The Frog King gives a wry smile as he prepares his poses for our photoshoot. He is standing in his signature outlandish get-up as the mid-afternoon sun beats down on his neck, but it’s an experience Hong Kong’s most flamboyant artist seems to relish from start to finish. He grunts, growls, and shrieks “Frog you!” at various intervals throughout the process.
To say the Frog King is a good sport would be an understatement of the tallest order. Born in Guangzhou in 1947 — his real name is Kwok Mang-ho — he is a natural entertainer with a heart the size of an elephant who adores creating spectacles for his audience. He has a larger-than-life presence that feels part magician, part jester, part ageing, befuddled academic.
Halfway through the shoot, Kwok pulls out large paintbrushes and sets them alight with a flamethrower. This is done as he sits inside his cramped studio talking about the five elements — metal, wood, water, fire and earth— their relationship to Chinese philosophy, and how he works with them in his performance art pieces. Surrounded by handmade decorations that fill the room from top to bottom, including bras with eyes drawn on, rolls of toilet paper, and his signature “froggy symbol” cut out of wood, one does worry a little bit about the good King’s safety.
“Do I have fire extinguishers? Oh no, I don’t have any of those. I have this,” he says, when we enquire about the safety of his fire show performance. He points at what looks like a bottle of water with a nozzle, with a jovial, distracted insouciance one might expect of an over-zealous chemistry professor who has just received a new set of Bunsen burners he’s far too eager to try out.For the uninitiated, the Frog King is Hong Kong’s most prolific, singular and probably wildest performance artist, whose body of work spans decades and who has garnered a name for himself as oddball extraordinaire in Hong Kong’s ever diversifying but often rather earnest art scene. Now in his 70s, Kwok aims to have produced exactly nine million pieces of art in his life time. Why nine million? “Because I like that number,” he says. “It sounds like a lot.”
Unlike some other artists of his stature who know how to work the system, monetise their acclaim and carefully manage and protect the value of their work and brand, Kwok’s rise to prominence has not led to fortune. That’s partly because so much of his work is ephemeral and therefore difficult to sell, and partly because much of what he does make, he gives away to friends.
Kwok now resides in a rather modest bungalow in the depths of Yuen Long, where he also has a studio and lives with two dogs, his third wife, Cho (whom he calls the Frog Queen) and a tub of baby frogs who do little to fend off the mosquitos that circle the water. (Kwok also has an exuberantly decorated studio in the Cattle Depot Artists’ Village in To Kwa Wan.) He is happy here, but he misses his Frog Queen, who is temporarily away in her native Korea.
Born in Guangdong, Kwok grew up in Hong Kong, attending school in Yau Ma Tai where his mother served as headteacher. She was rather unenthusiastic at Kwok’s budding aspirations to become an artist. “She was not happy when I decided to be an artist. She said it would be a very suffering life,” he recalls.
But this did not deter him from walking down the path he had envisioned, one motivated by the twin desires of making curious objects and bringing joy and surprise to the people he comes across. Kwok was inspired by the Fluxus movement of the 1970s, which strove to destroy the boundaries between life and art. This was a vibrant movement that rejected the idea that meaningful art could only exist in museums or be understood by the elite. Often calling their work “anti-art,” these artists were also heavily inspired by the works of composer John Cage, who believed in emphasising process over final product.
Kwok embodies these ideals in the sense that he sees himself as a living work of art, incorporating performance in day-to-day activities. One gesture for which he is particularly known is briefly lending anyone he comes across his pair of handmade froggy sunglasses and taking a photograph of them. Among the individuals who have been lucky enough to have been snapped with Kwok’s froggy glasses are David Bowie and video art pioneer Nam Jun-Paik. But one doesn’t have to be famous to earn the right to don those glasses. Kwok will snap anyone he comes across, a testament to his values that art is really for everyone.
Besides performance art, Kwok works in multimedia and sculpture, sometimes exploring new materials and formats. He has a particular fondness for working with plastics and other mundane household materials. What binds everything together is the theme of the frog, an animal Kwok adopted as a young man, when he played the part of a frog prince as he started dating women in Hong Kong. This was a playful reference to the famous Grimm brother’s story about a frog who, if kissed, will turn into a prince. Kwok thought it was a nice opening line.
But the symbol of the frog, which Kwok embodies in a shape that also looks like a ship, has come to represent more than a peculiar chat up line. Being amphibious, frogs can live on land and in water, existing at the threshold of both worlds. The Frog King exists between worlds, too, in the sense that he is half imagined, half physical, and his practice bridges Chinese and Western forms of art. Trained by the father of contemporary ink art, Liu Shou-kwan, Kwok plays with script and calligraphy, as well as other key ingredients of Chinese art, but he also takes his cues from the global canon of modern and contemporary art.
In 1980, Kwok moved to New York, buoyed by the promise of inspiration in what was then the world’s art capital. This was when abstract expression became the genre du jour, and it saw the rise of the likes of Rothko, de Kooning and Pollock. Pop art’s irreverence also became an important fixture of New York’s art world, which blurred the boundaries between fine art and commercial design.
Like many who move to a new city, New York was a place for Kwok to reinvent himself. This is when he decided to ascend to the throne of Frog King. He wandered the streets of New York in his eccentric garb, which was more readily accepted in bohemian New York than it had been in stodgy Hong Kong. This also happened to be the era when graffiti was born, and Kwok was inspired by the new art form’s daring spontaneity, citing among his influences the playful works of Keith Haring, whose raw, irreverent persona and use of personally created, easily recognisable symbols chime with the Kwok’s own creative ambitions.
Life in New York wasn’t everything it promised. What had been touted a multicultural hub still made Kwok feel like an outsider, and he says he never quite found his footing there, feeling uncomfortable as an immigrant. He returned to Hong Kong in 1995, owing to the deteriorating health of his mother, and has remained ever since. He says he is happy here and he feels at home. Most importantly, after years of financial hardship and after much hard work, he finally feels accepted. His years as a struggling eccentric artist have finally begun to pay off as Hong Kong starts to respect off-the-wall figures and non-conformist ways of life.
As our photoshoot comes to an end, Kwok brandishes two strange, staff-like objects in the air for a final pose and shrugs. ‘You know, some people say I’m not really following the trends. They say I’m not very minimalist.” With his extortionately overbearing insignia and wildly overbearing presence one can see how he does sort of buck the Zeitgeist. He’s about as Maximalist as one can get, and certainly lacks that “I’m about to quote Derrida” sombreness so many in art world possess.
But being the Frog King isn’t always easy. Sometimes Kwok admits that he just likes to go incognito. Especially when he’s out buying fruit in the local market, and it’s hot and he’s just tired of being the Frog King. But those occasional moments of performance fatigue certainly don’t outweigh the obvious joy his froggy life brings. “You know, sometimes when I have to taxi to Central to go to a party and I’m wearing these clothes, the drivers say, ‘I am so honoured to have a king in my car.’ That is funny. This makes me happy.”
“Frog King turns 70, Experiments in Ink since the 1970s”, runs from September 29 to November 25, 2017 at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery. Click here for more information.