On the occasion of her summer-long open studio at De Sarthe Gallery, Hong Kong, I paid a visit to the artist Wing Po So. Since Hong Kong is one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world, the De Sarthe open studio residency is a sorely needed, invitation-only program intended to give promising local artists the time and space to experiment. As an artist with a penchant for large-scale installations, Wing was putting the expansive gallery space—located on the 20th floor of a fancy, high rise office tower in the mostly industrial, emerging arts district of Wong Chuk Hang—to good use.
Entering the gallery, one could immediately smell the earthy aroma of drying herbs—the signature medium of this artist, who has made a name for herself by using traditional Chinese Medicine in her sculptures and installations. A giant, brown, wooly cocoon was under construction in the center of the room, and work benches were scattered about, loaded with her trademark medicinal materials, including carefully arranged pumice stones and cicada carapaces, as well as copious piles of corn silk (the material from which the cocoon was made). Short and soft-spoken with a twinkle in her eye, Wing snuck up behind me and said hello, and we had the following conversation about her art, her family history, and the pro-democracy protests which have wracked Hong Kong for the past three months.
David Willis (Degree Critical): How did you become interested in Chinese Medicine?
Wing Po So: My father is a Chinese Medicine practitioner, a skill which he learnt from my grandfather, who was also in the business, but I didn’t pick it up because I am not gifted in this area. While I grew up surrounded by the medicine in my parents’ shop, I’ve never been very scientific, so I’m not all that familiar with the technical uses of the materials. But since I started using them in my art, I have taken a new interest in the different components and started researching their physical properties.
DC: When did you start using these medicinal materials?
WPS: I started using them in 2012, because at that time, my parents had to close their shop. It had been located in the central neighborhood of Hong Kong called SoHo, which has become increasingly populated by westerners over the years. After a certain point, the city installed an escalator leading uphill from the nearest subway stop, making it more accessible but also changing the character of the neighborhood. As a result, the wet market and the old-style food stalls were slowly replaced by fancy, new, western restaurants and bars. After that, my family didn’t quite fit in, because we lived upstairs above our pharmacy. It became very noisy at night with all the drunk people coming and going from the bars. Also, my parents were feeling tired, since it was just the two of them running the pharmacy, and it is very labor intensive to prepare and handle the large quantities of different materials used in Chinese Medicine. So they decided to close the shop in 2012, to retire to a less noisy neighborhood on the west side of Hong Kong Island.
When we closed the shop, we had to move all the furniture and old-fashioned cabinets that held the medicine, because they were my grandfather’s, and we didn’t want to let them go. We moved all that stuff back to our tiny new home and just seven months later, my parents decided to restart the business, perhaps because they spent their whole lives running the shop, so they didn’t know anything else. And so later that year I started using Chinese Medicine in my art, because even if I am not a medical practitioner, I began to see it as part of my heritage.
DC: Were you making sculpture and installations before then?
WPS: No, before that I made paintings and drawings, but I think the way I make sculpture is actually quite related to the way I draw, because my drawings are very technical, with a lot of fine lines and an architectural logic.
DC: Let’s talk about this large sculpture here in the center of the gallery [From the Body to the Body Through the Body, 2019].
WPS: This sculpture is made from corn silk. I am very attracted to the soft texture, and I have a personal connection with the material, because my mom, whenever she finishes eating a piece of corn, puts both the cob and the silk from the husk next to the stove to dry. There is something lovely about the way she values and cares for this material, which others may dispose of. So I thought I ought to do something with it, and I did some research on the anatomy of corn, and discovered that each thread of corn silk acts as a passage to transport the male genetic cell to the ovary inside. When the male cell reaches the surface of the corn silk, it grows a sort of needle to penetrate inside and transmit the genes. So, I created this giant cocoon out of corn silk, which spectators can go inside, in order to symbolically dehumanize themselves, and reduce themselves to just particles or cells. There will be sounds playing inside from the cocoon, with the speaker hidden underneath the floor. The sounds are a mix of recordings from the pharmacy, including the sound of a pressure measurer, boiling water from cooking medicines, and herbs filtering through a strainer, all of which create an organic rhythm. Also, there will be a mechanism to make the sculpture kinetic, by pushing and pulling on the frame to make it “breathe,” so to speak. Making humans more like corn, and corn more like humans.
