HONG KONG CONTEMPORARY ART INTERVIEW TEXT LANGUAGE
Art Radar spoke with Hong Kong artist Hung Keung on how he uses Chinese calligraphy and the philosophy behind it as a tool of expression. With continued experiments in new media formats Hung hopes to provide a visual insight into the importance of Traditional Chinese characters.
Since 1995, Hung Keung has been involved in the creation and research of film, video and new media art internationally. Hung attended The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in the UK.
In 2004, Hung founded innov+media lab (imhk lab). The lab focuses on new media art production but also conducts research into Chinese philosophy and language and their interactivity.
What does Hung Keung reveal in this interview? Among other things…
- Chinese philosophy and Chinese language play a significant role in his art production
- The meaning behind Chinese characters is important
- There are essential differences between Simple and Traditional Chinese characters
- imhk lab created their own software specific to the Asian perspective in order to produce interactive works
- Bloated City Skinny Language (2006-2008) and Dao gives birth to one (2009-2010) inspired one another and are seen as part on an unfinished series
- Western training is crucial to developing an objective methodology in art
Hung Keung: Artistic background
When did you first realise that you were an artist? Were there any major influences or people in your life that pushed you towards art?
I think it was when I was fifteen or sixteen years old. When I was a kid, around five or six years old, my father demonstrated [to me] how to paint and draw. I was fascinated by it. My father passed away when I was eleven, but what he left for me was this ability. At the same time, … my mom showed me how to write Chinese calligraphy. She also showed me how to use a Chinese brush, to paint mountains, to paint bamboo.
Have you changed as an artist since you first began your working career?
When I was in secondary school, when I thought of my future plans, I wanted to be either an artist or a cartoonist. If I couldn’t become either [of these], then I wanted to study Chinese or to become a designer. I still remember that I didn’t want to give up my dreams. Hong Kong was [a place] of freedom … but my friends were under such stress because [their families would demand] they study law or architecture. Fortunately, I didn’t have any pressure from my family. … I first studied design and afterwards I trained in fine arts.
What achievements in your art career are you most proud of?
Personally, and I’m not saying this in a humble way, I don’t see myself as having any achievements [yet]. But I do want to [create] something that [can act as] a bridge between Chinese mentality and Western thinking…. At this moment, everything I’ve done is just a starting point. I’m happy because I can produce my Chinese characters; I can put them in a time sequence, I can make them three-dimensional and I can make them interact with human beings. People from overseas [have] become interested in [my work], … interested in the methodology behind it and also with Chinese philosophy.
Writer’s note: Hung’s “Chinese characters” mentioned above are electronically generated and appear in two of his new media artworks, Dao gives birth to one and Bloated City Skinny Language.
What is your biggest challenge in relation to the production of your artworks?
I really want to be a full-time artist. Right now, I’m studying for my PhD and the research [for this] is occupying my time. I’m teaching at a university as well, so I don’t have much spare time for my art work.
I can’t really reach my goal. I have two or three core members [on my production team] and we meet one or two times a month. The whole process is slowed down. I talk a lot with my teammates but everyone has a full-time job.
You are the founder of imhk lab. Can you tell us more about the lab? What is unique about it?
I founded [imhk lab] in 2004 … when I came back to Hong Kong from Germany. Because I was teaching in Hong Kong, I understood the Hong Kong mentality. Everything has to be fast and efficient. Normally when people create something [in Hong Kong] they buy the software from overseas and try to learn [how to use] it as soon as possible. … The software is provided by people [living] overseas [and] they produce software that is based on their logic … and mentality.
Based on this issue, I wanted to create an interactive work that related to Traditional and Simplified Chinese. I also wanted to recreate the sense of ambiguity related to [being a Hong Kong resident] because of the history of being Chinese, but being colonised by the British. [Hong Kong people] need to speak English and they live a Western life. … Sometimes they’re proud of being Chinese but on the other hand they’re ashamed of being Chinese, depending on the situations they’re facing.
