Sculptor Kevin Fung's fun public art critiques life as finance worker

The high-pressure lifestyle of Hong Kong's bankers and traders inspires a local sculptor's latest art exhibition

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 July, 2013, 11:00am

Local sculptor Kevin Fung says he is an otaku, the Japanese term for a nerd who escapes into comic books and shares more intimacy with his computer than women.

His first joke places him firmly within the stereotype. "Are you aware that we are standing just above the stock exchange?" he says. He has thought about drilling a hole through the floor and then, Mission Impossible-style, hacking into the trading system and making a mint, he says with childlike glee.

These faceless, male figures in office gear are supposed to be unisex. These figures can be anyone
Kevin Fung, sculptor

The former telecoms engineer could probably do it, too, if he put his mind to it. He has a double degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of Calgary and more than 20 years of industry experience.

But he is no anti-capitalist rebel. Speaking in the Rotunda at Exchange Square, where his solo exhibition is on until next week, he says the life of a stock investor encapsulates the mundane, but no less tortuous, trials and tribulations of Hong Kong's middle class.

"Do you sell? Do you buy? Traders have to make these hard choices every day. And then the market turns and they are filled with regret," he says.

His latest show "A Matter of Choice" is, literally, a collection dedicated to the besuited bankers and brokers who pass through Central every day. Fung's signature wooden figurines are all male and dressed in a ubiquitous suit-and-tie in the eight new works.

The exclusion of female representation in an environment where women often struggle for visibility is not meant to be provocative, he explains earnestly. "These faceless, male figures in office gear are supposed to be unisex. These figures can be anyone.

"A man in a working outfit seems the best visual representation for the kind of pressure that is a common subject in my work." And this is Central, he adds, where the viewer is more likely to be a man. It's just how it is.

Being confrontational is not his style. The 49-year-old bachelor is a self-described atheist and a pragmatist with an aversion to politics. He urges anti-government protesters to "get things done instead of just complaining about everything" - the mantra of many middle-aged, middle-class descendants of a generation who lived through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, as Fung's parents did.

As a young man, his father refused to follow his own parents when they moved to Canada, choosing instead to stay in China out of a fervent belief in communism. It was a choice he came to regret bitterly when he was persecuted in the anti-rightist movement of the 1950s.

Fung touchingly relates an episode in which he saw tears streaming down his father's face during the broadcast of the People's Republic's 60th anniversary celebration in 2009. And then Fung quips: "I told him, 'If only you hadn't escaped to Hong Kong, I could be a mainland princeling by now!'"

Instead, he is not unlike his own creations, Mr Ordinary with bad gags, the white-collar worker peeved about being passed over for a promotion.

In this brutal battleground of finance and commerce, he says he wants to pay due respect to the all-too-familiar moments of angst that plague each uniform cubicle.

The roughly hewn wooden figures are no more than a few inches tall. They perch hazardously on the top of tall pillars, walk along treacherous branches and feel their way across round, slippery boulders. They look positively ant-like in the cavernous space of the Rotunda, but there is no sense of condescension.

He uses a mix of materials, from granite to bronze, and of course, wood.

In the 1990s, the engineer signed up for art classes, where he met his mentor, the late Tong King-sum. The sight of the hunchback chiselling away at huge blocks of wood with power and confidence shook the apprentice to the core.

Fung says: "He didn't talk about theory. He talked about the importance of good tools, his appreciation of wood. He was unlike any other teacher I knew."

For years, Fung lived like Batman, he says, putting on his office suit during the day and retreating to his studio at night. His big break came in 2005, when he created the series of wooden sculptures called Baggage. It was his first mature work of art, he says, driven by a clear vision which coalesced the emotions he felt during the Sars outbreak.

The sculptures were shown in the Hong Kong Art Biennial Exhibition, which led to a commission by the MTR Corporation. The resulting bronze variation of Baggage, called All Walks of Life (2007), is on permanent display at the Heng Fa Chuen station.

While he is often associated with public art (his works are shown in the atrium of the Arts Centre and inside the Legislative Council building), he expresses little concern for what is often said to be a lack of artwork in the city.

"The government has to juggle different needs, especially the need for housing," he says. He also doesn't label his works as public art. "Saying something is public art gives it a purpose. I don't think art should have any specific purpose."

Today, three years since quitting his day job, Fung is a well-established artist. His Forgotten Stories of the City was sold for HK$437,500 at Sotheby's April auctions and there is a backlog of orders from private collectors.

"I've been lucky in the few years since I've switched to becoming a full-time artist. But it may not last. I can always hear my mother's warning in the background: 'Become an artist and you will starve without a doubt,'" he says.

But he will not go back to becoming an engineer again. "I've just paid off the mortgage of my studio so I can always let it out," says the ever pragmatic Fung.

There it is again, the facade of the conventional. But sit in front of The Mountain Within from his current exhibition - the sudden change in scale puts the viewer inside the landscape that confronts the figurines - and feel the wave of serenity and the quiet strength of the commonplace. It may not be a big statement, but it works.