Michael Lau: Child of the World

Michael Lau, Your joy is TOY’s gift to you, what you do with it is your gift back to TOY, 2018.
Michael Lau, Satisfied Heart, 2018.
Michael Lau, Salvatore Michael Gold, 2018
Michael Lau, Gardener Series
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Video Art Asia by COBOSocial.com

Dim sum connoisseurs at Duddell’s London outpost are now feasting on a new exhibition by globally acclaimed Hong Kong artist Michael Lau, entitled “Oh… My Toy!” curated by William Zhao. Artworks are numerous, yet judiciously sized, sure to leave diners tantalized rather than replete. At eye-level, tondo-shaped images of “Toy,” symbolized by a Christian-cross-like “T,” are ranged geometrically around the walls, while a larger-than-life-sized golden sculpture, entitled Salvatore Michael, bestows a secular blessing on the toy-collecting diners below. We met Michael Lau and his wife Florance, an executive at Fendi, in the wooden-panelled restaurant he has taken over, and talked about (among other things) what toys do, and what they cannot do.

TEXT: Nicholas Stephens
IMAGES: Courtesy of Duddell’s London

Michael Lau, Your joy is TOY’s gift to you, what you do with it is your gift back to TOY, 2018.

 

Many of the presented works build on the artist’s 2018 “Collect them All” show at Christie’s Hong Kong. Yet, Duddell’s London seems pre-ordained for Michael Lau. Often described as the Godfather of toys, he repeatedly draws from Christian images and iconography, and Duddell’s is actually in a disused church (and next to The Shard, which nearly touches the heavens). Michael is disarmingly straightforward about any connection to religion. No, he has not been accused of blasphemy. No disrespect is intended. He is highlighting what toys have in common with religion, which may be the sheer passion of its adherents, and perhaps a sense that toy collecting, like religion, is a somewhat inexplicable matter of faith, driven by personal convictions which may occasionally be joyfully defiant of reasoned argument.

On one of the tondos is the words: “You don’t choose your passion, they are Toy’s gift to you…” Collecting brings the good and the bad. Placed around the room are crucifix-resembling T shapes whose faces mime the four stages of collecting. Like the stages of grief (denial, anger etc.), these are a roadmap to what collectors should expect as their hobby / toy takes a firm grip of them:

  • Crazy
  • Serious
  • Perturbed
  • Passionate

 

Michael Lau, Satisfied Heart, 2018.

 

The four Ts bear silent witness to the madness and infuriation which may accompany collecting. In each piece there are tenderly incorporated details which are only visible up close – each T lies in a black acrylic whose roughened surface is made to recall the foam packaging of a newly arrived toy. Each has a little gold card of information about it, with a golden dot, as if it has just been sold at auction. The Toy has become art. Or is it the other way round?

One of Michael Lau’s core concepts is that all toys are works of art, and all works of art are toys. Even the suggestion that such a statement wouldn’t apply to a Holy Family painting by Leonardo da Vinci (for example) doesn’t throw him. He points out that the patron, the one who commissioned the work, made an active choice for Leonardo; a choice he didn’t have to make, but one driven by passions and compulsions (unconscious or otherwise) in just the same way as a toy collector might do. Actually, Leonardo da Vinci, particularly his Salvator Mundi, is a prime influencer in Michael’s Duddell’s output – the raised finger blessing of the sculpture, and its clothing are both adapted from the old master painting which toured Hong Kong before settling in Abu Dhabi.

 

Michael Lau, Salvatore Michael Gold, 2018

 

Michael, preparing for a solo show next year in Shanghai, has a global appeal. He pioneered new representations of the US street scene, becoming the artistic voice for the off-the-grid skateboarding subculture which US corporations crave access to (and he has collaborated extensively with firms such as Nike to that end); and yet he is quintessentially Hong Kong, a child of a time when Hong Kong was the (toy) workshop of the world. As we are meeting in London, he acknowledges that Hong Kong’s colonial status afforded a window on the world which wouldn’t have been possible in mainland China in the 1970s; thus Michael Lau is formed of the US, Asia and Europe. As if to underline the point, he mentions his journey a couple of days previously to the Pompidou Centre in Paris, visiting the Atelier Brancusi; Brancusi is an artist he acknowledges as an early influence.

Michael Lau comes back to the art / toy interplay later when I ask him how his own artistic practice has evolved in the twenty years since his iconic Gardener series first made him a star. He reminds me that he first started as a painter, and then set out to turn toys into art. Now, he says, it’s the other way around; he is turning art into toys.

 

Michael Lau, Gardener Series

 

Toys are a powerful psychological influence and physical presence in Michael Lau’s oeuvre. He has been quoted discussing how toys can be a shield from the world, a kind of refuge from its troubles. I ask if there is anything toys cannot do. Michael’s answer is that toys cannot speak to us. He mitigates this, however, by pointing out how toys provide an emotional and physical interaction with humans, and how the collecting of toys becomes a social outlet for those otakus who might otherwise not leave the house if they did not need to queue for the latest toy. It is typical of the artist, that a question about the shortcomings of toys leads instead to evidence of their strength and power in today’s divided, lonely society.

Michael’s cultural influences are often mass market ones. He enjoys watching the TV series “Black Mirror,” which he describes as frighteningly plausible, a kind of horror show. He smiles as he names his favourite episode: the memorable first one, where the prime minister has an unusual interaction with a pig. In London, Michael’s conversation embodies an affable openness and readiness to explore diverse ideas, mirroring and personifying the enticing humanity and immediacy of his work.

When I ask if there is anything else that he would like to add, Michael wants to underline how we often carry our child-self around with us, and how we must not let our inner child die. At Duddell’s in London, his artworks, mischievous, playful and irreverent, are a means to that end.

 

 

About the artist

Michael Lau is an artist from Hong Kong who is known for his illustration and designer toy figures. Lau is widely credited as the founder of the urban vinyl style within the designer toy movement. His work has had a significant effect on toy manufacturers, as well as street culture, including artists and musicians, throughout the world. His style is particularly influential to Asian and American hip-hop and skateboarding culture. Lau has won several awards for his work, including four from the Hong Kong-based Philippe Charriol Foundation.

 


 

Nicholas Stephens is from London and has lived in Hong Kong for the last nine years, where he works for a leading Hong Kong gallery, specializing in contemporary ink. His articles on diverse aspects of the Hong Kong arts scene have been published in “Art Hong Kong”. A graduate in Modern Languages (European ones unfortunately!), Nicholas has authored translations of novels and plays by writers including Stefan Zweig and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

 

 

 
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