We needed to create our own software. The problem was that you just couldn’t create something for free. From 2004 to 2006, we tried to create something [similar to] what others had already made in the West. At that time, it was a lot of hard work. Everything we produced, we could find in the West.
There was a critical moment in 2006. I heard that the United Nations had stated that in the future Simplified Chinese would be [the organisation’s] official [Chinese] language…. I was a bit shocked because in Hong Kong we learn Traditional Chinese characters. If you understand Traditional Chinese, then you can read Chinese [texts] written 2000 years ago.
Editor’s note: On 23 March, 2006, Chinese newspaper Shanghai Daily posted an article titled “UN to use only Simplified Chinese after 2008”. The contents of this article was discussed and disputed in the media and on online forums and in April 2006 Shanghai Daily published a retraction of sorts on their blog.
In a series of interviews with Asian contemporary artists, Art Radar is attempting to explore the use of words in contemporary art production. Could you explain what language means to you?
In general, language is always an insufficient tool to represent what humans think. It is not enough to express the ideas of the human mind. Language can sometimes help to provide an imaginative space for people, such as with a poem or a speech. I would rather find some other tools to integrate with language to express what humans’ think.
Hung Keung: Artworks
- Bloated City Skinny Language (2006 – 2008)
- Dao gives birth to one (2009 – 2010)
In your new media artwork Bloated City Skinny Language the audience can interact with the Chinese characters projected onto the screen. Could you tell us more about this work?
People easily associate the flying characters with animation. Animation is just moving image, from left to right, from the top to the bottom. Chinese characters are more than [just a] moving [image] because they possess aspects of Chinese philosophy [that show us] how to [interpret] time and space. When I’m reading books about philosophy or about painting, the white paper [the words of the book are printed on] represents infinitive space, the whole universe. This universe, including the volume of space, would represent time; a past, present and future. Therefore, Chinese characters written on white paper are not written on a plain surface [but in] a four-dimensional space. But because of the limitations of the paper, we can’t see the characters moving.
In the contemporary world, the white paper [is] represented [by] the screen. The characters … are not moving, they are flying, [so] you can see the characters from different angles. You can also see the process of the writing [of a character], you can actually see them being created from the dot to the line,… becoming a character. This is something different from animation. In this [artwork] you can see the space and time of the character.
Does Bloated City Skinny Language represent the first time that you have used words in your work?
Yes. Actually, the meaning of Chinese characters is undervalued. People see the characters as a form,… a surface,… as a shape on paper…. I think that when people learn [to read and write] Chinese characters they really need to start from the philosophy or the mentality of how the characters are used in terms of time and space. I want people to know more about Chinese characters, [to show them] that the characters can be appreciated in another way.
Another issue that [dictates how I] choose the characters is the meaning. …’Technology’ [技術], ‘city’ [城市], ‘old’ [老] and ‘modern’ [現代]; I play with these meanings particularly.
Do the Chinese characters in Bloated City Skinny Language have any special meaning for you as an artist? What about the five words you mentioned above?
I see [the creation of these characters] as a [way to] understand myself more. I understand, as an artist, the first step is to be a Hong Kong artist and the second step is to be a Chinese artist. It’s more meaningful [to be a Hong Kong artist] than to just be an artist because I [can] talk about identity and the problems I’m facing as a Hong [Konger]. I study a lot of Chinese characters to understand … more about Chinese culture. The more I produce these Chinese characters or the more I learn about Chinese philosophy, the prouder I feel of being Chinese.
I’m in an interesting position. I’m interested in Chinese culture and philosophy, but I’m working with Western technology and methodology to analyse it. If you are treating Chinese culture in a more scientific way, then it can become difficult. I learnt my methodology in the West [where there is more concern with] correction,… analysis, IT and research,… a really rational way of thinking. Right now, I’m reflecting on Chinese philosophy, because Chinese philosophy is more abstract.
How do you connect Chinese philosophy with Western methodology?
