Magdalen Wong Isn’t Clowning Around

Magdalen Wong’s latest show at Current Plans is no laughing matter. It’s about clowns but it’s also about failing, as seen through the lens of clowns. One work, “Circles Rectangles and Parallel Lens” (2024), depicts a clown intently watching documentaries about utopian lands that are forever unattainable. Meanwhile, in “Spa” (2019), a clown is seen undergoing spa treatment for their red nose — one of its most recognisable thus precious features — when they suddenly emit a violent sneeze, putting an end to the calming ritual.

While the notion of clowns might conjure up images of circus clowns or the scary clowns that haunt horror movies, they are also a way to explore humankind’s pursuit of ideals and how that endeavour will ultimately end in disappointment. That’s the focus of Sour Punch, Wong’s solo exhibition at Current Plans. “The thing about trying to reach an ideal is that you’re always on the path of reaching the ideal,” says the Hong Kong-born, Lisbon-based artist.

She specifically likens this to the fool character in the Commedia dell’Arte tradition, a form of Italian theatre featuring stock characters and revolves around themes such as love, death and oppression. The fool or clown in these set pieces or movies are often given the licence to fail.

This also runs contrary to the idea of progress – the bedrock of a capitalist society like Hong Kong. “Why do we always need a goal in life? Is striving for a goal the only way to live a meaningful life? Is it possible that a person [can]  just live without having to follow a certain path?” asks Wong, a question the artist has been wondering about for many years.

Wong has experienced her own share of failures. As a hyperactive child growing up in Hong Kong, she was nicknamed “Old Master Q,” referring to the clownish Hong Kong comic character known for being slightly mischievous, somewhat lazy and prone to getting into trouble. “When you are young you don’t really have any boundaries, she reflects. “Sometimes I’d do things that I found funny but annoyed others.” One time, she practised falling down the stairs at school. Another time, she wanted to do a somersault at the edge of the public pool, but just when the lifeguard had his back to her, her head hit the side of the pool. “The swollen bit on my forehead ended up in the shape of a cross. It was hilarious. I was like this cartoon figure.” 

She struggled academically under the city’s stuffy education system, where perfect grades seem to be the only goal. The young Master Q found relief when her family moved to the United States, where there were different definitions of what failure and success mean. But it was before the move, while still in Hong Kong, that she discovered her love of art, alongside her twin sister, who was also hyperactive. Drawing was the only thing that calmed the sisters down, “though we still stabbed each other with our pencils,” Wong laughs. 

Wong found academic success in the States, where she studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art before going on to earn an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After graduating, she landed a job as a lecturer at the newly opened Academy of Visual Arts (AVA) at Hong Kong Baptist University. “I’d just graduated, and had nothing to do. My grandmother also wanted me to stay, so I did,” she says with a shrug. 

For freedom-loving Wong, AVA was an exciting place to be. “I had the freedom to design the curriculum from scratch,” she says. She recalls how the AVA’s first director, Wan Qingli, told her, “We need to do something different in Hong Kong!” During those early days, students were free to experiment with a broad range of mediums including performance, sound, ink, glass and ceramics. Small class sizes also meant teachers and students were able to build closer relationships. “Everybody was encouraged to push boundaries.” 

As the school became more institutionalised however, Wong found herself getting bored. “We had to write grants, everything needed to be outcome-based,” she says. She also had little time to make art. So she resigned and packed her bags for New York. In the Big Apple, she made friends and visited “a ton of shows,” but the city also wore her down. “It was very distracting. Even though I can finally be an artist, it was difficult to make art,” she says. 

Despite the distractions, she found inspiration in both Hong Kong and New York, two pillars of modern capitalism. Her works from this period critique consumerist culture. “Gloves” (2013) is a video featuring three gloves moving in a way that mimics the hands poses found on rubber gloves packaging. Meanwhile, in “Glow” (2013), Wong paints only the white rays often seen behind washing detergents. One of her strongest works during this period, “Splash, milk marble” (2010), is a sculptural rendering of the milk splashes seen on milk cartons. The sculptures are absurd but also possess a strange elegance akin to real marble sculptures. 

Stripping these visuals of their commercial context and only retaining their aesthetic properties, these works cheekily critique how easy — and necessary — the romanticisation of simple and basic and simple consumable objects like a cleaning glove, detergent white rays and milk splashes can be in a capitalist society. “Today we are always searching for an ideal, for perfection, especially with social media. Commercials are all about capitalising on these ideals,” says Wong. 

But Wong insists that she isn’t so much denouncing the capitalist ideal as simply examining it. “I mean, I cannot deny I am very much living in it,” she says. The last thing Wong wants is to be trapped in some form of ideology. In New York, she felt she either had to be an artist from Hong Kong or a feminist artist. “I felt one always needs an angle in New York,” she says. “People would ask, ‘You are from Hong Kong, why don’t you do something related to neon signs?’ Or ‘I see underlying tones of sexuality in your works. It could have a feminist message.’” She shrugs. “In the United States, art needs to somehow always be about politics, whether personal or social politics.” 

Spectacle is also very much part of American culture. In the commercial world, billboard and television commercials often have to fight over each other for consumers’ attention. In the art world, one only needs to look at the rise of Jeff Koons — known for his gigantic balloon sculptures — in the 2000s. “One time, I was exhibiting my Splash sculptures in my studio. They’re quite small. A friend came over and said, you are in New York, you should make it big,” Wong recalls. Which would have been ironic, since her works are a critique of the very loudness of capitalist ideals. 

It’s a train of thought that continues through Sour Punch. Among the works, there is a tension between the search for an ideal and doing nothing. While the former is exemplified by videos of clowns watching TV and undergoing a spa treatment, the latter is represented by an installation in one corner of the gallery, where an elongated clown hand appears to extend from the ceiling, its thumb rubbing on the floor. It’s a largely meaningless gesture. When asked why she added it to the show, Wong simply laughs, “I don’t know. I just like it.” 

But the show also imbues earlier critiques of the unrelenting chase for progress with poignancy. The video of a clown trying to perfect his drumroll backstage but forever failing and thus never stepping onto the stage is profoundly sad. Is it the growing recognition that the search for an ideal is something we can never get out of? 

Today, Wong has made the conscious decision to move away from hyper-capitalist environments. A few years ago, she moved to Lisbon, and appears to be living the idyllic artist life. “More and more, I just want to sit in my studio and work,” she says. 

 

Sour Punch runs until April 27, 2024 at Current Plans.

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