Artist Paul Wong is a rebel without a guidebook

Artist Paul Wong is a rebel without a guidebook
Georgia Straight
By Adrian Mack, July 7, 2011

Trevor Brady

Paul Wong is iconoclastic and confrontational, but he’s also an internationally renowned, Governor General’s Award–winning artist.

In 1975, Paul Wong crashed on a work-table in the loft of pioneering video artist Nam June Paik. Suspended from the ceiling were inverted TV monitors, with Wong sleeping beneath them as if he’d been pulled into some kind of McLuhanite mating scenario. Or a “Fluxus moment”, in his words. “God, I was ballsy,” Wong says, shaking his head. “I went to New York City and knocked on Nam June Paik’s door.”

Wong was 19, on his second trip to NYC after staying in the penthouse of the Chelsea Hotel two years earlier. “I’m still trying to crawl my way back,” he tells the Straight with a hoarse laugh. The young Chinese Canadian was a pioneer himself at the time, carting around an alien device called a portable video camera, toiling away in a cultural back lot on Canada’s West Coast. Which really was ballsy.

Wong was a freak back then, and a willing outsider to the prevailing countercultural currents of the era. He had no interest in “going back to the land that I know nothing of”, he says. But he would, on occasion, haul a generator out to a “hippie cabin in the woods” with other infant tapeheads to screen his wild, low-res TV work for friends. “I was interested in magnetic tape and mass telecommunications,” he continues. “My art wasn’t rejecting the urban, it was figuring out how to find my place and make a place inside this urban society.”

Oddly enough, for an artist who gleefully attacked the narrative conventions of videography with work that was by nature iconoclastic and confrontational, Wong appears to be settling into the third act of a remarkably traditional story arc. He’s a Governor General’s Award winner with a robust career that bundles performance, photography, and installation into his media-arts package. He enjoys international renown, and his work resides, among other places, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In the next few weeks alone, Wong is exhibiting at four local festivals. Exit Upon Arrivalwill screen at Spatial Poetics (today [July 7] at SFU Woodward’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts); the Richmond International Film and Media Arts Festival (aka Your Kontinent) is premiering the installation Flash Memory(July 21 to 24 at the Richmond Cultural Centre); and his seminal 1976 work 60 Unit: Bruise plays in the Vancouver Visionaries series at the Queer Film Festival (August 11 to 21).

The fact that two of his pieces, Dovetale and 2010, will feature in the massive and diverse Time-Based video program at Summer Live—in celebration of Vancouver’s 125th birthday (Friday to Sunday [July 8 to 10] at Brockton Oval)—points to his stature. He’s emerged as a grand old man of the city’s avant-garde, even if the reputation for outrage lingers. In a 2009 article, the Globe and Mail managed to describe Wong as both an “eminence grise” and an “enfant terrible”.

When the Georgia Straight arrives to talk to Wong at his studio, located on a particularly pretty stretch of Main Street, the enfant terrible is posing for a photographer in front of one of his more recent incitements. Commissioned by Calgary’s Glenbow Museum last year, 2 Hot 2 Handle marries the museum’s permanent collection of historic bronze cowboy sculpture to video taken at a gay rodeo. Wong toys with the idea of going nude for the shoot. “One of the old tricks of performance art was taking your clothes off,” he tells us. “But after the age of 32, you really need to think about what you’re doing.” A beat passes, and he adds, “After 64, it’s all right again.”

The studio itself is labyrinthine, cozy, and bedecked with kitschy bric-a-brac along with tubs of cables and electronic gear. An old board game called The Kennedys sits on one shelf; on another is a little robot that’s supposed to connect to a computer and talk to you, but the software isn’t available anymore. “It’s obsolete before you even take it out of the box,” Wong tuts, explaining that his nephew got him to buy it. “He shows me what to watch on YouTube,” he says. A blazing set of photographs taken in Cuba and intended for the Winsor Gallery adorns the hallway. Elsewhere, a pewter plate commemorating Camp David hangs on one door. “That’s on my bathroom door,” he explains, “because that’s my presidential retreat.”

