An Interview with Paul Wong
Photo: Brian Howell, Audain Art Museum, March 2016. Image courtesy of the artist
Canadian multimedia artist Paul Wong got his first professional commission — Earthworks in Harmony (1974), a 16-monitor, 4-channel video installation — for the Burnaby Art Gallery, when he was 18 years old. Since then, this self-schooled artist, curator, performer and photographer has gone on to become internationally known for edgy work that tackles even the most discomfiting of topics. His raw portrayals of racism, beauty, sexuality and death can be difficult to look at, but just as difficult to look away from.
Born in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Wong cites Marxist and feminist ideologies as early influences, and mentions finding inspiration in the work of artists such as Robert Smithson, Chris Burden, Lisa Steele, Andy Warhol and Pierre Falardeau. As part of the Vancouver Mainstreet artists’ movement of the 1970s and 1980s, he experimented with multimedia art, including body art. Now living in Vancouver, Wong is also active as a cultural critic, community activist, arts administrator and curator, noting that all of these roles feed into and shape his artistic practice.
Wong’s work has been exhibited internationally and is in many public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the National Gallery of Canada. He has won numerous awards and recognition for his work, including a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2005, and the Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts in 2016.
In this interview with NGC Magazine, Paul Wong discusses his eclectic, often controversial 40-year career, and why it’s important to think outside the box.
Paul Wong, Full Moon Drawings, 9 Full Moon Drawings, 2011, 83.4 x 106.7 cm. Photography, edition of 3. Image courtesy of the artist
NGC Magazine: You have described your work as “drawing with light.” Can you expand upon that?
Paul Wong: I work with video or photography or neon, so I’m always very aware of light value, the type of light — natural or artificial light — and how that lights the subject. I recently did a series called Full Moon Drawings: a series of long exposures of a full moon, the trace of the moon taken with a still camera that I moved while shooting. The long exposure resulted in a series of long, curving marks of light. From those, I made a series of neon pieces. So I’m rendering, in neon, a line drawing. That’s drawing with light. If I happen to shoot in low light, I’m aware of the grain, shooting in that low-light situation. Depending on the camera I’m using, I work with it. I don’t shoot in that low light then say, “Oh, I wish I had better light.” If it feels right, I am going to do it. That’s drawing with light.
NGCM: You are frequently referred to as the Asian-Canadian Andy Warhol. Is that an apt description?
PW: I think that really has more to do with my interdisciplinary approach, and also my collaborative approach, where I bring people together and allow them to operate in a creative fashion. So I think that maybe refers to the Warhol Factory. But I’m also very interested in pop culture and pop references and pop mediums — video, photography, performance, the Internet. I like pop music, I like pop film, pop magazines. There’s also my sense of often working with my immediate people and resources so, while I am known as a solo artist, I work with all kinds of artists and people with other skills and influences. The work doesn’t happen by itself.
NGCM: You tackle difficult, often controversial topics in your work: death, sexuality, immigration, beauty, race. What draws you to these topics?
PW: That’s where I come from. That’s what my everyday consists of. I think that’s what a lot of peoples’ everyday consists of. But they may choose not to use it as material. Those are the stories and situations that have always fascinated me.
NGCM: You like to shock people. Why? Are you trying to wake people up? Or is that just a collateral effect from the subjects you choose?
PW: I don’t think my intention has ever been to shock, because I find these things that may be shocking kind of everyday. I’ve turned the camera on myself and on more everyday kinds of people, places and situations. So a lot of the work appears to be unmediated, and some of the stories and some of the subjects haven’t been fictionalized, so they appear as non-fiction subjects. Some of that reality could be a bit too intimate, a bit too harsh, and too real in relation to abstract images or fictionalized accountings. The way I work with forms is often quite raw. I don’t spend a lot of time lighting something perfectly, or rehearsing something and editing it to make it really glossy. That’s a choice. It’s not because I don’t know how. I don’t necessarily want to frame, record and present something that is absolutely slick in that kind of commercial way.
NGCM: What role does your own identity play in your artistic practice? Is your work an expression of who you are, or an ongoing search for who you are?
PW: I think it’s been an ongoing search in terms of what takes me to certain subject matter, or what I decide to tell a story about, or focus on, and then create something from that. I’m always curious about the world and my relationship to it.
