In connection with Galleri Image showing Kurt Tongs solo show The Queen, The Chairman & I, I had the privilege to meet Kurt Tong and interview him.
In 1842 Hong Kong was colonised by Britain. Britain were interested in tea and silk, and in return they traded opium.
In 1977, same year as Galleri Image was founded, and five years before the UK started a negotiation about the handover of the colony, Hong Kong, to China, Kurt Tong was born. The future in Hong Kong was very uncertain so Tong’s parents send him to England to study.
Interview by Heidi-Anett Haugen, intern at Galleri Image.
1. Being migrant, have you ever felt like an outsider? If so, how has that feeling affected your art practise?
Kurt Tong: I have lived in England for so long, and when I am surrounded by friends, I feel at home and comfortable. Once in a while, something will happen, like a stranger, sometimes it is aggressive, most of the time, it is not, just people being curious, with simple questions like: Where are you from?
When you are home that is not questions you want to answer.
In terms on how it has affected my art practise, I guess it doesn’t directly affects me, in terms of being a migrant and outsider but it was more about self-awareness, being how insightful I am. I never knew who I was. I guess that comes with living in a different country, knowing I am Chinese but I don’t really know much about being a Chinese, that was what brought me back to Hong Kong.
-Have you been interested in roots the whole time of you art practise? How did it start?
Kurt Tong: Before 2007 I looked for projects that were really exotic, with a traditional photojournalist mentality. I would travel to a far off places and spend a few weeks there and scratch the surface. It was really after my MA that I started to look more inwards. I am not sure necessary that has to do with my roots; really it is more about self-awareness, it is more about me growing up, and a lot to do with me becoming a dad, I think that changed everything.
2. The title for your solo exhibition at Galleri Image is: The Queen, The Chairman & I.
Who are the Queen, the chairman and I?
Kurt Tong: The idea of the project is a storybook for my daughters, about where I came from. If you read the book it is really about five people: my two grandfathers, my parents and myself. And it explains why my two grandfathers who were both from China original ended up in Hong Kong. If you look back at history, one of them came because of Hong Kong being colonised by Britain and the queen refers to Queen Victoria who was on the throne when Britain took Hong Kong. And the other grandfather came because of the communists, because he was a rich landlord; he would have been killed by the communists army. Chairman is referring to chairman Mao. Really it is the Queen Victoria and Chairman Mao who automatically led to my grandfathers being in Hong Kong. So that’s where the title came from.
3. What importance do you see in telling own stories?
Kurt Tong: I think you refer back to the whole idea of the teahouse, it was about people exploring and asking questions and looking back where they really came from. So for me it was not really about me telling a story, it is more about getting other people to find their stories. I guess the book and the teahouse are catalysts to start people to doing their own stories. It is more about me putting my hand up, telling the world that I spent my time doing it, and it was fantastic. I found out a lot about my family, about myself and if you get the chance you should do it, before it is to late. So that is really the important part.
– I was just thinking about your photographs in your exhibition, some are both small, and big. Is it found family pictures you have enlarged? Or is it photographs you have taken?
Kurt Tong: It is images that I have taken. Ideally if I had unlimited budget and unlimited space, all my pictures would have been the big size. I consider these pictures to be movie sets, and the book I always treated it like a storyboard for a movie. So the empty landscape and the interiors I always imagined them like the backdrop of a movie scene. And the black and white pictures, the family pictures are the characters in the movie. So I always wanted the landscape to be really big, I want people to see this pictures first and kind of half guess: why did someone take a picture of the stairs or an empty room? Then they go to the wall and they find out, they populate the space with the characters.
The wall with the small pictures is the first time I have done; it was a respond to the space in Aarhus and also responds to the budget.
– Do you think like video and film, or have you also worked with video and film?
Kurt Tong: No, I have never seen myself as a filmmaker. I like the concept of it and, I would love to collaborate with someone to make it, but it is not something I feel passionate about spending time on. I think a lot of photographers start to make movies and call themselves filmmakers; most of them are not really good. In photography you are so trained in having a static scene, and it is a very big step to make movie with moving pictures. Digital cameras are getting so advanced so some photographers suddenly think they are making films but they are not. Not to put anyone down, I just know my limitations, and I do what I am good at.
4. At your solo exhibition at Galleri Image guests are encouraged to sit down and have Chinese tea. What personal relationship do you have to Chinese tea? And can you tell anything about tea ceremony? When do you learn, how, from whom? Are both boys and girl taught how to make a tea ceremony? In what situations are tea ceremonies being hold?
Kurt Tong: I have come across two types of tea places: the ones that are really cheep and local with basic furniture and it is just a man with a big kettle that fill up your bowl. And then there is the one that’s in the gallery space now.
When you say tea ceremony, for me it kind of relates to weddings. At weddings there is a tea ceremony were the bride and groom offers tea to the elders. And there is also a tea ceremony when you join a Kung Fu Club or ceremony to a new teacher.
In Galleri Image, it was really about a space to sitting down and drinking tea, I don’t want people to be too distracted by the process of making tea. In fact, in china for years they didn’t do tea ceremonies because the communism considered it to be luxurious and corrupt. It was the Taiwanese that took the whole tea thing and made it up market. It is really about the space and giving the time to people. But a ceremony is more show off. For me it was more about creating the atmosphere.
– Have you learned it from your family?
Kurt Tong: Not at all, people don’t actually do that at home. They just put leafs in the cup and drink it. I just learned it fairly recently from installing the tea house for this project.
