Vinn Wong is a young artist who resides in Tokyo by way of Hong Kong and Australia. He’s an abstract artist http://www.vinnwong.com who is as fresh and engaging as his work. He also has a colorful family history. Here’s our cool chat …
MICHAEL: Hey Vinn, Your work is pretty cool. You are a young artist and I see lots of influences from other famous artists in your work. What inspires you to create?
VINN: I'd love to dive right into it, but I definitely cannot skip the formalities. That's one thing that my father always taught me. Haha. Thank you very much for having me here, Michael. It's a pleasure to be sharing my thoughts with like-minded people all over the world. I feel honored to be part of your collection of artists on ABG. I've read a few other artist interviews and I must say - we have some really creative and charming people here!
To answer you as honestly as I can, I started painting because I had too many things to say, but at the same time, I was quite unwilling to do any of the talking myself. Painting began as a kind of therapy in many ways. It is pretty much that one step before spilling all of my life's secrets. Imagine a locked journal; one that anyone can open, but only I can truly understand.
Having said that though, I actually did keep a real proper journal for many years, which my ex somehow found and read. Hence, I don't write a journal anymore … more of a reason to keep it all on canvas.
I use painting as a way to keep all my memories intact. This is especially good for me to keep the lessons I've learnt in life. A lot of soul searching goes on when I paint. It helps me reflect on my life experiences whether they’re recent or distant. Some are wonderful, some are less, some I can't even bare to look at for too long. Really, I catch myself awkwardly hitting the BACK button when visiting my own website sometimes. There are works on there that embody a lot of raw feelings, at times even a bit too much for me to handle. Haha.
Writing is also a major inspiration as there's usually some kind of underlying message I want to express. As you can see on my website, all of my work comes with some sort of writing. It gives a glimpse of what is really going on in each piece and I don't consider my artwork done until it is written.
MICHAEL: You're in Tokyo, no? Isn't living space almost non-existent there? Where is your studio? It must be very small. How does that work?
VINN: Yes, you are quite right. The size of my apartment before I lived in Australia was much bigger than it is now. I actually stopped painting for two years because I didn't think painting was feasible. I did manage to work around it though. I'm just stubborn that way.
For Tokyo standards, I actually live in a very comfortable and spacious place, which I'm very grateful to have. It's a 29-meters-squared studio apartment big enough to maintain all my daily living and painting.
Having a lack of space actually trains you to be more resourceful and more innovative with the use of your surrounding area. I have a bed that folds into a sofa, and next to it is my small coffee table that I paint on. I use a long piece of cardboard that originally came as the backing of my bookshelf as my working space. I just lay it over the coffee table when I paint and put it away when I eat.
I actually made a quick 2-minute video on Youtube showing how I manage my tiny studio space. http://youtu.be/L7sOGS6YIcA
I've changed from painting big pieces to smaller ones. Storage is actually the biggest issue for me. You can't afford to have wrapped canvases lying around anywhere when you don't even have enough room for the pair of shoes you bought last week. Hence, I only paint on flat canvases. I just go to the art store and photo frame them later if needed.
MICHAEL: Do you come from an artistic family? Where do you think your talent comes from? Also, when did you first become aware of yourself as an artist?
VINN: My parents don't really talk about our lineage much. My grandfather on my mother's side was a health minister of Hong Kong and died of lung cancer due to chain smoking in his early 50s. My grandmother was a housewife with 5 daughters in which the fourth is my loving and beautiful mother. She had fantastic piano skills that she later tried to pass on to me over the first two decades of my life. But that one is a whole different story.
On my father's side - Well I don't really know much about my father's side except the fact that ever since our family's lineage was recorded in the history books, we've always only had one boy for each generation. Some believe it to be a curse. The birth of myself and my older brother was considered very much a blessing actually, we broke the pattern!
My grandfather was a fortune teller based in astrology, but he mainly polished shoes for wealthy men on the streets of Hong Kong as a living. He was in fact a very freakishly powerful fortune teller. I remember my dad telling me once that Grandpa told him to tell her female coworkers to stay in after work one night, just out of the blue. My dad didn't listen, they all went out that night and the girls all got into a taxi in which they all died due to a really horrifying traffic accident.
MICHAEL: Wow. That’s horrible.
