China, Aug. 2008: One of the core members of the cluster of artist studios at Fotan, an agglomeration of several dozen industrial buildings in the New Territories of Hong Kong, Lee Kit has developed art objects and an artistic practice based on his own style of life. Over the past ten years, his series of hand-painted pieces of cloth has become an icon of the Hong Kong art scene: beginning with monochrome sheets of linen and other fabrics, he applies stripes, plaids, hatching, or other patterns to create fragments of various sizes. Some of these pieces become washcloths used in his kitchen, while others become towels; still others are hung unstretched as paintings, or serve as blankets, pillows and tablecloths in exhibitions where the audience is invited into intimate situations often involving shared coffee and meals. In addition, Lee has recently become more invested in objects not of his own creation, paying particular attention to instances in which objects and logos are conflated, as with the tin of white text on a blue field that characterizes his beloved Nivea cream. Recent exhibitions have found him editing homemade karaoke music videos, leaning painted sheets of cardboard against walls and creating tragic narratives for images found on the internet. Curious as to where these projects would next lead, ArtSlant's writer, Robin Peckham, met the artist in his studio to find out what he had in mind for a major upcoming exhibition at ShugoArts.
Lee Kit, Something about using the hand-painted cloth (Cloth 1), Acrylic And Ink On Fabric, 244cm X 153cm, 2007; Courtesy of the artist and Osage Gallery
Robin Peckham: You’re still probably best known for your work with painted cloth and the activities organized around it, ranging from personal uses to public picnics and dinners. But over the last year you've moved much more aggressively into video, as with your karaoke series, and collage paintings, as with these standing cardboard pieces. Do you foresee an end to the painted cloth series at any point?
Lee Kit: No. But I will minimize the quantity of used cloth that goes into use. I want to slow that process down. It has become a bit removed from my own daily life, and I feel bad about that. That's why I started the series of stories attached to pieces of cloth in the Osage Gallery show Burden of Representation, where I painted onto cloth patterns copied from pieces of cloth appearing in images from the internet, and then paired them with stories fitting the people in the photographs. Quite like dead objects, which I like.
RP: How do you describe the relationship at stake, between cloth and your other projects?
LK: I think they are more or less the same to me. With the previous hand-painted cloth, sure they are part of my life. But the objects in my more recent work, like the tins of Nivea cream and so on, they are also a part of my daily life. Even the cardboard paintings and those videos, they are all in some way the same to me. I need to hang them in my studio, or sometimes play the video repeatedly at night. So to me they are part of my life ... but not exactly, because actually I can live without them. They are here now, in this “constructed” life.
RP: What about in your family home? Do you keep your work installed there in the same way?
LK: No. But the atmosphere is actually quite similar to that of my studio, just with more sunlight. I think that's probably why I prefer not to have any of my works there.
Lee Kit, Something about Using the Hand-Painted Cloth (Photo 2), C-print Photograph, Lambda Print, 52cm X 70cm, 2007; Courtesy of the artist and Osage Gallery
RP: I wonder, do you know if any of your collectors really live with your works in that way?
LK: I know some of them hang my works in their living rooms, and some others will occasionally use the cloth for some events, as a tablecloth, for example. Some of those live in Hong Kong, and some of them live in Europe.
RP: Some of your earlier projects attempted to transform the gallery space into a domestic space, but it seems lately you've moved on from that idea. Your last solo exhibition at Osage Soho created a space of some kind, specifically a karaoke lounge with projected video and musty couches, but far from the environments for eating and sleeping in your past solo projects at Para/Site Art Space, Blue Lotus Gallery, and The Shop. Do you find that your recent videos and paintings are more appropriate for white cube display rather than "at home" display?
LK: I think so. For example, with the new hand-painted cloth, when I first started making them I already imagined them hanging in a museum. But I mean that they should seem like those pieces of fabric and textiles hanging in different museums, not these specific works. I think I'm a bit removed from those daily domestic settings now, as I feel it's a bit too much to “suggest” a lifestyle like this. It should go further, like the karaoke project or the new cloth, with some more commentary beyond just simple suggestions for daily life. But formally I agree that the new works are more suited to the white cube, or perhaps I should say they might be more flexible now.
RP: How do you mean that those domestic settings "suggested a life"? Do you mean that they function by providing models for imitation?
LK: Like, perhaps telling or asking people, “Why don't you live like this?” Just like some Ikea showroom settings persuade people to decorate their homes in a certain way. The settings I made, I imagine, will always suggest that people sit down, or kind of escape, or slow down, or something along those lines. But certainly not a role model for imitation. I just want to convey that an individual can live like this. It’s not impossible.
RP: I guess the years during which you initiated those projects coincided with the high point of Hong Kong investment fever for luxury apartments and those show flats, is that right?
RP: And yet it seems that now, after you've moved away from or abandoned that style, it is the art world itself in Hong Kong that needs to be told to slow down, where it used to be people in general, and specifically collectors and bankers, people professionally outside the art world.
LK: Yes, people expect too much, really almost everyone in the scene does. But actually I still live like that, and I will say probably even “worse,” even more simply than before. I don’t want to go anywhere, but I'm somewhat enjoying myself in this slow and nostalgic life in my studio. I don't feel as strongly now that I need to intend to show people how good life can be. I prefer to demonstrate how life can be.
