THE GREAT PRETENDER
By Andrew Maerkle
Installation view, “Lee Kit: Not Untitled” at ShugoArts, Tokyo, 2017. Photo Shigeo Muto. All images: Unless otherwise noted © Lee Kit, courtesy ShugoArts, Tokyo.
One of the most outstanding artists of his generation, Lee Kit has developed a practice that spans from his native Hong Kong to his adopted home of Taipei and exhibitions in cities across the world, from Minneapolis to Tokyo, Kathmandu to Venice. Wherever he goes, Lee synthesizes paintings, videos, multimedia projections and found objects ranging from wood dressers and plastic storage bins to lamps and blinds or even natural and ambient phenomena such as light and air into total spatial interventions that express both his unique sensibility and the inherent properties of the space and the local material culture. In his alteration of the preexisting space through the addition of temporary walls and partitions, Lee’s practice is post-site-specific as such, and yet, with few constant elements, neither easily portable or reproduceable – a case in point being his exhibition for the Hong Kong Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, “You (you),” which was radically reconceived the following year for its presentation in Hong Kong at the Cattle Depot Artist Village and retitled “You.” Lee started his career making hand-painted cloths that were used as sheets for social gatherings like picnics and sharing drinks with friends and then brought back into the space of the gallery as “abstract” paintings that also carried with them a specific context, if not content, and in that vein his more recent multimedia installations, which he himself considers to be “paintings,” could be thought of as platforms or arenas for viewers to encounter themselves and each other encountering Lee’s works. Alternatively it could be said that Lee, an exquisite excavator of surface, exhibits in time rather than in space. Starting in 2010 with the exhibition “Well, that’s just a chill,” Lee has exhibited regularly in Tokyo at ShugoArts gallery, and in 2015 he also produced a well-received exhibition for Shiseido Gallery, “The Voice Behind Me.” In anticipation of Lee’s current solo exhibition at ShugoArts, “Not Untitled,” ART IT’s Andrew Maerkle met with the artist for a series of interviews to discuss his practice and the ideas informing it. What follows is an excerpt from a forthcoming long format interview that is being produced with the support of ShugoArts.
“Lee Kit: Not Untitled” continues at ShugoArts through May 20.
What are your views on art and politics?
I don’t believe in democracy anymore. It just doesn’t work in the real world. So then I get very angry, because this is what I am fighting for, and what the Hong Kong people are fighting for: democracy. But it’s too late, and yet there’s no other option but democracy. I can get super pessimistic. Then the question is, should I kill somebody? I think I could, but it wouldn’t help either. Being pessimistic means I have to be optimistic. Otherwise, if I didn’t kill others, I would certainly kill myself. So the coincidence happens. Art and politics come together. Because I can open up something new, perhaps, but I can’t tell people before I do something. The issue comes back to me: what can I do, or what should I do?
What did June 4, 1989, mean for you?
Hong Kong then was very peaceful. It was a golden era. But there was also a growing fear of the communist government in China, because it had been confirmed that Hong Kong would be returned to China. I think this fear partly motivated the strong reaction to Tiananmen in Hong Kong. I was 11 years old at the time. I was sitting at home with my parents, watching the live coverage on TV. It was after midnight. Suddenly, there was this moment when the TV went black. All the lights in the square were suddenly switched off. I remember the sound: thunk, thunk, thunk. Then the tanks came in, and there were gun shots. The sound was so real. I didn’t see anyone get killed, but I sensed it. It had a powerful effect on me. It was no longer a matter of just fear.
A lot of shit has happened in the world since then, and people can say that this is not the only massacre. I know, everybody knows. But it was important to me. I was still a child. When I got a little older, I had some contact with the local gangsters. They would kill people for money, kill for any reason. But it was different. They didn’t fight for rights or justice. That was when I understood the influence of June 4 on me. It was not just the event itself. It also showed me something that I should fight for. No – not “fight.” It showed me that I should do something.
At the time we thought we were Chinese. Now we make a clear distinction: We are Hong Kong. We are not China. Or I would put it this way: I’m half-British and half-Chinese, because I was colonized, and that’s it. We might share traditional Chinese values, but we are not Chinese under the Chinese government.
