Chan Ka-kiu and the Nature of Desire

In the film programme of Art Basel Hong Kong this year, the artist Chan Ka-kiu is showing Back & Forth & Back, a roughly six-minute-long video that follows an anthropomorphic horse who dies and wakes up in heaven. The horse is surprised — it thought it was going to hell — and so embarks on a journey to find the god who brought them here. It travels for miles, finds the grandest palace in heaven, steps inside to meet its god and finds… an ape. 

“When I was a kid, my mum taught me the story of evolution, of how apes evolved into humans. She taught me that before telling me that God made man in his own image,” says Chan, who grew up in a Catholic family. “So I asked my mum, ‘Does God look like an ape?’” Chan’s mother rejected that disrespectful suggestion, but it did not seem ridiculous to Chan, for reasons she has finally articulated in Back & Forth & Back. “In the video, God, the ape, says, ‘Whatever you imagine me to be, you’ll see that face in heaven.” 

This veering between the irreverent and the philosophical defines much of Chan’s art, which uses humour to tackle big questions about faith, ambition and what defines success. Chan’s work often features stories of the afterlife, but she is less interested in theorising what happens after death than in exploring what our visions of heaven and hell reveal about ourselves and our societies. Heaven is the manifestation of what we long for, hell the realisation of everything we dread, but are the stereotypical images of these places really what we truly desire? 

In Back & Forth & Back, the horse walks through miles of beautiful meadows, like those out of historic depictions of paradise. But the fields are so monotonous, and the journey so endless, that it ends up asking themselves: am I actually in heaven, or is this hell? “The ending of the video is unknown,” says Chan. “They keep walking and you don’t know if they get to where they want to go at the end. Everything goes dark, but you can still hear the horse walking. What is the meaning of heaven if it’s not a place you want to be?” 

Back & Forth & Back is one of the products of Late to the Party, a residency and solo exhibition of Chan’s work last year at De Sarthe Gallery. For the show, Chan worked in the gallery for two months, transforming the space into a series of immersive experiences that were then on show to the public for two weeks. Chan turned the gallery into a three-dimensional reimagining of Hieronymus Bosch’s famous The Garden of Earthly Delights. Inspired by that painting, Chan divided the space into three parts: heaven, Earth and hell. 

All three sections contained humorous moments. Hell featured the video that has morphed into Back & Forth & Back; Earth had a child’s inflatable ball pit; and Heaven was dominated by a three-channel video work featuring Jesus, Siddhartha and Lucifer singing as if they were in a boy band, raising questions about who people worship today.  

Chan believes that humour in art is often “overlooked and undervalued,” but that a handful of other artists have inspired her to use it in her work. Among these are the British artist Martin Creed, best known for his installation Work No. 227: The lights going on and off, which is an empty room with the lights programmed to turn on and off at five-second intervals, and Hongkonger Mak2, who is also represented by De Sarthe Gallery. 

But Chan also believes that it was inevitable that humour would creep into her work, just because it has always been part of who she is. “My teacher at school told my mum that whenever I don’t know how to react to something, I smile or laugh,” says Chan. “It’s my coping mechanism. Whenever anything is too much for me, I’ll try to turn it into something funny. When I tell a sad story in a funny way, and people laugh, it makes me think, ‘Oh, maybe it’s not as heavy as I imagined.’ Through humour, I want to make my artwork lighter – the themes are heavy to me, but processing it through humour makes it easier to digest, easier to look at.” 

Similarly, Chan says that television played such a pivotal role in her childhood that it is the medium that comes most naturally to her. “TV taught me how to express myself in a digital way,” she says. “I grew up in a household where, if somebody was in, the TV was on. I grew up with cable TV channels that played movies 24/7.” 

However, unlike many artists who work in video, Chan does not think there is a strict divide between her art and videos that might be dismissed as entertainment – TikTok clips, films, TV shows and the like. “Art can be one kind of entertainment,” says Chan, who assesses whether her art is entertaining as she is making it. “I want [people] to stay a little longer to look at my art, to be entertained by it.” 

Part of the reason that Chan sees her work as inextricable from the stream of images that fill our screens is because her art is often made up of these images. Chan rarely films new scenes herself or creates original animations. Instead, she makes videos using AI or by compiling and editing clips that she finds on the internet. 

Back & Forth & Back was mainly made using AI, but at the very beginning of the video is a short montage of found footage that Chan found online. “It’s like the carousel of images before your eyes that people say you get just before you die,” she says. “There’s a video of the first time a baby blew out a candle, to an old lady with fake teeth, I think it was [her] 102nd birthday. When she blew out her candles, she blew her teeth out.” She argues that these found images add extra layers of meaning to her art. Each video brings its own backstory, its own characters and its own style. “It becomes richer than something I could ever have created alone,” she says. 

While Back & Forth & Back will be screened as part of Art Basel in Hong Kong’s film programme, De Sarthe Gallery will showcase Tickle Tickle a new video by Chan at its booth. At the time of writing, the work was still being finalised. Chan describes it as being inspired by people’s relationships with their pets: the way people baby their pets, the desire many people express to swap places with their pets, and the freedom in being under the complete control of somebody else, like pets are with their owners. 

“I’m happy with my life, I love what I’m doing, I have a lot of energy for what I’m doing, but sometimes we all get tired and want to be kids again,” says Chan, who owns four cats. “Life can be overwhelming sometimes. Once in a while, you want to escape a little bit. Those are the times I want to be someone’s pet instead of my own person.” 

In some ways, this project seems like the opposite of Back & Forth & Back. That work explores what happens at the end of life, while this pet-inspired series investigates an impulse to return to childhood. But underpinning them both are questions about desire: what do we desire? How do we express that? How do we react if that desire is thwarted? Perhaps most interestingly: what happens if we get what we desire, then realise it’s not enough? 

Chan thinks that her experience of growing up in Hong Kong is what sparked her interest in trying to understand the nature of desire. The city is famously hyper-capitalist, a playground of consumerism that boasts the highest per-capita spending in the world on luxury goods, ahead of Switzerland and Singapore. 

“Everyone here wants everything,” says Chan, laughing, although she doesn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. “When you have things that you want, that’s what keeps you going. Desire for people, desire for things, desire for anything really – it’s important. It’s important for staying alive. As long as you don’t hurt other people, or take from other people, go for it. It’s the scariest when you don’t want anything.” 

Art Basel Hong Kong’s 2024 edition runs from March 26 to March 30 at the Convention and Exhibition Centre. 

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