Artists Fairs Venice Biennale Italy

“It’s best to think of Venice as just another show”

Artist Lee Kit on his controversial selection, and moving to Taipei

Lee Kit is representing Hong Kong at this year's Venice Biennale. Courtesy of M+

Although the Hong Kong-born, Taipei-based artist Lee Kit is one of the most admired and amiable artists working in the region and a favourite among local contemporary art aficionados, his selection as Hong Kong’s representative at this year’s Venice Biennale has caused controversy. The problem, however, lies not with Lee, but with the new selection process in which Lars Nittve, the director of the new visual art museum M+, which is due to open in late 2017, was appointed the commissioner of Hong Kong’s pavilion without public consultation. Artists have been outspoken in their criticism of the selection process in recent months.

The 35-year-old artist has made a name for himself in recent years with his “Cardboard Paintings” in which he draws everyday objects such as washing powder boxes and Nivea skincare ­products. Lee’s work is in a number of ­private collections in Asia and Europe as well as in the holdings of international public institutions.

The Art Newspaper: What is the idea behind the work you’ll show at the Venice Biennale?

Lee Kit: There isn’t a concrete concept… the show will be about Hong Kong, myself, my life and why I’m an artist. I’m looking at love and hate.

Can you describe the work?

It’s very straightforward. It’s set up like an apartment. In the past two years, I’ve had a lot of projects and consequently I’ve travelled every week. I’ve found that I enjoy long flights and staying in hotel rooms. You can feel emotion when you’re alone.

Why did you move from Hong Kong to Taipei last year?

I moved to Taipei because it’s still close to my family [in Hong Kong] and it’s a very human city. I can feel things there… I feel more calm. I want to keep a distance from Hong Kong so I can see clearly. Many things in Hong Kong, including social and political issues, make me angry. I feel like I can do what I want now. I have an apartment where I live and work. Life is slow… it’s better. I don’t feel the strain. In Taipei, I make lunch and dinner and it’s just lunch and dinner, not having to meet people or go to gallery openings.

How did going to school in Hong Kong affect you as an artist?

When I was in school, the only place with [studio art] was the Chinese University of Hong Kong. It was small and they didn’t have a lot of rules. I trained as a painter but my teachers gave me freedom to [work with] hand-painted cloth. Ten years ago, the art world in Hong Kong was so small that you’d go to openings and it was just artists and a few curators. It was like a small family. There were no art fairs. No one talked about art in Hong Kong.

What about now?

The atmosphere has changed. It’s not good or bad, but it has happened too fast. When I was in school I was told: “Be patient, maybe in four or five years you can have a show.” But I had shows before the five-year mark. Now young artists can have a solo show right out of school. They have a lot of opportunities, such as residencies.

What do you think of the controversy in Hong Kong in the lead-up to Venice?

I read all of it on Facebook. Thankfully no one complained about me although I wish they had. The problem is the Arts Development Council, which suddenly changed the selection process without ­consultation.

Where is the audience for contemporary art in Hong Kong?

People in Hong Kong go to galleries but they’re there to take pictures for Facebook. Education should not happen in galleries. We need a long-term culture and education policy. If you are an artist in Hong Kong, no one cares about you. I had to get a new Hong Kong ID so I went to the immigration department and put “artist” as my occupation on my application. The immigration officer said: “So it means you are unemployed.” Many people in Hong Kong don’t understand what it means to be an artist.

Is there a specific visual language in art in Hong Kong?

My art is personal. I grew up in a middle-class family and listened to songs, so my early work was about lyrics. [The artist] Chow Chun-fai’s dad was a taxi driver so his work includes taxis because that is from his life. You can’t say that Chow’s work is Hong Kong and others’ isn’t—it is all Hong Kong. Venice is important but it’s also important to think about it as just another show. Although when you think about Venice, it is a model that is obsolete, with country pavilions and a competition.

The Venice Biennale is from 1 June to 24 November


The Way You Drop is Like a Stone, 2010, by Lee Kit
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