The Chinese government tried to marginalize the democracy movement by invoking nativist rhetoric. They said the protestors were promoting “Western values.”
This is the same tactic the Chinese government always uses. They are wrong. You are wrong. He’s wrong. Everyone’s wrong. Even if Western values are wrong, it doesn’t mean you are right. They are taking away all the human rights. It’s going backwards. I think we need to go forward. If the past was screwed, it was screwed, but it doesn’t mean we have to go back. And we cannot go back. It was and still is a kind of brainwashing. They keep saying other people are wrong, that they are trying to influence China, and it’s all bullshit. But this is not happening in China only. It happens in Turkey. It happens in the United States, which is how we get Donald Trump.
In terms of Hong Kong, I think we are too young as a city. The Hong Kong people are proud of the Umbrella Revolution, but nothing really happened. Nobody died, for example. If we can compare the revolution to a person’s lifetime, then Hong Kong is still a baby, just learning to walk. Everything we’ve been talking about is all lies in a way. We can have a bright future, we can fight for democracy – it’s all wrong, it’s all fake. We are lying to ourselves. The conditions behind the idea of democracy are so peculiar: We have to love each other, we have to be fair to each other, respect the peace, be rational. I think being rational is now irrational. This is exactly what is happening in the European Union. You want to be rational? Ok, go ahead. I’m not necessarily criticizing how they’ve chosen to handle the refugee crisis, but sometimes being rational doesn’t work. It’s too late.
Do you pursue any political action in your own life?
I used to think I should do more, and then I realized it doesn’t suit me. For example, I’m willing to participate in government – even to run for election to the legislative council – but I’m not that kind of figure. I can’t control my emotions. I’m not articulate in public. Maybe I’m better suited for working behind the scenes. So I thought of starting an NGO – not for art, just for redistributing resources, like money or social capital. I was seriously considering how to do it. I encounter a lot of rich people in the contemporary art industry. I’m not against them – it’s ok, if you’re rich, you’re rich. I thought I could use them. But I’m not a boss. If I became the boss or founder of an NGO, it would make things even more complicated.
Then one day Chantal Wong asked me if I want to run an art space with her, and I immediately said yes. I had no desire to make an art space – I don’t agree with the idea at all – but I was thinking about my NGO. I decided I could use the art space to redistribute resources. We don’t apply for funding. We ask for support from private collectors or sometimes from people with institutional power – even in the government. We try to convince them that they do not own their resources. When we get the money, we don’t need to tell them how we spend all of it. We can spend some of it on the refugees in Hong Kong without telling them. Even if we tell them, it’s ok. Hey, we have a course teaching them English. Wow, that’s amazing! It doesn’t matter. At least we let them know that we can make use of their resources to do something different. I have a formula now that applies to everything: one plus one does not equal two; it should be more than two. It could be equal to three or four or five, and that’s art.
Artists can strike back against the instrumentalization of art by taking the money and making something that is missing from the existing infrastructure.
Yes. This is one of the reasons why I started the art space. I get annoyed with local artists in Hong Kong who always criticize organizations like M+ or Para Site, saying they don’t do enough. Well, by the way, you already observed the problem, so you do it! Go start something new. Don’t sit there and complain. If you have a grudge against them, make use of their resources. People always complain about art fairs, too. An art fair is an art fair. Make use of it. It’s a platform for meeting people and convincing them to do something, if you have the good will and proper technique. We are all pretenders in a way, but it is possible to be a good pretender – a great pretender.
Traduttore, traditore. The artist is also a traitor. They take the money and translate it into something new.
And we have more than one tactic. We can earn money from the gallery. We can make use of the gallery’s network at an art fair. We can also get funding from the government. We can do so many things and approach so many different people, from technicians and workers to collectors and writers – we have the opportunity to establish contacts from an incredibly wide spectrum. So why not make use of ourselves?