I need to control myself. As an artist you need to be more emotional or … subjective. Western philosophy, or Western methodology, allows you to see something rationally or more objectively. I want to be more objective and sometimes I criticise myself. … I really enjoy being in the middle….
Tell me what the title Bloated City Skinny Language means to you. Can you explain the phrase ‘Skinny Language’? What does this title have to do with your use of words?
The meaning of the title came from … watching people. There is actually a story behind it. The Chinese government wanted to rebuild a district [of Shanghai] into something similar to Silicon Valley. … The government tried to move all the residents [out] and build new buildings…. Sometimes I really want the Chinese government to go faster, but when they need to move people from a certain area you just feel sad…. There were people who’d been living in this area for three or four generations…. For no reason, [the government] wants to destroy [the old] and make it bigger [and better].
‘Skinny Language’ [also refers to] advertising. A lot of Hong Kong girls are so slim. I think they’re normal, but they always think … that they’re not skinny enough. Being healthy is more important than being slim. To me, I think that Traditional Chinese is … healthy, but Simplified Chinese is not. Simplified Chinese was developed during the Cultural Revolution. They wanted everyone to learn Chinese faster and wanted to build up the mentality of the new China. So they gave up Traditional Chinese [and created] Simplified Chinese. … If you learn Simplified Chinese, [you] can only read Chinese [texts created in] this century. … This mentality is not healthy [and] I think it’s the same as a skinny body. So, I combined these situations: ‘Bloated City’ – that means you want to bloat [the urban landscape] – and ‘Skinny Language’ – [the language is] not healthy because you want to simplify it.
When did you start working with Bloated City Skinny Language? How long did it take to make and how was it made?
[I started working on it in 2006] and then I produced a second version that was finished in 2007. As I mentioned before, my team members and I worked on this [project] and it took one-and-a-half years to finish. Afterwards, we started on Dao gives birth to one.
We tried to produce some demonstrations using Flash. The language … is … based on Hong Kong [culture]. If you watch people, they want to build a house, they want to be pale, they want a lot of things. I tried to collect these types of Chinese characters. This Hong Kong ‘style’ is combined with English and Chinese. We collect [the words] and then we decide [which ones to use]. We animate [them] and afterwards design it and demonstrate it. It took six months to create the first [demonstration].
People can interact directly with the characters; as they move within the frame of the projection the characters collect around their body. Can you explain why you wanted the characters to react to movement in this way? What does this have to do with language?
Actually, Chinese characters are like pictograms. All the characters are different, individual. The strokes of a Chinese character are based on two [ideas]. The first one [is based on how the human eye sees an object]. The second [is based on] how human beings relate to their surrounding environment. From this methodology, a pictogram is created. The shape of the Chinese word for ‘door’ (門) is really like a door. If we want to talk about the development of Chinese characters, we can’t neglect the participation of human beings because humans make the pictograms [come] alive.
I checked the dictionary for the meaning of ‘one’ (一). Daoist philosophical theory always says that the universe comes from Dao. Dao gives birth to one, one gives birth to two, then to three and afterwards to thousands. [The theory] always talks about the meaning of Dao, but never about the meaning of ‘one’. I found, in an early second century Chinese dictionary from the Han Dynasty, Shuowen Jiezi (說文解字), that ‘one’ is a verse divided into two parts: ‘sky’ (天空) and ‘earth’ (地球). In the dictionary, ‘one’ is placed as the first word in the first chapter. The original text of its meaning is 惟初太始道立於一造分天地化成萬物凡一之屬皆從一 (‘It is that the start of the Great Beginning of the Way is based upon Unity. It divides Heaven and Earth and forms the ten thousand creations.’) All things related to ‘one’ have the [stroke] 一 as part of their character [representation].
The meaning of ‘one’ does not only indicate the number one, moreover, ‘one’ reflects a philosophy of how Chinese people see the universe. The universe is divided into sky and earth by ‘one’.
‘One’ represents the Chinese stroke. In the dictionary, the explanation said that the universe is divided into two parts: the sky, the earth. ‘One’ is lonely and flying in the infinitive space [between them].
