are quite minimal, where I’d tried to reduce them only to what needed to remain, but with these works, the minimalist style is actually carrying a political message.
CS: Many of your works, especially in the past few years, have focused on addressing local (i.e., Hong Kong-specific) concerns, whether they be political, socio-economic, or purely artistic. As you continue to gain more widespread recognition, though, I wonder if (and how) the work might change to reflect a broader audience? Is that a concern of yours?
KSC: It is, and I expect it to be a big challenge. I believe that if art is to make an argument, it has to be very specific about what it’s really addressing. Of course, this can make the work difficult to present in other social contexts, and it becomes harder to appeal to audiences with different cultural backgrounds. But it is also a way of demonstrating the situation to outsiders. It takes a bit more time, maybe, but I do find that different people in the world often face very similar problems, so it’s actually not that difficult for people to exchange these ideas. Sometimes I feel that artists around the world are very similar, but we are all living in a different time and space, all dealing with our own specific situations and problems. This is what makes us different and thus interesting to each other. So I realized that being so specific was maybe an obstacle to my career in the very early stages, but I needed do what I believe, and now maybe the only necessary adjustment for this audience is to make my works even stronger.