Artist: Tang Kwok Hin
Collaborative Projects: The Consolations of Museology, A Psychotaxonomy of Home
Residency Period: Jul - Sep 2008
Cities: Hong Kong, Singapore, Guangzhou
Michael Lee Hong Hwee was a professor in my master programme in The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He came from Singapore as a visiting scholar and taught me in MFA (Master of Fine Arts) Seminar. He was the first Singaporean I met.
I have attended a symposium last year in which Lee presented a performance piece alongside a limited-edition, handmade book. The book, which he gave out to the audience, featured intimate writing about love and good craftsmanship in the use of paper. It not until earlier this year when I participated in an exhibition of contemporary miniature art curated by Lee, that we started to know each other’s work better. When he invited me to assist him on The Consolations of Museology, a serial bookwork celebrating the negative feelings in everyday life, I was excited at the prospect of new discoveries. I was in for more.
Lee is interested in the interplay of desire and space. I am concerned about imagination and the reinterpretation of common symbols. What is the similarity between us? Lee once lamented that a majority of conceptual artists in the contemporary art scene employ techniques that are “too easy, too convenient.” Lee and I both enjoy and expect a certain level of challenges when it comes to the technical craftsmanship of artworks. On this common ground, we have been able to develop ideas for the project separately as well as together.
From my observation, paper as a physical material became important in Lee’s art when he began investigating the formats of architectural model and cutout in 2003 and 2004 respectively. He regards paper-cutting as a basic means towards sculpture, by which the removal of background material brings forth an image or form that provides visual interest. In my view, the particularity of Lee’s work is the emphasis on the basics, especially in relating relationships between the simplest and the most complicated. He is into variety, difficulty, formal interest and meaning. With Consolations, he was striving to use, develop and extract the most basic but essential elements in the exploration of human weaknesses. This simplicity was arrived at not without repeated trials, failures, immense labour and close attention to details. We both appreciate the paradox in the concept of the basic: The simplest task may be the most difficult to achieve.
“This is why you are here!” Lee exclaimed to me whenever I resolved certain technical problems on this project. In my art, I rarely apply techniques learnt from my Fine Arts training or from others, as I believe that technical solutions always come with how detailed one observes the world. A sense of curiosity about traditions and about ways of going beyond them is important to me as a basic philosophy in art-making. How one conceives an idea and touches a material can inspire and determine how the artwork will eventually look like. For instance, while fiddling with paper using a pen knife, I discovered that a slicing cut into the thickness of the paper can allow me to peel its different layers apart. The ‘paper-peeling’ technique, which I discovered, developed and employed on this project, was neither taught in school nor read from specific books; it was discovered from my playing with the material and considering options of treating it beyond the conventional. Perhaps it was my inquisitiveness, flexibility and optimism that led Lee to involve me to be his project’s paper engineer, despite having made only a few paper sculptures myself.
Consolations was supposed a one-year project but the creative team eventually used about a month to complete the tasks, including the writing, graphic design, paper crafting, bookbinding, photography, videograpphy and installation at the Guangdong Museum of Art. Despite the tight timeline, Lee, as the project’s creative director, led us to inspire one another in the working progress. Often, an assistant is expected to execute precisely and only what the artist instructs. This is the first project in which I, as an assistant, got to be really ‘involved’ in contributing both conceptual and paper-engineering ideas. We worked everyday with little breaks in between and had our meals at the same eatery downstairs nearly everyday to save time. Nearing crunch time, I started living at Lee’s home studio, and the process felt like a working trip elsewhere.
I am grateful to Michael Lee for giving me this chance to go around to explore new ideas, experience unvisited places, and know a few more Singaporeans. With the focused time and space for investigating and working on a project, this has been for me an assistance-in-residence programme, a travelling workshop and a holiday all rolled into one.