Pak Sheung Chuen

Coincidence Measured by Body
By Andrew Maerkle

From A Zebra for 5 Persons, 2006-12-28, 12:30-13:00, Cheung Sha Wan, Hong Kong. All images: Courtesy Pak Sheung Chuen/

Based in Hong Kong, Pak Sheung Chuen is known for works involving subtle interventions into the everyday urban environment. His practice developed from a multi-year project contributing a weekly art column to the local Ming Pao newspaper, which he used as a platform for registering his encounters in the city, ranging from discovering a surrendipitous love letter in the rows of titles on a receipt from a bookstore to attempting to bottle the horizon along Victoria Harbor. In such works, Pak combines the grand scales of government, economy or environment with his own bodily scale to identify the myriad points where individual lives and broader society intersect.

ART iT met with Pak in May 2010 to discuss his practice in greater detail.


ART iT: One thing that strikes me about your work is the idea, called yuanfen in Chinese, of fateful coincidence or convergence, which seems to be particularly evident in pieces such as Waiting for a Friend (without appointment) (2006), for which you stood outside a train station for four hours waiting to encounter someone you know. Is this a concept that you consciously explore or apply in your practice?

PSC: Through my works I want to make daily life more meaningful, and because yuanfen is related to encountering unexpected potential, I think it is a good word to reflect this attitude. Yuanfen is a very Buddhist concept. You believe something good will happen in the future, and that everything will turn out in a good way. Sometimes I produce something good for myself, or sometimes I produce something good for the future. It’s like when you plant the seeds of a flower, one day you suddenly have flowers. I like that feeling.

Top: Waiting for a Friend (without appointment), 2006-12-29, 12:47-16:38. Bottom: Familiar Numbers, Unknown Telephone, 2005-5-16, 13:15-13:18.

ART iT: But if we usually think of it as something beyond our control, in your works the yuanfen of encountering a friend at the train station is part of a constructed situation. Are you interested in the idea of playing with elements of both control and chance, and with how different bodies relate in time and space, as in a cosmology?

PSC: Actually, I think something must happen if I create this kind of situation, it just depends on how long it takes – maybe 10 hours, maybe one day, maybe two days.
I am a practicing Christian but I read many books on Buddhist thought, and one Buddhist teaching is that a flower is not just a flower; it is sunlight, it is water, it is soil, and it is you: everything around a flower is part of that flower. I have the same thinking: I am a person, but I am also the people around me.
For four years from around 2003 to 2007, I worked for a local newspaper, the Ming Pao, making weekly art projects for the Sunday edition. During this period I spent a lot of time simply hanging out and walking around the streets. I would walk until I found something that spoke to me, and then an idea would emerge. For example, one day I saw this traffic sign in the street with the figures of a man and a child holding hands, and I wondered where the mother could be. I started looking around the city and began to find different combinations of adults and children on the signage, imagining that they all come from a single family. [This piece became Ethic of the Single Parents: Father and Son / Mother and Son / Mother and Daughter / Father and Daughter (2003).]
With another piece, Familiar Numbers, Unknown Telephone (2005), I found a bus stop served by four bus routes, 91, 91M, 92, and 96R, and thought this combination of numbers is very similar to a mobile phone number. I dialed those numbers, someone picked up, and I told him I saw his telephone number on the bus stop. He couldn’t believe it. He asked, “Is it part of an advertisement?” I said, “No, it’s like a silkscreen print on the bus stop.” He asked, “Is it a new-style bus stop or old-style bus-stop?” We continued this kind of silly dialogue for a few minutes, and I recorded everything.
Afterward, I wrote about it as one of my newspaper projects. I learned that some people actually tried dialing the number themselves, so I called the man back to apologize. Then later when I happened to revisit the area near the bus stop, the numbers had been stolen. This was a strong reminder that presenting work in a newspaper is completely different from other art media. But I like it because you can interact with people who are completely unknown to you and connect with them. This is a major characteristic of my work. I always make myself interact with people I don’t know, and create relationships with them.

