A Report on Lee Kit
A presentation by Lee Kit at Asia Art Archive in America on February 19 2012, on the occasion of his participation in the exhibition The Ungovernables: 2012 New Museum Triennial (February 15 through April 22 2012).Report by Stephanie Hsu
During an event hosted by Jane DeBevoise at Asia Art Archive in America, artist Lee Kit presented several series of his works. In a conversation that covered topics ranging from Hong Kong politics to Nivea hand cream, Lee discussed the social implications of his work, his attitude towards Hong Kong’s consumer culture, and his personal concerns as an artist.
This report summarizes the key points in the artist’s presentation, but it is also informed by the author’s understanding of and further research on Lee Kit’s work.
In his series of hand-painted cloths, Lee Kit explores the fluidity of objects as they move between domestic environments and public spaces. The pieces of fabric, painted over with softly colored stripes, plaids, hatching, and other patterns, serve a variety of functions. Exhibited first as wall-hung paintings, the cloths were then appropriated as functional objects in the aftermath of the SARS epidemic in 2003. After weeks of indoor seclusion, Lee and his friends decided to hold an outdoor picnic during which they used one of the cloths as a picnic blanket. Since then, some of Lee’s hand-painted cloths have been assimilated into domestic environments as washcloths, towels, curtains, and bed sheets, while others have been integrated into public and communal settings as café tablecloths. One of the cloths even served as an impromptu banner in Hong Kong’s annual July 1 protest in 2004.
By traversing between private domestic settings and public exhibition spaces, Lee’s hand-painted cloths engage in a wide range of signifying practices. Yet, Lee continues to emphasize the minimalism of his works, insisting that they have no extrinsic meaning. In this vein, the cloths—rather than acting as instigators of meaning-making—serve more as passive observers witnessing ordinary moments in the artist’s life. ’I minimized the message down to a level where I only needed to put the object there,’ Lee explains. ‘It then became my attitude.’
Lee Kit makes further use of hand-painted cloth in his interactive installation My pillow seems like a bed, a pillow seems like my bed (2008). Lee’s colorfully dyed pillows, which are neither large enough to be beds nor small enough to be regular pillows, invite viewers to lie down for a rest, beckoning them with the dreamy, whimsical lyrics painted on the cloth. Within the seemingly playful setup, Lee contemplates the inequities between consumer experiences and concealed processes of production. By imagining laborers daydreaming as they tediously craft the pillows, Lee contemplates the ways in which laborers’ thoughts may become encrypted in the products they make.
For example, Lee suggests that while consumers might find pleasure in interpreting the words on the pillows as profound lyrics about love, the same words may have been inspired by the random, counter-productive ruminations running through the laborers’ minds as they were making the pillows. Lee uses lyrics from Skeeter Davis’ ‘The End of the World’ as an example: ‘I wake up in the morning and I wonder why everything is the same as it was.’ Lee explains, ‘In a love song context, it’s very clear, but imagine if I’m a laborer, working every morning, and these lyrics appear in my mind. It’s a really bad thing.’ Lee’s handcrafted pillows suggest that perhaps both laborers and consumers are engulfed in purposeless daily rituals—laborers in their production of impractical objects and consumers in their superficial consumption of meanings.
Lee Kit’s series of cardboard paintings, which were exhibited at the Frieze Art Fair in 2011, explore the irony surrounding city dwellers’ personal attachments to objects of mass consumption. The pastel-colored plaque-like paintings, which bear the logos of popular personal hygiene brands, speak to Lee’s fascination with his own relationship to Hong Kong’s brand-saturated urban environment.
In his work, Lee grapples with the role of commodity fetishism in reconfiguring the way in which consumers think and feel about their own personal relationships. ‘For example, if I miss Mary, the image in my head is Mary but I will associate her with Nivea, and the name ‘Nivea’ will keep repeating in my head instead,’ Lee explains. The artist goes on to describe the complex feeling surrounding his association of personal relationships with hygiene products: ‘It’s a very subtle and strange emotion, neither happiness nor sadness. It’s just like when you wake up in the middle of the night and you feel quiet, guilty, and happy all at once.’
Lee Kit’s 1, 2, 3, 4… installation, which was presented at the 2011 Lombard Fried Projects in New York, brings together the artist’s various hand-painted textiles. Some of the cloths hang on the wall or rest on a laundry drying rack, while others fold up on the floor. A table and chair setup allows visitors to sit down and drink tea.
Despite Lee’s use of ordinary objects and references to daily contexts, one cannot describe the setting as casual. The ready-mades in Lee’s installation have been appropriated as components of a highly studied environment in which audience participation is allowed but not wholeheartedly encouraged. Lee admits, ‘I’m a bit of a control freak, so I just prepare the situation and do the work.’ Appearing almost as untouchable facsimiles of reality, Lee’s carefully orchestrated installations, such as 1, 2, 3, 4…, reveal the artist’s concern with maintaining the order and integrity of his works.
Evolving from the setting of 1, 2, 3, 4…, Lee Kit’s How to set up an apartment for Johnny also utilizes his hand-painted textiles. Presented at Art Basel 42 in 2011, the installation mimics the setup of a typical show-flat room in Hong Kong. Using his hand-painted textiles to serve as tablecloths, curtains, and bed sheets, Lee constructs an artificial household setting. As a highly regimented, self-conscious space, the installation mocks the efforts of typical show-flat rooms to display idealized living arrangements. ‘It’s like the house you’re going to buy is still under construction, so they build another show-flat room in a hotel to show you your ideal life,’ Lee explains. ‘But to me, it’s an impossible and ridiculous attempt.’