VINN: My father and his dad didn't actually meet eye to eye ever. For my grandfather to approach my dad like that was extremely out of character. Also, fortune tellers are not allowed to give direct answers or orders when doing a telling, unless they give up some of their duration of their lives. At least that's what we have been told. That's why when my grandfather approached my dad to get me out of the womb earlier than expected. My family didn't hesitate and my mum got a c-section immediately. The day and time in which you are born is believed to set the destiny to your entire life in some Chinese cultures. I think my grandfather saved my life right from the beginning. He soon died after my birth.
So not really, I don't have much of an artistic family. My father used to be in a band. He was the first one to break the cultural taboo of singing in Cantonese back in his day. Most songs in the bars were sung in English; it was considered the trend at the time. He felt a strong pride for his country and did what he thought would make a difference. My father grew up in a church. The priest took him in because he had nowhere else to go (Grandfather abused him at a very young age). That's where he met my mum later on. I have quite a bit more to tell, but I guess that really isn't the point of this interview. Haha.
MICHAEL: It’s certainly fascinating. You're from Hong Kong and moved to Australia and now you live in Tokyo. That's quite a journey. What happened?
VINN: I don't actually remember all that much of Hong Kong, although I lived there until I was seven. I do remember going to my first day of kindergarten and I accidentally called my teacher "mum." That kind of set my reputation up for the rest of my kindergarten days. Kids can be so mean!
I also remember going to my first day of primary school. My older brother was in fifth grade at the time and we went to the same school. He took me there that day and of course, when he had to leave me to go to his own class, I cried my lungs out so badly that the teachers couldn't do anything about it. They had to get my brother to come and settle me down! I was a kid with a super high maintenance level!
My family migrated to Australia in 1995. It was mainly because the education system didn't allow much flexibility and creativity in Hong Kong. Schools didn't nurture individuality as much as western schools did and my parents wanted what they thought was best for their children.
My parents originally had a business in artificial flower arrangements. We sold that, moved to Australia and continued business in the botanical industry after. The majority of my time in the land down under was spent in the countryside. We lived in a beautiful four-acre area with three giant mango trees, a grapevine forest, banana trees, chickens, two dogs, a wild peacock (I kid you not) and a whole lot of other random lush nature. Unfortunately, everyone in our family is allergic to mangoes, so when the season came to collect them, we had to give them all to our friends. Some weighed more than 1 kilo! Such a shame!
MICHAEL: Allergic to mangoes. I love mangoes. You have no idea what you’re missing … apart from the allergic reaction, of course.
VINN: After finishing university, I thought it would be a good idea to get out of Australia and see the world. Australia is such a young country that some would argue it lacks in any kind of deep, cultural identity. Living overseas was a dream come true. I chose Japan for many reasons, one being that I had quite a big Japanese influence while growing up. I visited there three times, studied the language since I was 12 and it was a place that held lots of fun memories. I wanted to see more. That and also the fact that Australia has a great relationship with Japan, extending my working holiday visa from the default one year to a year and a half. Well, clearly, I ended up staying much longer than that!
MICHAEL: Tokyo is a very creative place with lots of artists. What's the art scene like there? Do everyday people in Japan relate to art? Here in America, only very well-to-do people collect and really appreciate art.
VINN: That's a very good question and a very challenging one to answer especially for Japan. Just like any other kind of business, Japan has a completely unique market. The typical approach and strategies employed in Western markets and Asian markets do not work here in Japan. This country very much has a standalone culture that seems to operate in its own peculiar and contrasting way. It has its own niches, things that work and things that don't.
As much as I've found, the Japanese mentality about art is a conservative one. Without going too deeply into this topic, Japanese traditional artwork and designs work very well here while there is a lack of encouragement to push the boundaries and try new things. Established niches and trends are safe to follow. The infamous "Harajuku Kawaii Fashion" trend is an example of an established niche that's unique to Japan. Although unique, it is a stagnant market and style that does not seem to evolve. I visited Art Fair Tokyo 2014 last week to find that this Kawaii trend also branches into fine arts, with all of this genre's supporting fans being intense devotees of its fashion and music counterpart.
