If the artist Leung Chi-wo wakes up at 5am with a flash of inspiration, he’ll rouse his wife and sometime creative collaborator, fellow artist Sara Wong, to discuss his ideas. “I know there are people who like to have a really clear cut between their everyday life and their work, but for us everything is mixed up,” says Leung. Wong doesn’t mind the occasional early morning wake-up call. “Collaborating, for us, is a way to sustain ourselves. We help each other to go further,” she says.
The couple met in 1989, when they were both studying at the Department of Fine Arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “We were a couple first, but then everything started overlapping. It was unavoidable,” says Wong. In 1996, they joined forces with four other artists to found the art space Para Site, which has grown into one of Hong Kong’s leading art spaces. (Wong still serves as secretary of the board.) More than a decade later, in 2010, they began developing the idea for what would become their most famous joint body of work, Museum of the Lost, which this year alone is being exhibited at multiple venues around the world.
From January 27 until July 24, Museum of the Lost (Strangers at Home) is on show at the SCAD Museum of Art at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, USA. At the Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, South Korea, two works from the series are included in the group show Walking, Wandering, which runs from April 27 to September 3. And on July 8, the Asymmetry Art Foundation is screening a recent video work from Museum of the Lost in London. Leung also had a solo show at Blindspot Gallery in Hong Kong from May 23 to July 1.
Museum of the Lost began when Leung and Wong were commissioned to make a piece for the Tamagawa Art Line Project in Tokyo. While in the city, they bought a book featuring historic photographs taken in Tokyo’s Ota district, then on that same trip discovered the exact spot one of the images had been taken. They decided to restage the scene back in their studio in Hong Kong, with Wong posing as one of the unidentifiable passers-by who happened to be captured in the original frame. Wong copied the woman’s outfit and mimicked her pose, while Leung took a photograph of her in character. They then transformed this image of Wong into a life-size vinyl sticker, which they placed in the exact spot the photo was taken, creating the work “She was lost yesterday and we found her today.”
In recreating the image, Leung and Wong put this peripheral figure centre stage, shining a light on one of the millions of people whose names and identities are lost to history, but who remain frozen in photographs. “Normally when we look at history, we look at grand narratives,” explains Wong. “This photograph took us on a different journey. We followed this unidentified figure and tried to imagine what happened to her.”
Everyone, the couple seems to suggest, has a story to tell, even if they are not a great figure of history. By having Wong embody the woman, Leung and Wong also raised questions about Wong’s possible connections to the woman. Is Wong destined to end up like this person, lost to the sands of time? Are we all? Or maybe Leung and Wong’s photograph is proof that the woman hasn’t been forgotten – perhaps it’s proof that in a world saturated with images, no one is ever truly gone. In the second Wong embodied the woman, complete with the same clothes, hairstyle and pose, the woman was almost resurrected, even if only for a moment. Leung and Wong’s photograph blurred the boundaries between past and present, evoking mixed feelings of loss, unease, and hope.
The couple were fascinated by the intellectual journey this one image had taken them on. Without a grand plan, they began collecting other old photographs from newspapers, magazines, and books. “It was a random process,” says Leung. “I think there was research that said every time we go outside we see more than 1,000 images. Most of the time these images are ignored because we are exposed to too much, but we decided to think about the people in some of these images.”
Over the following years, the couple began identifying interesting individuals caught in the background of their ever-growing image archive and staging portrait shoots of these people, with Leung and Wong standing in for them. Rather than recreating images on location, Leung and Wong always shot these portraits in their studio, still mimicking the person’s pose and outfit, but placing them against a flat, single-coloured backdrop. This serves to intensify the focus on the individual and frees the figure from their historical context, allowing the viewer to imagine the person in any setting.
For example, in a 1955 photo of the Brides’ Festival in Japan — where men crossdressed as brides — Leung and Wong spotted a woman helping a man into a kimono. In their restaging of this scene, “Woman Wearing A White Geometric Dress In Bare Feet,” Wong appears as the woman in exactly the same position, but without the man. The woman is freed from her role as a faceless assistant, and could be almost anyone, anywhere.
