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Research in Motion: An Interview with Will Kwan

Alissa Firth-Eagland and Johan Lundh | Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art | Volume 9, Issue 2, 2010

Hong Kong-born Chinese-Canadian interdisciplinary artist Will Kwan has had a hectic year. In 2009 his first solo exhibition was curated by one of Canada’s most respected curators, Barbara Fischer (Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, Toronto), and his work was also the subject of a two-person show with Mieke Bal curated by up-and-coming curator Liz Park (Western Front, Vancouver). Kwan is currently participating in a residency at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, Ireland. In addition to his prolific practice, Kwan teaches at the University of Toronto.

This diverse set of activities gives a glimpse into Kwan’s practice, but strangely there has been little in-depth writing about his work to date. We predict that this will soon change and decided to seize the opportunity to conduct one of the first published interviews with Kwan. Together we discuss his impulses to make art, these new exhibition and production opportunities, the development of research threads in his practice over the last few years, the role of mobility and travel in his work, and his relationship to contemporary Chinese art.

It is useful to understand the role of research in Kwan’s practice. He works with a number of materials and mediums and his artistic iterations take various aesthetic, theoretical, social, and political shapes but the core of his practice is an extended critical reflection and gathering of information before production. No doubt this ground was laid during his undergrad studies at U of T, and crystallized throughout the processes of obtaining his MFA from Columbia University in New York and then in relation to his position as Research Fellow at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

Before engaging Kwan with specific questions we felt the need to open the discussion by asking a simple and general question: When did you decide to become and artist and why?

Will Kwan: The intellectual environment of the university was a big influence on me as a young artist. I studied visual art as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto but my studio courses were set within a much broader humanities and social sciences education. I was introduced to critical ideas about representation, identity and culture through courses in political theory, cultural studies, and comparative literature in academic departments other than fine art.

Visual art of course was the discipline where I could take a lot of the theoretical content I was being exposed to and work through many of my confusions using visual, physical and experimental methods. The visual arts offered a whole set of strategies to present idiosyncratic research that wasn’t limited to the text and I was very much drawn to those possibilities. Research is a significant part of my artistic practice. I develop a lot of work by sorting through existing visual and material culture and reconfiguring it to identify a trend or construct an argument about the world, in essence no different from conventional academic research. But at the same time I am fascinated with seeing the material presented in a visual format, like a display of evidence.

The teachers I have had over the years have been tremendously supportive and I feel that was a huge factor in helping me to decide whether I would pursue art in a serious way as a profession. I was given many opportunities early on to present work in professional venues and it put me on a trajectory. Growing up in a working class Chinese immigrant family, creative endeavors were peripheral to academic ones and if anything centered on trying to become a piano prodigy! It was incomprehensible to me that one would plan to become a visual artist – for me it was a much more tentative process that was about learning how to participate in a discipline. Even today I take a pragmatic approach to my art practice. I aspire to make work that is in some way a tangible contribution to the knowledge base about culture and society. I don’t approach art as an activity of self-realization nor as an endless exploration of medium, material, or form.   

Finally, my first experience exhibiting outside of North America during my graduate studies in New York also left an indelible mark on me. It made me think about community in a very different way. The colleagues and friends I have made traveling for research or exhibitions continue to inform the way I think about cultural and political issues.

Alissa Firth-Eagland and Johan Lundh: You mention that you do not approach art as an endless exploration of medium, material or form. We want to hear more about this because there appears to have been a shift in medium, material and form in your practice the last few years. Your earlier works were fragile and performative while your latest works are complex both in concept and execution. Can you talk about your relationship to materials in general and how this might have changed over time?

Will Kwan:  I am interested in material culture rather than the technical or formal qualities of materials. While even the most basic raw materials carry implicit social meanings, I tend to be drawn to the culturally specific or culturally loaded, At the same time, I am interested in objects or symbolic materials that claim to be culturally non-specific or universal – things such as clocks and flags and maps, particular approaches to using language and information, certain kinds architecture or ways of representing landscape and geography. I find that this latter category of materials to be what we use to construct our basic iconography of globalism, producing visual culture that perpetuates the myths of a synchronized, equitable, impartial, frictionless and sanitized world economy.

