Wen Yau is a Grade D artist. "Actually, I can't paint," she says cheerfully. "I'm a self-trained artist, I never trained in school. I am a visual artist and I don't know how to paint."
Best known for her experimental performance art, Wen Yau explores ideas of identity, authority and legitimacy in her new show, "I Am a Grade D Artist", on display at Baptist University's Koo Ming Kown Exhibition Gallery until tomorrow.
The show itself is simple: Wen Yau's paintings and drawings line one wall, and on another hangs her Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE) and Hong Kong A Levels Examination (HKALE) results.
In the middle sit rows of desks, organised as in an exam room. But the underlying themes are complicated and personal. For the piece, she sat both exams in 2011 and 2013, respectively; it was the final year for each, both in the British system, before they were replaced with a new, single examination.
Wen Yau sat the HKCEE cold and received a D. It wasn't the first time she'd faced academic disapproval for her art. "Ever since I was young, when I painted in school my teacher would tell me it was ugly," she recalls. "I realise now that I was quite abnormal. Compared to ordinary school kids, I was a crazy kid. I was always asking a lot of questions.
"In high school I did a lot of drama, always something political. Even my classmates asked why I was doing it. I didn't know then, but I was trying to understand the world," she says.
After high school, Wen Yau tried her hand at journalism, earning an undergraduate degree at a local university. There, she chafed under direction as well. "The professors kept instructing us to be objective and find the truth. I felt there was no such thing. As a so-called creative person, I believe we can never create something that is completely objective," she says.
She took her master's in cultural and media studies in Bristol, where she first encountered the type of experimental performance art that has come to define her career.
"That was a turning point for me," she says. "I realised what I should do. In my heart, I really wanted to do my own work. I came back and studied live art. These experimental performances really touched me. I realised that when I perform, it's me - not anyone else, just me that is being expressed."
Around this time, Wen Yau adopted her stage name, which means, "wandering of the spirit" in Chinese.
The image of the individual facing the world is present throughout much of Wen Yau's work. In 2002, she returned to Hong Kong and began to perform. Her first live piece took place in the Hong Kong Arts Centre, where she was working at the time. "After office hours, a gate is closed outside the lift, so that people cannot get inside," she says. "Between the door of the lift and the gate, there's a small space. I saw the security guard putting a sign that said 'no entry'. 'No s***!' I said, 'Of course there's no entry!'"
But the guard explained that a deliveryman had slipped through, becoming trapped in the space for several hours.
In that first piece, Wen Yau and another local artist stood in two adjacent "cages", reading each other's diaries aloud. "This was right after Sars," she says. "We dressed in pyjamas as if we were sick: sick of Hong Kong, sick of ourselves, just sick. It was all quite unexpected: the door to the lift opens, and we are there. What they found was something quite intimate. Some people tried to hold the doors open; other people were more, 'No! I'm going to the sixth floor.' Some people even came and stood with us inside the small space. It was both public and private, since you never knew when the door would open."
More installations followed. One, in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, used Google Translate to create a nonsensical transliteration of "Hi, how are you?" in Chinese. Another, outside Kubrick Bookstore in Yau Ma Tei, used a computer to transcribe the Chinese phrase "We will never forget" - a reference to June 4, 1989. "I kept repeating what the computer transcribed for me. It eventually became nonsense. We say it every year, but what does it mean?"
Wen Yau became preoccupied with the idea of Hong Kong identity. In 2011, she realised the HKCEE was in its final year. She said that when she received her D, she shrugged and decided to train for the next level, the HKALE. "The idea was that I could never sit the examination again," she says. The grade she earned would be her grade forever.
After studying for two years, Wen Yau sat the HKALE. She received another D. "I was surprised," she says, laughing. Her portfolio results were high - 24 of 25 marks - but her in-house painting score was low. The painting is an abstract piece, in tones of green and purple. One of the curators came to set up the exhibition and, upon seeing the painting, said he understood why she'd received a D. "But actually I like this painting a lot because I tried to get away from the classical style," she says. She went out on her own terms.
In retrospect, Wen Yau sees the grade as a positive thing. "It's a reminder of what I wanted to do from the very beginning. In my work I try to deal with the kind of reality that I want to believe in. For example, I was not preparing for the examination - I was preparing to be an artist. Preparing to be myself. When I do art, I'm facing the world through my art. I find the courage to live life through making art."