Vancouver-based artist of Chinese origin Paul Wong, 63, has often found inspiration in the most unexpected of places, be it his mother’s cupboard or an opera concert. For Father’s Words, a work part of his solo exhibition “Paul Wong: Private/Public/ Lives”, on show till December 1, at Delhi’s Shrine Empire Gallery, he reproduced the letters his grandfather wrote to his mother Suk-Fong, from the early 1960s till he died in 1973.
After the Chinese Communist Revolution ended and during the declaration of China’s Land Reformation period in 1950, when land was confiscated from landowners and redistributed among landless peasants, Wong’s landowner-cum-goldsmith grandfather was sent to a labour camp in Toisan in southern China because he was the enemy, a member of the “bourgeoise, landowning” class. For five years at the camp, he had to “right” his way and relearn the new order after his wealth was redistributed. His carefully-worded letters, keeping in mind China’s scrutiny of letters going overseas, recall his experiences under the Chinese Communist regime, of being beaten up, disgraced on streets, his wife’s suicide, and how the bourgeoise family — like other landowners, rightists, academics, and those with overseas connections — was persecuted between 1950s and 1970s.
Wong’s teenaged mother was sent away from Toisan to Hong Kong to stay with her uncles and aunts, where she could escape the repressive Chinese regime (the British colony of Hong Kong had served as an attractive sanctuary for Chinese refugees after the Communist Revolution). She later married and moved to Canada. Wong was born in Prince Rupert. “She was a young widow who married my father, 30 years her senior. She was self-sufficient, educated and independent and helped me connect with her past, family and history in China when I visited her village in Toisan in 1982,” Wong says of his mother who died two years ago.
Wong has held shows at Tate Britain (2007), the Venice Biennale (2003), Museum of Modern Art in New York (1989) and the National Gallery of Canada (1978). He can’t read and write Chinese and uses the help of Chinese translators to decipher his mother’s letters. The letter dated June 22, 1973 is imbued with his grandfather’s helplessness and despair — “It’s almost been a year and a half since I received your last letter. Why didn’t you write to me? My health is not as good as before. I cannot move my feet…I hope you all stay healthy, so far away from home.” Wong says his mother didn’t see her family for 35 years.
Another letter details his grandfather’s careful recording of the 850 Hong Kong dollars that Wong’s mother had sent, listing the items he spent it on: goji berries and herbs for soups that kept his body warm, and new clothes as he had mentioned earlier the need for a new padding for his winter coat.
Each of Wong’s four works on display have been commissioned by public art institutions of Canada and will be presented in public places, out of the traditional gallery system. Father’s Words, which was created from the 700 letters written to his mother over a period of 65 years, will be on display next year at Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver as part of a year-long residency, titled “Occupying Chinatown”.
Mother’s Cupboard are photographs of jars filled with Chinese herbal medicines, whose prints are currently on display at bus stops across Vancouver. His mother stored special Chinese medicines that she made at home — like hak dew for treating bruises and cuts, and another made from deer bone — and stored in jars of recycled instant coffee, Miracle Whip, pasta sauces and pickles. “I often take these to Chinese herbal stores and ask them, ‘What’s in this jar?’ to identify the bark and bone,” says Wong, the winner of Canada’s 2016 Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts.
Year of GIF is a tiny replica of his large outdoor installation for Urban Screen, a mammoth non-commercial screen dedicated to displaying digital artwork, at the Chuck Bailey Recreation Centre in Surrey, British Columbia. It displays photographs from daily life — a TV screen grab of former US president Barack Obama giving a speech on a news channel, selfies, and the architecture around a crowded city street — all of which he clicked over a span of a year on his smartphone. The resulting GIFs he made explores the politics of the internet and the fine line between public and private lives. These are abstract representations, where the artist is trying to draw attention to what may seem inconsequential, the commonplace. For, in Wong’s words, “artists are storytellers, too”