Most of my work is about taking these two general categories and contaminating them. For instance, with works such as Endless Prosperity, Eternal Accumulation (2009), a photo-series of 80 hongbao printed by transnational financial corporations or Shanghai Concession Camo (la longue dureé) (2007), a 4-channel digital animation using tree bark patterns from Shanghai’s French Concession district to create slowly evolving camouflage patterns, I reconfigure culturally specific materials to highlight their complicity in global processes or their origins in colonial-era intercultural encounters. In works such as Clocks That Do Not Tell the Time (2008), Flame Test (2009) and X-Ray Yankee Zulu (2009), I introduce layers or undercurrents of subjectivity and cultural perspective into what are ostensibly universal symbols such as clocks, national flags, and the NATO phonetic alphabet.

I think the earlier artworks I produced between 2002 and 2004 came out of a period when I was uncertain about what I wanted to say in my work and research, so I tended to fixate on the process as the material or the work. The pieces I made then were much more gestural, fleeting and open-ended. For example, talking to people in Chinatown in Lower Manhattan became an artwork. Making a community newspaper in a row house neighborhood in Leeds or interacting with animal rights activists in Venice became projects. I think that tendency was a symptom of my not really understanding the cultural or political significance of the subjects or situations I was dealing with. I fetishized the process because I wasn’t able to recognize the broader structural implications that would have allowed me to shape the process towards some kind of position or statement. I think this problem plagues a lot process-oriented, relational work – open-endedness and indeterminacy masking an inability to make committed political statements.

Alissa Firth-Eagland and Johan Lundh: The past year you have had several major exhibitions. Could you please tell us more about the works in these shows and put them in relationship to your practice to date?

Will Kwan: Multi-lateral at the Justina M. Barnicke in Toronto was my first significant curated solo exhibition. The show brought together seven projects from the past four years that I produced in places ranging from Shanghai and Hong Kong to Maastricht and London. Many of the works in the exhibition examine cultural and political geographies while appropriating the visual language of conceptualism. The earliest work in the show, GPS (EU Chinatowns) (2006) consists of two self-advancing slide projections that present one hundred and sixty simple text directions taken from ViaMichelin, a popular European on-line GPS route planner. The phrases ‘1 km along rue Antoine Dansaert’, ‘towards the 19ème arrondissement’, ‘0.8km west along via Paolo Sarpi’, and ‘left at Gerrard Street’ hold no specific meaning until the viewer realizes – given some familiarity with a major European city – that these instructions mark a winding route through Europe and the U.K. that takes one on a grand tour of every single Chinatown on the continent, both present and historical. I made this work during my time in Maastricht, The Netherlands where I became interested in the minimal, way-finding projects of the Surinamese-Dutch conceptual artist Stanley Brouwn.

The exhibition also included Clocks That Do Not Tell the Time (2008), an installation of 24 wall clocks reminiscent of displays found in hotel lobbies, newsrooms, and airports. The conventional world financial capitals – London, New York, Tokyo, and Moscow – however have been replaced by more obscure, peripheral locations that are central to the global economy or global civil society. These ‘other’ sites include Sonapur, a district of austere, overcrowded dormitories housing Indian and Pakistani workers who toil to erect Dubai’s absurd skyline; Lampedusa, an Italian island near Sicily where migrants attempting to reach Europe by boat from North Africa are housed in a notorious detention center adjacent to sandy beaches where wealthy Italians sunbathe; Bethesda, a Maryland suburb northwest of Washington that is home to Lockheed Martin, a globally integrated weapons industry giant; and Map Ta Phut, an industrial zone in the southeast Thai province of Rayong where Dow Chemicals and BASF have established operations amidst heavily polluted air and waterways that have contaminated area towns and villages.

The centerpiece of the Multi-lateral exhibition is an installation consisting of video, photography, wall drawings and works on paper entitled Canaries (the bank and the treasury) (2007-present). The project is an idiosyncratic and speculative research that attempts to link two seemingly disparate belief systems and cultural practices that have deep roots in the city of Hong Kong – the banking industry and Taoist funerary rituals. The bank in the title refers to the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation (now the financial services multi-national HSBC) an entity that was founded in 1865 several years after the colonization of Hong Kong in order assist British merchants engaged in regional trading of various commodities including opium. The treasury refers to the Taoist concept of a spiritual ‘treasury’ run by bureaucrats from which individuals obtains a loan at birth and must repay when they die in order to pass into the spirit realm. The bank and the treasury blur into one another in the context of Hong Kong through the shared language of ‘transactions, debts, currency’ or when Taoists burn paper effigy money at funerals emblazoned with the HSBC logo (in Hong Kong commercial banks print currency instead of a central monetary authority).