As artists, we ourselves are a readymade resource. That’s art. If I put this dish here, I can turn it into art, just by changing its context. Some other artist might break it and turn it into a sculpture. Transformation has different levels and different techniques. It sounds very simple when we talk about it this way, but I doubt even 10 percent of the artists working today truly understand or accept this fact. They want to be stars. They want to be seen. They want to be heard. They want to be Madonna or Michael Jackson or Prince. To me, they are selfish. I don’t want to be selfish. I’m already selfish enough.
It is easy to transform money; harder to transform people.
I think democracy as projected through the media is a kind of brainwashing, not so different from what happens in China. But I think art can change people. I still believe in that. Even one person. If I could choose between brainwashing a million people or changing two people, I would change the two people. They would be opened up not by my art alone but by something else, something they contribute themselves, and that would influence other people, and then it could become the future.
When we think about political art, it actually means to make or do art politically. But people still fall into the trap of political art: I make political art, so I’m political. Or, I’m political, so I make political art. That’s nonsense. You make art politically or you do something politically. That’s political. It’s not a form.
Both: Installation view, “Lee Kit: You (you),” the Hong Kong Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013. Photo David Levine.
In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt compares the American and French revolutions. Setting aside their use of slavery, the Americans could commit to constituting a free society because they were relatively equal, whereas the socially stratified French had to turn their attention from establishing political freedom to providing the material necessities of survival. In times of inequality, people vote with their stomachs.
They become populists. It’s so easy being a populist. I don’t need to listen to my mind, I just listen to my stomach. Or my desire. In the art scene it’s not so much about the stomach as it is desire. It’s a machine that keeps generating desire for everyone who participates – not only artists or collectors, but everyone. You have a bright future. You have a bright future. You have a brighter future. It’s so obsolete in a way. If you work hard you can get rich and improve your social status, change classes.
Now it is clear, if it was ever in dispute, that there is no guarantee for a bright future. But the fact that they were challenging such impossible odds is exactly why the Umbrella Revolution can be an inspiration for democracy all across Asia, and even the world.
Yes, because there were no leaders, and no strategy. It just happened. The reason the Umbrella Revolution evolved to such a big scale is simply that the police reacted wrongly. They threw the tear gas, and then the people responded. It was not a well-planned revolution. I doubt whether we could even call it a revolution. Is it really a revolution? Is it not? It doesn’t matter. Let’s focus on the main thing. It was a model, yet without looking like a model, and maybe that’s what makes it a model for other revolutions in Asia.
But I think the Hong Kong people killed the Umbrella Revolution. We killed it ourselves. At the last stage, there was the possibility things could get violent. And in that moment, someone who wanted to be the so-called leader took up the microphone and said, Let’s retreat. What? Retreat? Just when the government starts to feel scared, you retreat? And they said, I think we have won already, now that the people have woken up! Come on! We are not here just to wake people up. We want to get something! But it worked. So the people left. They didn’t want to die. They didn’t want to get hurt – although not so many people were actually scared of getting hurt in the first place. But it ended this way, suddenly. It was big news all across the world. I saw it everywhere.
So I think the Umbrella Revolution is both a model and not a model. It’s the same as art. Art does not really have a model. If it works, it works. There’s no model or form. If it works, it’s new. That’s the readymade concept. It’s simple. If I think about the political situation in Hong Kong, or even globally, in terms of the readymade, then it’s hopeless, because people still prefer the old models, which is to say modernist art, if we extend the metaphor, or even Impressionism. It worked before! Yes, it worked before, but not now. We should do something more than that and create something more than that. And we don’t even need to create anything. We can just make use of what’s already there.
So what is the basic level of politics for you?
The only thing I can say is that I don’t think I can avoid politics. I won’t say politics is everywhere, because that’s like saying everyone can be an artist. I disapprove of it. The artist is the artist. So politics is not everywhere, but we cannot avoid it.
The situation in the world is very bad now. We are approaching a third world war – and not just recently. I think it’s been building over the past several years. I was talking with some friends from Taiwan over drinks. They said, How can it be a third world war when no one declares it? Declares it? Are we talking about a party? Of course no one announces the world war! It gets recognized after the fact. And now, with ISIS and the bombings by the United States and Russia in Syria, I’m quite pessimistic.
