Photo: Phillip Chin
b. 1954, Prince Rupert, BC. Lives and works in Vancouver
Visual, Media and Interdisciplinary Artist
Paul Wong is a media-maestro making art for site-specific spaces and screens of all sizes. He is an award winning artist and curator who is known for pioneering early visual and media art in Canada, founding several artist-run groups, leading public arts policy, and organizing events, festivals, conferences and public interventions since the 1970s. Writing, publishing and teaching have been an important part of his praxis. With a career spanning four decades he has been instrumental proponent to contemporary art.
Born in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, in 1954, Paul Wong has shown and produced projects throughout North America, Europe and Asia. His works are in many public collections including those of the National Gallery of Canada, the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Canada Council Art Bank (Ottawa), and the Vancouver Art Gallery. He is in numerous private collections and is the recipient of several major commissions and grants.
Wong is the winner of the Bell Canada Award in Video Art for outstanding contribution to the field of video art in 1992. He was the first recipient of the Transforming Art Award from the Asian Heritage Foundation in 2002 and the inaugural winner of the Trailblazer Expressions Award in 2003, created by Heritage Canada, the National Film Board, and CHUM Limited (one of Canada’s leading media companies and content providers). In 2005, Paul Wong received Canada’s Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Art for outstanding contributions to the field. In 2008 he was awarded Best Canadian Film or Video at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.
Capturing the everyday, he uses video as mirror and probe, both to discover his own identity and to reflect the world back onto itself. Wong picked up a Portapak video camera in the 1970′s as a renegade against the world around him and has become one of Canada’s most renowned multimedia artists. He is known for his fierce engagement with issues of race, sex and death. His work is varied and eclectic, ranging from conceptual performances to complex narratives and site-specific spectacles. He is a media subversionist and cultural strategist relying on artistic entrepreneurial smarts and raw originality with an eye for social context, driven by an insatiable search for identity, community and authenticity. He always has a camera.
Wong’s work has developed along many trajectories. His Main Street Tapes (1976-1979) revolve around his friends in the Main Street neighbourhood of Vancouver, and include 60 Unit; Bruise; Murder Research; and 7 Day Activity among others. In 1984 he completed the Confused project, a trio of related works. The nine-hour video, Confused: Sexual Views was the primary reason for the cancellation of Wong’s scheduled exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. It was rejected by the director as “not art“, but years later this major work was given central placement when the exhibition was finally presented in 2002.
Since his first visit to southern China in 1982, Wong has intensified attention on issues of race and heritage. So Are You, written and shot in 1989, is a full-scripted study of Vancouver’s rough side, where drugs, prostitution, and flagrant racism are abruptly contrasted with a rising yuppie class of money and privilege. Completed in 1994, the work confronts the viewer, demanding we review our values. Wong continued this trajectory with a series of three public-service announcements made for the Canadian Race Relations Foundations entitled Refugee Class of 2000 (2000) and includes the segments Class of 2000; I Am a Refugee; and Refugee Prisoner’s Lament.
Hungry Ghosts (2003), curated by Elspeth Sage, was one of eighteen independent projects selected for the fiftieth edition of Venice Biennale, 2003. Created to be experienced on a moving vaporetto (a commuter water bus) in the Grand Canal, Wong’s installation is a re-working of selected scenes from existing projects, mixed with new material scripted for multiple projections in overlapping layers. Wong was also part of Habituation Cages, a live event conceived for the Dutch Electronic Arts Festival (2003) by Sara Diamond as an experiment on collaboration and new technologies, and is documented on her website.
In summer 2005, Wong’s work was shown as part of the Beijing International New Media Biennale, and included several of his “late punk” works from the 1970′s: in ten sity (1978) was projected with a single channel mix of Hungry Ghosts, he created a site-specific text piece, Fifty Four Letter Words For China, using his Floral Alphabets (2003), and in a third area, he showed ten Imprints, the large digital photo-works from Hungry Ghosts.
In 2010, Wong was the lead artist/curator of “5”, five site specific events that ran from Feb. 13 to Mar. 13, 2010. Commissioned by The City of Vancouver through its Olympic and Paralympic Public Art Program, it marked the opening and closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics.
In 2013 Year of GIF was commissioned for the largest non-commercial urban screen in Canada by the Surrey Art Gallery. Wong is represented in Vancouver the Winsor Gallery, he has had two solo exhibitions, Immanent (2011) and #paulwong2014 that featured new directions in photography, video installations and neon that has generated numerous public and private commissions.
More recently he has collaborated on the development of a new innovative software and hardware platform. MIMMiC (Mobile Interactive Modular Multiscreen iPad Canvas) is a system that uses 9 synchronized tablets. The software allows media to be displayed on a series of touch-screens with the ability of each module to react individually or as a group. Its main function is to disrupt media intelligently across multiple screens. The platform was launched at ISEA2015 with the premiere of Wong’s Wave Cycle (2015), images and sounds of crashing water recorded on BC’s wild West Coast. Participants are encouraged to touch the screens using 1 to 4 finger gestures: taps, strokes, and swipes to interact with the artwork.
Wong’s career is diverse and broad. He has been described as a “rebel without a handbook” by the Georgia Straight, 2010, a “Chinese Canadian Warhol” (Taxi Magazine, 2004), and as a “master of the video camera in Vancouver art, making him to video what Emily Carr and Jack Shadbolt were to painting, or Ian Wallace and Jeff Wall to photomontage” (Michael Turner, 2008). He has been an artist his entire life; he has no other occupation.
“When Paul Wong walks into a room, he can make anything happen. With an infectious attitude and charisma, he is the self-invented star of his own universe.” – Heather Keung, Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival, 2008
“He creates a notion of a new, cyber-connected, self-aware other that constitutes a way in which we can all participate in our world today” (Helen Wong, SAD MAG 2015).
“As an artist, I am conscious of the democratization of media; I’m given the tools to turn my eye/ camera away from the mainstream doctrine. Instead, I actively choose to turn the camera towards myself and my community in order to tell my own story and to share our thoughts and images. This has always been my politic. In this way, we are constructing ourselves as our own realities. It’s turned things upside down for mainstream media because we now have a multimillion-channel universe and we are no longer subjected to only 13 broadcast channels. Suddenly, whatever platform I decide to use becomes my own network to share, to take, to make, or inhale or exhale. In this regard, we’ve come a long way from Narcissus on his knees looking at his own reflection. What we see, what we get to make, and ways of looking and seeing are radically different than what it was in the past. We are no longer being fed information and images because the control on what we can or cannot see, what is true or untrue – this monopoly on cultural history – has radically shifted. It takes a lot more work but we are creating this new other.
I find the human condition and the planet endlessly fascinating. We’re always trying to figure out who we are and our place in relationship to everything else. History, science, medicine, and capitalism all try to lay it out in a linear understandable fashion; however, it’s really such an abstract notion. So the fact that I can create moments of how I can look at you in another way is kind of cool. I can slow something down, I can alter the framing, I can position things in different contexts, and all these contribute to a reawakening of a whole other way of looking, listening and feeling.
In the end I am drawing with light, because that’s what I’m interested in: light.” – Paul Wong, SAD MAG, July 6th 2015