Will Kwan

Yishu | 2010

March/April 2010, Volume 9, Number 2

Interview by Alissa Firth-Eagland and Johan Lundh.

Hong Kong-born Chinese-Canadian interdisciplinary artist Will Kwan has had a hectic year. In 2009, his first solo exhibition was curated by one of Canada’s most respected curators, Barbara Fischer (Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, Toronto), and his work was also the subject of a two-person show with Mieke Bal curated by up-and-coming curator Liz Park (Western Front, Vancouver). Kwan is currently participating in a residency at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, Ireland. In addition to his prolific practice, Kwan teaches at the University of Toronto.

This diverse set of activities gives a glimpse into Kwan’s practice, but there is little writing about his work to date. We predict that this will soon change and decided to seize the opportunity to conduct one of the first published interviews with Kwan. Together we discuss his impulses to make art, these new exhibition and production opportunities, the development of research threads in his practice over the last few years, the role of mobility and travel in his work, and his relationship to contemporary Chinese art.

It is useful to understand the role of research in Kwan’s practice. He works with a number of materials and mediums, and his artistic iterations take various aesthetic, theoretical, social, and political shapes, but the core of his practice is an extended critical reflection and gathering of information before production. No doubt this ground was laid during his undergrad studies at University of Toronto and crystallized throughout the processes of obtaining his MFA from Columbia University, New York, and then in relation to his position as Research Fellow at the Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht, the Netherlands.

Before engaging Kwan with specific questions, we felt the need to open the discussion by asking a simple and general question: When did you decide to become and artist, and why?

Will Kwan: The intellectual environment of the university was a big influence on me as a young artist. I studied visual art as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, but my studio courses were set within a much broader humanities and social sciences education. I was introduced to critical ideas about representation, identity, and culture through courses in political theory, cultural studies, and comparative literature in academic departments other than fine art.

Visual art was the discipline where I could take a lot of the theoretical content I was being exposed to and work through many of my confusions using visual, physical, and experimental methods. The visual arts offered a whole set of strategies to present idiosyncratic research that wasn’t limited to text, and I was very much drawn to those possibilities. Research is a significant part of my artistic practice. I develop a lot of work by sorting through existing visual and material culture and reconfiguring it to identify a trend or construct an argument about the world. In essence it is no different from conventional academic research. But at the same time, I am fascinated with seeing the material presented in a visual format, like a display of evidence.

The teachers I have had over the years have been tremendously supportive, and I feel that was a huge factor in helping me to decide whether I would pursue art in a serious way as a profession. I was given many opportunities early on to present work in professional venues, and it put me on a trajectory. Growing up in a working-class Chinese immigrant family, creative endeavours were peripheral to academic ones and, if anything, centred on trying to become a piano prodigy! It was incomprehensible to me that one would plan to become a visual artist—for me it was a much more tentative process that was about learning how to participate in a discipline. Even today I take a pragmatic approach to my art practice. I aspire to make work that is in some way a tangible contribution to the knowledge base about culture and society. I don’t approach art as an activity of self-realization nor as an endless exploration of medium, material, or form.

Finally, my first experience exhibiting outside of North America during my graduate studies in New York also left an indelible mark on me. It made me think about community in a very different way. The colleagues and friends I have made travelling for research or exhibitions continue to inform the way I think about cultural and political issues.

Attention: What you see here is only an excerpt of a longer article. The full text appears in printed copies of the March/April issue in 2010 of  Yishu – Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art.