So the basic level of politics is actually already difficult to achieve. At any point in time, at most half the world can live peacefully, but not more. It never happened even in Europe. I think it’s impossible to achieve utopia. And now things are going backward.
What do you think of the practice of resistance through non-action?
If I don’t do anything it’s because I don’t want to do anything. Sometimes, as a human, I just want to rest. It’s not non-action as a practice.
All I will say is that in my works I stretch the non-action, prolong it, sometimes extend it to see the details, if only for myself. I want to confirm the details, and when I find something, I cut it out and stretch it further. Is that non-action? I think as a subject matter it could be considered non-action, but it’s also everyday life, or something like it.
Above: Something You Can’t Leave Behind (2017), installation view, Taragaun Museum, Kathmandu, as part of the Kathmandu Triennale 2017. Below: Installation view, “Lee Kit: A small sound in your head,” SMAK, Gent, 2017.
This is where your Duchampian sensibility comes through. After all, Duchamp spent years as an anartist.
I know what you’re talking about, but I think our approaches differ. Of course I was influenced by Duchamp when I was young, like most art students. But he is far smarter than I. For me, the readymade object is the readymade object. If I put a dish here and say it is art, it’s only because I cannot think of some other, better way to show it. I could make a painting of the dish, but how could I show people just how beautiful it is under the sunlight? So maybe the best way is to simply put the dish there and wait for the sunlight to hit it. Or take a photo. I don’t have any concept or ideas behind it. It’s simply because I cannot think of the so-called better approach. I need to spend time on things. It’s like a relationship. If you feel you need to spend time on the relationship, then you just spend the time.
Your use of the phrase “nothing happened” is also Duchampian.
I am pretending. I’m pretending nothing happened. That’s my dream. I deserve to be able to live peacefully in the place of my choosing – and not just me, everybody – so that nothing ever happens. But, obviously, this is not possible. Politics and necessity interfere. So should I do something? Of course I do something. But should I also give up my dream? As if nothing happened? I don’t think so, nor can I. So then I pretend nothing happened.
Something always happens when nothing is happening.
For example, I travel a lot. I always trick myself, always find a way to enjoy the in-flight meal, enjoy the airport lounges, enjoy the small hotels and enjoy the fancy hotels – by pretending nothing’s happening. Actually, shit happens everywhere. I get stopped by US customs officers who keep asking me stupid questions. Yeah, right, ok. Nothing happened. On the surface it may look Duchampian. I won’t deny that. I can somehow agree with it, just because I don’t say no to it.
To pretend is a technique. To pretend that nothing happens means I still remember that there should be nothing happening. What I am doing or what other people are doing now will actually be nothing in the future. I think the best moment or situation is like an old couple. If they are a good couple, they stay together peacefully and love each other. You know why? Because nothing happens. They don’t argue every day. They don’t say I love you every hour. They don’t need to. They feel it already. That’s the perfect state of mind. Everything is about the two of them and yet of no consequence to the relationship at the same time. Everything happens and nothing happens. Even if anything does happen, it’s still ok, because it’s nothing. I think this is the key point. Even if anything happens, nothing happens.
Is nothing happening a principle you can use or work against in your art?
I try not to think about it either way. I do not want to make nothing happen, but neither do I want to prevent nothing happening from happening, because if I think about it, I will get overwhelmed by it. For example, if I am consumed by hatred for you, I won’t be able to get your name out of my head. And the more I try to get your name out of my head, the more it stays with me. So the best way is maybe to just get along with it. “Nothing happens” is always there, but I don’t let it push me too far away. I try to work neither with it nor against it, because nothing happens should let something happen, which is the exhibition. I think I’m just waiting sometimes – waiting for the right moment to happen.
Or let’s put it this way: I never really think about my works. I don’t think. Because when I start to think, I make something wrong. I don’t mind making mistakes, but I don’t want to make something wrong. I only think about practical considerations, like how to arrange the projectors or where to put something on the wall. I’m not a conceptual artist, because I don’t think.
Not thinking is itself conceptual: aconceptual.
Shit! There’s no escape. Ok, I better start to think now.