DC: Last week you held an event at the gallery, which was described on De Sarthe’s website as a picnic. Could you please tell me about that?
WPS: It was a public event, where we invited friends and guests to come to the gallery for a picnic, because before we used up all the corn silk in the big installation, it felt like a rural farm scene, with corn silk piled up all over the place. So we invited people to bring snacks to share, and we served corn silk tea to all the guests.
DC: What is the function of cornsilk in Chinese Medicine?
WPS: It is quite commonly used to detox, and to dehumidify the body. Since it removes the element of water from the body, it is often used during the summer time. The picnic was intended to be relaxing and detoxifying event, both because I have been working hard here for the past eight weeks of my residency, and also because the political situation right now in Hong Kong is quite tense, with the protests that have been happening for the past twelve weeks. Being confined in here with the protests taking place outside has been very gloomy, so I felt we all needed a chance to relax and take a break.
DC: Aside from the giant cornsilk cocoon, what other works will be in the show?
WPS: Besides the cocoon, there will be two other bodies of work in the show. Specifically, I have made three clay sculptures, which will be displayed on pedestals. The clay works play with the idea of fossils, but instead of just sea shells, which we often see fossilized in nature, I am also using corncobs, which I embedded in the surface of the clay and sent to the kiln. They will be reduced to ash, but their imprints will remain. I am trying to think of the corn as an active organism, to treat it as a creator in its own right. I also used volcanic stones and some small toys, to blend the influences of the organic and the man-made.
DC: What is the third body of work in the show?
WPS: The third body of work is a series of three painting-like works [Changing States, 2019], in which the “strokes” are delicately carved out from a layer of plaster on wood board. They are a depiction of the material process of untangling and restructuring corn silk.
DC: I see you have some models and sketches here.
WPS: These were related to some of my older work. I brought them to my open studio to illustrate my working style a bit more. I think they demonstrate what I was saying earlier about how my sculptures evolved out of my drawings, which have always resembled architectural sketches. The sculpture which I made after this maquette was two meters tall and three meters wide, and was included in my solo exhibition last year at Tai Kwun Contemporary [Six-Part Practice, 2018].
DC: It reminds me of how here in Hong Kong, you can often see construction scaffolding made from bamboo, combining the organic and inorganic materials in an urban environment. What kind of wood is this in the model?
WPS: This is called Sappan wood. It is another material used in Chinese Medicine, and it is also used to make a natural, red-colored dye. For instance, for my art book [From Space to Space: An Illustrated Guide to an Infinite Something, 2018], I photographed the various medicines under a microscope, and sketched their patterns in order to put them into a different light, totally separate from the world of Chinese Medicine. I try to organize them in a very logical way, playing around with astronomy and other scientific languages. A pseudoscience of my own making.
DC: What do your parents think about all this?
WPS: They have no idea what I am doing, but they are my suppliers for all the material, and they help me to prepare it as well, since it can be very labor intensive. Both for my art, and for the actual process in Chinese Medicine, we usually need to pick out impurities, or pre-cook the material with charcoal fire, or both in the case of the corn silk. They are quite supportive, even if they don’t understand, since we are both trying to to keep the tradition alive in our own ways.
From The Body to The Body Through the Body a solo exhibition of Wing Po So’s new work produced during the residency, continues through September 21st at De Sarthe Gallery, 20/F, Global Trade Square, No. 21 Wong Chuk Hang Road, Hong Kong.
David Willis lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. David is a critic, curator, and art advisor, and alum of the MFA Art Writing Program at the School of Visual Arts. He has been based in Vietnam and Thailand since 2015, developing a specialization in the contemporary art of Southeast Asia.