[In both Bloated City Skinny language and Dao gives birth to one), when ‘one’ interacts with a human being, it gets divided into two strokes and those two strokes [again] interact with the human being. From two, there is four, and four gets divided into eight. Afterwards it is not ‘one’, or only a brush stroke, anymore. It becomes a word, and then it becomes a face, then slang, then a sentence and then a poem. Because of this I tell people to really interact with the flying characters, [which] are flying around trying to [grab] emotions and associate them with words. Actually, it is not Chinese characters flying, but brush strokes. When the strokes meet they create one simple Chinese word and then disappear again.
We understand that Bloated City Skinny Language and Dao gives birth to one are influenced by the philosophical ideas that lie behind Traditional Chinese characters. Can you explain the relationship these works have to language?
Actually, I really don’t deal with language, I … deal with … illusion. This work is shown in both Hong Kong and mainland China;… some people only know Simplified Chinese, some only know Traditional Chinese and some know both. If they come to the exhibition and see the characters flying around, they’ll be familiar with the situation because they know every Chinese stroke. They can’t tell what is going on, but they know it’s in Chinese. Sometimes they can understand what the words mean and sometimes they just let go and enjoy the new experience. … I don’t really consider the work to be about language, how to speak or pronounce, I’d rather let people experience the words visually.
In that case, exactly what experience do you want people to take away from Bloated City Skinny Language?
That’s interesting, because this work was shown in the UK, Germany, Turkey and also in the US. I was a bit hesitant [about these exhibitions] because [the work deals with] Chinese characters. … People might not be interested. What surprised me was that [these audiences] were really fascinated by the work, especially the kids. They didn’t understand the characters; they just saw them as pictograms flying around. The visitors played [and interacted] with the pictograms. … In Turkey, to my surprise, they understood what I was trying to do [because] people from Turkey … need to understand two languages.
Would you call Bloated City Skinny Language playful? Is playfulness an important element in your work? Does this playfulness relate to the characters you have chosen? If yes, how?
It is not related to play. I just wanted to create an environment. Actually, playfulness is against the nature of interactive work. The intention is to widen a sense or show ambiguity.
There are different kinds of audiences. … When I showed [the work] in Shanghai, there was a visitor from Beijing, and she entered the exhibition and then danced with the characters. She danced for fifteen minutes. No one had done that before. I asked her why she was dancing and she told me that she really wanted to use her body to play or dance with the flying characters. When I showed my work in Kassel, a lot of artists and performers came. The performers especially treated my work as some sort of radical or experimental platform.
The kids were just going crazy, whether it was in Hong Kong, China, the UK or the US. I think children don’t have an understanding of interactivity. They are excited to see two of themselves on the screen. They touch the walls to [try to] … find out how the images [are projected] and they play.
I think most people from the West are more rational [when they view Bloated City Skinny Language]. … They know something is happening but they don’t know what. So, they walk back and forth, they move their hands and head slower,… their body slower, and they try to figure out what the meaning is between the right and left screens. I’ve never seen this happen in Hong Kong or China because they understand the characters. [In Hong Kong or China, the audience members] use their cameras to record themselves … but I seldom see Western people recording themselves.
Were you inspired by any other artists who use words in their art?
There is one artist, Xu Bing. I met him in New York [where he] gave me his opinions. Normally when I work with new media and interactive art, it is a sentimental activity. This is very important to me. Xu Bing had another perspective. When you want to create an artwork, the first thing you should [ask yourself] is, ‘What issue do you think is really important?’ I asked myself [this question] and the answer was Traditional Chinese [versus Simplified Chinese]. … I wanted people to understand more about the meaning of Chinese characters and the differences between Simplified and Traditional Chinese. Afterwards,… the Shanghai Gallery of Art … commissioned me to create a historical work for their exhibition “City in Progress: Live from Zhang Jiang”. I created Bloated City Skinny Language. … In 2006, I was able to explore Chinese philosophy, so I’d really like to thank Xu Bing.
