Koon Wai Bong: Naming and Framing Nature

KOON Wai Bong, Luxuriant Greenery, 2014, Color on gold cardboard 280×600cm (polyptych of 96 panels)
KOON Wai Bong, Quivering, 2017. Ink & color on round paper fan with machine 152×24×H22cm
KOON Wai Bong, Quivering, 2017. Ink & color on round paper fan with machine 152×24×H22cm
KOON Wai Bong. Glistering as Stars. 2017. Color on silk 25×250cm (polyptych of ten panels)
KOON Wai Bong. Reworking the Classics. 2017. Ink on paper 138.5×347cm (polyptych of ten panels)
KOON Wai Bong. Dancing with Shadows. 2017. Ink and color on paper 245×35cm (heptaptych)
KOON Wai Bong. In Blackness. 2017. Ink on silk 120.5×65.5cm
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TEXT: Dana Ter
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Asia Art Center

 

KOON Wai Bong, Luxuriant Greenery, 2014, Color on gold cardboard 280×600cm (polyptych of 96 panels)

 

Koon Wai Bong’s solo exhibition, In the Breeze, ushers in visitors with ten paper fans that sway back and forth at the entrance to Asia Art Center II. With tiny bumble bees painted on the fan to enhance the appearance of movement, Quivering is an apt name for the installation, as this describes the delicate yet disjointed back-and-forth motion. No effort is made to conceal the fact that the fans’ movement is the product of a horizontal, silver-plated machine, which Koon says is part of his medium: “ink and color on round paper fan with machine.” The hum it creates fills the white-cube exhibition space, mimicking the buzz of bees.

 

KOON Wai Bong, Quivering, 2017. Ink & color on round paper fan with machine 152×24×H22cm

 

It is fitting that the gallery, located on a leafy tree-lined street in Taipei’s Neihu district, is hosting Koon’s exhibition. The area is home to many technology companies, and the Hong Kong-born-and-raised ink painter and Assistant Professor at Hong Kong Baptist University is obsessed with nature and technology. Instead of seamlessly marrying the two conflicting concepts, however, Koon isn’t afraid to paint its inherent disjuncture in a way that’s awkward and beautiful.

 

KOON Wai Bong, Quivering, 2017. Ink & color on round paper fan with machine 152×24×H22cm

 

“People living in big cities like Hong Kong do not have a holistic view of nature,” the bespectacled Koon tells me. He does not lament this but states it matter-of-factly and sees it not as his mission to remedy, but merely to document. The second piece of artwork viewers see upon entering the gallery is the mammoth 96-panel painting, Luxuriant Greenery, 2014, which depicts a bamboo grove set against a gold backdrop. On days when sunlight beams through the sidewalk trees and into the gallery’s floor-to-ceiling windows, Luxuriant Greenery is indeed luxurious and green.

 

It’s easy to view this painting and Koon’s other artworks as odes to nature. Koon narrates to me his visit to Arashimaya Bamboo Grove in Kyoto a few years ago: “I could sense the reflection of sunshine seeping through the thicket and the breeze was light and magical. It was different than breezes I’ve felt walking through other forests.”

 

KOON Wai Bong. Glistering as Stars. 2017. Color on silk 25×250cm (polyptych of ten panels)

 

Koon captures this exuberant feeling and bottles it into a framework that’s inorganic and anthropological. He achieves this by using multiple frames. These days, we might think of Instagram posts or a smartphone screen. Although if we see the frames as windows, an older invention, the message is rendered timeless: that no matter how much we study, learn, and compartmentalize, nature, like answers to the universe, remains elusive. As an academic who studied classical Chinese painting, it is important for Koon to depict the torment of not knowing.

 

Indeed, Koon’s objective is as literary as it is artistic. To Koon, the act of painting is an art itself, much like reading a book. As he paints, he acquires knowledge. “Painting is a form of review,” Koon describes. “I’ve always been fascinated by traditional ink painting, not just its aesthetics, but the history and legends behind the landscapes too, for example, the myth behind Kowloon, or Nine Dragons.”

 

KOON Wai Bong. Reworking the Classics. 2017. Ink on paper 138.5×347cm (polyptych of ten panels)

 

Being closely related to calligraphy, ink naturally conjures a scholarly image and the multiple panels also remind viewers of book pages. Some titles are quite literal, for instance, River Banks in Serenity depicts a serene river bank. Others are paradoxical. In Dancing with Shadows Koon uses black ink to paint a lone bamboo tree on greyish rice paper split into seven silver-rimmed panels. Though the title connotes movement, the bamboo tree appears still and two-dimensional, similar to the ten fans at the gallery entrance.

