Hong Kong’s Frog King leaps at the chance to cast off the shackles of convention

Local artist famous for his striking attire as well as his work is showing some of his recent paintings and prints, all of which make some use of his amphibian namesake

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 December, 2015, 6:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 December, 2015, 6:01am

Kwok Mang-ho, more commonly known by his alter ego Frog King, had his first solo exhibition in 1967. Several decades of making amphibian-themed art later, the eccentric Hong Kong artist hopes the time has come for him to claim his rightful spot in art history.

“Avant-garde artists took a real beating during the 1960s and ’70s. Nobody in the art circle valued the experimental work that we were creating. That was especially the case in colonial Hong Kong. The government did not promote art and just wanted people to be well-behaved and conservative,” he says at the launch of his new exhibition at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery earlier this month.

More recently, interest in Chinese contemporary art took off but Hong Kong artists have been left behind, he says. “Critics and collectors focus on promoting mainland Chinese artists and overlook the fact that Hong Kong has its unique creativity.”

Today, Kwok is well-placed for inclusion in Hong Kong’s contemporary art canon, just as building progresses on M+, the future visual culture museum, and the city’s growing status as an art market provide fresh impetus for archiving and studying the evolution of the local art scene.

The company he has kept provides hefty historical context for his own work.

Lui Shou-kwan, the great master of modern Chinese art and founder of the New Ink Movement, was his teacher in the ’60s.

Wrapped in bizarre, home-made costumes and wearing his signature “froggy glasses”, the 68-year-old says he has Lui to thank for instilling in him the determination to tear down artistic traditions and to bridge cultures, all while keeping his feet firmly planted on traditional Chinese art and philosophies.

His teacher has left an indelible mark. His new graffiti-style panels are vibrant mixtures of Chinese calligraphy, frog faces and words in English. An ink abstract extends beyond the canvas as a brush stroke escapes onto the ceiling of the gallery, illustrating the omnipresence of tao.

Then, there are the people he met in New York when he lived there from 1980 to 1995.

John Cage would come to his exhibition openings, he says, and he used to hang out with proto-conceptual artists of the Fluxus movement such as Nam June Paik and Japanese pioneers of the Butoh dance movement.

It was a time and place that allowed him to shake off all the shackles of convention, though he wasn’t exactly making traditional art before he left Hong Kong.

When Kwok was still in his twenties, he was gripped from afar by the experimentation in the West: how artists were incorporating their own body into their work through live performances; how they took Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the ready-made and ran with it, turning ordinary daily objects into art.

In 1979, Kwok flew to Beijing and made live installations using plastic bags in the most iconic of Chinese landmarks – Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall. They are the first documented examples of performance art on the mainland.

There has been growing institutional interest in his work over the years. In 2011, he represented Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale. And this month, M+ has asked him to create a new work that looks back at his 1979 performances in Beijing as part of its Live Art festival.

Frog King: Recent Works, 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, 10 Chancery Lane, Central, Tue-Sat 10am-6pm. Ends Jan 30