Lee Kit, Hand-painted Cloth as Window Curtain, Acrylic On Fabric, Photo, Dimensions Variable, 2008; Courtesy of the artist and Osage Gallery
RP: What will you be showing in your next solo exhibition at ShugoArts?
LK: Mainly the new series of hand-painted cloth with images and narratives attached, as well as some new cardboard paintings. I hope also to be able to use a small room in the gallery to do some “performance” of sorts, like the collective preparation and drinking of coffee you saw in The Shop last year.
RP: How do you see these bodies of work changing when the works leave the context of your studio, and life in Hong Kong in general?
LK: Now, for these new works, I have started to think about what I can do in these other cities beyond simply passively exhibiting them. I am looking at what kinds of problems in these cities I can include in my works, things that can be related to both Hong Kong and the specific contexts of these other cities. Perhaps even the way I look at my life is different now. Now I look at the life of Hong Kong as a city and the problems of other cities in order to make comparison, not like before, when the used hand-painted pieces of cloth actually remained the same here in Hong Kong or elsewhere. They fit easily into different contexts. Now I need to do some research (but not really...) or think more closely about the city in which I will exhibit: what can I do here?
RP: So let's take your recent exhibition at Galleria dell’Arco in Palermo or the upcoming Tokyo show as an example.
LK: With the solo in Palermo, the idea was that I brought my daily life, or something I used in my daily life, to that space, including even the suitcase in which all of the work was packed. It was quite straightforward. But for the project in Tokyo, I'm not entirely sure yet as I still need to go to Tokyo later to meet with them. At the very least, this time the works will be more intense in content, in terms of putting a lot of issues into the paintings but also showing the soft cardboard paintings that appear very soft. I want to create a stronger sense of tension between the different series of works. That's something like the kind of life we have now: it seems to be good, and actually may not be bad, but we have too many things inside.
RP: Many of your new cardboard paintings involve brand names and logos, but you don’t seem interested in the critique of consumerism like Kwan Sheung Chi or other more political Hong Kong artists. You say there are “too many things,” but is your attitude toward these objects necessarily negative? Or, to put it another way, how do you differentiate between those "bad objects," of which there are too many, and "good objects," something important to you personally?
LK: Yes, I’m not interested in a critique of those brands or even consumerism in general. I think we have all known about this kind of critique for a very long time, and this ideology has evolved into something different at the moment. I'm not sure what it is or what it should be, but at least I can say it is not something that can be simply concluded through consumerism. I'm interested in whatever is behind all this rather than criticizing the obvious surface of the problem or problems. My attitude towards this critique is not negative, but I'm generally quite pessimistic towards the lives we lead now, and towards people in general. That's why I brought those often sad or dark story titles to the new series hand-painted cloths.
Lee Kit, Hand-painted Cloth as Table Cloth, Acrylic On Fabric, Photo, Dvd, Dimensions Variable, 2008; Courtesy of the artist and Osage Gallery
RP: Are those stories all purely from your own imagination, or do some come from the image sources themselves?
LK: Yes, but sometimes they are not even directly created in reaction to the images I found. Some are just stories I wrote down in my diary. So I think I'm working in two directions at once, or perhaps even more. One direction is kind of beautiful to me, particularly in the cardboard paintings, while the other is more... revealing, perhaps, in some way.
RP: How does it all fit in, generally, with pop culture? How do you position the karaoke series, for instance?
LK: I'm not exactly sure... with the karaoke project, think it is something more of a means to an end for me. It will become more closely related to popular culture if next time I use those “Keep Fit” advertisements.
RP: That reminds me of the joke we were telling at the Burden of Representation exhibition. In Beijing they were calling Liu Wei the “Caochangdi Nam June Paik” after his paintings and videos of television interference signals, so after your leaning cardboard pieces you became the “Fotan Rauschenberg.” Is that Rauschenberg reference intentional in these works?
LK: No. Actually right until you mentioned him to me at that opening I had never thought of him in relation to any of this work.
RP: Have you seen Rauschenberg's cardboard paintings?
LK: Yes, I just saw one in Japan, and somewhere in Europe I think I may have seen one or two. But this happens all the time with my works, just like with the previous hand-painted cloth that some people relate to the so-called movement of post-minimalism, and now we have this reference to Rauschenberg. But I don’t mind. I find these comparisons interesting.
RP: On what level are they interesting to you?
LK: I mostly just find it funny. I'm not particularly interested in post-minimalism or Rauschenberg. People are often curious why, as a Hong Kong artist, my works are so often related to American or European artists, but I never know how to answer. I enjoy answering them with a simple “I don't know.” And I honestly just don't know. I enjoy Vermeer much more.
RP: Still, it can be interesting to see your work in that context. People have been saying you should represent Hong Kong at the 2011 Venice Biennale next year. How do you think your work would function in that kind of context, organized by definition along national lines and exhibited alongside canonical international art?
LK: Ignore what people say. I don't know how my work would fit there, but it would be easier for me without this idea of showcasing “Hong Kong identity” that the government and the Arts Development Council that appoints the Venice representative love to use. I am always concerned with the consideration of how I can effectively disappear but remain present at the same time. I don’t think I pay much mind to the perspectives of nation or canon, just because I don't know how.
ArtSlant would like to thank Lee Kit for his assistance in making this interview possible.