Matias Faldbakken is inspecting the damage on the bottom of an imposing row of coin-operated bank lockers. Bisected across their front by a skittering gash that is almost like a brushstroke, these bright red lockers fill up the main exhibition space at the Simon Lee Gallery.
The Norwegian contemporary artist is responsible for the gash, made earlier in the day with an electric grinder, but the lockers' other bumps, dents and scratches were inflicted by incompetent movers. If Faldbakken is upset he is not showing it: "It would bother a lot of people but it doesn't really bother me much."
His pieces - often massive and consisting of cars, lockers and other containers that have been crushed, crunched or otherwise destroyed - are eagerly received across Europe and the US. Still, in many ways Faldbakken is an outlier. His relationship to the arts and his path to artistic success make him unique.
Faldbakken is full of energy, excitable and quick with a smile but also patient and deliberate. Here is a man who chooses his words carefully, thinks before he speaks and means what he says. On first impression, the 39-year-old strikes you more as a writer, a wordsmith, than a radical visual artist. And he is. "When I got out of school [the Academy of Fine Art in Norway], I more or less decided to quit the whole thing and write books."
Faldbakken found success in writing the Scandinavian Misanthropy trilogy. He felt visual arts were firmly in his past but a funny thing started to happen: in interviews promoting his books, he would mention his arts background. Readers began to express interest in seeing his work and he found himself with an audience keen to see what he could create with his hands.
After forsaking sculpture for the written word, writing led Faldbakken back to art.
Looking at his art pieces, it is hard to believe they almost never were; for all of their industrial coldness and incongruous manipulation, they feel natural, inevitable even. Despite their often outsized stature, the objects are understated, imbued with a kind of quiet drama. They are reserved, but seem to quiver with a restrained potential energy.
The processes brought to bear on the objects seem random at first glance. The works appear destroyed, victims of unrestrained violence: crushed with a strap pulled too tight, gashed with a power tool run amok, twisted and stretched as if in an earthquake. But, in time, the manipulation comes to feel tightly controlled. These are not objects destroyed but created, not ruined but consciously, carefully elevated.
On close inspection, what comes through, especially in regard to his work with lockers, is that Faldbakken - by crushing, twisting and squeezing - is not tearing the lockers apart but unifying them. This is true for Maintenance, the piece he is exhibiting in Hong Kong.
"The crunching pieces are all about reversing the seriality of the lockers and unifying them somehow, and this is just another technique of trying to do that."
Another reason Faldbakken likes to use lockers, aside from their aesthetic repetition, is his obsession with containers of all kinds. "Lockers match up with a whole series of things I do with different kinds of containers like boxes and bags. Things that usually contain other things, that contain objects of value but here I kind of invert that and reinvent them as the objects of value in a new context."
In a different expression of the same idea, also on display at the Simon Lee Gallery, he has framed the ubiquitous brown cardboard box. "A lot of it is discardable, so there's always this thought of should you keep this plastic bag I made, or just throw it away," he says.
This conflict between two seemingly opposing ideas, in this case worthlessness and value, is where Faldbakken's art lives. He describes it as an "in-betweenness" and discusses his work in terms of "polarities".
The artist also paints. Referring to his work on canvas he says: "I like the fact that there is a certain element of doubt as to whether it is really a subtle kind of abstraction or whether it's sort of a two-minute throwaway … I always think when I'm making them that I'm partly making a painting and partly destroying a nice canvas."
This tension between destruction and creation is only one of the many polarities he explores. His pieces incite mixed, often contradictory emotions: are these sculptures funny? Are they ironic? Or serious, literal and meant to be taken at face value? These contradictions are at the very core of Faldbakken's identity as an artist and ultimately seem to spring from what is in effect his dual identity: that of a writer and that of a sculptor and painter.
"There is some sort of a conflict between my writing and my art," he says. "My art is sort of muted, quite often withdrawn and not very generous, whereas my writing is more satirical, funny, burlesque, more outgoing. So this is really the other side of me. It is very toned down compared to my writing which is very over the top."
Beneath it all Faldbakken is asking the same questions that every creative person asks: what is the inherent value of different modes of expression or, as he puts it, "the wordiness of text versus the absence of language"? What in the human experience can be described and explained and what must be felt?
Faldbakken, who participated in this year's Documenta, a five-yearly contemporary art exhibition held in Germany, is one of the few who can create and converse in both mediums, who has the ability to take from the worlds of ideas and objects and make them his own.
Looking over the damage to the lockers again, he seems to almost change his mind: "I take whatever comes into the space, whatever shape it comes into the space, but from now on it should not be bumped anymore."
Now, it belongs to him.
Matias Faldbakken's Maintenance , Simon Lee Gallery, 304, 3/F Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, Mon-Sat, 10am-6pm. Inquiries: 2801 6252. Until Nov 17