Hongkonger Doris Wong takes on her worst fears in her latest exhibition

The visual artist is scared of dogs, afraid to speak French in public and to play music in front of an audience, but did all those things after becoming a mother

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 August, 2016, 10:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 August, 2016, 11:40am

The amount of effort that went into Doris Wong Wai-yin’s new exhibition, “Without Trying”, belies the title. For her first solo show in five years, Wong learned to play the ukulele, how to speak basic French and how to train dogs. Why would someone with cynophobia (the fear of dogs), whose fears also include performing music in public and speaking a foreign language, do all that?

Confronting her own fears is part of her new life after the birth of her first child, Wong explains. The creation of a new life changed her so profoundly that she stopped making art and facing her old fears has been a painful, but necessary recalibration.

She also looked to spiritual response therapy to check for blockages in her subconscious. She found SRT so useful that she tried it on three friends from the local art community and their responses can be seen on video at the exhibition.

This highly personal exhibition is by no means a pile of self-indulgent New Age mumbo jumbo. The works – all made during the past year – are distillations of her internal struggles over motherhood and self-doubt and they are powerful because these are honest answers to questions that most of us don’t dare ask ourselves.

In 2011, Wong spent six months as artist-in-residence at the Asia Art Archives, putting together an alternative archive to challenge conventional art history. On her own and with her artist husband Kwan Sheung-chi, she questioned issues such as “What are Hong Kong’s core values?” and “What is art?”. The couple even named their son Man, the Chinese word for questioning.

But Wong says she is a different person today. “I used to be very timid. I was afraid of everything. And then I became a mother. I have now tasted fear that overshadows all my old fears,” she says. She recalls how, when she was going into labour, the doctor told her, “your baby looks very small. Oh well, let’s get him out and we’ll see if he’s OK.” And there was the time she and her husband went to special care unit to check on him, only to hear the nurses discuss how best to tell the parents about a baby who didn’t make it after all.

Kwan Man did make it. He’s three now: old enough to attend her mother’s exhibition opening, though unlikely to understand the sentiments behind works such as You See Me, Though I Am Not Here.

Using a series of old illustrated postcards, Wong has cut out a figure from each scene and swapped them round, acknowledging the guilt and resentment she feels about having to balance her roles as a mother and an artist. “It’s part of the reason why I produced so little in the past few years. If I faced the choice of making dinner or making art, making dinner always won,” she says.

Meanwhile, fatherhood didn’t seem to have affected her husband’s output as much, which prompted some soul-searching about spousal jealousy and artistic partnership. In A Centimeter Taller Than You, Wong put on a pair of 22-cm platform shoes and stood in front of Kwan in acknowledgement of the gap between their reputations. She says there’s no hard feelings.

This Song Makes Everything Bearable is a recording of her singing a French song while playing the ukulele. It’s there for everyone to listen to, which would have been one of her worst nightmares in the past. Now, she makes art by addressing her own fears and by extension, ours.

A Dog that Can’t be Trained refers to her lifelong fear of dogs. The dog training classes turned out to be bearable because she borrowed the trainer’s docile pet, one as harmless as the ceramic Alsatian that is featured in the video, completely impervious to her loud commands.

These are all fragments, but they are not feeble vignettes when seen in the context of the two bold statements in the main space. There, a series of wooden pyramids encase the shattered remains of all her old work still in her possession. Next to them, a bright orange fork of lightning hangs from the ceiling. It is called Don’t Resist the Lightning. And as Wong walks underneath it, she seems very brave indeed.

Wong Wai Yin: Without Trying, Spring Workshop, 3/F Remex Centre, 42 Wong Chuk Hang Road,

Aberdeen. Tue-Sun, 12pm-6pm. Ends Oct 16