Saturday, 4 October 2008

It's a bit personal

Sunday Morning Post
27 Jul 2008
Arts 9
Text by Janice Leung
Photo by Sam Tsang


Are artists aloof, self-indulgent and crazy, with concepts that are far too intellectual for the common people to grasp?

In their new publication that offers a quick glimpse into the personal life of artists around the globe, locally-based artists Cornelia Erdmann and Michael Lee Hong Hwee have set out to challenge these prevailing elitist stereotypes.

Funded by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, Preoccupations: Things Artists Do Anyway looks at how 111 artists spend their time “when they are not making art”.

The book is selling at the Hong Kong Book Fair and thereafter in the Kubrick Bookstore, shop-cum-art space Kapok and the Blue Lotus Gallery in Fo Tan.

Encompassing everything from hobbies and passions to compulsions and quirks, the preoccupations” include cooking, gossiping, grinding teeth, collecting fruit stickers, and many more everyday obsessions and oddities any one of us may share.

There are some surprises too. Local artist Kacey Wong Kwok-choi, for instance, in his spare time plays war games, while art couple Warren Leung Chi-wo and Sara Wong Chihang are, like many of us, “preoccupied” with their pet dog.

“One of the major motifs behind the project is to demystify art and bring it down to a level that everybody can enjoy and get something out of it,” says Erdmann, a German artist who has been working in Hong Kong for two years.

“Art is not about painting clouds in your head as most people believe. It’s down to earth. And it’s about everyday life.” The book project began in December 2007 when Erdmann was participating in an exhibition curated by Lee, during which they discovered they both had the same problem – a lack of time.

An artist, a curator and a parttime lecturer at the University of Macau, the Singapore native says he struggles to find spare time for himself. The same situation holds for Erdmann, who is not only an artist and a curator but also a freelance graphic designer and a mother of a 21-month-old baby boy.

“We were sure our situations were not unique, but we also noticed that some artists seem to manage things pretty well. I was keen to learn a trick or two about time management from them,” says Lee who moved to Hong Kong last year. “We also wanted to peep into other artists’ lives and see what makes them tick.”

From January onwards, they called for submissions from artists, requesting a piece of written text and a digital image describing their “preoccupations” outside of art.

Within three months, about 150 entries from visual artists, performing artists, writers and architects from Hong Kong and across six continents were received.

But due to lack of space and money, only a small selection of the submissions can be displayed if an exhibition is ever held, meaning that diversity has to be forsaken.

So they agreed that a book would be the ideal platform.

“A book can be looked at in private and public spaces without involving any technology. And I see it as a sort of secret keeper and revealer,” Erdmann says.

“I can recall those days when notebooks were circulated among my primary school classmates on which they wrote down their favourite whatever. In the end we had a collection of profiles to remember our childhood buddies.”

Lee agrees. “A book is in general an investment in knowledge: you buy one book and put it on your shelf, five years later you may find it so useful. It may change a life, it may save a life.”

Preoccupations is different from what can be normally found in artists’ writings, which mostly appear in the form of artistic statements.

For Erdmann, a serious and intellectual-looking statement puts the artwork “high up in the sky again”.

“We’re trying to do the opposite here: from the book you may get one or two things about the artist’s life and be able to understand the artist’s work next time when you see it.”

The “autobiographical fragments” here – as the editors like to call them – are lighthearted, humorous and personal.

“One often associates autobiography with reportage of facts about one’s life, but it’s really much more than that. By reflecting on and articulating aspects of one’s life, one is exploring the boundaries of self expression, discovery and determination,” Lee says.

Erdmann, who also contributed to the book, says the project has made her question her own identity. “To reveal a moment of my private life, shape it into a contribution, and write an editorial for the book definitely worked as a catharsis for me.”

Lee says Preoccupations aims to provide a platform for artists to think about themselves and talk about things that matter beyond art.

“A few artists have shared with us that, while working on their contributions, they began to understand themselves better. And a few others have found a new line of inquiry in their artistic practice. These are all heartening to know.

“To me, those contributions are not just interesting reads, they also have the effect of getting me to remember many things and reflect on my own quirks.” Lee says he gains a better understanding of his reserved yet competitive character through the editorial process.

“And I hope the readers will also get inspired to reflect on their own.”

Preoccupations: Things Artists Do Anyway is selling at the HK Book Fair: today-tomorrow, 10am-10pm, Tue until 5pm, HK Convention and Exhibition Centre, 1 Expo Drive, Wan Chai, HK$25, HK$10 (primary school students and morning admissions before 1pm), free for seniors and children under three. Inquiries:

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