Sunflowers growing in a swimming pool. Nuns having a picnic among skyscrapers. A couple passionately kissing, encircled by an ominous ring of video cameras. These are just a few of the wacky and whimsical images that appear in the paintings of Hong Kong artist Mak Ying Tung 2, who over the past few years has established herself as a leading light of the local art scene. Her work is laden with big ideas about technology, surveillance culture and consumerism but, perhaps most importantly to Mak2, her art is often funny.
“Humour is important to me,” says Mak2, who is something of a Peter Pan figure in the po-faced art world, bringing a sense of impish glee to everything she works on. Even her name amuses people: professionally, she has gone by Mak Ying Tung 2 or Mak2 since 2018, when a fortune-teller told her that to achieve fame and fortune she should increase the number of strokes in her Chinese name from 33 to 35, an auspicious number that is associated with prosperity in traditional Chinese culture. Mak2 decided it was too much trouble to actually change her name, so instead began tacking on two strokes — the number two — to the end of her name, resulting in 麥影彤二. She thinks it worked: shortly after the addition, she received a series of offers to work with art galleries. “I’m going to say something very cheesy now, but humour is like my saviour,” she says.
Mak2 was born in 1989 in Hong Kong and grew up in the working-class district of Wong Tai Sin. Her parents were always supportive of Mak2 and her older sister but, Mak2 says, she felt stifled by the expectations of larger society: to work hard and get good grades at school, go to university, and end up in an office job. “If I followed the pattern that society gave me, life would be very hard,” she says. “It would be no fun.”
Her pursuit of fun led Mak2 to City University, where she studied creative media, a wide-ranging degree that includes the study of animation, interactive media, and video games, among others. Before she even graduated, Mak2 was hand-picked by celebrated curator Hans Ulrich Obrist to take part in a panel discussion at Art Basel in Hong Kong in 2013, which marked her out as an artist to watch. Since then, Mak2 has had her work exhibited at institutions around the world, including the Whitechapel Gallery in London and the Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas, and had a series of shows in Hong Kong at de Sarthe, the gallery that has represented her since 2018. Coming up, Mak2 has a show at Tao Art in Taipei, running from February 18 to April 15, and an exhibition at the buzzy Peres Projects in Berlin, open from March 24 to April 21. She has also spent the past few months co-writing and directing her first TV series, Hong Kong’s Next Top Artist, which is premiering online on February 17.
“Two exhibitions and a TV project. Maybe it has been too much work,” she admits, her almost permanent smile momentarily slipping. “It’s been a lot of pressure. I’ve never worked so hard.”
The exhibitions at both Tao Art and Peres Projects will feature new paintings from Mak2’s most famous series: Home Sweet Home. For these works, Mak2 creates dreamlike scenarios in the video game The Sims. She then takes a screenshot of a scene in the game that captures her imagination, divides the screenshot into three and has each third of the image painted by a different artist, who she commissions through the Chinese e-commerce website Taobao. Each artist is given as little instruction as possible, so when Mak2 unites the three completed paintings to form a single work, they are often comically mismatched: colours clash, walls don’t align, and buildings become lopsided. Occasionally, people’s bodies are chopped in half. These works are a mischievous exploration of the disjoints between fantasy and reality. While playing The Sims, Mak2 has the ability to create a perfect world, a power that nobody has in real life. In the game, Mak2 often designs sprawling penthouses that are filled with objects that symbolise wealth: swimming pools, Greco-Roman statues, and sometimes simply piles of gold bars. But once Mak2 has created her utopia, the act of building that dream on canvas in the real world proves impossible. The paintings are simultaneously a reflection of the enviable lives that we are fed through screens every day — on social media, in games, and on TV — and proof that the perfection we’re fed is a lie, a tactic by corporations to keep the public on the hamster wheel of capitalism, constantly striving for something that does not exist. The paintings never match the screenshots. Reality can never live up to fantasy.
Mak2 has not articulated whether she intends the Home Sweet Home series to explore any political ideas, but it’s perhaps not coincidental that she started the series in 2019, a year when Hong Kong was rocked by political unrest and many residents of the city were questioning what their dreams were for their hometown.
The artist’s latest paintings in the Home Sweet Home series are particularly inspired by her new interest in reality-TV dating shows, like the Netflix sensation Too Hot to Handle or the hit show Love Island, which has become one of the most-watched programmes in the UK since its launch in 2015. Mak2 was especially drawn to Single’s Inferno, a Korean programme in which six men and six women are left on an inhospitable island. Couples who pair up are taken to a luxury hotel for a night, while singles are left in the wilderness. When they’re on the island, contestants aren’t allowed to reveal their age or occupation to each other, a ploy to make any attraction that does spark between people seem more authentic. “You know it’s scripted, but they act like it’s not,” says Mak2. “I like when things are between fake and real. It’s strange and funny.”