It’s like the relationship between meaning and non-meaning. Is a pattern painted on fabric abstract, or is it meaningless?
At minimum, if I can see something and articulate it clearly, then I don’t have a reason to turn it into a work. The results should not be something that can be easily described or explained. I also question myself, Who am I to make things for others to look at? It’s almost arrogant in a way. Even if I make a good painting, and I love it, why do other people need to look at it? I have this doubt. It’s true that I have more exposure than before, and more exposure than other artists. It doesn’t mean that people need to look at my work. So what can I provide?
Recently I came up with the metaphor of doing a concert to understand the way I travel and set up my exhibitions. My exhibitions over the past several years have been difficult to document, and people really need to be there to see them. It’s like a concert. Even if there’s a recording of the concert, it’s not the same, because there’s no live energy, no mistakes – and I make a lot of mistakes in my exhibitions, but they make the exhibition better. I make exhibitions for the same reason people come to see them: because it’s a performance. Perhaps you don’t even see it as art. It’s a projection of yourself. Like if you suddenly feel moved by a song at a concert, that emotional response is not just about the contents of the song. It’s also about your history with the song and the history of the song itself and how you are feeling in that moment. The response becomes a projection of a projection of a projection. And since I actually use projections in my installations, it becomes even more complicated. It’s a projection of a projection of a projection of a projection. But it gives me one more reason to do it. Otherwise I could find a job anywhere. I never wanted to be an artist. Ever.
Then why go to art school?
I was good at it. I was really good at drawing, painting. I was young and arrogant. I liked looking down on others. Wow, shit, you draw that shit? Fuck! I loved to study art and I loved art. I just didn’t want to be an artist. At art school people talked about art in a formal way, and all my classmates, including Tozer Pak, kept talking about how to be a professional artist, how to be a fulltime artist. I was like, what is a fulltime artist? It’s very simple, let’s discuss it. I don’t think we should even discuss it. What is a fulltime man, for example? A fulltime woman? It doesn’t even sound illogical. It sounds strange, stupid and awkward. So for this reason I didn’t want to be an artist.
Of course I could be an artist – not in a professional sense – and now I happen to be a professional artist, although I’m not so professional when it comes to replying to emails. But now I realize the main reasons I need to be an artist. First, thinking about all the political issues we’ve been talking about, I think an artist is in a good position to do a little bit of something – just a little bit, because no one can change the whole world. There are no heroic gestures, but maybe I could participate through the art industry and by being an artist. Second, I enjoy making exhibitions. And third, I actually discover things I don’t understand by doing exhibitions and talking to people.
I recently did an exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where I gave a talk. Afterward, the curator and my girlfriend told me, When you were talking, everyone was quiet, because you were not talking. Of course I was talking, but I think what they meant is that I was talking to myself. I was talking about “impersonal love,” which I hadn’t even mentioned to the curator. She was like, Impersonal love? Yeah, I discovered that this show is about impersonal love. And everyone was like, What’s impersonal love? But I didn’t hear them asking me. I kept talking to myself without describing it or explaining it. I said, Impersonal love is like when you look at your mom’s picture or your wife’s picture. It’s super familiar, because it’s your wife, she sleeps beside you every night. But somehow you also find it unfamiliar. That’s impersonal love. Impersonal does not mean inhuman. It is totally human, totally personal, but impersonal at the same time. That’s where people make mistakes, I think. If the politicians looking at reports on their cities or countries feel an impersonal love, then they could make mistakes. If you’re at a bar and meet a woman who wants to take you home, you might glance at your wife’s picture first, and then easily forget her, and do something wrong. It’s like that.
I discovered that I could grab this kind of moment tightly. And then I realized it is political. It is personal and political at the same time. I don’t mean that I want to put them together formally. Not even based on my ideas. Because it’s not my idea. It’s inside me, but I believe it is universal. Even now I can’t really explain it clearly, but I discovered something. And I believe it makes sense.
So if you recognize impersonal love, how do you respond to it?
I behave according to my feeling. I shouldn’t lie to myself. If I really don’t love my wife, and I meet another woman I really do love, I should be truthful to myself. In that case, maybe I’m not doing something wrong. I would be doing something good for everyone. It could be a beautiful mistake – could be.
