Interview: Tsang Kin-Wah Expresses His New Pessimistic Outlook on Life in 'Nothing' | BLOUIN ARTINFO
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Interview: Tsang Kin-Wah Expresses His New Pessimistic Outlook on Life in 'Nothing'

Portrait of Tsang Kin-Wah
(Courtesy the artist )

Hong Kong artist Tsang Kin-Wah takes us through another journey of self-reflection by re-evaluating his thoughts on life in “Nothing,” which is at the M+ Pavilion until November 6. This new immersive installation is a response to his previous presentation, “The Infinite Nothing,” at the Venice Biennale in 2015. It marks a new chapter for M+, which now possesses a base for exhibiting works.

While this celebrates the existence of a new building, Tsang’s new work expresses his pessimistic views on life, proclaiming the inability of human beings to escape their futile existence. Taking inspiration from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and Nietzsche’s “Eternal Recurrence,” as well as myriad pop culture references and metaphors, he guides the audience in a circular path, mirroring the absurdity of life.

The artist’s innovative use of text and his singular visual vocabulary are highlighted in this aggressive yet profound take on life within contemporary society, which also indicates a significant new phase in Tsang’s artistic development.

BLOUIN ARTINFO had a chat with Tsang Kin-Wah about the concept behind “Nothing,” and how this installation denotes a new (pessimistic) phase in his life.

Nothing” is the expansion of your previous installation “The Infinite Nothing,” which was presented at the 56th Venice Biennale. Could you tell us more about what has changed in this new piece? What core elements have you kept from the previous iteration?

It’s still telling the public about my search for the meaning of life and what it means to me. Some of the elements — like the films on the walls and Nietzsche’s ideas still remain in this exhibition. But I’m trying to interpret it in a very different way because my views on life have changed a bit since the last exhibition. So even though there are still similar materials and elements, they are arranged and interpreted in a very different manner.

You’ve based this work on a quote from Macbeth” by Shakespeare. What first struck you in the story of Macbeth?

I actually saw the film “Macbeth” directed by Orson Welles early this year. It was my first time viewing one of his films. [The film] was very strange and weird. The story of Macbeth somehow touched me a little bit as it relates to some of the feelings I have. When I was planning for this exhibition, I felt like maybe the director’s view on life and the film overall was a good reference for the work.

You spend quite a lot of time forming your concepts for each project, as you research literature and philosophical texts and the links between the two. Could you walk me through your creative process for “Nothing”?

I was actually reading quite bit after the other exhibition and I had different views on life. But that wasn’t really formal preparation for it; it was just for my own personal interest and what I was interested in during that period of time. When I was preparing for the show, however, I thought maybe it’s time to do a conclusion of what I thought and believed in before this exhibition.

What is the significance of crossing out the word “Nothing” in the title?

It’s a little bit tricky because it tries to talk about “nothing” and “nothingness.” But at the same, since I try to talk about it, it’s not “nothing” anymore. There’s a visual element and verbal words and concepts when I talk about it. So when I strike through “Nothing,” it kind of deletes or eliminates itself to express the idea of “nothingness.”

You turned the inside of the M+ Pavilion into an exterior. There’s this wood, forest imagery inside with the columns installed. How and why did this idea come about? 

At that time, I was reading something related to suicide. I read a little bit about the Japanese suicide book “The Sea of Tree.” That is actually one of the references for this exhibition, but I didn’t directly reference it. Also there’s a tree right in the middle of the deck area, so I thought it’d be a good idea to use the pillar inside M+ Pavilion and to add more to make it look like a forest. Viewers can then enter the “forest” to try and find the meaning [of life] and to search for what they are seeking. Also, the exterior has these reflective mirrors and structure. I didn’t know how to use that deck area at the beginning, but later I thought it’d be a good idea to echo with the exteriors of the building, creating an infinite space with the deck area.

So we can say it is an extension of the deck area?

Yes  and it also echoes Buddhism’s ideas about evolution.

The symbol of the tree is one of the vital components of the piece. And there is indeed a tree in the deck area of the M+ Pavilion. So how did the installation happen  did you see the space first or later while conceptualizing it?

I did have to visit the space first. I had drawings and renderings of the place, as well as space visits before the planning of the show. I had rough ideas about what the space would look like and it’s always good for me to try and use the elements of the space and to try and incorporate it in the work. The architect planned to have a tree there and I couldn’t remove it or cover it, so I thought I may as well use it and turn it into one of the main elements for the show.

Similar to “The Infinite Nothing,” this installation is very much like a promenade, leading to up to various rooms, each interrogating the essence of life through diverse symbols. It seems to be a “walkthrough” confession of some sort. Do you enjoy installing your works this way, having the audience maneuver them and reflect?

