In so many words
Artist Tsang Kin-wah hasn't held a solo show in Hong Kong since 2005, the year he won the Sovereign Asian Art Prize for one of the works he is still most closely identified with: repetitive swirling floral patterns composed of intricate, tiny texts - often profanities, religious quotes and philosophical references - which envelop entire gallery interiors like psychedelic wallpaper.
This week, the 36-year-old returns with a new exhibition at Pearl Lam Galleries titled 'Ecce Homo Trilogy I', a site-specific installation project with curator David Chan Ho-yeung, former director of Osage Gallery and Shanghai Gallery of Art.
Latin for 'Behold the Man', it is both a reference to Jesus' crucifixion and the key work by Friedrich Nietzsche. And the show will contain elements both old and new to Tsang's practice.
In his usual self-qualifying mode, Tsang explains: 'For me, this exhibition is not very important but still quite important, because it's something that looks very different from my previous work, and has some new things that I want to focus on more in the coming years.'
'Ecce Homo Trilogy I' is built around archival video footage of the show trial, execution and burial of Romanian communist leader and dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. Swooping textual patterns along the walls set some of the themes and lead viewers into the gallery space along a corridor, towards a reflective aluminum painting, which turns into a series of chambers where the triptych of execution video works are shown.
The gallery windows are made to look like those in Ceausescu's prison cell and the last glances he might have taken towards the sky before his execution, according to Tsang.
'I'm not so interested in whether Ceausescu was an evil guy or a good guy, or his politics,' Tsang says. 'What I hope the work will do is make people think about their own process of making judgments - how that process is kind of like a strange ritual and not really attached to hard facts like we like to pretend.
'I want the viewer to feel like they are a participant in the spectacle that they are seeing, and to maybe think about the absurd act of judging, as they judge my work.'
In conversation, the artist is affable but circumspect in the extreme, turning every thought over several times before offering softly spoken simple statements. He seldom gives interviews and always declines to be photographed by the press, preferring instead to supply portraits of his own - usually shot from long distances, or depicting him only in profile.
Asked about his aversion to cameras, he says, after several long beats: 'Posing for someone makes me feel very uncomfortable.'
Although quiet in Hong Kong, Tsang's career has continued to flourish abroad. He has participated in several dozen group shows in Japan, Europe and the mainland; and held a solo show roughly once a year at a gallery or arts institution in New York, Paris or Tokyo.
'Kin-wah is a very different artist than his peers in Hong Kong,' says curator Chan. 'People often see the spectacle in his work, but if you take time to understand his subject matter, it's very heavy, very critical work. He is steeped in Western philosophy, thought and religion.'
Born in Guangdong province, Tsang was five when his family moved to Hong Kong where he later attended Carmel Pak U Secondary School, a fundamentalist Christian school in Tai Po.
He says that at the age of 17, when he was becoming more deeply interested in art, he experienced a crisis of faith and began questioning the teachings of the school. Around the same time he discovered and began reading Nietzsche, an experience that he describes, in an interview that accompanies the exhibition, as like: 'throwing a bomb on my life, freeing [me] from constraints and encouraging me to challenge all of the ideas I used to believe in'.
Tsang has since distanced himself from the radical scepticism of Nietzsche's writings. 'I became critical of every single thing and after many years, this attitude began to have a negative impact on me ... I realised I had swung from one extreme to another,' he says.
But the German philosopher remains a lodestar for Tsang's work: 'Nietzsche is still a symbolic figure for me and reminds me of the fragility and unreliability of things and ideas,' he adds in the exhibition interview with Chan.
Tsang studied fine art at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and went on to earn a Masters of 'Book Arts' at Camberwell College of Arts in London. Early in his formal art training he became infatuated with text, through an earlier interest in calligraphy, which he says he relished practising in primary school.
'It looks very simple, but there are a lot of styles and possible changes in just a single line. So you have to learn and practise a lot to make something look just a little bit better - that interests me,' he says.
This attentiveness to the subtleties of textual form led to his flowering text-based installations, which he filled with words and phrases expressing his existential unease, angst, and unstable sense of identity as a mainland-born, Hong Kong raised individual. The dense, provocative wallpaper-like installations were overwhelming with their detail and scale - a reticent man's mode of existential artistic bomb hurling.
The work struck a chord; he won the Sovereign Asian Art Prize; was offered solo shows; and got steady commissions from collectors both in China and abroad.
Tsang worked in this vein from 2000 to about 2008. By then he was beginning to wonder how much further he could push the project. 'There were new things I wanted to work on, but people still wanted my text and pattern work, and those commissions were occupying a lot of my time. This bothered me a lot.'
As a way out, Tsang began to pursue video installation work, both for intrinsic formal reasons and as a means of circumventing an internal debate about whether he should be accepting the cash for commissions, or pushing into new creative areas. Today, the artist rarely accepts commissions for his textual pattern pieces.
His largest video installation project to follow, 'The Seven Seals', was modelled on the sequence from the Bible's Book of Revelation of the same name.
In making an installation for each of the Bible's seven seals in sequence, Tsang has turned to using projectors and digital animations of moving text to illuminate the galleries' walls with his religious and philosophical phrases, musings, and critiques.
The result is a coruscating pseudo-religious poem that surrounds and transfixes the viewer from the floor, ceiling or walls of the gallery space. The automated projections usually run in an endless cycle, a nod to Nietzsche's idea of 'eternal recurrence'.
So far, Tsang has completed the first five of the series, the most recent of which was shown at the Mori Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo late last year.
His latest exhibition at Pearl Lam Galleries is a continuation of this new direction.
Ecce Homo Trilogy I, Jul 27-Aug 27, Pearl Lam Galleries, 601-605, 6/F Pedder Building, 12 Pedder St, Central. Inquiries: 2522 1428