Exhibited at the 2011 SH Contemporary in Shanghai, In purity, I silently reach for you also explores the intersection between public and private spaces. Lee presents a tranquil public washroom setting, surrounded by baby blue painted walls. The installation offers visitors the chance to find temporary solace in a single stall, mimicking the peculiar air of privacy and comfort in public washrooms. ‘It’s strange because a public toilet is a public space, but once you lock it, you really feel that the intimacy and quietness is there,’ Lee remarks.
In his installation Henry: Have you ever been this low?, Lee Kit envisions Hong Kong politician Henry Tang’s future retirement home. Exhibited at the Western Front Gallery in Vancouver in 2011, the installation presents a secluded, sparsely furnished domestic space. A high, blinded window overlooks the room, heightening the pervading sense of isolation. While Henry Tang served as Lee’s primary inspiration for his installation, Lee describes the space as evoking a universal human feeling of loneliness or guilt that anyone, whether a corrupt politician or an ordinary man waking up in the middle of the night, is capable of experiencing.
Pinned to the wall of the installation, Lee’s cardboard painting Kao Bleach (II) complements the dismal, ironic atmosphere of the whole setting. Despite the signified function of the cleaning brand, the actual futility of the cardboard painting bearing its name suggests that there is no hope of cleansing oneself of past wrongdoings and regrets. Playing on his own tendency to associate cleansing products with personal feelings, Lee remarks, ‘Can you bleach guilt? No, you cannot.’
Lee Kit’s video Filling up an ashtray (2008) pays tribute to the artist’s late friend Jerry Guan, a frequent smoker. Mediating between Lee’s private commemoration of his friend and the performance’s public exhibition, the video shows an ashtray gradually being filled with ash, as Lee smokes continuously for one hour. ‘So, it was like a performance, but no one sees it,’ says Lee.
Lee’s installation Scratching the table surface (2006-2010) documents a four-year long period during which the artist scratched the surface of a table. Though painstakingly simple, Lee claims that the performance is crucial to his repertoire. By allowing the artist to engage in a meaningless, repetitive act, the performance allowed him to transcend the frenzied rhythm of Hong Kong and access a renewed level of concentration and peace. ‘I felt very quiet, very focused, like I was somewhere else, almost like in ecstasy. Maybe this isn’t very socio-political, but I think as an artist, I am privileged to be able to do something like this.’ Lee recalls sending postcard photographs of his performance to some 300 friends, inviting them to question their own privilege as free individuals to indulge in a similarly meaningless act.
During the Q&A that followed the presentation, Lee Kit elaborated on the role that his relationship to Hong Kong plays in his works. Lee described the art scene in Hong Kong as a retreat from the highly political and competitive atmosphere characterizing much of the neighboring art scene in Mainland China. ‘When no one cares about you, that means you can do whatever you want,’ said Lee.
Yet, as a place straddling the influences of Britain and China, colonization and capitalism, localism and globalism, Hong Kong is clearly engaged in its own set of politics. While Lee acknowledges that Hong Kong inescapably serves as a kind of premise for his work, he maintains his distance from the heated issues of identity facing the city: ‘Without Hong Kong, I won’t do this kind of work, but once it starts, I don’t need the context of Hong Kong.’
Through Lee’s often-understated commentaries, we can observe the way in which the artist makes sense of the contradictions shaping his surroundings. Amid a culture consumed with cycles of productivity and efficiency, Lee finds solitude and creative freedom in the seemingly banal rituals of daily life and the ambiguous, in-between spaces of the city. It is within these neglected cracks in the everyday landscape of Hong Kong that Lee finds not only relief from the bustle of the city but also the coordinates to begin making sense of his own place within it.
All images courtesy of Lee Kit.
Born 1978 in Hong Kong, lives and works in Hong Kong and Taipei
2003, BFA, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
2008, MFA, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Solo exhibitions include ‘It’s not an easy thing.’ (Arrow Factory, Beijing, 2012), ‘Henry (Have you ever been this low?)’ (The Western Front, Vancouver, 2011), ‘1, 2, 3, 4…’ (Lombard Fried Projects, NY, 2011), ‘Watching Soap (I can’t recall the day that I last heard from you.)’ (Osage Kwun Tong, HK, 2011), ‘Well that’s just a chill.’ (ShugoArts, Tokyo, 2010), Suit-case (Galleria Dell’ Arco, Palermo, 2009), and 3/4 suggestions for a better living (Para/Site Art Space, HK, 2007). Group exhibitions include The Ungovernables: 2012 New Museum Triennial (New Museum, New York, 2012), Print/Out (MoMA, New York, 2012), Trading Future (Taipei Contemporary Art Centre, Taipei, 2012), ‘What Should I Do To Live Your Life?’ (Sharjah Art Foundation, Beit al Serkal, UAE, 2012), Sensary Training (Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou, 2012), The Wedding Banquet (Para/Site Art Space, Hong Kong, 2011), No Soul For Sale (Tate Modern, London, 2010), Platform 2009 (Kimusa site, Artsonje Center, Seoul, 2009), Portrait of Self Exile (The Shop, Beijing, 2009), Sprout from White Night (Bonnier Konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden, 2008), and The 3rd Guangzhou Triennial (Guangzhou, China, 2008). Lee will be representing Hong Kong in the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.