From Venice to Vancouver, Hong Kong artist Tsang Kin-wah spreads words of wisdom

Remake of 2015 Venice Biennale show at West Kowloon arts hub doubles down on gloom, but Tsang is unsure what the mood of fresco on immigration and xenophobia in Canadian city will be

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 1:07pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 5:17pm

Tsang Kin-wah, who represented Hong Kong at the 56th Venice Biennale last year, is about to make another big artistic statement abroad: a fresco covering the Vancouver Art Gallery’s neoclassical façade.

Vancouverites can expect to see the gallery dominated next spring by Tsang’s deceitfully decorative arrangements of words. Instead of using swear words and quotes from his favourite philosophers, as he has in the past, he plans to look to old newspaper articles on the effect of Hong Kong immigrants on the Canadian city’s house prices in the 1980s and 1990s, and the xenophobia and drawbridge mentality it engendered.

Tsang’s fresco will be in place by March and will coincide with two exhibitions that feature several generations of Canadian artists with a Hong Kong connection. This is the gallery’s way of marking the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, says Diana Freundl, associate curator of Asian Art at the gallery.

The build-up to the 1997 handover helped transform Vancouver’s predominantly white society into one which today is 18 per cent Chinese. The wave of Hong Kong immigrants that fled there upon the signing in 1984 of the Sino-British Joint Declaration between the British and Chinese governments setting out the terms of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty paved the way for many others from greater China to move to a city where there is a cha chaan teng on every corner. Now, febrile resentment of Chinese investment and immigration has been rekindled by the more recent wave of immigrants from mainland China.

Tsang has no personal ties with Vancouver; in fact, he has never visited the city. But he says he can relate to what has happened given the same concerns in Hong Kong over investment and new immigrants from China.

He was born in Shantou, in Guangdong province, in 1976, and moved to Hong Kong when he was a child. He grew up feeling he was on the wrong side of an us-and-them divide. Later, he felt he didn’t fit in again when he was studying for a master’s degree in London. He has always cited a sense of alienation and quitting Christianity as a teenager as experiences that inform his art.

He first caught the art world’s attention with his “Pattern Paintings” – wall paintings he started in 2005 that resemble harmless, pretty, wallpaper designs but which on close inspection reveal angry expletives in English and Chinese.

Artist chosen to represent Hong Kong at Venice Biennale backs M+ museum team

Later, he continued his attack on hypocrisy with “White Porn” – barely visible images borrowed from internet porn that he painted in white against a white background. They were powerful comments, if perhaps a touch juvenile.

By the time he was picked to represent Hong Kong in Venice, his raw material had changed from words with shock value to words of wisdom. “The Infinite Nothing”, the show at the Hong Kong pavilion, was a combination of sound recordings, videos and projected text that paid homage to all the philosophers he identified with. Not that he necessarily believes in any truths, he says.

I am not dead yet. It would be too boring if I did nothing
Tsang Kin-wah

“When I stopped considering myself a Christian at the age of 15, I opened myself up to other religious thoughts, and realised there were things in all of them that I agreed with, but not everything.”

While he was preparing for Venice, the closest god he had was the man who said, “God is dead”: Friedrich Nietzsche.

“Going to Venice seemed such a big thing to me. It made me more positive than I am normally. For a while, I believed in Nietzsche’s proclamation that man could progress from being a camel to a lion and then Übermensch,” he says.

But once the parties were over, he discovered life had changed little.

Tsang is speaking at the new M+ Pavilion in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District, which is staging a remake of his Venice show. It may seem impossible to create a work more negative than “The Infinite Nothing”, but he has done just that with this version called “Nothing”, with that word struck through.

One wonders if the authorities wished for a more uplifting exhibition for the inauguration of the first permanent building in the city’s long-planned arts hub to be completed.

At his insistence, the outdoor terrace with its unobstructed harbour view is sealed off on all sides. “I would have preferred it if they had added a roof,” he says, glumly.

Inside, the floor-to-ceiling windows are similarly blocked. The guiding words here are not so much Nietzsche but Shakespeare’s “life’s but a walking shadow” and those of Emil Cioran, the Romanian philosopher who said, “It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late.”

City does not define him, says Hongkonger who is among first contemporary Chinese artists commissioned by Guggenheim

Standing next to a projection of a mule – it represents the permanent, immutable status of mankind, he says – Tsang explains why he has the will to continue making art.

“I am not dead yet. It would be too boring if I did nothing,” he says.

M+ has prepared bookmarks with seeds that visitors can plant at home, symbolising the germination of ideas, perhaps.

“He doesn’t like them at all. He thinks we have injected too much hope into the show,” says co-curator Stella Fong Wing-yan.

It all seems terribly pretentious. But it works. Now that he has made up his mind – that nothing really matters – he has come up with a more coherent exhibition than in Venice.

The last section of “Nothing” – a video montage of quotes, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata – is extremely moving.

So will he be projecting doom and gloom on to the Vancouver Art Gallery? He says he hasn’t decided on the texts yet. What he knows for sure is that he is not doing it for the 20th anniversary of the handover.

“To me, it is just a coincidence,” he says.

Tsang Kin-wah: “Nothing”, M+ Pavilion, West Kowloon Cultural District, Wednesday to Sunday and public holidays 11am-6pm. Ends November 6