ART iT: Were you already working like this before working for the newspaper?

PSC: It started with Ming Pao. I suggested that they provide a page for artists to do projects, and it’s still running today, although I am no longer involved on a regular basis. At first it was completely new to me, because I had always been a painter. But I have a good sensitivity to the things around me so I started to think about how to make a piece for the newspaper. At that time, in 2003, Hong Kong was struck by the SARS epidemic, which was terrible, and I couldn’t find a job. So I concentrated on walking in the streets. Then when I was walking, a miracle happened. It was almost as if somebody or something spoke to me, and showed me what to do. So gradually I found a way to use the newspaper to develop my ideas and artworks.

ART iT: Is this the reason why your recent artworks generally involve an action, a documentation and then a story?

PSC: Yes. While doing the newspaper I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of returning to a gallery environment. It took me a long time to go back. I still do the newspaper sometimes but I feel that if I’m not constantly in Hong Kong the artwork won’t be powerful, because it won’t be able to relate to the readers in the same way. I stopped doing regular projects when I left in 2007 for a yearlong residency in New York.

ART iT: Then do you think of your art as being specifically located in the community in Hong Kong? You’re not thinking about reaching an international audience?

PSC: The first period I was making art for the readers of the newspaper. I did it for around four years, and it helped me to develop my art practice. Of course even some projects from that period can appeal to international audiences, but mainly I enjoy when I’m making artwork as part of my everyday life, just like cooking, going shopping, and other activities. I don’t need to think too much.
Also I find the process of making works from ideas I encounter on the streets is similar to therapy. I find that the environment and people around me become friendlier, and I can have a more positive way of thinking about my city. This is what I was trying to communicate to readers, and hope they enjoyed.
But after I left Hong Kong for the residency the way I make art changed, or the target changed.

Top: Installation view of Inexistent Time (2008) at the 3rd Yokohama Triennale, 2008. Bottom: Installation view of A Travel Without Visual Experience (2009) at Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou.

ART iT: What about the work that you made for the 3rd Yokohama Triennale in 2008, Inexistent Time and Existent Time? Did it have a target?

PSC: I was responding to the theme of the exhibition, “Time Crevasse.” I tried to think about time in my life, what it means to me, and came out with several ideas. One is the idea of the lifeline. Every person has their own lifeline, but when you put two lifelines together, what is the meaning of the parts that don’t line up? I approached it almost like a sculpture, in the sense that when you’re making a sculpture you have to think about both the positive and the negative space.
But overall I think of my artworks as being destined for books – it’s just that maybe now the readers have become more professional.

ART iT: What happens when you do exhibit in a gallery situation?

PSC: At the very beginning I felt it was difficult because my training came from doing the newspaper, which was just about putting an idea on paper: everything’s flat, and I only have to manage one specific area. But in an exhibition you need to think of the gallery as a space, you need to consider the feelings of the people who enter that space; it’s not about a pure idea – otherwise they could just look at the book, no need to go to the gallery. So recently I have started to approach exhibitions more in the way of a painter, or rather I prepare two exhibitions for the same space at the same time. The first is about the conceptual idea of my artwork, and the second is about creating a composition in space through the different elements of my works, allowing people inside to feel like they are looking at a three-dimensional abstract painting and making it easier for them to enter the idea. And in the case of A Travel Without Visual Experience (2009), which was an installation of photos I took while blindfolded on a tour of Malaysia, I tried to achieve that effect on an even deeper level in having the audience directly experience the idea behind the work by darkening the space so it was impossible to see the photos unless they used their camera flashes.

Detail from installation view of Valleys Trip (2007), map of Tokyo’s 23 wards, 1:10000 scale, 2006 edition.

