From a series of flitting bills to a bouquet of poised lilies, Kwan Sheung-Chi (b. 1980, Hong Kong) tenaciously pursues across multiple mediums a conceptual practice rooted in criticism of political status quo, assignations of value and modes of existence. Employing simple props to articulate his reflections with pointed focus, Kwan unravels Hong Kong’s relationship with money, its political framework and the livelihood of those who inhabit it. Voiced from a position of observation, the viewer senses throughout a tension between meditation and intervention, a feeling that is heightened by a running sense of banality that pervades Kwan’s propositions. Fielding commentary that’s against-the-grain, Kwan heralds a non-assumptive yet determined voice that quietly digs at the underpinnings of Hong Kong, but also more widely, the society we’re born into.
At the core of Kwan’s practice is the thematic of reality as seen and experienced by ordinary citizens. Strongly associated is the specific discussion of capitalism, which reappears as a topic of reflection in Kwan’s work. A financial centre, Kwan does not steer away from Hong Kong’s emphasis on money as a vehicle for impact and governance. Consider the work ‘1000’ (2012), for example, which involved the systematic erasure with a rubber eraser of a 1000 HKD bill till it’s left raw and worthless. We are prompted to realise how we have granted significance to an object, the value of which does not exist when stripped of its visual identity. Developing on this sense of worth is “To Defend the Core Values is the Core of the Core Values” (2012), a commission Kwan carried out with his partner Wong Wai Yin. At the time, a broad discussion was being held regards the ‘core values’ of Hong Kong, amongst them democracy. Kwan and Wong invested their production budget in the creation of a gold coin marked ‘Hong Kong Core Values’ and engaged Trotskyist Leung Kwok-Hung by donating the coin to him, which led to a spontaneous discourse on Hong Kong’s ‘core values’, the all of which was filmed as documentation. The viewer in turns observes the tension between the practicality of ownership and conflict of beliefs. Kwan further highlights our tentative relationship with possessions in “One Million (RMB)” (2013), a video series in which Kwan flips through a short stack of bills, counting them until he reaches a million. Played on a loop, the process seems endless, serving as an analogy for greed or indeed our desire for evermore.
Stepping into a more defined political zone, one remarks how Kwan delivers his works with a deadpan sense of humour and a slightly anarchic disposition. In the films ‘Doing It With Chi—Making an Exit Bag’ (2009) and ‘Doing It With Mrs Kwan—Making Pepper Spray’ (2012), for example, Wong and himself pose as DIY instructors akin to those found on Youtube albeit delivering advice for assisted suicide and the creation of a weapon or self-defense tool, respectively. Dark and dry, the videos follow ones providing assistance regarding everyday problems, an approach that prompts us to realise how we can focus on the mundane whilst not tackling the major threats to our existence such as the dissolvement of democracy. On a more confrontational level is Water Barrier (Maotai:Water, 1:100) (2013), an installation comprised of two 170 cm-high, white plastic anti-riot barriers filled with diluted Maotai – a Chinese distilled white liquor that is commonly served at state functions. Alluding to mounting social issues and the types of physical and ideological barriers that stand to prevent change, Kwan instigated a second phase of the work following his receipt of the Hugo Boss Art Prize for best emerging Chinese artist, inviting members of the public to join in a renewed attempt at the barrier’s destruction. With the help of a randomly selected group of 16, Kwan successfully knocked his artwork to the ground.
Beyond the pointedly monetary and political there is a further aspect to Kwan’s practice associated with queer objects and how, through subtle manipulation, we read into them certain signs and patterns that relate back to their intrinsic properties. In “Apple Core” (2008), for example, Kwan crushed a cardboard juice box into the shape of an eaten and discarded apple, appearing white at the inner section and red and green on the ends, with a plastic straw playing the role of the stem. Humorous, the work equally highlights our urge to make something that in actuality already is. Pointing to banality whilst equally paying a nod to art history, “Correction Pen Corrected with Its Own Content” (2012) encompasses a tube of correction fluid dipped in correction fluid, a gesture towards Robert Morris’ “Box with the Sound of Its Own Making” (1961), whilst equally alluding to the dynamics of aesthetic and social correctness. Finally, veering on the subject of real estate, “Lilies” (2012) encompasses the collection of 12 different iterations of plastic lilies. Celebrating in a dry manner manufactured “uniqueness”, they equally point to an industry that played a surprisingly central role in post-war Hong Kong, launching the career of tycoon Li Ka-shing, among others.
Ultimately, Kwan Sheung-Chi creates works that voice histories that have been neglected or actualities we either do not want to see or are unable to confront. By employing a language that is honest and accessible, his works advocate criticality and reflection whilst not imposing action. Subtle, yet sharp and alarming, it is up to the viewer what they take from each and what they decide to do next with the information provided.
Kwan Sheung-Chi was born in 1980, Hong Kong and has held exhibitions at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2017); Mill6, Hong Kong (2016); ZKM, Karlsruhe (2015); Borusan Contemporary, Istanbul (2015); ParaSite, Hong Kong (2015, 2014); Witte de With, Rotterdam (2014); Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (2014); Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai (2013); Hiroshima MOCA, Hiroshima (2013); amongst others. Kwan holds a B.A. degree in Fine Art from The Chinese University of Hong Kong and in 2000 was named the “King of Hong Kong New Artist”. In 2002 the exhibition “Kwan Sheung-Chi Touring Series Exhibitions, Hong Kong” was held across 10 major exhibition venues in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Art Centre presented “A Retrospective of Kwan Sheung-Chi”. Kwan is also a founding member of local art groups, Hong Kong Arts Discovery Channel (HKADC), hkPARTg (Political Art Group) and Woofer Ten. In 2009, Kwan was awarded the Starr Foundation Fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council to take part in an international residency programme in New York, USA. In 2012 Kwan received a commission from the West Kowloon Cultural District Association (WKCDA) and in 2013 was the winner of the inaugural Hugo Boss Art Prize.