 

While some artworks have same-sized frames positioned side-by-side, others are varying sizes and positioned haphazardly. In Dancing with Shadows, movement lies in the viewer’s shifting views towards nature, articulated through the zigzagged positioning of the seven panels. “When you piece the different frames together, you get a fuller yet still incomplete picture,” Koon explains.

 

KOON Wai Bong. Dancing with Shadows. 2017. Ink and color on paper 245×35cm (heptaptych)

 

On the micro-level, Koon uses the freehand (xieyi) method to paint trees, mountains, and rivers. Each flick of the brush is controlled and meticulous, a skill which took many years to master and which viewers can appreciate only through up-close scrutiny. “I want to keep my technique as traditional as possible,” Koon says.

 

This also explains the two-dimensionality and monochrome palette, forms favored by ink painters before him. In Blackness is one the few paintings in which the sides of the canvas are exposed rather than enclosed in a frame, and Koon does not paint on the sides. In On an Odyssey Koon paints landscapes and villages on a traditional men’s long silk tunic, the changshan, that is flattened and ironed such that its three-dimensionality is almost lost. Moreover, Koon’s preferred palette is black and white with the occasional dabble of green ink. “There’s an old saying,” he jokes. “More than five colors will make you go blind!”

 

KOON Wai Bong. In Blackness. 2017. Ink on silk 120.5×65.5cm

 

Koon cleverly evades his self-imposed “less than five colors” rule because he doesn’t view the color paper he paints on as color, but rather, as a medium. This is most evident in Bamboo Groves in the Mists and Rains which consists of three panels depicting a misty, black-and-white bamboo thicket placed in the middle of three long pieces of gold paper made to resemble scrolls. The gold is so dull that it does not appear as a color but as a presence, while the empty space shows that paper is not just a material to paint on, but part of the narrative that Koon is trying to tell, that there’s much left to be learned and documented.

 

Understandably, Koon does not want to be known as a painter who’s preserving Chinese culture. The narrative is too trite. “Think about it as the cheongsam,” Koon says. “The cheongsam has a short history and though it looks Chinese there are subtle Western influences.” He believes categories such as “Chinese” and “Western” to be intangible and irrelevant. “That doesn’t matter to me,” Koon insists. But in a way, it does. Koon’s paintings and installations are at once orthodox and revisionist history. Traditional in technique, they are daring conceptually.

 

About the Artist

 

Koon Wai Bong is based in Hong Kong as an ink artist, he received his B.A. and M.F.A. from The Chinese University of Hong Kong and his D.F.A. from the RMIT University. Koon attained ‘Rising Artist Award’ in 2003, the ‘Merit’ from the National Exhibition of Arts, China in 2004, and ‘Hong Kong Contemporary Art Biennial Award’ in 2009. In addition, he joined the International Ink Painting Biennial of Shenzhen in 2010, Taipei International Modern Ink Painting Biennial in 2012, and the New Ink exhibition at the Sotheby’s Gallery in 2013, and the Chinese Contemporary Ink at The James Christie Room in 2014, and “Picturing Hong Kong: Ink Paintings by Contemporary Hong Kong Artists” at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and “The Weight of Lightness: Ink Art at M+” at the West Kowloon Cultural District in 2017. Besides, his solo exhibition In the Breeze: Koon Wai Bong Solo Exhibition at Asia Art Center, Taipei in 2017 and he held the TRANSpose as a solo show at The Museum of East Asian Art, UK in 2013, and widely exhibited his artworks in museums, galleries and art fairs across Hong Kong, Mainland China, Taiwan, US, UK, Germany, Belgium and Singapore. His artwork has been garnered by galleries, museums, art organisations and private collections such as M+, Hong Kong Museum of Art, CUHK’s Art Museum, Wharf Group in Hong Kong, J. Safra Sarasin Group in Singapore, Ben Brown Fine Arts and Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. He is currently the Assistant Professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.

 

 

In the Breeze
Koon Wai Bong Solo Exhibition
Asia Art Center, Taipei
14 Oct – 19 Nov 2017

 

 


Dana Ter writes about art, food, and travel throughout Asia. Her work is regularly published in the in-flight magazines of EVA Air, Philippine Airlines, Hong Kong Airlines, and SilkAir. She also contributes to Marriott Traveler, Roads & Kingdoms, Slate, and Time Out Hong Kong. A native Penangite, Dana grew up in ten countries and doodles when not typing.

 

 
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