These types of interactions are further explored in the three-channel video component of the installation that focuses on the HSBC headquarters building in Hong Kong, an iconic skyscraper completed in 1985 by the British architect Norman Foster located in the historic core of the former colony on the original site of the bank’s previous two main branches. The tower’s large stacking, modular components and signature structural beams were prefabricated by firms from across the world, shipped to the port of Hong Kong and assembled on site. Foster’s extravagant ‘global production model’ is mimicked in a set commissions I initiated, approaching effigy artisans in Hong Kong, London, Vancouver, and Toronto to reproduce sections of the HSBC tower, which were then shipped to my studio in Toronto, assembled and burnt. This performative sequence is documented and weaved into the video along with historical and contemporary footage that reveals the bank’s ubiquitous presence in the Hong Kong and London and its oblique connections to Toronto and even London, Ontario.

The video’s three channels are stacked in a vertical formation, adopting the compositional principles of traditional Chinese landscape painting that splits a single pictorial field into three seamless perspectives: a bottom third that grounds the image with an establishing element that bring the viewer into the image; a middle section that is dominated by a bold vertical element that thrusts the eye up to the top of the picture; and a top third that functions as a distant and more ethereal zone. This composition strategy allows me to work with numerous perspectives on a subject simultaneously, creating collages that mix locations, historical and contemporary scenes, and still and moving images or construct a multiple perspective depiction of a single figure, edifice or landscape.

Alissa Firth-Eagland and Johan Lundh: Your description of these works reminds us of a passage art theorist Boris Groys wrote in his essay “The City in the Age of Touristic Reproduction”: “… above all, it is today’s artists and intellectuals who are spending most of their time in transit–rushing from one exhibition to the next, from one project to another, from one lecture to the next, or from one local cultural context to another.” It is obvious that you both engage with and reflect upon the transient nature of contemporary existence as well as the conditions of intellectual and aesthetic production. How have travel and residencies shaped your practice?

Will Kwan: Groys makes a number of interesting observations in that essay. From your quote above he continues, “All active participants in today's cultural world are now expected to offer their productive output to a global audience, to be prepared to be constantly on the move from one venue to the next and to present their work with equal persuasion; regardless of where they are. A life spent in transit like this is bound up with equal degrees of hope and fear.” There is definitely a pressure on artists and intellectuals to seek acknowledgment and legitimacy internationally and with that pressure comes an ambivalence that all young artists need to negotiate for themselves. My cynical side is forever irritated by the aspect of contemporary art that is a globe-trotting, over-capitalized (both cultural and financial), status-obsessed field epitomized by the party circuit at Art Basel Miami Beach, the society page coverage of Sotheby’s auctions, and the traffic of institutional curators, art consultants and star academics and their stables of validated artists.

In contrast my hopeful side is drawn to Groys’ statement that, “…rather than the individual romantic tourist, it is instead all manner of people, things, signs and images drawn from all kinds of local cultures that are now leaving their places of origin and undertaking journeys around the world.” I would expand upon this and say that processes of modern migration and intercultural encounter are already centuries old, initially a consequence of a colonial order and today a hybridity embedded in the genetic makeup of everything. Artists who are engaged in a critical research about the continuous and accelerated circulation of people, power and cultural forms often need to travel to witness and document these migrations. So could we imagine an alternate map of the artworld based on participating and contributing to a public discussion about the globalization of culture, a network of practitioners and supporting institutions committed to producing public knowledge rather than the individual consumption of cultural products and amusements? Groys’ critique concentrates on the latter at the expense of imagining the possibility of the former.