The stairwell leading to the studio is decorated with three big frames from The Refugee Class of 2000, a series of TV spots commissioned by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation to run during the CTV national news. The shots depict three teenagers, one black, one white, and one Chinese, beneath them the words jig-a-boo, white trash, and chink. In another room, Wong points to a riotously coloured collage of images depicting Karla Homolka. Pointing to her hair, Wong says, “I thought this was [Lindsay] Lohan, and my niece said, ”˜No, Hilary Duff.’ ”

Somewhat less provocatively, Wong’s new work, Flash Memory, is looping on three side-by-side monitors. It’s a simple, unedited chronology dumped from three years’ worth of digital photographs sitting on three separate hard drives. “Whatever I haven’t deleted,” Wong explains, nodding toward the flickering and utterly magnetic parade of raw, colour-saturated images. “Twenty thousand pictures in eight minutes.”

For Wong, it seems that art often just happens. “I’m not one of these people who sits there thinking, ”˜I think I need a subject, I think I will go off to Japan, because there’s a nuclear disaster,’ ” he explains.

Later in the conversation, he’ll shrug and say, “I don’t do a lot of setting up,” raising all manner of questions about his striking compositions. And because he began in a field that received almost no respect, even from the art world—he says the early view was “How can we sell a piece of video art? It doesn’t hang on the wall”—Wong’s career seems to have occurred in spite of itself.

“I never had a game plan,” he says. “I haven’t had commercial-gallery representation. It’s certainly not something I haven’t wanted. My work gets distributed in various ways, but not in the traditional, commercial-gallery kind of way. It’s just something that I have not consciously pursued as a priority. I’ve lacked those basic business survival ambitions. I’m trying to catch up now.”

Equally, he could just wait for the world to catch up to him. Maybe it already has. As Wong notes, we’re no longer living inside a “monoculture” circumscribed by prime-time TV, Hollywood, and radio. At one time, Wong’s work was dismissed because it didn’t meet the tyrannical “production standards” that most people don’t care about anymore (if they ever really did). Grunt gallery director and inveterate fan Glenn Alteen, meanwhile, thinks that part of Wong’s accumulated mojo comes from the weird mutability of some of his work.

“Take a piece like 60 Unit: Bruise,” Alteen tells the Straight by phone. “It’s a pretty boring piece of tape, created in the ’70s. Somebody takes a syringe full of blood out of his arm and puts it in the back of somebody else.”¦But 10 years later, after AIDS had hit, this piece, which was quite trite when it was made, had a huge, heavy significance to it. And the story of that piece is pretty indicative of just about everything Paul does. He keeps reinventing and coming back at you. It’s incredible.

“I think Paul’s body of work will represent Vancouver in a way that not many other people’s will,” Alteen continues. “Attitudinally, in a certain way. Jeff Wall might give us the landscape, but with Paul there’s more than that.”

For Wong’s part, the artist insists his one, overarching job through the years has been “claiming my space”. “I think that has probably been my politic,” he says, “in the sense that I’ve had to investigate what it is to be young, to be Canadian, to be Chinese Canadian, to be queer, to be radical, to be socially conscious, to be aesthetic, to do performance stuff, and what it is to be a contemporary artist without a guidebook, operating in a grey zone when the world is black and white. It’s all about locating my sense of identity.”

If you think that sounds a little like Vancouver’s politic, Paul Wong likely agrees with you. He admits that he “was ready to pack it in” a few years ago. He bounced back after a short break. And what he discovered was that Paul Wong and Vancouver were in a new phase of their relationship. “I realized, ”˜Wow, this city has grown up,’ ” he recounts. “All those naysayers are dead or in retirement homes. There’s all these people who love my work and love me and colleagues who are doing other similar interesting things. I don’t have to go off somewhere else to see this stuff or be appreciated. I was re-embracing the city in the 21st century, and realizing, ”˜No, I belong here, this is my place, and I’m going to claim the ground.’ ”

Two Paul Wong video pieces, Dovetale and 2010, will be shown at Summer Livefrom Friday to Sunday (July 8 to 10), as part of the Time-Based video program.