I’m getting more interested in creating a journey with these particular paths in my work. In the Venice work, I created a circular path for the audience to walk through. For this exhibition, already on the deck area, there’s the existing circular path, which I used. It also echoes with my previous exhibitions so I do enjoy that and I think I’ll focus on that more.

For the Venice Biennale exhibition, once the audience entered they immediately encountered a projection of water on the floor. There seemed to be more of a sensation of movement or “flow.” Here, however, it feels rather still, as though the images and projections are in slow motion. Was this intentional?

My initial idea was to bring back that river to this space, and to project it onto the deck area. But that costs a lot! And also it was technically difficult to produce. So I had to change my idea. I then created a still space for people to mediate etc, which maybe wasn’t planned at the beginning, but it was still a good opportunity to build this show in a different way. It was an accident, but it worked out.

There are many references linked to popular culture in this work, such as Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” and Kurt Cobain’s lyrics and music. What role does pop culture play in your creative process? What other subjects inspire you?

When I was a kid, I loved rock music and Kurt Cobain was my idol. Even now I still listen to a lot of music and classical music. I also watch a lot of movies. When I have to create work, I just to go back to what I previously watched and listened to and include them in my work. That’s usually my process.

The first projection the audience sees when they walk into the space is a shot from the film “A Clockwork Orange,” which is a scene from a courtyard, in slow motion on a loop. Why that scene in particular?

I was trying to echo the deck area, because there’s a circular movement in that space. So I thought this scene could remind [the audience] that you are walking in a circle outside. But also, in your daily life, you have a similar pattern of living and working. Also, "A Clockwork Orange" talks about Christianity. I feel like life for me is a little bit like living in a prison, so that's why I chose that scene.

Christianity played a significant role in your teens. Later, as you discovered Nietzsche, you became quite critical of it, questioning and dissecting its beliefs. What is your stance on Christianity today?

I used to hate Christianity a lot. But now I’m okay with it. Somehow I’m not that negative, but I do like to make jokes about it. It had a very big impact on my life, so I do make a lot of references to Christianity and other religions I’m interested in. I try not to be too negative.

In “The Infinite Nothing,” you appear to be agreeing with Nietzsche regarding his essay on the death of god and your doubts about Christianity. In this new iteration, you seem to strongly disagree and even challenge the philosopher’s notion of “Overman,” according to which man should actively seek to be better. I noticed a shift from questioning religion to “criticizing” philosophical thoughts. Could this be a new phase in your life regarding your quest of self-examination or human existence?

When I was preparing for the Venice show, I was pretty much agreeing with Nietzsche, and I feel like I was trying to be more positive towards life and trying to embrace my own life. After that, I realized I’m not that kind of a person actually – I’m rather pessimistic.  I feel like Nietzsche’s ideas about “Overman” are more of an illusion. It’s something that is inaccessible; I don’t think anyone could be able to reach that stage. Since then, I changed directions and I read a little bit from Schopenhauer and his pessimistic thoughts.

Do you think you’ll move on from Nietzsche from this point and reference other philosophers? 

I think so, yes. I may move on from Nietzsche but I feel that some of his ideas still play a little role in my exhibitions. But he’s not my main influence anymore.

There is a combination of Christianity and Buddhist symbolisms in “Nothing.” You used a poem by a Buddhist master in the piece, emphasizing the dull and futile significance of life. Usually, Christianity raises connotations of fear and death as it involves “good” and evil,” heaven and hell. However, Buddhism is more about peace, rebirth, and an overall celebration of life. By using this Buddhist poem in a negative sense, was this a personal pessimistic take or an interrogation of Buddhist beliefs?

I do agree with some Buddhist ideas, but at the same time I don’t agree with everything. I’m still rather pessimistic. I feel like life is bitter and meaningless. I agree with Buddhism, but I’d rather not believe in “reincarnation” or trying to suppress your desires. I think desire is part of your basic instincts; I’m not sure whether you should eliminate it completely. This is where, somehow, I’m still influenced by Nietzsche but at the same time I don’t completely agree with him either. While Buddhism teaches you to eliminate all of your desires and tries to make you feel calm, Nietzsche on the other hand tries to tell you that you have to enjoy your life. I’m more in between those two things. I don’t want to believe in one ideology.

After this significant show, what’s next for you?

I’m currently working on two projects this year. I’m participating in one group exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum and then another at Vancouver Art Gallery. I will be showing new video installations, which will be completely different to my previous work.

Nothing” runs through November 6 at M+ Pavilion, Hong Kong.