The Private life of Paul

Paul Wong, Marion, Five Octave Range, 4 channel, sound, looping, un-synchronised video installation.

A cacophony of operatic voices and eye-popping colours explode onto the screen; optical patterns and white noise collide with each other as the protagonists, a man dressed in drag as a woman but singing in a baritone and a woman also dressed in drag as a man but singing in a soprano play out on the elevated TV monitors. Simultaneous to these performers are two other singers who queer the opera with high camp and burlesque. Titled Five Octave Range (2017), this multichannel audiovisual is part of Paul Wong’s solo show Private/Public/Lives, curated by Anushka Rajendran at Shrine Empire Gallery as part of the Prameya Art Foundation (PRAF) initiative to explore collaborative art-making as pedagogy. It is a result of a two-year dialogue between the artist, curator and PRAF.

Wong is a provocateur and media-maestro, who is known for digitally inspired public art, since the 1970s. Wong is the winner of the prestigious The Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement Award for the Visual Arts.
“The Opera used to intimidate me, since it’s a highly elite and gender-conformist space. But my friend Steve (Lacy) made it accessible to me. Many people who are part of the opera are queer and they never get to play out their gender fantasies, like Sue who is a soprano but really identifies as butch. While performing she often has to wear a dress, but my video gives her the space to perform as she would want, in male attire,” says Paul Wong whose work explores and challenges these constraints.

Paul Wong, Year of GIF, Silent and looping video.

This digital artwork by the Chinese-Canadian diaspora artist was originally executed in a public park, but in the gallery, it gets reconfigured as a private/public performance that is both intimate yet grand. “Having Wong’s work at Shrine Empire is not just about showing it to a new audience but it engages in a pedagogic exercise,” says Rajendran who is also part of the team assisting Anita Dube at the Kochi Biennale. “It is important to indicate that the works were shown in large public spaces before they were brought to the intimate arena of the gallery because it addresses Paul’s desire to distinguish between high-art and public-art or the private and the public,” she reiterates.

The overstimulation of Five Octave Range forms and an interesting contrast with Mother’s Cupboard and Father’s Words, two sets of meditative and intimate photo-based works that allow us a peep into the world of Chinese Diaspora in Vancouver. The close-ups of jars like Taster’s Choice Coffee and Miracle Whip are set against a white background in the manner most food photography is done. One is immediately reminded of Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s Soup Cans, that marked the beginning of mass-produced goods and Pop-Art in 1960’s America.

Paul Wong, Mother’s Cupboard Three Miracle Whip Jars, Inkjet art print , 24 x 36 inches, 2018.

However, Wong’s works have a radically different message to deliver. On closer inspection, it is revealed that the original contents of the jars have been supplanted with Wong’s mother’s home-made pickles and herbs. The act of repurposing the jars means they have been culturally re-appropriated. “I approach my mother’s pickle jars as one would an artefact that allows us to look at the idea of immigration and capitalism. She happens to be my mother but it is not a sentimental work,” says Wong. “It questions the use-and-throw culture of the digital era, where people would just throw away an old coffee jar and go down to the Dollar Store so that they can buy new ‘matching’ jars. It takes an analogue generation like my mothers’, to want to recycle and repurpose a coffee jar,” says Wong indicating that recycling might be a kinder option for our planet that is struggling to cope with the non-biodegradable refuse of Capitalism.

“My mother and father migrated to Canada before I was born. She often referred to herself as a ‘tainted bride,’” he says with a fond chuckle. “I wondered what she meant, but upon digging into the past I found out that she was forced to marry my father who was my aunt’s husband, and 30 years older than her! My aunt who was the belle of the ball and my grandfather’s favourite, died in childbirth and her husband was ‘passed on’ to my mother,” says Wong in a candid moment. “Despite her protests, she finally did marry him and I find a lot of quiet strength in her narratives,” says Wong who draws much inspiration from the matriarch of his family. This work also had a public life as a huge hoarding on a bus-shelter.

We encounter his grandfather’s voice as well, in Father’s Words. The digitally produced work includes a photograph of the family patriarch, over-layered with Chinese text that is scanned from the actual letter and an English translation below it. “When my mother was learning English, she would write in Chinese next to the English word and in a sense, I have inverted that,” says Wong. One of the letters talks of sending money to homeland China from Canada. In the letter, Wong’s grandfather goes into great detail on how to distribute the small sum of money among the relatives, while chiding his daughter for not writing to him. It brings a lump to one’s throat. Wong sighs, “The art of letter-writing is dead with WhatsApp texts and phone calls. Many Chinese families have gone straight from not having a government registered landline phone to directly owning mobile phones. It has totally changed the way people communicate, who writes letters anymore?” he says, indicating the complexity of being an artist who witnessed firsthand the change from analogue to digital.

Paul Wong, Father’s Words 1964 August 24, Inkjet art print on silk, 34 x 44 inches, 2018.

After these really moving works, one is left slightly cold by Year of the GIF, one of the largest GIF ever created by Wong who documented his surroundings in Vancouver. The project was commissioned by the Surrey Urban Screen functions and it unfolds as a mosaic of virtual flipbooks simultaneously exploring themes of new media, the RGB colour model, colour bar test patterns, the formal shape of the circle, architecture, art, and portraits of family and friends. One can, however, understand compunctions to make such a formalist work after the intimate warm feelings stirred by the previous artworks. “I think objectivity is important. Hopefully, my work will live on long after I do and I must provide objective access points to my background story,” he concludes.

Paul Wong: Private/Public/Lives will continue till December 1st, 2018 at Shrine Empire Gallery, New Delhi.

Artist photo: Shrine Empire and PRAF. Artwork images by Paul Wong.