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Will Kwan and a world of Infinite Identity

Fiona Killackey | Flux Magazine | Autumn 2010

Few questions are as complex and near impossible to answer as, ‘Who am I?’ In today’s world our identities are akin to a kaleidoscope; changing appearance with each move we make.

Unlike the generations who have gone before us, we do not cement who we are by our job, political affiliation or domestic relationship. Our modern identity is constantly evolving, allowing us to move from job to job, nationality to nationality, culture to culture, relationship to relationship and from left wing to right-wing and back again.

Intrigued with the idea that art can inform and influence identity and expand knowledge of politics and culture is Canadian artist and lecturer, Will Kwan. Born in Hong Kong and raised by “working class Chinese immigrant parents” in Canada, Kwan first took an interest in art during his college education. “I attended an art program that encouraged students to take academic courses in other disciplines such as philosophy, comparative literature and political science,” says Kwan. “My studio courses became hands-on laboratories where I could use moving images, performance and pictures to interpret theories about image production, politics, identity and culture.

Kwan’s quest to create art that, “provokes discussion about the social and cultural issues in the work” draws inspiration from artists such as Teresa Margolles and Mark Lombardi. “Teresa Margolles’ Lengua, a human tongue acquired from a mother in a Mexico City morgue in exchange for the money to pay for the burial of the remainder of her son’s body, opened my eyes to the exceedingly violent realities that neo-liberal economic systems have created. In a very different way, seeing Mark Lombardi’s drawings of political networks in an exhibition at the New Museum in New York in 2002 changed my conception of power, influence, corruption and complicity in the contemporary world order. That detailed research that Lombardi did to produce those maps taught me that artists can play an important non-traditional role in producing knowledge.”

For his own work Kwan uses a variety of media as well as non-fiction books by social and economic historians. “I am constantly collecting fragments of information from journalistic sources so I have an archive of images, notes and sources that I can draw from. As I develop the work, some projects require online data-mining, some works require library research and some involve travel, ‘field-work’ and collaboration.”

Flame Test (2009) is one of Kwan’s most controversial pieces and will be shown as part of the Touched, International 10 Exhibition at the 6th Liverpool Biennial International Festival of Contemporary Art. Consisting of 36 flags printed with press archive images of flag-burning protests, displayed in “an authoritative and traditional manner”, Flame Test provokes its audience to identify with particular identities. “I want viewers to consider the complex interaction between the symbolism expressed in the national flag and the symbolism of its desecration” says Kwan, “I want the audience to perceive what the anthropologist Michael Taussig describes as, "the ‘fit’ between the object and its defacement’.”

“I am drawn to culturally specific or politically charged materials. I also produce work in which I re-purpose symbols, icons and language that claim to be universal. Much of my work tries to contaminate these two general categories of ‘culturally-specific’ and ‘universal’ to reveal their ideological functions.”

Kwan readily admits he is constantly adapting and expanding on who he is as an artist and a person. “I make art as a way to understand how institutions, commerce, warfare, human communities and ideologies organize the world. I am curious about how power is distributed and how populations migrate or are displaced. I have had the privilege of living and working in a number of places in Europe, Asia and North America…In all of those places I was looking for the cultural phenomenon that challenged our concepts of national culture (i.e., migrant worker communities in Italy, the French concession district in Shanghai). I explore the hybrid and the evolving nature of my national and cultural identity, instead of making statements that assert my Chinese-ness…I might characterize myself as ‘an artist who is interested in the world.’”

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