Artist Movana Chen gives knitting avant-garde twist using paper

Making connections in a world that can seem increasingly alienating is the theme of a project awakening memories and inspiring stories

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 September, 2013, 5:06pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 October, 2013, 4:54pm

With her arms held aloft, Movana Chen looks like a conjurer surrounded by what appear to be floating book covers. These are the remnants of a page-shredding operation a guilty banker would be proud of.

But this is no cover-up attempt; quite the opposite. Chen hopes her artful shredding will enlighten.

The artist, whose work covers everything from sculpture to video and performance art, is also giving the age-old skill of knitting an avant-garde twist.

The 37-year-old Hongkonger uses traditional needles to weave thought-provoking sculptures from the shredded pages of books, magazines, newspapers, maps and personal diaries.

The remaining book covers hover above her in the entryway to her 10-year retrospective KNITerature, like guides to a decade of friendships fostered, stories shared, and connections made.

Video: Knitting in plain sight: the art of Movana Chen

Since 2003, Chen has taken time to transform the traditional hobbies of knitting and books to suit in a digital age. She says her work tackles alienation and connection, and displays the variety and complexity of human preoccupations, memories and values, and the richness of human reactions and emotions.

"There's a secret story in there," said Chen, pointing to the photograph of a piece entirely composed of her shredded diaries. "Everything is locked there.

"People think I'm destroying history by shredding. But I don't think so. I'm transforming it to another way of communicating … and I let people become closer through the project."

Her journey has been one of seeking connections in a world that she sees as increasingly alienating. It has kicked off conversations in Hong Kong wet markets, provoked harassment on subway trains in Seoul, and seen her invited into homes in Sicily and Greece.

All the while, she has taught people her version of knitting and heard them tell their stories through a favourite book or piece of literature like a map or textbook that holds memories dear to them - and stirs lost memories.

"I'd forgotten completely," said Chen, a copy of the catalogue in her lap open at the page with a diary excerpt, pre-shredding. In it was the story of how she got her name. Without the project she wouldn't have remembered.

It was 1991 and her birthday. Her English teacher's friend Andy had accidentally gate-crashed her party. "He didn't know, so didn't have a gift. My name was his birthday gift to me."

It's stories like these that are woven through the fabric of Knitting Conversations, the giant patchwork piece several metres high, a shimmer of colours, shapes and textures that drapes down in the background.

"Knitting is an act of bonding between strangers," wrote Euan Park, who met Movana Chen in 2007 at the Seoul Fringe Festival. Park has since collaborated with Chen in a performance-art piece about the relationship between North and South Korea.

The two donned knitted mummy-like "body containers" and walked about the city of Seoul, learning first-hand the difficulties of co-operation.

"Sometimes when people knit, they'll tear the paper and ask me: 'Movana, how do I fix it?' I tell them: 'No, I don't want to fix it. It's part of your experience.'"