When creating her new works, Mak2 created her own mock reality-TV dating show on The Sims. The titles of both exhibitions even sound like dating programmes: Palace of Love at Tao Art and Love Pool at Peres Projects. “I decided to ask my Sims to play those roles,” she says. While making the works, Mak2 looked beyond the places and objects that often defined earlier Home Sweet Home paintings — luxury apartments, plush furniture, a tropical garden complete with two pet tigers — to the avatars that inhabited her digital worlds. Ultimately, Mak2 is suggesting that the relationships modelled on reality-TV are as much an unattainable fantasy as the homes she creates on The Sims.
To reveal the artifice at the heart of dating shows, in some of her new works for Tao Art Mak2 has dressed her Sims in opulent period fashion. The disjunction between these old clothes and the technology surrounding the characters — most notably the TV cameras recording their every move — makes it clear that the paintings feature staged performances, not real-life romance. At least one of the new works also features a character of a director in the scene, sitting in jeans, trainers and a casual shirt, voyeuristically watching the other Sims act out relationships in their outlandish old costumes.
The sinister feeling of being watched — particularly by cameras and other surveillance technology — has long been a topic of Mak2’s work. In 2017, she created an installation titled You Better Watch Out, made up of an enormous snow-globe-esque structure, taller than a person, filled with colourful foam balls that were propelled around the sphere by a fan. Among the balls, if viewers looked closely, were hidden a handful of plastic QR codes. If a visitor managed to scan one of those QR codes, they were taken to a livestream video of themselves looking at the artwork. The installation was initially enticing and appeared to be harmless, but it was actually a mechanism for surveilling the audience.
It was a striking and unsettling metaphor for how lots of social media functions – and it was also funny. Some visitors gasped at seeing themselves on their own phones, while others giggled nervously. Mak2 is so committed to making people laugh that, for more than two years, she has quietly been pursuing a lifelong dream to work as a stand-up comedian. In 2020, shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, she took part in her first open-mic night in Lan Kwai Fong. In 2022, she took part in a competition at the Hong Kong International Laugh Festival to find the next big comic in the city. She made it to the final round and came second overall.
Mak2 is now bringing her sense of humour to the screen. She recently completed a residency as part of the Creative Tomorrow art and technology festival hosted by the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD), during which she filmed the first five-episode season of a TV show, Hong Kong’s Next Top Artist. It will premiere on WKCD’s website and YouTube channel on February 17. “Working in film is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Second is stand-up. Third is art,” says Mak2. “But I’m happy because, as an artist, I always feel lonely because I always work alone. Making a show is different because there were 10 people in the crew. I loved the teamwork. It wasn’t just about me anymore – it was all about the piece.”
Hong Kong’s Next Top Artist is a mockumentary that follows an unsuccessful artist who gets a makeover. Mak2 says the series is based on a real artist in Hong Kong, whose work she admires but who has never achieved much success – partly, she thinks, because he presents himself so badly. There is the possibility of a second series, although nothing is confirmed yet. “I really want to make a series two,” says Mak2. “We’ll see. It was much harder than I thought it would be. But I tried my best. I have no regrets.”
Whether Hong Kong’s Next Top Artist turns into a longer project or not, working in such a different medium has given Mak2 the confidence to keep pushing herself in new directions. “My dream is that people can never define who I am,” she says. “And every time people see me or my work, they always find new things. I want to keep challenging myself creatively because it gives me a sense of satisfaction. Like when athletes hit a certain goal, they feel happy. Or when chefs make a good dish, they feel happy. It’s as simple as that. I like creating – that’s how I find satisfaction.”
Working in TV has also made Mak2 reflect on her approach to her art. “I am starting to take things more seriously,” she says. “With filming, there are so many tasks. Every day there are new problems.” So she had to be organised, plan everything carefully and constantly negotiate with her team. Unlike with her paintings, she couldn’t take the project in a different direction if she woke up one morning with a new idea.
Following Hong Kong’s Next Top Artist, Mak2 says she is even starting to take her paintings more seriously. When she started the Home Sweet Home series, she wasn’t particularly concerned with the composition of the images; she was more focused on whether the image encapsulated key ideas she wanted to explore. But now she finds herself agonising over her paintings. “I’m concerned more and more with whether they’re beautiful or not,” she says.
So is fun no longer her main priority? Is Mak2 leaving Neverland to finally grow up? No, she says. She’s just realised that the more seriously she takes her work, the better her work will be – and the more fun she can have making it. “I’m not taking everything more seriously,” she says, laughing. “I’m taking fun more seriously.”
Hong Kong’s Next Top Artist premieres on West Kowloon Cultural District’s website and YouTube channel on February 17. Palace of Love is on display at Tao Art in Taipei from February 18 to April 15. Love Pool is on display at Peres Projects in Berlin from March 24 to April 21.