Travel and residencies have been a feature of my own artistic trajectory and I have used these opportunities primarily to address specific research goals. The residencies I have participated in were not about ‘time in the studio’ but instead occasions to work with particular communities, have access to resources such as archives and libraries, or to visit and document specific sites and locations. While I don’t travel to fuel the romantic notion of inspiration, I am also cognizant of how my approach to travel and knowledge production may invoke the conventions of connoisseurship, ‘the seeing eye’ or the anthropological gaze. I am constantly learning how to balance my interest in the world with these fraught histories.

Alissa Firth-Eagland and Johan Lundh: Your description of travel and residencies as occasions to work with communities, access resources or document specific sites reminds us of something we discussed in a recent conversation - your relationship to Chinese art and Chinese-ness. You pointed out that the connection between contemporary Chinese art from the diaspora and contemporary Chinese art from China is being re-negotiated. Perhaps an important question can be posed about ‘where’ the works you make are created. How does your practice relate to the work of contemporary artists China or Hong Kong? How do you participate (in the label of Chinese contemporary art?) given that you are a Chinese-Canadian from the Hong Kong diaspora?

Will Kwan: The term Chinese Art, like all labels that categorize art according to national, regional or ethnic distinctions, is malleable and its capacity to be either inclusive and critical or exclusive and opportunistic depends on the user and the context. In the past few years the phenomenal wave of new art being produced by artists in cities in mainland China has resulted in many survey exhibitions organized by major Western institutions that delineate Chinese Art as that which is produced, for the most part, by Han Chinese artists living within Chinese borders (as opposed to Greater China which would include Hong Kong, Taiwan, and diaspora populations around the world) or émigrés in Paris or New York who can easily trace their roots back to the Peoples Republic of China. There have certainly been occasional exhibitions that have approached the definition more critically but this institutional view is quite dominant. All this is not to bemoan a position that is peripheral to all of the attention but rather to highlight the ghettoizing tendency of the art world’s approach to new developments in non-Western art.

That said, I think overseas Chinese artists will necessarily be distinct from mainland Chinese artists for a number of reasons that have to do with a Western education in art, a hybrid identity and a radically different daily lived experience. I find that overseas Chinese artists experience a greater degree of freedom to travel and are exposed to different sources of visual and material culture in spite of the homogenizing pressures of cultural globalization. In some ways, artists in the diaspora can have the best of both identities and I can think of many artists of South African, Palestinian and Korean descent, to name a few, who have made incredible contributions to contemporary art and whose artistic identity and interests may or may not have anything to do with their cultural background.

I am influenced in general by art that is concerned with social realities and the state of the world whether it comes from China, Mexico, Poland, Spain or Canada. A lot of art being produced right now in China looks at the tumultuous condition of Chinese society so there many artists and artworks that interest me. While there are some undercurrents of self-orientalizing and some reckless representation of migrant worker suffering, my perception has been that many Chinese artists are documenting and questioning the injustices taking place in China with great sensitivity and courage. I am particularly impressed by those artists who are looking critically at Han Chauvinism, the majority ethnic Han Chinese perception that they represent Chinese-ness which marginalizes the dozens of large ethnic minorities – from Uighurs to Tibetans to Manchus – that make up a significant portion of China. Perhaps it is in this contempt for inequality that I see my real solidarity with a lot of contemporary Chinese Art. I can identify with this oppositional and minoritarian perspective. It is also a position that raises an enduring issue that affects all overseas artists making art in a Western context – the matter of your cultural production being racially marked while white artists and their ‘interests’ operate invisibly as the universal. Would we, for example, not be initially perplexed if an interviewer were to ask Edward Burtynsky if his camera took on a particularly white way of seeing landscape or Rodney Graham if his cast of characters amounted to some kind of deep appraisal of white identities? In my work I intentionally straddle the line between the culturally specific and the supposedly non-specific in order to highlight these implicit cultural perspectives that are embedded in the material around us.

Alissa Firth-Eagland and Johan Lundh are a curatorial duo. Together with artists, curators, writers, and scholars, they engineer frameworks for artistic and discursive actions for organizations such as the Baltic Art Centre (Visby, Sweden), Index Foundation (Stockholm), Nordic Artists’ Centre Dale (Dale, Norway), Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art (Helsinki), Western Front (Vancouver) and YYZ Artists’ Outlet (Toronto). They have written for Art Lies, Canadian Art, C Magazine, Fillip, Konstperspectiv, Paletten, and Site Magazine.

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