What happens if Wong Wai-yin stops giggling and starts talking seriously? Edmund Lee finds out when he meets the artist who’s writing Hong Kong art history as we speak.
No sooner has she handed me her Asia Art Archive business card than Wong Wai-yin declares that it is ‘fake’. We’re meeting in AAA’s library, alongside a line of promotional posters for exhibitions that never took place. In front of us is a wooden desk on which a fake ashtray, a fake notebook and a fake pencil provide the glaring distractions. (The glass of coffee next to Wong, to my quiet amazement, turns out to be real.)
The artist has been working at her first residency in Hong Kong since January, and she’s fully aware of the awkwardness of being considered – if temporarily – a ‘researcher’. In fact, when I ask Wong to decide whether she’s more of an artist or researcher or archivist in relation to her current endeavour at the AAA, she bursts out into her signature laughter, before adding: “I’m more of a freak.”
Continuing with her ongoing interest in reconstructing art history from a subjective point of view, Wong’s project sees her collect a wide range of materials – from candid correspondences and interview records to her personal belongings, such as exhibition contracts, rejected proposals and even invitation letters from Henry Tang (“My dad is really anxious for me to reply to Henry Tang. But I forgot.”) –
to provide an invaluable basis for future research on the Hong Kong art scene of our time.
Why did you decide to write letters as part of this programme?
I used to really admire people like Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote Letters to a Young Poet. [Laughs] I’m close to many artists in Hong Kong – because we have such a small art scene – but we rarely ever have a serious conversation about art. We mostly just joke around. That’s why I decided to take this opportunity and write to them. Like the work of Chow Chun-fai – who’s a close friend – is often discussed in connection to the spiritual aspect of painting; but it’s hard for me to suddenly ask him to comment, over dinner, on the spiritual aspect of painting, no? [Laughs] He’ll think that I’ve gone mad.
So who are you writing to?
Through this letter-writing project, I’m writing to a range of people to either ask about things that I’ve always wanted to know, or rant over incidents that I can’t really get over. Such as the one time that I was totally looked down on at a job interview at a certain tertiary institution – I was told to go home and study more! I was angry about it for almost a year. [Laughs] I’ve now written a letter to that department head. Some people have, expectedly, ignored my letters, but others have returned with very memorable replies.
Is it fair to say that you’re more a researcher than an artist here?
Oh well, I’m not sure I’ve been doing in the past few years what artists would normally do; I make coffee. [Laughs] I guess the definition of an artist is quite diverse nowadays. And I think this residency programme is a very strange experience not just for me, but for those I’m interviewing. People know that my artwork is mostly conceptual, and they must be wondering what tricks I’m playing now that I’m claiming to be a researcher. So during my interviews with other artists, I have a feeling that I’ve managed to get replies to questions that the archive wouldn’t be able to get. The [interviewees] tend to see this as an art project.
Through this programme, have you learned about anything that you didn’t know before?
Aside from the letter writing and the interviews, there’s another part [of the programme] for which my father has helped me collect a lot of things related to my career, such as my exhibition and residency catalogues. I found that my career probably means more to him than me. I personally don’t care much about the [exhibition materials], but my dad cares a lot about them. He’d think: if you don’t keep these things [for record], who’ll believe that you’re an artist in the future? [Laughs] He has a better historical awareness than me. So I told him about this programme at the AAA, and asked him to pick out everything at home which may be useful for any future research on me.
And they’re being exhibited on several shelves here.
Yes, they’re all here. My dad has also done some organisation himself, having, for example, grouped together all the Japanese materials from the time I worked in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan – he’s even thrown in an aquarium catalogue! When I asked him about it, he just said: “How would I know if this is contemporary art or not?” [Laughs]
From Wong Wai Yin’s Collection to the Hong Kong Art Archive is at Asia Art Archive until Aug 31. For details, visit www.aaa.org.hk.