The Lone Wolf of Hong Kong. Kong Chun Hei at Last Tango

On February 3, 2018, Ars Graphica Swiss met with artist Kong Chun Hei and co-curator Arianna Gellini at exhibition space Last Tango in Zurich

Not once or twice, but seventeen times has the translucent foil been wrapped around an unidentifiable object. It shimmers and shines in nuanced varieties of gray. However, it isn’t plastic we look at, but rather an infinite amount of pen strokes that allow for such smooth transgressions. They meticulously uncover the slightest folds in the tight band as well as any bumps of the texture lying underneath.

Kong Chun Hei, Stripes, 2017, ink on paper mounted on aluminium board and wooden frame, 61.4 x 47.1 x 2 cm, Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Exit.

Hong Kong-based artist Kong Chun Hei (*1987) is known for portraying everyday objects. Isolating them from their surroundings, he zooms in on their surface. While he creates trompe l’oeil-like effects in a work like "Stripes" (Press release Last Tango), others, such as "Black Holes" and "White Holes", are trickier to read. Their reference is target paper. Having been run through a photocopier once with closed and once with open cover, they depict a rectangle laced with cracks and tiny white dots where the bullets hit the target. They turn black in the negative version. Adding to the abstract quality of these works is the backdrop: the target paper is framed by a larger white and black rectangle respectively. Same as the target, these areas feature thin vertical lines caused by the photocopier. With "Black Holes" and "White Holes" Kong is emphasizing both the physical destruction of the target paper and the technical defect of the machine. In contrast to the illusive realism of "Stripes", the translation process involved in "Black Holes" and "White Holes" goes along with a “blurring effect” (Kong) that obscures the subject matter.

Kong Chun Hei, Black Holes I, 2016, ink on paper mounted on board, 42 x 29.8 cm, Courtesy the artist and Gallery Exit.

Kong Chun Hei, White Holes 3, 2016, ink on paper mounted on board, 42 x 29.8 cm, Courtesy the artist and Gallery Exit.

In a different way, this aspect of alienation is also visible in a work like "Flags". At first glance, the cheerful party flags are neatly imitated. Yet, looking closely at them, one first misses the characteristic bright colors before realizing that the paper is actually mounted on stainless steel. Making the flags resemble teeth, as Kong points out, he adds a certain sharpness to them.

For comparison only: "Stripes" is mounted on aluminum; "Black Holes" and "White Holes" on board. Kong picks the support for his drawings more freely than his actual drawing supplies. The latter usually consist of a 1.0 mm Faber-Castell ink pen and 300 g Fabriano wove paper which he often sands down. Kong states that this well-tried combination is somewhat a limit to the creative act, in the sense that it is both enabling and constraining.

Kong Chun Hei, Flags, 2013, ink on paper mounted on stainless steel, 28 x 20 x 1.5 cm each, 10 panels, Courtesy the artist and Gallery Exit.

Kong was born in Hong Kong and graduated from the Fine Arts Department of The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He has had solo exhibitions in galleries in Hong Kong as well as in Paris and Turin, and group shows in Manchester and Beijing, to name only a few. Arianna Gellini became familiar with his work during the nine years she spent in China, promoting Asian artists worldwide. She keeps on doing so at Last Tango, an exhibition space in Zurich that she runs together with founder and co-curator Linda Jensen. Following the saying that it takes two to tango, their concept is based on establishing a dialogue between two contemporary positions that either share similar points of interest or confront contrasts. In a “Side Step” they are presenting Hong Kong-based artists. Showing Kong’s work means drawing attention to a rather unique body of work. As Gellini highlights, different to most Hong Kong-based artists Kong does neither engage with intimate, emotional topics nor is his work politically motivated. This makes him what Gellini calls “the lone wolf of Hong Kong’s art scene”. In fact, Kong’s formally oriented practice links him with Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) whom Linda Nochlin once referred to as “the lone-wolf master of Aix”.

Kong Chun Hei, Peeling, 2018, video 30:25, installation view Last Tango.

Above all, Kong pays attention to the subject matter itself. It is ordinary “stuff” he is interested in, exempt from any constructed narrative or concealed meaning. He understands his focus on the surface of objects as a statement against politically charged works and is humorously answering the common question about the meaning of his work in a video entitled "Peeling", in which a hand is carefully pulling off a transparent foil from a flat surface.

Kong Chun Hei, Crossed, 2018, scratched window foil, installation view Last Tango.

Kong Chun Hei, Crossed, 2018, scratched window foil, installation view Last Tango (detail).

Devoted to a formal approach, it might not be surprising that Kong is very aware of his spatial surroundings. One example of his work expanding into the exhibition space is "Crossed", several “X”s marked with tape on the window. The transparent tape has been painstakingly scratched, giving it a sculptural quality. Inspired by tapes that preserve windows in Hong Kong from bursting during typhoon season, Kong made earlier versions using diamond bits to damage the glass, hence allowing for an even more immediate interaction with the material. Similar to the damaged glass, the finely structured surface of the tape in the current "Crossed" matches the drawings on the opposite wall.

Kong Chun Hei, Mistakers, 2018, stickers, various dimensions, installation view Last Tango.

At first sight, this wall seems to be empty. Only when looking closely does one detect a number of small stickers. Developed from pictures taken of holes in Kong’s studio wall, these so-called Mistakers are evenly spread. Like remnants of former works of art, they face the pristine, white gallery walls.

Just as in Crossed, there is a temporal quality to the Mistakers. The former is responding to the sunlight outside, temporary casting a geometric cloud, and thus stressing a momentary experience. The latter, on the contrary, arouse interest in what may have hung on the same wall earlier. By connecting the ongoing show with preceding ones they are offering a window to the past.

Addressing temporality, it becomes clear though that Mistakers are not meant to be forward-looking. In contrast to Nedko Solakov’s (*1957) drawings and annotations that often outlive a show and remain in the exhibition space, Kong says he could not imagine leaving his Mistakers behind, possibly letting them interact with subsequently installed works by other artists. He calls himself “the dictator of the space”, clarifying that coincidence is not what stimulates him. All the more, this consciously composed room is very much worth seeing.

Manon & Melodie Mousset / Side Step: Kong Chun Hei. On view at Last Tango, Röntgenstrasse 6, 8005 Zürich until March 24, 2018.

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