The King of Venice
As China’s first performance artist, Frog King will next be representing Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale. Before that, His Majesty gives Edmund Lee a royal preview of the exhibition.
Forty-four years after his first solo exhibition in 1967, Kwok Mang-ho is preparing for his multimedia art show, titled Frogtopia•Hongkornucopia (蛙托邦•鴻港浩搞筆鴉), at the upcoming 54th Venice Biennale. Born in 1947 and better known for his self-crowned title of Frog King, Kwok is commonly recognised as the first ever performance artist in China. That the Guangdong-born, Hong Kong-raised artist has yet to bank on his legendary status is as much a testament to his extreme prolificacy as it is to his casual disdain for the materialistic rules of the art market; in fact, Kwok has been giving out his works for decades. “Commercial activities are but a form of exchange,” he notes, with a charismatic touch of deadpan delivery, when we meet up on a weekday afternoon. “People give up very small pieces of paper [cash] and end up getting back huge pieces of artworks. So who’s the winner there?” He pauses for a giggle. “This is really ridiculous.”
By his own recollection – and he has quite an amazing memory for that – the playful artist/teacher/designer has participated in more than 3,500 creative activities in his four decades as a visual artist. Amid Kwok’s glaring over-production, however, it is easy for the uninitiated to overlook the greatest work in his long career: the performance artist himself. So when he strolls into the Fringe Studio with an assistant and bags of artworks and suitcases of accessories, nobody looks mildly surprised. Ten minutes later, Kwok has turned himself into Frog King. As if making a point, Kwok will spend the rest of our meeting in his shamanistic costumes, which he began wearing in the early 1970s. “I have to show that I am the work myself,” he turns back to me outside the studio, after taking stubborn effort to walk pass the narrow doorway with his oversized headgear on.
“Kwok is probably the most dynamic Hong Kong artist ever. It’s very hard to classify him, seeing how very prolific he is,” says Benny Chia of Hong Kong Fringe Club, who’s curating the exhibition with Tsang Tak-ping and Wong Shun-kit. “Kwok’s not the kind of [artists who’re] modern, minimalist, fashionable, clean, and restrained; he goes all the way. I think he represents the underbelly of the Hong Kong psyche. It’s never enough for him – he always adds something on, because the process is more important than the end results.” Apart from Kwok’s performance art projects, such as Plastic Bag Project 1970-1999 (for which he filled up bags with air or cement to contemplate their emptiness) and Fire Conceptual Works in the 70s (for which he created sculptures out of fire), the artist’s interest in Chinese ink painting, calligraphy, design, installation and photo documentation has also resulted in an immense body of work. While Chia notes that the order in Kwok’s work is in the chaos, the artist is making a good joke of his Venice exhibition’s preparation process: “Like the way the Chinese [classic] I Ching works,” he says, “I’m picking my work completely randomly. I take whichever work I happen across.”
Frog King might not yet be much of a household name in the commerce-driven contemporary art world – because, as Chia explains, “Hong Kong doesn’t have the process of turning artists into myths and legends, and make them larger than life” – and it’s hard to see how much things are going to change with the coming exhibition; but Kwok doesn’t mind. “How could you get one more line on your resume?” He asks rhetorically. “It’s very hard to say. Sometimes we work really, really hard on one huge project for ten years, and it’s only one line. Some artists open a solo show with ten paintings, and they get one line too. So the number of items on the resume doesn’t tell you much. At the end, it’s about self-discipline. And if Uncle Frog King can exhibit at the Venice Biennale, arguably the Olympics of art, this is going to mean a lot to the new generation of artists.” In his usual sincere way, Kwok then turns a typically cynical joke into an encouragement of sorts. “You see, even artists can have a future!”
Frogtopia•Hongkornucopia is at the 54th Venice Biennale (Arsenale, Campo della Tana, Castello 2126 - 30122 Venezia) from Jun 4-Nov 27. For exhibition details, visit www.labiennale.org/en/art/index.html.
Your royal tips to Frogtopia•Hongkornucopia
“This is my ‘sandwich font’. I’ve mixed up English and Chinese for this [design], just like the sandwich you get at cha chaan teng. Here, the middle part of the Chinese character for “Love” is replaced by the English word. So even the ‘international people’ can get it: ‘What is this?’ ‘This is “Love”!’ We really emphasise on the idea of love. Since I was in New York in the 1980s and early ’90s [for 15 years], I’ve experienced the golden age of graffiti art. My work has therefore mixed together [elements of] Chinese totem, calligraphy and graffiti.”
“There’ll be improvised performances in the courtyard outside the exhibition venue, where I’ll invite the audiences to interact with me every day at 3pm. I’ve always liked to improvise and interact with the audiences on site, taking photographs and creating collectively under a joyful atmosphere. I call this Frog Fun Lum – this [artistic form] can express itself in any space, any place, any time.”
“My 9 Million Works project is exhibited at a separate room. The show also features 300 ceramic figurines of policemen from Hong Kong’s colonial era. Some organisations have placed orders to make these figurines before [the Handover in] 1997, and I’ve collected 300 of them. They show the images of different generations of the police force. I call them ‘Kwok’s Terracotta Army’. It’s a form of… joking around.”
“This is my 9 Million Works. The photos are shown in separate ‘froggy windows’, and they form a kind of visual diary. One of these, taken in 1947 when I was a newly-born, shows two tin bottles that were given to my dad by his friends. At the time, he was working as the Inspector General of Customs at the United Nations. The bottles are a medium I communicate with my dad. In another, you can see my performance at Beijing 798 [Art Zone] in 2003. It was one of the earliest performances like this on the mainland – that were not shut down. You know, [artists] usually got their lights turned off and doors locked up [in China].”
“I began to work with my Live Body Sculpture idea in 1974, and started the Body Installation Ongoing Project in 1981. At the Frog King headquarters, I’ll invite the guests to take part in the improvisation, and to take snapshots with the froggy sunglasses on, when they’ll immediately become a “one-second body installation”! I’ll place many props and froggy sunglasses there. The guests can put them on anyway they want, and I’ll take photos for them. I even have souvenirs to give them.”
“This is the Froggy Sunglasses Project 1989-1999, where I put my froggy sunglasses on a wide range of subjects, ranging from human beings, states of being, objects, or concepts. It doesn’t have to be worn by a person – even the sky can wear [the glasses], even your friend’s shadow on the grass can wear the glasses! As you can see, I’ve put them on a sculpture by Giacometti, on a pig lady, and on some Cantonese opera masters here. This is both an exploration in visual art and a test of endurance: I kept the sunglasses in my pocket everyday for the whole [ten years].”