A wind up frog. A vibrant nutcracker with a manic grin. A battalion of antique alarm clocks. These are some of the many curios that have found their way from flea markets across mainland China into the studio of Hong Kong artist Leo Wong, whose works will be showcased at this year’s Affordable Art Fair.
For Wong, collecting and amassing these rare finds is not only an engaging hobby, but also a vital source of inspiration, informing much of his thinking on a subject central to his artistic practise: that of memory, and the materials which can contain it. His ever-expanding collection of objects numbers over 100. Among them he boasts a German morse-code machine, a bronze lighter and a series of Qing Dynasty smoking pipes. They lie dotted around his workshop in Kwun Tong, a space where he can take time out to reflect on the life and stories of old things.
Wong is an artist with a focus on materiality and the physical world, and with an interest in combining traditional Chinese aesthetic values with contemporary themes. His practice involves bringing together found objects with sculptural creations of his own making. It’s a process that starts by scouring stalls for knick knacks that take his fancy and discovering the stories that come with them. For Wong, stories are the lifeblood of memory, and the objects that carry them, vessels helping preserve that which might otherwise be forgotten.
Born in Hong Kong in the 1980s, Wong studied here and in Melbourne. He is rather phlegmatic and soft spoken, and prefers to speak in Cantonese, but is quick to correct mistranslations of his ideas. Brought up in Chai Wan, art has been a part of his life for almost as long as he can remember, having often visited the studio of a close family friend as a child. That friend was a traditional Chinese painter who focused on ornate and detailed fine brush works depicting animals and figures in motion.
Wong’s curiosity in the world of Chinese art naturally followed an interest in the rich philosophical teachings this heritage is infused with, and, as per many contemporary Chinese artists whose works act as a dialogue between the current generation and the old masters, Wong both adopts and breaks with traditional aesthetic values specific to the Chinese art canon. Among the themes explored in his works is that of substance, lightness and heaviness, and how these ideas manifest themselves in the material and immaterial worlds. These are themes that touch on the topographies of heaven and earth, alongside ideas around art, eternity and transcendence.
“Hong Kong has changed so much, we sometimes feel like passengers in our own city.”
But Wong’s works and ideas aren’t restricted to the lofty terrains of millenia-old spirituality. Rather, he seeks to explore them within the context of contemporary Hong Kong, looking at what aspects of a legacy can be preserved, and what falls away with the passing of time. An example of said practise manifests itself in a pair of sculptures called “The Smoke,” both of which use rescued antiques as a base for a sculptural work, one a cage-like candle holder, another a Qing Dynasty pipe made out of copper.Wong is particularly enamoured with copper and how it loses its lustre and starts to oxidise if it is never touched. Just as memories need tangible receptacles, like a photograph, a diary, or a little trinket, such that they don’t fall into the ether of forgetting, so too is copper subject to degradation only regular revisiting, by way of touching, can offset. Jutting out, both the pipe and the candle holder are concrete clouds moulded by Wong, expressing his thoughts on what makes up the collective memory of Hong Kong.
“Concrete is tough, but the moulding technique I used allows it to look light, smooth, almost fluffy,” he says. The juxtaposition of the lightness of the cloud with the heaviness of its material is quite emblematic of Hong Kong, a city in which endless giant structures of cement stretch into the sky. Perched on one of these clouds are tiny models of red barricades, again combining themes of a city in various states of construction and demolition, with loftier allusions to flight and weightlessness evoked by the cloud-like form. This interplay of sky and earth, a duality at the heart of Chinese mythology, finds its expression in Wong’s line of inquiry that is tracing the life and soul of contemporary Hong Kong as found in its physical forms, its tangibility and its landscape.
That’s something that manifests itself in another one of Wong’s creative ventures – one in which he depicts Hong Kong scenes on glass, such that light bouncing off it reveals the the city’s skyline, or else a rainy day peering out of tram on Shau Kei Wan. “This piece asks the question, what is landscape?” he says. “In China, ink art depicts mountains, like Huang Shan. In Hong Kong, it’s the monumental buildings.” As he speaks, he is standing in front of a piece that shows the 415-metre-tall International Finance Centre amidst floating clouds. With Wong’s trademark thoughtfulness on the symbolism a material carries, he describes the significance of opting for glass, a tricky material choice owing to its brittleness.
“I chose glass to ask questions about memory,” he says. “You can’t touch memory. It’s here, but it’s not here.” That raises a broader question: how do we hold on to that which we cannot grasp? How can Hong Kong retain its memories, and by extension, its sense of identity, if the vessels carrying them disappear day by day? Wong belongs to a generation of Hongkongers that have witnessed its rapid development, as the city’s gleaming towers stretch higher and higher into the sky as the life and characters of old neighbourhoods are whittled away. He’s not at all enthralled by these changes.
“We don’t need to develop Hong Kong anymore – this is enough,” he says, adding that he believes this development comes with an attitude that places economic growth over more humanistic values. He fears further development will wipe away the memories so integral to the life of his home. “Hong Kong has changed so much, we sometimes feel like passengers in our own city.”