KWOK MANG-HO, aka Frog King, in his Life Body Installation (2014), which combines fishermen, agrarian and Taoist traditions. The cape is crafted from a painted pair of pants. Photo by Siobhan Bent for ArtAsiaPacific.

Nov 19 2014

Frog King: “Totem”

by Siobhan Bent

“It’s not a retrospective,” curator Valerie Doran told me of “Totem,” the recent solo exhibition of Hong Kong conceptual and performance artist Kwok Mang-ho, aka Frog King. “Frog King doesn’t recognize borders in time.”

Held at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, “Totem” presented the artist’s works spanning 40 years, from the mid-1970s to present, in a mash-up of techniques and media that integrated his eclectic ink practice across collages, site-specific installations, graffiti, performances, photography and assemblages. Brought up under the tutelage of New Ink Painting master Lui Shou-kwan, Kwok is a gifted ink artist himself. His sophisticated techniques, Doran observed, allow him to execute seemingly-primitive works incorporating ink not just as a material, but also as an action.

For “Totem,” Kwok—who is widely known as China’s first performance artist (beginning with his Plastic Bag Project, 1979)—was invited to transform the gallery space. To wander through it was to enter the beloved and enduring Hong Kong icon’s “frogtopia,” a cacophonous patchwork of art and memory. A frenetic jumble freewheeled from his rarely-exhibited burnt calligraphy works, Fire painting, Butterfly (1978) and Fire painting, Forward (1977), to pieces from Kwok’s New York period (1980–95)—which he calls the “golden age of the East Village underground graffiti scene,” where he organized and participated in happenings, performances and artist-led exhibitions—to a new series created for “Totem,” some of which are still underway. “Art is about fusion,” Kwok told me on a recent afternoon at the gallery.

Perhaps it wasn’t a stretch to permit such a broad selection of works for “Totem.” The word “totem,” after all, has multiple meanings: it can describe something that represents a symbol, or it can be the symbol itself. It is an apt descriptor for Kwok, an artist whose practice has been dedicated to breaking down barriers between art and life.

In January of this year, Kwok began incorporating his amphibious stamp with tribal tradition, drafting countless frog-inspired works in a dedicated “Totem” sketchbook. The resulting series is comprised of carved wood sculptures, columns, ink paintings and screens that are displayed with earlier works in a mixed fashion. Found wood, sourced from an art camp in South Korea that Kwok runs with his wife, was cut, painted, collaged and carved into the totem sculptures. Wooden screens such as Frog King Mobile Museum A and Frog King Mobile Museum B (both 2014) were painted in white and collaged with photographs, memorabilia, rice paper, paint, lacquer and acrylic. Kwok calls one misshapen screen, Serenity (2014), a “miracle,” because the piece, too heavy to hang or stand upright, is supported by a cement bollard he had found on the street, which happened to fit perfectly with the installation, discovered just at the right time. Sandwich Font (2014), a squat wooden block, depicts Kwok’s personal typography, which combines words from Western and Eastern languages à la artist Gu Wenda.

Small stone and jade Neolithic figurines, such as Lady Froggy (2014) and Froggy Owl A (2014), were painstakingly covered in thousands of tiny tribal-like markings in oil paint. A monochromatic work, Nature (2014), which is comprised of white ant-wood, salvaged and painted in ink and acrylic, could be mistaken for a giant piece of charcoal ink.

In an interactive performance, Kwok spent time during the run of “Totem” inside the “Frog’s Nest”a site-specific mixed-media installation adapted from its original edition that Kwok presented at the 2011 Venice Biennale—engaging with visitors and, at times, encouraging them to try on his legendary spectacles. “They call it kitsch,” Kwok said, shrugging. “It doesn’t matter.”

Kwok’s assemblages triggered various memories for the artist, as we meandered through them together. Kwok remembered crafting early ink works on kite paper, found cheaply at a Hong Kong market. He recalled drawing a frog in New York’s snow-covered downtown streets and running Kwok gallery there for two years, where he met Ai Weiwei and Martin Wong. He talked about how he moved to Shanghai for several months in 2012, during which he gained fresh energy and a sufficiently large studio space to create large-format action paintings on massive rice paper scrolls—among them Frog Fun Action C (2012) and Frog Fun Action D (2012).

Kwok is getting older. Now approaching his 70s, he suffers from pain in his joints. His physical energy ebbs. The schedule for organizing a commercial gallery show was a grueling one, unlike the pace he’s used to. Yet his mind is as active as ever.

Kwok seems to subscribe to the Vonnegutian notion expressed in the American humorist’s classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)—that time isn’t linear, but fluid. For Kwok, as Vonnegut wrote, “all moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist . . . It’s just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once that moment is gone it is gone forever.”

“Totem” may not have been a retrospective, but it certainly was a trip down memory lane—a twisting, veering, spiraling, winding, weaving lane that zigzagged through the wild and wonderful Froggy-verse of Kwok Mang-ho.