Artist Wilson Shieh brushes up on political activism
Best known for his subtly subversive work, artist Wilson Shieh is amping up his political style, writes Enid Tsui
Wilson Shieh Ka-ho is an unlikely political activist. The artist made his name in the late 1990s with highly stylised, often erotic images in the traditional Chinese gongbi, or fine brush, technique. These were thought to be thoroughly original - and yet, there was a sense he was holding back from being truly subversive.
Then there were his comments on Tiananmen. He would say in interviews that the 1989 student leaders spurred him to pursue his dreams while steering clear of direct criticism of the brutal crackdown.
But Shieh has stopped being polite. There was nothing discreet about his 2011 work, Don't compare him to dog. That is an insult to us, which was directed at unpopular former chief secretary Stephen Lam Sui-lung. And his 2012 Who is grandfather? was a brazen comment on Hong Kong's lack of autonomy.
"The relationship between artists and society has changed in Hong Kong. There are a lot more people who are interested in art now. I want to throw myself into this historic moment of Hong Kong's transition. This is not a time to stay quiet," the artist says.
Born in 1970, Shieh burst on to the art scene in the 1990s with a fresh interpretation of sexuality and gender roles. His fixation with the body and fascination with costumes are still as much of a hallmark of his art as they were in 1998, when he held his first solo show, "Fleshly".
But the past few years have seen him blending the human form with well-known symbols of Hong Kong's culture and identity, which he is determined to preserve.
Five Tallest Buildings in Hong Kong is not among his most provocative works. But the 2011 painting that he has donated to the South China Morning Post Charity Art Auction in September is quietly seditious by reducing phallic symbols of corporate egomania to form-fitting, semi-translucent dresses. The ink-on-silk work is part of his "Architecture" series which feature skyscrapers that are both loved and abhorred for being symbols of hard-earned economic achievements as well as the unrelenting progress of capitalist development.
The Center, Central Plaza, the IFC, the ICC and the Bank of China Building are worn by women in a beauty pageant line-up. Shieh says he wants to feminise the masculine stereotype of architecture and the business world. When night falls, the buildings light up like bejewelled party-goers while the lit offices reveal themselves as someone who has shed daytime business suits for sheer lace, he says.
"I grew up in Kennedy Town and I still live nearby in Sai Wan. I've watched these buildings being put up. They are very familiar."
However, Shieh is dismayed by the gentrification of his childhood stomping grounds: he has a self-confessed obsession with nostalgia.
Recent projects are inventories of Hong Kong's pre-handover history: colour pencil catalogues of costumes worn by Anita Mui Yim-fong and other 1980s pop stars, and a full roster of Hong Kong's 28 British governors. There is more than just a longing for lost youth, but a broader sense of loss as memories of the city pre-1997 diminish in the thrust of sinification.
The "Architecture" series is also inspired by an abandoned architecture degree at the University of Hong Kong. Shieh picked the course because he wanted a career that had something to do with aesthetics and also because the profession was "suitable" for a young man graduating with good grades from the prestigious King's College.
But it soon became clear to Shieh that the rigid, commercial aspect of the profession would never suit him and he switched to the Fine Arts Department at the Chinese University after a year before graduating in 1994. There, for the first time in his life, he was taught how to draw and paint properly. "You have to remember that there was little art to be learned at school when I was growing up and the Museum of Art was a tiny space tucked inside City Hall," he says. Professors such as Kurt Chan Yuk-keung, who is still on the faculty, flung open the doors to the big, exciting world of contemporary art.
Today, Shieh is a long way away from the corporate world he almost entered. He recounts his growing up wearing flip-flops, a T-shirt and trousers that can only be described as "comfortable". Propped up behind him in his Fo Tan studio is a recent work about censorship in the art world. Threats to freedom of expression aside, this is a golden age for Hong Kong artists, he says.
First, there are the billions of dollars being spent on art fairs, auctions and the West Kowloon Cultural District that have already started to give Hong Kong art an international platform. And there is a new desire by local artists to speak out and engage with the real world.
That desire, however, doesn't necessarily help to sell paintings. Shieh used to be known as a Chinese artist who blended a traditional format with modern and universal subject matters. Being placed within the wider context of contemporary Chinese art allowed him to become a full-time artist just two years after graduating. Now, ironically, just as the local arts scene is attracting more international interest, he is drawing on a parochial collective memory and reacting to local politics which limits his work's resonance with a broader audience.
That does not seem to bother him. Comfortable in the knowledge that he has become one of Hong Kong's most successful artists, he disregards critics who question the artistic value of his new works. "I have nothing left to prove," he says.
There is a collage that he created for his "Wilson Shieh Live in SoHo" exhibition last year at the Osage Gallery that expresses his breakout from a hermit existence. It shows founder of modern China Dr Sun Yat-sen smashing Shieh's old studio sign with a Bruce Lee-style kung fu kick.
The artist's wish to engage with the public isn't all talk. He handed out prints of his political satire to fellow protestors at the July 1 march in 2012, and conducted a guerilla campaign to decorate Ma Shi Po Village, the farming hamlet in northeast New Territories facing demolition, a rebellion against the brutal sprawl of urban space.
This has injected new life into his creative process, he says. He no longer restricts himself to the delicate, carefully crafted gongbi style. Covering the walls of his studio are purposefully crude images accompanied by child-like calligraphy and big, brash panels in fluorescent paint.
"I've always been interested in costumes and changing identities," Shieh says. "Well, artists change their identities, too. It's time for me to try something new."