City does not define him, says Hongkonger who is among first contemporary Chinese artists commissioned by Guggenheim

In Post exclusive, artist Tsang Kin-wah and curator Weng Xiaoyu, who selected him for exhibition at prestigious US museum, share views on identity and the image of China in the West

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2016, 10:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2016, 10:48am

A Hong Kong visual artist will be among the first contemporary Chinese artists to create works commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the renowned institution has announced.

Tsang Kin-wah, a Chinese University graduate with numerous accolades under his belt, starting with the 2005 Sovereign Asian Art Prize, is the only Hong Kong-based artist among 10 mainland and Taiwan finalists under the Chinese Art Initiative at Guggenheim funded by The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation.

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Robert Yau Chung Ho, chairman of the foundation, which provided US$10 million in funding for the programme, said the initiative served to “advance artistic achievement of contemporary Chinese artists of our time”, and that it “fosters understanding of Chinese culture globally”.

“The fact that this global initiative is a collaboration with a Hong Kong-based foundation is just part of a growing role for the city in the world of global art and culture,” he added.

The official news release said the selected artists were “unified by their distinctive and independent practices that poetically balance politics and aesthetics”.

Yet Tsang, communicating with the Post via email, said he “didn’t really think about how to make the balance consciously”.

He said he was happy to be selected but did not “think too much about what it meant to me”. Instead, the 40-year-old artist said, he would rather spend time developing his work, an undertaking he deemed “more important”.

Born in Shantou, and a Hong Kong resident since the age of six, Tsang said his work reflected everything but Hong Kong.

“I don’t think my work contains any ‘Hong Kong elements’,” he explained, adding that this had not been his primary interest or focus in recent years.

Tsang said that although he was based in Hong Kong, the city did not define him.

“Identity is something that often bothers me, so I don’t really know how to define myself most of the time,” he said.

His debut work for the Guggenheim was still being developed and having its underlying concept refined, Tsang said. Nevertheless, the associate curator who selected him expects something “heavy” from him.

Weng Xiaoyu, an organiser of the exhibition under the Chinese Art Initiative, called Tsang “very sensitive” and praised him for “artfully manipulating the relationship between text and image, meaning and visual”

Weng, 31, a Shanghai native who joined the Guggenheim last August to oversee its Chinese art programme through 2018, recalled Tsang’s video installation at an exhibition in San Francisco in 2014, and the dark and emotional atmosphere he created .

“He is one of the few artists whose work gives me goose bumps,” she said.

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As for what she hoped Guggenheim visitors would experience when encountering Tsang’s work, she volunteered her view that “art should be able to produce in the audience a visceral, emotional, and even physical reaction”.

Weng, who visited Hong Kong last October for the selection and returned this week to the city, said there was no set quota of finalists for each of the places representing the region.

“Our criteria are that the candidate must be an intellectual artist that shows a long-term commitment in the arts and is able to deliver and install the project by the time of the exhibition in November,” she said.

From past experience, Weng said, Tsang’s installation work was easy and straightforward to grasp, and he was a man of few words.

“Compared to other artists, such as the Yangjiang Group from Guangdong province which will feature organic materials in their project, Tsang’s work is neat and clear,” she said.

“I am confident that his project will be one of the strongest pieces in the exhibition.”

In addition, the curator said she did not expect any problems with the Chinese government, whether in obtaining a visa or with respect to the content of his work.

Weng said: “They are not Ai Weiwei, and their works could be critical, but they are not criticising, I think there is a difference there.”

The whole Chinese art exercise, she said, could be significant in changing Western perceptions of China.

“These works will bring forward the artists’ investigations on how China can be viewed in many different ways and at different levels,” Weng explained.

“It’s more heterogeneous than a unified image the West and the world may portray.”