More Than Reality: How Stephen Wong Paints During the Pandemic

Last April, when Covid-19 was raging across Asia, Wong Chun-hei visited Kyoto – virtually. After the Hong Kong artist’s trip to the city was cancelled as a result of the pandemic, he spent a few days “wandering around” in front of his laptop, following his original itinerary. 

The trip did little to sate his appetite for travel. “It only made me want to go there more!” he says. But it did inspire a new project based on Google Earth, Google Travelling, in which Wong visits and paints some of the most iconic sceneries across the globe, all from his Hong Kong studio. These digital adventures have inspired a new collection of works that will be exhibited at the end of June, including paintings of the Scottish Highlands, Japan’s Meoto Iwa—more commonly known as the Married Couple Rocks—and ten other locations. At first look, they mark a departure from Wong’s past landscape paintings, which often depict Hong Kong’s mountains and hiking trails. But Wong has always resisted painting reality exactly as it is. 

His interest in drawing started young. Obsessed with Japanese anime characters as a child, he’d sketch them and make them his own. “Even then, I found there was so much you could do with a piece of paper. It helps you realise what you cannot get in reality,” he says. For a few summers during high school, Wong honed his drawing skills by taking lessons from his art teacher cousin in Guangzhou. “It was a very old fashioned way of art-making. My task was to draw the object in front of you, in exactly the way it appeared. What these lessons might lack in creativity, they made up for in equipping Wong with skills and perseverance required of a painter.”

It wasn’t until he got to the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the late 2000s that Wong started to think about what subject matters he wanted to address, or what questions he wanted to raise with his art. Under the guidance of adjunct professor Kurt Chan, an artist known for his inquisitions into the history and meaning of drawings, mixed media installation and public art, Wong produced mixed media installations that leaned towards the conceptual. In such foray into conceptual art, he asked a class of first year students to paint an object he made and then exhibit their paintings. The piece was more performance than sculpture or painting.

Wong says he barely picked up a paintbrush during university; there was a time when he feared his painting wouldn’t be “contemporary” enough. But he didn’t stay away from drawing and painting for long. He rekindled his passion by painting landscapes from video games, partly because he was an avid video game player, partly because he felt he needed to produce work that was more conceptual. “Back in those days, painting was very uncool as a medium,” he says. “Everyone was doing conceptual art. So I thought, why don’t I paint unreal landscapes? Will that give people more to think about?” 

While he has come a long way from that initial moment of insecurity, Wong has never been particularly interested in depicting reality as such – but rather his reactions to it. Although he always brings along a sketchbook on hikes, there are gaps of memory, which Wong fills on canvas by tapping into his imagination. Most of what ends up on his canvas is pulled from his mind. As an artist, he relishes in this amalgamation of reality and imagination, what he dubs the “inaccurate version of nature.”

What is nature through Wong’s eyes? There is no easy answer. He speaks of nature as an “ideal place” where he returns again and again for inspiration. Yet, he also feels like a passerby – a state that he perhaps relishes. “In a way, I don’t need to have a deep understanding of nature at all,” he says. “I don’t need how many trees are planted here, or what type of trees they are. If I do, I’d just become obsessed with portraying everything correctly.” It’s also a place he can navigate and discover at his own pace, and in the process, making it his own. Ironically, that means maintaining a certain unfamiliarity with nature. 

Jat’s Incline by Stephen Wong Chun-hei

At the Spotlight by Art Basel fair last Fall, the first thing avid fans might notice of Wong’s work “Jat’s Incline” are the tendrils of fuschia that form some of the tree branches. It’s a colour Wong rarely used in his past. “I always order my paints in a set and I rarely use fuschia,” he says. “One day, I saw a few tubs sitting in the studio, so I thought, why not try it out?” He was pleased with the result. The fuschia adding a certain cyberpunk aesthetic to the landscape – a nod to Wong’s earlier video game landscape paintings. 

One also can’t help but wonder if Wong is affected by today’s high-definition screen culture. “I still hike, I still paint from my sketches, so no,” he says. “I imagine someone who paints from photographs might [be].” He does admit that his paintings have gotten brighter since his early days, when he placed more focus on getting the scenery just right. “The longer I paint, the more I was able to let go of reality, in a way,” he says. As for why colours from his imagination are more saturated than reality, Wong puts it down to how our memory selectively remembers. “I think we all choose to remember the most beautiful sceneries, and more often than that, that’s when trees are at their greenest, flowers are in full bloom.”

Which was why Wong’s one qualm with the Google Earth project was the ease by which one is tempted to just paint what’s in front of their screens. “I need to be hyper-aware when I’m painting these images. Sometimes, I’d deliberately paint a different colour from what I see in front of me,” he says.

This is a busy time for Wong. Prior to the Google Earth Project exhibition, the artist has two solo exhibitions at Touch Gallery in Tai Kwun. For one of them, Indoor Travelling with Objects, Wong has painted landscapes forged from books and knick-knacks around his house. “I was stuck at home and I thought, is it possible to rearrange objects so that I could appreciate them like landscapes?” he says. In one of the works, a ferry miniature rides waves of the Great Wave of Kanagawa, a picture book by famed Japanese artist Hokusai. In another, a camper van peeks out from a mini Japanese-style divider adorned with Bamboo print-akin to a scenery from a real Japanese bamboo forest. “When you’re painting real landscapes, the joy lies in recreating the scenery from sketches and memory. For Indoor Travelling with Objects, these objects come loaded with meaning, but you get that thrill of seeing two objects come together in unexpected ways.” 

The other exhibition, 100 Islands, follows Wong’s previous series, 100 Mountains. “During the pandemic, everyone was living on their own island,” he says. One might imagine stark scenes of isolation and desolation but while the artworks feature lone figures, they are frolicking happily amid verdant trees dotting the islands. They look joyous – almost too joyous in a pandemic year. But Wong says the pandemic—along with the current political upheaval—gave him new appreciation of Hong Kong’s landscapes more. “I’ve always had this appreciation but the events in the past two years really hit home that nothing is permanent,” he says. “Things can disappear, just like that. It makes me want to stop in front of spots I like for a longer time.” 

While he can’t wait to visit Japan again, he is also relishing his time in Hong Kong. “You go to the mountains in Japan or in Europe. They are beautiful,” he says.. But that beauty doesn’t necessarily lead to affection. “You also don’t feel that it is yours, as it was crafted by someone else. The landscapes in Hong Kong are raw and messy, but there is also the sense that you can make it yours.”

Stephen Wong Chun-hei’s Indoor Travelling with Objects opens March 13, 2021 at Touch Gallery, Tai Kwun. A Hundred Islands opens April 9 at the same location. Google Travelling opens in June at Gallery Exit. 

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