ART iT: Earlier we were talking about yuanfen and cosmologies. I brought it up because you also have several works based on maps, like Mountains Trip and Valleys Trip (both 2007), where you used the creases in a paper foldout map and the gutter of an atlas, respectively, to determine itineraries through Tokyo. Why are you so interested in maps?

PSC: I don’t know exactly why, but I think maps basically give me a way to know where I am. The perspective of a map is like the perspective of god looking down on the world: we humans become very small. Maybe it’s this feeling that I like.
The pieces I made in Tokyo developed the same way as my Hong Kong pieces, through hanging out in the streets. Valleys Trip happened because one day I went to a bookstore and found a map of all 23 districts in Tokyo. It was really thick, but small. Each map went across two pages, but even if you pressed the book flat, you could never see the part of the map that was in the gutter. Then when I pressed it, the idea came out: what if I could travel in that gap? What would that mean? It was an interesting and abstract idea. Then as I traveled the gap I decided to take photos of myself. I knew that one day this project would be published in a book, so I placed myself in the middle of the frame. That way the photo would be there in the gap of the book.
I think everyday life is like that. There are so many things around us, it’s just that you need to pay attention, calm yourself down, and then the idea will come out. Actually it’s very religious. When you’re doing spiritual practice, some idea will come out and fill your whole body. This kind of thing supports my life.

ART iT: Many of your pieces develop from your own body – its dimensions and how it exists in space. Sometimes these are kind of absurd, but they also can be quite powerful, like A Zebra for Five Persons (2006), for which you and four other people lined up together to block off a zebra crossing.

PSC: I made that piece when I was on a residency and came back to Hong Kong for one month. While in Hong Kong, I put a calendar inside a map and then every day of the month used the numbers of the days to determine a new place to visit and see whether something could happen. Every place I went, I made something in response to the inspiration I received there, so this is a kind of yuanfen also. One day I found this incredibly narrow zebra crossing, and it really stimulated me. It was very noisy in that area because the crossing lights make a loud, fast noise when it’s ok to cross, and I thought about why we like that in Hong Kong: because the government wants people to move faster, they narrow the crossing space and make an agitating sound so people will move fast. I wanted to stop the people from moving so fast, and make the street slower. I asked my friends to come together to do this art piece walking across the zebra for a half hour, and then we documented it and put it on YouTube so people could get to know the idea.

All: From A Present to the Central Government (2005). Top: Part 1, 2005-7-1, 15:00-17:00, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Middle: Part 2, 2005-7-17, 10:00-17:35, around the periphery of Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Bottom: Documentation of route for Part 2 action.

ART iT: Is this connected to your works that relate to Hong Kong politics, like A Present to the Central Government (2005), for which you used a yellow cloth spread on the street to collect the footprints of marchers during the annual July 1 civil rights march?

PSC: Yes. When I was working in the newspaper, I felt I had the responsibility to express the feeling of the Hong Kong people through my column, and this period coincided with a critical point in Hong Kong politics. I was speaking out as an individual and an artist, not as an activist. Most of my friends are activists, and the way they think is totally different from me. They think the government is shit, and that they need to fight with them. But for me we need all kinds of people to fight this dragon government, only one way is not enough. Someone has to shake hands with them, someone has to fight with them, someone has to give ideas to them to produce gradual change.
But even if my artwork is small-scale and private, this actually gives it much more impact. People could see my artwork in the newspaper and realize they are the same as me, just like with the man who stood before the tanks during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Why was that image so powerful? Because even though he’s the same as anybody, that man was able to stop the tanks on his own. You can measure your body against him. I think this is very important for my artwork. I try not to make my art so big because I need the audience to feel my artwork by themselves, directly. Most of my works express my personal feelings. I use my own power to oppose the system, to oppose the thinking behind the current political situation. But at the same time it’s not about only expressing anger. I hope people can calm down and have their own thoughts on the situation so that it can lead to positive thinking. We need both.

Pak Sheung Chuen: Coincidence Measured by Body

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