In Japan, one may argue that everything needs to be set into a specific and clear category. Works that branch into multiple categories or is a little bit more ambiguous are evidently less popular. Ultimately, works seem to thrive more if they are familiar to the audience and simple to understand.
MICHAEL: Trust me. That exists here in America too, although many people don’t want to admit to it.
VINN: The long history of Japan has also created its own distinctive art style. Artworks that take traditional Japanese art as inspiration seem to work very well here. I won't go into this too much as it's going to turn into an essay. I'm only covering this point "very" briefly. Personally, zen art and minimalism are the closest genres in painting that relate to what I do.
Another point to mention is that the Japanese mentality to follow rules, as well as to respect and appreciate history is evident in almost every aspect of living in Japan. Tokyo is a concrete jungle without much of an outstanding visual aesthetic when it comes to anything built after the war. The city looks worn and stale with each building looking like the next. Many say that this is due to the reestablishment of the city after World War II. People did not have the luxury to dwell on visual aesthetics and beauty. It was all about recuperation and getting back on your feet. Any money spent on visual aesthetics was considered a waste. In Japanese, it translates to "Mottainai" meaning, "What a waste." The city from then took on a very monotonous look compared to the beauty of what was here before, which is another reason why we promote traditional aesthetics as it comes from our nature to preserve the culture that remains.
This "Mottainai" mentality is also evident in art collectors. The majority of Japanese people simply do not see art as a type of investment. Art is considered a luxury and a lot of the time, artworks in Japan are priced much lower than they should and many galleries take on more of a cluttered warehouse presentation with pieces stacked everywhere like a boutique shop rather than taking on the appearance of an actual gallery. People genuinely appreciate art, but would ever so rarely make the decision to purchase them.
MICHAEL: Very interesting.
VINN: Having said all that though, at Art Fair Tokyo 2014 (the biggest once in a year art fair that showcases artists and galleries across Japan and also some overseas), I was very pleased to see how many works were sold. I did notice that just like anywhere else, the clientele of original fine art pieces are of course people in high society. They are willing to buy works of art and the following two criteria seem to be the most popular: One being works made by art school and university students where the pieces are sold at extremely low prices and two being works by big established names, Japanese artists that have made a name overseas and come back is a huge plus.
Of course, if you ever spoke to another person living here, they might have a contrasting experience. The above is simply my own perspective so far. Again, I'm only just breezing through the points very briefly!
MICHAEL: I must say that you are very observant and bright. What I'm hearing you say is that contemporary art is also very uncertain even in Japan. Why are you even an artist? You can do something else. You look young enough to still go to law school or medical school, No?
VINN: Exactly. I'm young enough to still pursue my greatest passions. Sure, I can go off and do other things but I'm sure I'll end up back here because this is what I really want to be doing. I'm an artist because I want to be one. I can. And I'm grateful for that.
MICHAEL: What does painting do for you? Why do you do it? Do you think there's a connection between lack of art appreciation and the condition that the world is in right now?
VINN: Painting has given me a lot of things and also vice versa. It has given me a way to communicate with the world in my very own voice. I paint and write about my own experiences in life and hope that people who see it can take something from it. That's all, really.
The world may be a grim place at times, but I believe there's a lot of good too. All I can say is that we can use more love and understanding in this world we live in, after that, we can move onto appreciating each other.
MICHAEL: Finally Vinn, what purpose do you think art serves? I mean, most people in the world don't buy art. Why are we even talking about art? What's the point? We're not curing cancer or ending homelessness here.
VINN: I actually do think that most of us do buy art in one form or another. It really just comes down to what people label as art. The house that I live in was designed by an architect, all the songs on my iTunes were written by musicians, all pictures we see were taken by photographers and my paintings are no different.
I think art, like anything else, serves what the creator wants it to serve. Yes, I'm not creating a new drug for curing HIV, but what I do with my art can certainly lead to it. My painting is my voice, just like a song is for a singer or a poem is for a writer. The power of it reflects how far I choose to take it.
MICHAEL: Nicely said. Thanks Vinn. This has been great. I love your fresh and open spirit.
VINN: Thank you so much Michael! It was a pleasure speaking with you! I really enjoyed our interview process! I was quite absorbed by some of your questions and really had to think. Haha!
Check out Vinn Wong at http://www.vinnwong.com.