What about Chinese calligraphy and traditional ink painting? Do you gain any inspiration from these art forms?
Actually no, but I take inspiration from the scenery [characterised in these traditional art forms], how Chinese people see the universe in terms of time and space and how the universe is [represented] in painting. … Actually, the exhibition method in the West does not fit Chinese art forms because of the [different] philosophies Chinese artists have regarding presentation, exhibition and appreciation. I was inspired by these [philosophies] and wanted to combine them with new media [art production]. “Yellow Box” also inspired me to work with these kinds of methods.
Writer’s note: “A Yellow Box in Qingpu” was a project initiated by the Visual Culture Research Centre of China Academy of Art and curated by Gao Shiming (Director of Visual Culture Research Centre, China Academy of Art), Chang Tsong-zung (Curator and Critic, Guest Professor of China Academy of Art) and Hu Xiangcheng (Artist and architect of Xiao Ximen). Its purpose was to investigate issues of connoisseurship and display that are embedded in Chinese traditional spaces. It also intended to reinterpret traditional literati spirit in light of contemporary art. (Source: A Yellow Box in Qingpu: Contemporary art and architecture in a Chinese Space)
Dao gives birth to one is similar to Bloated City Skinny Language with its use of Chinese characters. Can you tell us more about this artwork?
Actually, [for this work] I use the method of Chinese scroll painting. I invite people to sit on a chair [in front of a projection screen]. The proportion and the form of the chair are synchronised to the form of the character on the screen. When they sit on the chair and look at the art work, they are totally immersed in the exhibition. … In the beginning, you see ‘one’ flying alone on the screen. When ‘one’ touches any part of viewer, the number is doubled. When two strokes touch my nose, for example, they become four. When they touch my head, they become eight. Soon, ten thousand Chinese characters fill the space. After they reach ten thousand, all the characters will disappear and become ‘one’ again. In the [traditional] concepts of scroll painting there is no beginning or ending,… like a circle.
How are Bloated City Skinny Language and Dao gives birth to one the same? How are they different? Did one inspire the other?
They are like brother and sister. Actually, I want to create a whole family. Bloated City Skinny Language may be the big brother and Dao gives birth to one is the younger brother. Afterwards I want to create a little sister or a baby, and in the future I’d like to show this whole family in one exhibition.
The Chinese characters, there are so many interpretations. Different people view the Chinese characters differently and different theories can be applied to each character. When people [experience these works], they will develop their own perspective [on] how to see and understand the characters.
What inspired you to create Dao gives birth to one?
I really like Chinese literature. Maybe my family influenced me? My sister majored in Chinese. When I was in secondary school, I was always first in the class for Chinese literature and language. I’m fascinated by it. In my spare time, I studied and examined it and learnt about the philosophy [behind it]. But I had never connected Chinese language to my art work until I talked with Xu Bing.
What is Dao (or Tao)?
Dao is a conceptual idea that explains the meaning of life and the universe. I think our own lives are Dao on a small scale. The universe represents a bigger scale of Dao. This is my interpretation.
In the Book of Dao, or Dao De Jing, every chapter tries to explain what Dao is from different perspectives. The philosophy of Dao reflects how Chinese people interpret the concept of the universe. There are different explanations [of how] Dao gives birth to one, one gives birth to two, two gives birth to three, [and so on]. I wanted to visualise this. In the past, people would present their thoughts by writing them down. … In this contemporary world we can’t write as well as people could in the past, but maybe we can visualise our thoughts.
Editor’s note: Tao or Dao is a metaphysical concept originating in Daoism that has been adopted in Confucianism, Chán and Zen Buddhism and more broadly in East Asian religions and ancient Chinese philosophy. While the word itself literally translates as ‘way’, ‘path’, or ‘route’, or sometimes more loosely as ‘doctrine’ or ‘principle’, it is generally used to signify the primordial essence or fundamental aspect of the universe. (Source: Wikipedia.)
