Hopping along

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 June, 2010, 12:00am

In 2001, the Red Mansion Foundation, a Britain-based cultural organisation, held an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art in London, showcasing works by 20 of 'the most exciting artists from China'.

The mainland's Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun and Huang Rui were among them, as was Kwok Mang-ho, also known as 'Frog King', the only Hong Kong artist represented at the show.

Being ranked alongside some of the biggest names on the global art scene today makes the 63-year-old painter and performance artist not only one of the most noteworthy - but also the most undervalued - artists in town.

But that doesn't bother Kwok, who has a habit of giving his work away. Much to the chagrin of family and friends, making money appears to be the last thing on his mind. Kwok says he has always had a 'warped' sense of material value.

'A lot of people lose sleep over money, not me. But that also means I have no idea how to market my work,' says the disciple of Chinese ink master Lui Shou-kwan. 'I feel uneasy when I have to talk about the monetary value of my work.

'Someone once asked me the price of one of my paintings and I randomly came up with HK$2,000. Then my wife [South Korean artist Cho Hyun-jae] upped that to HK$8,000 and we ended up selling five. It's human nature - if something is free, people don't value it, they might even throw it away. But if they paid for it, they'd give it more care.'

As an artist, he says, his first responsibility is to pass on his skills to the next generation and to create. 'Because I'm not satisfied just doing the same thing over and over again, I want to keep experimenting with my artistic approach and be prolific.'

Sipping tea at the Fringe Gallery, where his retrospective exhibition Never Say Stop 100% Organic Frogging Good Show will run until July 15, Kwok is his usual subdued self.

Around him sit old and new pieces, including acrylic on canvas, calligraphy and ink on (mahjong) paper. The quieter, more thoughtful paintings - reminiscent of Picasso during his cubism phase - are a far cry from the chaotic 'improvised art' made out of everyday objects (including cardboard boxes and toilet rolls) that clutters up his studio at the Cattle Depot Artist Village in To Kwa Wan.

Without the fright wig, fancy specs and flamboyant outfits, Kwok looks the serious artist that he is. One can never take his artistic alter ego, the ubiquitous and outlandish Frog King, quite as seriously.

'I'm not used to not having the costume,' he says. When not performing, 'I keep a very low profile so I can blend in with the crowd ... to explore and take photographs. On the other hand, Frog King has a hyper persona and he is 'high' all the time. But that is still me.

'Perhaps because I am a Piscean, I have two very different personalities,' he says.

Have there been times when the two have collided? Kwok pauses for a few seconds before saying: 'The contradiction can sometimes be so explosive that I feel like I'm being ripped into halves.'

He recalls an occasion when his mobile phone rang as he was conducting a workshop for students (as Frog King). 'It was my landlord chasing overdue rent. It brought me right back down to earth, the reality, but I was surrounded by all these enthusiastic young people and I didn't want them to see me looking troubled.'

But Kwok is no tortured artist. His work is filled with fun and playfulness, with no sign of anger or antagonism. Kwok says he chose the frog as his signature motif because, despite being ugly and slimy, 'their big eyes make them look lovable and they always seem to be wearing a smile'.

This romanticised image of the frog, he says, first appeared when he became a multimedia artist in 1967 and stayed with him.

To keep track of his 43-year career, of which 15 years (1980-1995) were spent in the United States, Kwok has compiled news clippings and photographs in a pile of folders. Like the way he explains his artistic development, however, they are not in any particular order.

There is a newspaper cutting from 2005 showing Frog King surprising guests at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Macao Museum of Art with an ad hoc performance. There's also a 1970 article on why Kwok believes art should be an everyday experience.

Then there's the picture dated 1990 of David Dinkins, then the mayor of New York City, wearing a pair of wacky frog-shape glasses as part of Kwok's Froggy Sunglasses 10 Years Project (1989-1999), and photos of a 'retrospective' held at his 98-year-old mother's funeral four years ago.

Photography, Kwok says, is an exciting medium as it captures precise moments. 'It's like a one-second, unique performance being frozen in time forever. Looking at that is, for me, more exciting than, say, looking at a piece of sculpture or a painting.'

The Fringe Club says Kwok has created performances, sculptures, paintings and installations for more than 3,000 art events worldwide since 1967. His works are collected by the Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong Heritage Museum, Denver Art Museum, and private collectors and hotels.

In the US he was supported by American-Italian collector Joseph Ferrara, who referred to Kwok as 'the Chinese Picasso' and paid his rent in exchange for his works.

Kwok likes to work fast for the 'instant sense of satisfaction', which may also explain why he prefers staging improvised performance art to painting.

Today, it is his acrylic on canvas that is attracting attention. Mainly in black and white, these paintings combine two very different forms - graffiti with traditional Chinese ink - reflecting Kwok's artistic development over 40 years.

While his techniques may have matured and subjects changed, his love for the frog and humour has remained constant.

In Frog Romance, hidden in the details are 'Mr Frog and Miss Frog, who are obviously very pleased to have met one another ... in some of my paintings, you have to look close for the symbolic clues', Kwok says.

The artist will be off to Beijing's 798 art colony next month for an exhibition, but in the meantime welcomes visitors to his Cattle Depot studio. They have to pose with Frog King for a photograph as a record.

'I don't force my art on to people ... they usually come and seek me out and I find that quite moving,' Kwok says.

Never Say Stop 100% Organic Frogging Good Show, Fringe Gallery, Mon-Sat, noon to late night. Inquiries: 2521 7251. until July 15