In the case of the politician?
It’s going to be a disaster! But for me, at least, if I were to have that level of responsibility – not even necessarily so high, maybe just the owner of a company or an art space – I must accept the fact that I am in a different position or have a different role, and then I would make decisions differently. But these are things that even our parents have already told us. It’s normal, common, everybody understands. I have to ask myself why I discovered something so normal and common and yet feel so excited. But I think there’s a difference, in the end.
I Can’t Help Falling in Love (2012), installation view in “Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly,” at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2016.
Some of the key concepts in Confucian philosophy are rén, humaneness, and xiào, filial piety, which could be considered love without “romance,” or love without ego, even. In the Asian context they can be critiqued for enforcing traditional hierarchy, but they can be revolutionary when brought into the context of the Western neoliberal value system.
And it is romantic. After 50 years you are still together, even though you don’t love each other? That is romance. Like my parents! All these notions of Confucian or Western notions of love and relationships are already there. We are the mixture of all these things. Of course some people claim they are more into Confucianism and so on. These are ideas. People say, I am pro-democracy. Well, that means you also have a part that is not pro-democracy. When we talk about ideas, it can become so extreme that we end up making choices between two or three different ideas of love or politics. But actually we are hybrid. All the feelings and ideas about different approaches to love, to life, to politics are already mixed up in every individual.
I would say the only difference between these binary oppositions is how they deal with control. The so-called Asian side is more about direct control. The Western side questions control itself, Why do we need control? But I don’t think the values are so different. No one decides the exact nature of rén, which is constantly changing and open to interpretation. For me, it would be: no betrayal; try to be a good person. Why try to be a good person? It means, try not to make mistakes that affect other people. And that basically means to love people. So the content of the value system is very basic, but the problem is how to apply it. Because we don’t do it for just one or two days. It’s a lifelong commitment. We have to constantly question ourselves about it every time we make a decision, and we also have to question others, too.
Is impersonal love outside of this?
No, it’s part of it. I can visualize it, but in an abstract way. It’s a platform. Impersonal love is like this table. No one can avoid it. And not only impersonal love. We also have guilt. Guilt is what you feel when you wake up suddenly in the middle of the night. You just feel empty, insecure. It’s almost like a basic instinct to feel guilty, even when you’ve done nothing wrong. We would normally call this an emotion, but for me it’s a platform for us to understand that we are alone. That we are helpless. Then you start to debate whether to kill yourself or keep going, and if you decide to keep going, there’s a lot of things to think about and do.
And impersonal love is also a platform for me to understand that, actually, I could make a big mistake if I don’t recognize it’s just a platform. Otherwise I might take things in the wrong direction. If I look at the picture of my wife before turning down the woman beside me, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I love my wife. It’s just what I decided in that moment. What happens afterward counts, but not in that moment. Nothing happens in so-called impersonal love.
It’s action without motivation?
Kind of. The motivation will happen once we realize we are on the platform. The motivation is not about the platform, but without the platform there would be no motivation. And the so-called love is not like “I love you” or “him” or “my wife.” It could be universal love. That’s why I say I’m against the big love thing now. I think we need to understand it in a better way. It’s almost religious: We have to love everybody. No, I don’t love everybody. I have 10 fingers. If I hate you, I show you my middle finger. In Chinese we say, Each of our fingers is a different length. We have priorities and limits. So there’s no big love. If there’s a big love, we should have a lot of fingers. Too many fingers!
Is it about how we relate to each other then?
Sure. Even when I’m at home doing nothing, I think it’s also part of the work, even though I don’t need to exhibit it. I’m always in that moment. It’s not a yes or no question, but I can’t escape it. I can escape from notions like whether I am a conceptual artist or not, or a painter or not, but I cannot escape from this platform. I want to get closer to that moment. It’s a moment where I can be really honest – technically honest; not purely honest, but technically I can be honest. That’s performance. A pretender. It’s like Freddie Mercury. He sang the song “Great Pretender.” It’s not his song. And he was a great pretender.
Lee Kit: The Great Pretender