Jul 05, 2012|
Some people are natural at drawing or painting things, and although I was a creative person, I wasn’t quite a natural as such. The notion of being an artist never occurred to me at a young age; it only happened gradually.
Initially, I had this vague idea that I wanted to do graphic design, so I went to Scotland to study it in college. After that, I went to Australia and lived there for 10 years. It was then that I began to go to galleries and museums and get into the art thing. And very quickly, art took over from graphic design and sort of became my day job.
There were a lot of corruption scandals in Queensland at the time and many artists were making art about politics. I was quite involved in the art scene there and worked on almost everything I could. I even did community arts and taught art to little kids!
In 1995, I returned to Hong Kong. I think before 1997, there were a lot of expats living and working here who actually wanted to be here, but after the handover, they were replaced by another bunch of people—people who moved to Hong Kong solely because they were offered well-paid, cushy jobs. They have no interest in the culture. I’ve had rather nasty experiences with some of them.
From an artist’s point of view, Hong Kong is a fantastic place to generate ideas, but on the production side it’s a very bad place because there are always a lot of logistical issues with the space and the rents, which is much less of a problem elsewhere. Sometimes it’s impossible to find a shop in this town that can frame my works in a particular way—the level of framing expertise here is so low.
I also have jobs in communications and journalism. I don’t want to be an artist 24/7. Artists are always in a passive position, waiting for opportunities to happen—either a curator organizing your exhibition or a collector buying your work. So rather than having to sit and wait, I’d go out and develop other things for myself.
It’s a power issue. There’s no better thing than a dumb artist for the majority of dealers, curators and galleries. If you know more than they do, you’re putting them in their place. Think about it: for a pop singer, if you can really sing, are good-looking and have a clue, why would record companies want to promote you? They just want a blank sheet of paper that they can draw whatever on.
The whole premise of my art-making is that I look at the different fields or industries that I have connections with. I observe how they interact, how people behave and what their motives are, how the machinery of society does or doesn’t let us do certain things. That’s what I’m really interested in.
The worst thing for an artist is to have never worked in another job. If you’re an artist, and you’ve only made art and done the university circuit, I think you’re in deep shit—because that’s not how the world works.
In the art world, you have painters, sculptors, photographers and many other types of people and they may be very good at what they do. But are they good artists? Maybe not. I think a good artist is somebody who negotiates the world through their practice. There’s a difference between people with good skills and people who think and relate to the world.
Nowadays, you see a lot of artworks that I call “special-effect art.” They’re constructed on the basis of money, or were made colossal just to wow people. But when you really think about it, you realize the actual idea is tiny and is amplified into this huge gimmick.
People love art to be “meaningful” on the surface. There’s a particular sector of people involved in Hong Kong’s art circle preaching, “Art should be happy, meaningful and uplifting…” I think that’s a lack of understanding of the nature of contemporary art, which is about challenging existing thinking, saying the unspeakable and provoking.
About Ai Weiwei, I think a good question to ask is whether he is really an artist. I can’t offer an answer to that. But frankly, I’m quite bored by him.
For “Garlands,“ I told my mom that I needed to dress her up as Judy Garland and photograph her, and she agreed to do it. She has been very supportive of my career and she’s a very good model, too!
My next project is about hoarders and the idea of hoarding, but it goes beyond that.
I collect vinyl records. I bought my first vinyl when I was six and the collection just expanded. It’s like a music archiving project. ABBA is my passion and I have a lot of ABBA records, some of which are very rare. When was the last time I bought a vinyl? Today!
See To’s “Garlands” exhibition at Amelia Johnson Contemporary through July 28.