In western tea, the swivel, you have a bowl for sugar, a bowl for milk, and teapots heated, but really at home people make it in a mug. I guess it is the same thing. For my purpose of the teahouse is really a space and an atmosphere. The performance of serving tea in the gallery should not take over people reading the book and talking to each other about their family.
5. How is the art education in Hong Kong?
Kurt Tong: I have only been here a year so it is probably unfair of me to make a sweeping statement. But art is not really promoted in school, often only one of two classes a week. I think it has to do with the Hong Kong culture and mentality. Students are taught to listen to their teachers and don’t ask too many questions, which really don’t stand well for art education. I have given a couple of lectures and workshops, but I am not really involved in the Hong Kong art educational scene. I did find that when I give lectures in England there are usually lots of questions from the students, where as in Hong Kong there are often very few. I met a few professors, and they are good teachers and artists themselves, but in term of young people going from school to university to study art, I am not sure that’s most people priority.
6. Are there any characteristics of, or tendencies in Hong Kong contemporary art?
Kurt Tong: There is a fairly big art scene in Hong Kong but largely because of the money coming through, often from China. So you have a lot of big galleries in Hong Kong, and a lot of auction Houses and the art is often the high end commercial art. There seems to be a slight lack of support towards the Hong Kong local art scene. There are very few independent spaces where they have freedom to completely do their own thing.
While censorship it’s not obvious, but you often sense it’s there. Most public places play it very safe. On the surface it is very vibrant, a lot of money and a lot of galleries, but in reality, often we lack engaging and interesting art, at least that is my feeling.
7. Are there any art projects, initiatives or galleries driven by artists in Hong Kong you would like the world to know about?
Kurt Tong: I work with a fine art gallery called Identity Art Gallery, The Owner Carol Sun is relatively new to the Art world but she is putting a lot of faith in new artists and developing very close working relationships with them. Which is very refreshing in the commercial world.
And also I work with a non-profit space: The Photocrafters – an independent exhibition space, darkroom facilities and educational space. Simon, Kallen and their team are really keen to get people out there and learn about photograph. There is a lot of photographers in Hong Kong but the majority of them don’t go beyond talking about equipments and lenses. The Photocrafters really try to get people back to basic, get them to shoot films, develop them, and lets look at what makes photography art and not just pictures of flowers and girls.
There is also due to be a big museum opening in Hong Kong, called the M+ Museum of Visual Culture, it has been in development for many years, and have got a lot of funding. It would be interesting to see what and who they put into their collections and what kind of exhibitions they will put on.
– I hear you will have an exhibition in Korea, what will you exhibit?
Kurt Tong: I am actually working with two of the guys from The Photocrafters, and the project is called: There is a Time, we are all creating work based on our lives, our experience and how we express it through photography. Simon Wan, is showing work that he made after his break up with his wife. It is a collection of 126 individual images, mostly taken on mountains, across the sky, and over horizons. The 30 meters roll was impeccably executed with great care and depth of feeling, presented on hand-printed, fibre based photo paper. Wan chose a laborious image-making process to express the sorrow that came with the absence of a loved one: climbing up a mountain with his cumbersome large format camera, pressing the shutter, aiming at the direction where his beloved was staying, somehow, Wan felt better, as if in that moment they were together again. In a way, his photos were only the by product of this painful separation.
Kallen Yan will present No Coming, No Going, an installation of 8 black and white photographs capturing sea water as it reaches the furthest point ashore a moment when the wave is either coming or going. After surviving a life or death situation, Yan came across the writings of Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh on life, death, and existence. Yan borrowed the phrase “No Coming, No Going” as inspiration to create this work to reflect on his own life, and as his mindfulness practice.
And I will be exhibiting In Case it Rains in Heaven in a new installation. I made a project in 2009 where I documented Chinese funeral offerings. The Chinese culture believe that when someone dies, we need to provide the loved one in the afterlife with material things, so they make paper effigies of everything like servants, cars, house and money. It is burned at the funeral, believing that ones burned, it becomes real in the afterlife. I made a book of different paper models and the world has been exhibited many times before. In this exhibition, I am actually putting the pictures on the floor. I am building a path, forcing people to walk on them.
The paper items represent someone’s life, their hobby, what are their likes and dislikes, so I am going to build some kind of street map on the floor and representing choices people make and paths people take.
I want people to walk on the pictures, and all the pictures are going to be burned afterwards, just as everything I photographed has been burned.
Pictures chronological from the top:
1. Chinese funeral offering. Work by: Kurt Tong
2. Kurt Tong at Galleri Image, having artist talk at his exhibition The Queen, The Chairman and I. Photo: Seedich Juergen
3. From the exhibition The Queen, The Chairman and I at Galleri Image. Photo: Heidi-Anett Haugen
4. From the exhibition The Queen, the Chairman and I at Galleri Image. Photo: Heidi-Anett Haugen
5. From the exhibition The Queen, the Chairman and I at Galleri Image. Photo: Heidi-Anett Haugen
6. Installation from the exhibition The Queen, The Chairman and I. Photo: Lea Sonne
7. Installation by Kurt Tong. Photo: Heidi-Anett Haugen
8. Tea place installation at Galleri Image by Kurt Tong. Photo: Heidi-Anett Haugen
9. Chinese funeral offering. Work by: Kurt Tong
10. Chinese funeral offering. Work by: Kurt Tong