- Friends say, ‘Frog King, you betrayed us, you don’t come with us to demonstrate on the streets.’ The artist’s reply? ‘I am not a political demonstrator’
- For all his protestations, though, Kwok Mang-ho’s recent work, currently on show, includes rivulets of tear gas and umbrellas – symbol of Hong Kong protest
On a narrow pathway that connects Arbuthnot Road to Old Bailey Street in Central in Hong Kong, the air is thick with smoke. Is it tear gas? Or the airborne remnants of a Molotov cocktail?
No " it's art.
This is an event to launch the artist known as Frog King's latest exhibition at 10 Chancery Lane, "Frog King: The Living Legend", and outside the gallery, the legend himself has set up something of an art installation.
There are incense sticks and candles " and ergo, smoke, copious amounts of it, that wafts into the enclosed space " but there are also toilet paper rolls, dish scrubbers, turnips and bitter melons that form a support structure for the burning materials.
At lunch, the artist " whose real name is Kwok Mang-ho, and who is known for his outlandish outfits, even more outlandish performances, defiantly optimistic outlook and incredibly prolific output " insists that he is not political, and that his art is not political.
"If you ask me, (do I) stand on the left, right or middle, that's too functional and commercial and political. Politics today " today we are enemies, next year we are friends. Like Japan and Korea. Who knows, it's an evolution period. Later on when things calm down, we hope for a good future. Art is very strong in independence," he says.
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That said, the canvases that make up this exhibition are rife with Hong Kong protest references, which turns out to be a remarkably commercial choice for an artist who is emphatically not commercially minded (Katie de Tilly, the gallerist who represents him, has had to ban him from giving away original works).
On opening night, one collector noted a desire to purchase art from a Hong Kong artist that had been created during this tumultuous period.
One of the first works to sell, Frog Happy Harvest, has umbrellas painted in the centre; another that received inquiries, Frog Living Legend, is made up of takeaway menus and characters for Hong Kong food items such as sweet glutinous dumplings, steamed buns and white rice, but partially obscured in the top left corner are the characters leen deng, a reference to the forums in which Hongkongers discuss protest activities.
Gesturing at two juxtaposed canvases, Frog Xpression and Tears of Hope A+B, he points at rivulets of paint that have dribbled down from large black strokes.
"This is tear gas," he says.
For his Smoke of Change performance on VIP night, the references are even more overt.
I made this show quite smoothly in one month " I wanted to create something energetic, I wanted to rebalance society's recent atmosphereFrog King
Inside the gallery, Frog King stabs a winter melon with knives before switching off the lights and shining a flashlight into the eyes of onlookers. Outside, he sets a paper screen on fire before a somewhat bewildered audience, and then uses a flashlight to "attack" it, a reference to the police force's identification of a laser pen as an offensive weapon.
Again, in his mind this isn't politics, it's art. "If a student does that, nobody looks at it. But if you say Frog King did that, then it's special. Artists create credit. Now, every night you see a 'fire sculpture' in the street. A fire installation every night.
"Improvising everywhere, you create work. They walk on the street; anything they see that they can move, they will bring to block the road. In the '60s, the Fluxus (an experimental art movement) people did that. Fifty years later, people say that's avant-garde."
Happenings in the news affect him emotionally.
"My wife was fighting with me, she said I'm brainwashed by the news, and for a few days, we didn't talk," he says. "And my young friends say, 'Frog King, you betrayed us, you don't come with us to demonstrate on the streets.'
"When Ai Weiwei disappeared for 80 days, I was there on the streets," he says, referring to the mainland Chinese artist's detention by the Chinese government in 2011. Frog King and Ai were contemporaries who met at his KWOK Gallery in New York in the 1980s.
"I went to the Cultural Centre (in Hong Kong, where a protest took place), prepared lots of white paper. I said A4 (paper) is the contemporary container of creation. Let's free the creative spirit, let the A4 paper fly."
The crowd threw paper to the sky as a symbol of this freedom.
"(But) I said to the public, I am not a political demonstrator, that's the spirit of art. Free the creative spirit. When I exist in this world, it shows the art scene there is a light, we can continue, we can do art. Art is about keeping on doing it. If you are a painter, you must die on the painting table."
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Besides, what isn't political these days? When the Hong Kong Museum of Art reopens this month after a three-year renovation, there will be an installation and exhibition created by Frog King on view for the next seven months.
"(The museum) gave me a huge space and I managed to make an installation and lots of paintings.
"My art has a very Hong Kong linkage," he muses. "It has some colonial background. I made a sandwich font, some Chinese characters combined with English writing, it's bilingual, with special ingredients. I made this show in one month " I wanted to create something energetic, I wanted to rebalance society's recent atmosphere.
"If you pay attention to one direction you have to balance the other portion, (so) I continue doing art education and providing harmony and happiness for society. It sounds old-fashioned, but what can I do? I do these things only."
Frog King: The Living Legend; 10 Chancery Lane Gallery; Tues to Sat, 10am-6pm; until January 12, 2020
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