They also print the photographs almost life-size — often 150cm by 100cm — making the subjects almost a physical presence in the couple’s exhibitions. To start with, Leung and Wong exhibited these portraits in isolation, removed from their source material. Now, they prefer to exhibit their photographic recreations alongside the original images.
They also often include extensive text in their exhibitions, explaining both their interest in the original imagery and what drew them to the people they’ve personified. Often, they create elaborate backstories for their figures, imagining what their lives were like and what they were doing at the moment the photograph was taken. The couple do extensive research into the context of the image, so they have as much factual detail as possible when devising these accounts of their subjects’ lives. But, of course, Leung and Wong cannot truly know what these anonymous figures were doing at the time, so the series not only mixes past and present, but also fact and fiction.
Leung and Wong are both involved in every stage of making each work. The couple has no strict division of roles and responsibilities: they both collect images, both identify people of interest, both contribute to the making of the image by collaborating on everything from styling the outfits to copying the pose, and both contribute to any text that accompanies the piece. The only moment they work separately is in the actual taking of the shot; if Wong is posing, then Leung works the camera, and vice versa. “It comes very naturally. We’ve been working together for so long, often we don’t even need to discuss things – I’ll start on one thing and automatically he’ll start on something else,” says Wong. Leung adds: “We know each other so well. I know what she likes, she knows what I like. Often she can make my decisions for me because she knows what I would do.”
This year, for the first time, Leung and Wong have invited another person to collaborate with them on the Museum of the Lost series. At the Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, they are showing a roughly nine-minute-long video portrait titled The Woman Carrying Rubber Basin on her Head, based on a figure in the background of a photo they collected from Korea. The video — the first in Museum of the Lost — stars a friend of the couple, Park So Young, a Hong Kong-based academic, artist, and teacher, rather than Wong or Leung. “The project has been going for more than ten years and we’ve been looking to see how far we can move it along, and if there’s any new energy we can inject,” says Leung. “Working in video and working with someone else I think has really opened up new possibilities for further development.”
As important as collaboration is to the couple, they still maintain their own separate projects. Both have solo art practices, and Wong also works as a landscape architect. In May and June this year, Leung had a solo exhibition at Blindspot Gallery titled Past-Future Tense, which featured videos, photographs, prints, collages, sculptures, and installations that explore Hong Kong history, particularly the negotiations between the British and Chinese governments in the lead-up to the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. One recurring motif in the works are snippets of Margaret Thatcher’s handwriting, copied from documents about the handover of Hong Kong that Leung studied in the National Archives in the UK. Seeing epoch-shaping sentences written out, rather than typed, is a reminder that history does not just happen: it is driven by people. “And when I was working in the archive, I felt physically connected to history because I was reading through the same documents as Margaret Thatcher,” says Leung. These ideas of who shapes history and who doesn’t, and of connections between the past and present, are similar to the themes explored in Museum of the Lost. “Sometimes in his work, I see something of my thoughts. And in my work you can see his influence. It’s unavoidable,” says Wong, who is currently in the early stages of a project focused on human migration.
The couple are currently planning their next project, which will be their first new joint work since they began Museum of the Lost in 2010. “We always say that we only collaborate once every ten years – it’s just that we worked on our last project together over and over for the next ten years,” says Leung, laughing. In September, Leung and Wong are taking part in a residency in Venice hosted by the Emily Harvey Foundation. “We want to find out who the first Hong Kong person to settle in Venice is. We’ll look in the archives, but maybe it’ll end up being a fictional person, or a rumour or story. We don’t know where it’ll take us.”
The idea sounds like it has the makings of everything that made the couple’s previous work such a success: it’s an untold historical story, potentially filled with interesting characters. Perhaps most importantly to Leung and Wong themselves, it’s a mystery they can unravel together. “That moment you have inspiration, or discovery, and you’re working with your family – I can tell her immediately,” says Leung. “That’s the most joyful part,” says Wong. “When we can share our thoughts on something new.”
All photos are courtesy of Sara Wong and Leung Chi-wo