How long did it take to create Dao gives birth to one?
There are two versions of Dao gives birth to one. The first version  took nine months to create and the second version  took six months.
How does Dao gives birth to one relate to your body of work?
Bloated City Skinny Language and Dao gives birth to one [both represent] my turning point. When I [begin an] artwork, I force myself to do nothing but research. So I … research, then I write about and then draw [the work]. I’ve realised that it’s important for me to work with other people [because] while you’re waiting for them you can think a lot. … I think these two latest works are more rational and that’s a new experience for me as an artist. I enjoy thinking, I enjoy discussing and modifying. My latest works always have first and second versions. The first versions are not complete, so I have to modify them….
Hung Keung: General art creation
Why do you work with both video and digital new media tools?
I don’t choose any particular tool. Actually, the medium is just a container. It contains your ideas and depends on your idea. If your idea is light, then you can use a small light container. If your idea is heavy, then you have to use a bigger container. Everything depends on the idea because it comes first.
How does your use of new media relate to your use of characters?
Before, I said that paper is an infinitive space. It’s hard to explain this infinitive space to your students or friends. When they touch [the paper], it’s flat. But if you project your characters onto a screen, the screen is a four-dimensional space. Actually, the screen together with the exhibition space can create another space and the audience can be then be immersed in the artwork.
What are you trying to achieve or communicate through your artistic practice?
If you want to understand an artist, it seems like you need to go to a blog or to Facebook. But … you cannot tell who the artist is from only one or two words. I think you need to go through their series of works. My art reflects how I think and my interests. … It’s like reading a diary, the diary is … my artworks. Through the artworks you can see what happened to the artist or to their surrounding environment at [a particular] moment.
How do you want people to feel and what do you want them to think about when they’re viewing your works, particularly those that are interactive?
At this moment, I’m open to any possibility. Normally, I just let [the audience] do whatever they want, no matter whether they actually understand, try to understand, don’t want to understand, feel like an outsider, go for it or don’t want to look at [the work]. What exists is the space, together with the behavior of the audience, that’s the reality. I just want to see the results.
What is your next project? Will you continue to work with words?
To try and finish my PhD! I’ve studied for almost five years and this year is my last. I [also] want to … paint, [using] Chinese characters [as a subject]. This next stage will be ‘energetic’, but the process of experiencing these Chinese characters will be slow and spiritual. I’m testing white paper at this moment and working with Chinese frames, testing different kinds of wood. I want to apply Chinese characters to the wood and paper. So yeah, I’ll definitely work with words. I really want to be a full-time painter.
About our words-in-art interview series
We would like readers to note that we hope to provide an insight into, rather than a comprehensive study of, the feature of words in art. Also, as we are focussing on a specific geographical area, Asia, we realise that this in no way represents a world-view of the concept and we welcome comments from readers regarding the use of text and words by artists living and creating in areas outside of the Asian region.
We have already spoken with Indian new media collective Raqs and Filipino painter Manuel Ocampo. So who’s next? It could be any one of the following artists: Sujata Bajaj (India), Wenda Gu (China) or Josephine Starrs (Australia). To find out more about what these artists have to say about words in art, please continue to follow our series over the coming weeks.
- Words in Art: How does Manuel Ocampo avoid alphabet soup? – March 2011 – Ocampo talks about how words and philosophy play their roles in his art creation
- Words in Art: India’s Raqs Media Collective sees all words as equal – January 2011 – Raqs talk about how they use written language to express their artistic views
- Art Radar explores use of words in Asian contemporary art: A series introduction – December 2010 – find out what our “Words in Art” series is all about
- Is text writing or image? Bloomberg prize-winner Phoebe Hui examines – video interview – June 2010 – an overview of a ChooChoo TV interview with this Hong Kong artist who explores the use of text as a medium
- Questioning “Made in China” – Interview Avant-Garde Beijing Artist: Huang Ru – October 2009 – a Beijing artist who dares to think and act differently in a society that demands conformity