Interview: Frog King - Totem

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The amphibian-loving Frog King presents an emblematic show of new and archived works at 10 Chancery Lane this month. Ysabelle Cheung speaks to the artist and curator Valerie C Doran about the phenomenal influence of his philosophy, work and life
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It’s just weeks before performance and visual artist Frog King opens his solo show Totem at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, and sheafs of papers are being thrown at us from his tiny, cramped, fan-circulated studio in Cattle Depot Artist Village.

“Here, for you!” Frog King (real name Kwok Mang-ho) presents us with a sheet decorated in his signature rubber and wood stamps, something an art savant would eagerly snatch up and press into his or her collector book. But to Frog King, giving away his work is no more than an automatic act of generosity; after all, he’s been creating thousands upon thousands of artworks every single day since his early active years in the 70s. Materialism and monetary value are both prevalent in the theory of Frog King’s art, yet in his personal ethic and practice, he considers them obstacles to his creativity.

“A personal practice is never finished! If I had lots of money, I would spend all of it on materials, because I want to make art every day. My plan is to journey from A to B, no matter what difficulties are blocking my way,” he says, beaming at us in his trademark attire – ink soaked, hand-crafted paper clothing and ornaments that drape and wrap his body, not to mention sunglasses, necklaces, bracelets and a hat he fashioned just this morning from a Chinese gourd and a Korean panama. “Oh, it’s a bit wobbly. Needs improvement,” he notes with a laugh, adjusting his hat.

The China-born, Hong Kong-raised Frog King has been working in Cattle Depot Artist Village for around 14 years now, moving with his contemporaries from North Point’s Oil Street (which formerly attracted artists due to low rents and larger spaces, before the government evicted most of the tenants) to To Kwa Wan. His reputation within the compounds of the studios is nothing short of legendary, but his influence outside of Hong Kong is also of note, not least due to his 5,000 exhibitions displayed globally. As well as being a walking work of art – he’s been making his own costumes for years – his passion for public activities has led to him being an influential figure in Chinese performance art and street art, both movements. His ‘Froggy Sunglasses’ project from 1989 to 1999 featured an array of personalities, from David Bowie to international citizens, all donning his signature froggy sunglasses. (By the way, Frog King visually documents everything – and we mean literally everything – every encounter, every piece of art he’s ever created, even television shows he’s watched, which he compiles into folders by the thousands and is even able to recite dates of.) Developed in tandem with his practice, Frog King’s iconic symbol, the grinning, line symbol of a frog with peaked, huge eyes, and his sandwich font of English, Chinese, Korean and other linguistic symbols, has not only marked the territory of his work but has also become a symbol of the genre of contemporary art he has pioneered. Time Out Hong Kong last spoke to the artist just before one of his larger projects, his seminal retrospective at Venice Biennale in 2012 (read the interview here).


Poster for Froggy Sunglasses Project 1989-1999

“That Venice show was a huge show,” says Valerie C Doran, who curates Frog King’s volume of work for 10 Chancery Lane. “Totem is more focused. For me, the word comes not from [indigenous and native] references but from his own work. For example, he’s been doing poles and totems for many years in many manifestations. And Frog King himself is like a totem, when he dresses up he’s inhabited by this incredible spirit, he’s this shamanistic, very totemic being.”

Totem is divided into three sections and features, among other archival material, entirely new work by Frog King: carved totems crafted from wood sourced from Korea and China. “His sculptures reference the way that an artist from the Ming dynasty might create a sense of texture or rock or texture of a tree on paper. Because he’s a calligrapher, he’s using that in his carving as well,” says Doran. Inked and stickered paintings, calligraphy scrolls, tables and little monuments of rock and stone also feature in this comprehensive and powerful exhibition. There is no surface that is not transmuted by the Frog King touch, stamped with his sandwich font and his indelible (both literally and metaphorically) fusion of East and West, of high and low art subcultures and the clang and roar of his personality. “Some people put very little simple, minimal things together,” says Frog King. “But I don’t feel comfortable when I’m not so crowded with everything stuck together. I think if I put more layers, then you can see and hear more things.”

In the back of the gallery, a ‘frog’s nest’ is also being set up as a more intimate review of Frog King’s oeuvre (even Doran isn’t sure what the Frog King has in store for that area), and of course, 10 Chancery Lane’s unique outdoor alleyway is also a central part of the exhibition. Frog King is even considering utilising the stone pillars of the in-development Central Police Station near to the gallery. “I can do an outdoor live celebration to the audience there,” says Frog King excitedly, who cites the importance of immersing himself and his body into his projects in a public space. He’s renowned for this – one of China’s first recorded performance art pieces was his 1979 Plastic Bag Project at Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall, and a large component of his time in New York (where he lived and worked throughout the 80s) consisted of cultural gatherings on the street.


A retrospective: Plastic Bag Project

“I was in big trouble with the arts community in Hong Kong because my head was thinking differently,” he says of his earlier days in Hong Kong, prior to his stint in New York. Back then, he was the only person on the street picking up found objects, ‘museum rejects’, he calls them, and using surfaces such as bra cotton and shirts to write out Tung Dynasty poetry and verses in his sandwich font. Not much has changed today, except his work is now recgonised and celebrated in art circles and museums. All hail his ‘art is life’ principle. In this way, the sacred becomes the everyday in Frog King’s life, but conversely, the everyday also becomes the sacred.
 
Totem Until Oct 18, 10 Chancery Lane; 10chancerylanegallery.com.

Read our feature on the Frog King's 2012 seminal retrospective at Venice Biennale here.

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