Macau artist James Wong Cheng-pou turns to classics for imagination

James Wong Cheng-pou’s latest collection, A Bonsai of My Dream, is now being exhibited at the Macau-China Pavilion in the international contemporary visual art exhibition

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 June, 2017, 1:47pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 September, 2017, 4:17pm

Generations of imaginative ideas have been inspired by the numerous deities and peculiar creatures in the ancient Chinese text, Shan Hai Jing, also known as the Classic of Mountains and Seas. Celebrated modern Chinese author Lu Xun penned a short story titled Ah Chang and Shan Hai Jing in 1926, and famous Taiwanese cartoonist Tsai Chih-chung directed A Tale From The Orient animation based on a chapter from the book in 2015. The text’s content also led to the production of comic, online game, film and TV drama series adaptations.

The book has its influence in the art world. Inspired by the classic and today’s Macau, local artist James Wong Cheng-pou created his latest collection, A Bonsai of My Dream.

“I’m fascinated by fantasies and myths. In Shan Hai Jing, the gods and landlords of different areas and mountains manage and govern their own territories. It’s just like how the casino world in this city operates,” says Wong, who, while in London in the 1990s, first readShan Hai Jing – a compilation of Chinese mythology, geographical, cultural and species, which originated as early as 200BC.

The collection, comprising 17 works from sculptures, to paintings
and mixed-media works, is now being exhibited at the Macau-China Pavilion in the international contemporary visual art exhibition, International Art Exhibition – La Biennale Di Venezia, one of the most prominent contemporary art events in the world and commonly known as the Venice Biennale, which will be held in the Italian city until November 12.

Established in 1895, the exhibition is titled Viva Arte Viva and features 120 invited artists from 51 countries and 86 national participations this year. It is the sixth time Macau has participated in the event since 2007, showcasing the characteristics of the city through the perspectives of leading local artists

The 57-year-old artist, who was born and raised in Macau, says the changes in the city over the past decade remind him of the creatures in the Chinese classic. “I have no intention of satirising anything through the past. In fact, it’s not worth doing that. The changes are already there and everyone has noticed how it has changed,” he says, adding that his works are therapeutic and the collection is a reflection of his observations, feelings and imagination of the city.

I’m fascinated by fantasies and myths. In Shan Hai Jing, the gods and landlords of different areas and mountains manage and govern their own territories. It’s just like how the casino world in this city operates
James Wong Cheng-pou

The main exhibition piece Bonsai of My Dream is a sculptured head whose upper part is a bonsai featuring a mountain, a pond and a modern tower building which resembles the city’s landmark Macau Tower. “Our space is getting more and more crowded like a forest, thus I want to turn it into a bonsai so that I can grow it like a city of my own,” Wong says. “It’s like something that I yearn for. I want to get away, but where can I go? That’s somewhere in my head.”

In this “bonsai” of his own, it is the home for creatures such as Heart Snake, a snake with a heart-shaped head, which symbolises the evil side of gambling; Hole Men, men with a hole in their chest; Mr Yam, which stands for “you and me”, is a man with two heads and in ancient Egyptian-style high hat and ancient Chinese attire of robe and boots. “We humans are like a coin, we have two sides. They coexist and they accept each other,” he says. “He puts on a pair of traditional boots like the ones servants in the royal palace wore in ancient times, symbolising people who live under rules and regulations.”

Heavily influenced by comics and cartoons, Wong taught himself to draw at a very young age, and didn’t receive any formal training until he started his first job at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club in Hong Kong when he was 19. “I was just a junior making drinks at the club’s restaurant. My colleagues knew that I liked drawing and suggested that I studied design at Design First and later fine art at the Chinese University of Hong Kong,” says Wong, recalling that he was required to get up at dawn to attend the design class before going to work.

In the early 1980s, he went to Tokyo to study fine art for four years at numerous institutes. He later returned to Macau, and became the coordinator of the Ethnography Exhibitions at the Luis de Camoes Museum of Macao in 1989. In 1993, he was invited by University College London to be a honorary research assistant at the Slade School of Fine Art. In 1997, he returned to the city to take up a role as the division chief of the arts research and museology division of Leal Senado.

Better known for his abstract paintings and printmaking artworks, Wong is now the president of the Printmaking Research Center of Macao and the curator of the Macau Printmaking Triennial. Many of his works are sought by private collectors and public venues such as Macao Museum of Art (MAM), Oriental Foundation and Macao Foundation. The Abstract Paintings from the MAM Collection exhibition is on at MAM until September 17, and features his 1997 work Dream Of An Old City. Other works can be found in luxury hotels, such as Shangri-La Hotel Beijing, The Peninsula Hong Kong, Mandarin Oriental Macau and The Fullerton Hotel Singapore.

“My sculptures were seldom shown in Macau. It’s something I started at an early stage. But they’ve never made up a complete collection as most were traded to collectors once they were completed,” says Wong, who was one of the 30 finalists of the Sovereign Asian Art Prize in 2010 and has staged solo exhibitions in Macau, Tokyo, Kyoto and London.

This time, with the help of a computer and technology of 3D foam cutting, he converted his ideas into reality and produced 11 sculptural works in a few months. By putting on layers of coating with materials such as powdered marble and ink, Wong gives these works a stony and aged finishing. “Not that I’m giving up the traditional sculpting techniques,” he says. “Art sometimes is about choices. Different artistic skills and techniques are involved in making art, how and what you choose is one of them.”

Alongside the exhibition in Venice, a collateral exhibition titled A Bonsai of My Dream – On the Path to the International Art Exhibition – La Biennale Di Venezia is being hosted on the third floor of MAM, until December 12. During the exhibition, the audience can learn about the creation process of the collection from the maquettes, reprints and sketches of the actual artworks being shown in Venice.