Mixing and matching: Caroline Mak

Caroline Mak's inquisitive mind helps her succeed in both her callings, writes Doretta Lau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 June, 2013, 3:44pm

Visual artist Caroline Mak leads a double life. Since 2010, in addition to maintaining her art practice, she has been running a successful beverage company, Brooklyn Soda Works, with her boyfriend, research chemist Antonio Ramos, in New York.

Mak, who was born in London and grew up in Hong Kong, studied biology and studio art at Stanford University, graduating in 2002. "I like being in the lab," she says. "I love the idea of working problems out by doing and I feel like I have a fairly analytical mind."

Despite her love of science, she realised she wanted to make art, so returned to school in 2003 and earned an MFA in sculpture and installation at the University of Chicago. Shortly after graduation, she began showing her installations across the US, in Europe and Hong Kong. One piece was shown as part of the first Hong Kong Art Fair.

Just before visiting the city this month, Mak had just finished the Emerge programme at Aljira in New Jersey. "They teach you how to run your art career a little more like a business, which I thought was an interesting way to approach it."

Last year in December, she showed an installation as a part of the Detour exhibition in Wan Chai. It was composed of PVC pipes, mylar, ink, acrylic paint and tape.

"I think the installation at Detour was especially memorable because I had just finished doing a residency in a church in upstate New York," she says. "They put you up inside the church so you live in there and your studio is also in the church. It was kind of deathly quiet and the idea of time was really strange. There was dim winter light coming through stained glass windows, which is really pretty, but you get no clue what time it is.

I love seeing the strange things that you can collect together to make into something else
Caroline Mak

"Then I flew to Hong Kong, where my installation space was in three holding cells, which was really depressing. There was no natural light. It was a challenge. I hadn't seen the holding cells until I got to Hong Kong. I'd been speaking back and forth with the curators and the organisers and I had seen photographs and worked a lot on the layout, but being in that space is completely different. I wanted to create a sprawling map that spread between three cells and I knew I wanted to use material that I bought within the Wan Chai area."

As for her aesthetic, she says: "I don't think I've quite found an exact aesthetic that carries through, even though I've been making work for nine years. I find myself jumping back and forth between materials quite a lot. Maybe it's growing up in Hong Kong - most of the things you see are man-made. But I love seeing the strange things that you can collect together to make into something else."

Mak's soda business began almost by accident. One day in early 2010, she and Ramos decided they wanted to make a ginger beer. Through trial and error the couple discovered a recipe that fulfilled their definition of delicious.

"Traditionally ginger beer is actually brewed so there's an alcoholic content to it - there's fermentation involved," she says. "We tried that route, and we wondered what if we just carbonate fresh ginger juice and fresh lemon juice and that turned out to be really fun."

They followed it up with two more flavours, all made with freshly juiced fruits and vegetables: grapefruit, jalapeno and honey; and cucumber, lime and sea salt. When they let some friends sample the product, someone floated the idea that they sell the sodas at the Brooklyn Flea Market.

"At that time it was a small operation, and we decided to give it a go so we sent our application to the founders," she says. They were accepted, but then reality hit: they had six weeks to establish a company. So they turned to Kickstarter, a crowd-funding platform for creative projects.

"We only asked for a couple of thousand dollars and we were funded in four days, which was really encouraging," she says.

Bottling is an expensive endeavour, so Mak and Ramos decided to serve the soda on tap. On their first day of sales at Brooklyn Flea, they sold out by 3pm. Soon after, restaurateurs wanted to put the sodas on their menus. Three years on, Brooklyn Soda Works has developed 30 flavours and employs 20 full- and part-time staff. The company is now headquartered in a 2,000 sq ft commercial production space.

As the soda business grows, Mak has been examining how it affects her art practice. "The intersection I do see is that my work is fairly visible and it's large. I like playing with materials, and I like seeing how much you can pull and push material to conform to what you do and there is that correlation with working with food.

"I think the biggest connection I can see now having thought about it for two years - you spend weeks working on a recipe, you spend hours in the kitchen putting it together and you get it out there and it's consumed by someone in about three minutes," she continues. "They may think that it's delicious, but they may not think about what went into it. I'm an installation artist, so a lot of my work, if it's up, it's only up for the duration of the exhibition and then it's never seen again."

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