Paul Wong, Chinaman's Peak: Walking The Mountain (detail), 1995, raku ceramic urn with human bones. NGC. Image courtesy of the artist
NGCM: You are a self-taught video artist, beginning in your early teens. What was important about that self-taught journey? What was the value of that, and what do you think you may have learned that school or textbooks might not have taught you?
PW: I think it allowed me to be an outsider. Not necessarily by choice, and it certainly allowed me to develop a sense of self-determination and a little bit of an f-you attitude. I felt very comfortable with other outsiders at that stage, or the counter-culture or the alternatives. But it was never an alternative to me . . . I never went from painting, or dance choreography to video. I just came to video. I picked up this gritty, primitive technology and we just evolved together.
NGCM: What is it about video that you love as your medium for creative expression?
PW: It is an interdisciplinary audiovisual form that has provided opportunities for endless experimentation with form and content. I have created works for a wide variety of contexts for screens of all sizes and shapes, from major festivals to off-the-grid emerging galleries.
The potential for it to be used outside of conventional film and television, corporate and broadcast television just seemed to have radical possibilities for image-making, storytelling and distribution.
NGCM: You frequently say, “Context is everything.” What do you mean by that?
PW: Work comes out of a context, then it gets positioned within a context. You can make the world’s greatest, most interesting work, but if you present it in the wrong context, it doesn’t work. So I think sometimes where the work comes from, and how that work is made, and where that work is seen, is often what makes a work successful or not successful.
Paul Wong, Confused/Sexual Views (detail), 1984. NGC. Image courtesy of the artist
NGCM: The National Gallery of Canada owns several of your works. One of them, Confused/Sexual Views, you say is a particularly important purchase. Why? Was this a particularly pivotal work in your career?
PW: That project is an early ’80s video, non-fiction-based project around sexuality. It’s a work that challenged form and content. It was intended to contribute to the dialogue around other sexual possibilities, and it ended up being a work that seriously challenged contemporary art and institutions through the censoring of that work at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1984.
It was intended to be a work that challenged viewers in multiple ways to consider bisexuality, and what those options implied to monogamy and heterosexual normative culture, and to the impeding gay culture. The VAG declared the work in form and content “not art.” It took 18 years for the VAG to declare the work “art,” then it acquired the work in 2002 for its permanent collection.
NGCM: Another of your works, Chinaman’s Peak: Walking the Mountain, is also in the National Gallery’s collection. What inspired that piece?
PW: Chinaman’s Peak is a mixed-media installation developed during a residency at the Banff Centre. It came about when I discovered there was a mountain in the Rockies called Chinaman’s Peak. That work was originally instigated by trying to uncover and find answers to why that mountain was called Chinaman’s Peak. It presented facts about the Chinese people who were in that area, the building of the railway and all the historical, social, economic class and racist issues that spun around colonialism and labour. It was also about people dying on jobs and being so far away from their own cultural groups and their motherland. So that work became personalized in the quest for an answer with the non-linear narrative, weaving in my own family history. A lot of my work is very open-ended. I like ambiguity. Most of my stories don’t have a beginning, middle and end. I don’t do conventional storytelling.
NGCM: What does winning the Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts mean to you? Is this a validation of your art, or maybe a vindication for struggling to do the kind of art you do?
PW: I think I’m overwhelmed more by how absolutely thrilled and happy so many people in the arts community are that I was a recipient this year. As someone who does not have a formal arts education, and who has an interdisciplinary and multi-track way of working — looking at different communities, the art world, and television projects — I’m not the obvious kind of recipient that they have had over the past 13 years. To be recognized and considered in the same league as the previous recipients is very cool recognition and validation.
NGCM: What advice would you give an emerging artist?
PW: Just do the work. And you have to think outside the box. I think that’s the big one. I think that’s the problem with everyone going to school and studying the same ten programs no matter where you are in the world, and reading the same ten texts, paying attention to the same three art fairs and doing the same twenty-four art galleries. That’s not thinking outside the box. They’re not originators; they are emulators. So you really have to develop a strong sense of self or be searching for that.
An exhibition of Paul Wong’s work, Saturday Night Live, is on view at Mirage Gallery in Montreal ([email protected]) until July 2, 2016. In addition, Wong will be giving an artist talk on July 2 at the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, B.C.