An interview with Chad Wong, an undergraduate at UBC majoring in both Art History and Visual Arts. His work has been shown at the UBC Audain Art Gallery. He was also published in the April 2015 issue of the Undergraduate Journal of Art History for his paper on Monet, and his photograph “Nesting” recently made it into the Fall 2015 edition of PhotoEd magazine. He has described his art as concerning itself primarily with the stories and struggles of Chinese immigrants and second-generation Chinese people in Vancouver. I sat down with him earlier this week to ask him about his piece “Taking Apart My Family”, and how he is continuing to try to convey complex ideas about identity and culture in Canada.
(Chloe:) What is your art piece called?
(Chad:) “Taking Apart My Family”.
That’s an interesting title. Why did you call it that?
I gave my piece this title because the sewing machine is the backbone of my family lineage. My grandfather owned a garment factory in Hong Kong, and all that is left of that history is the Brother sewing machine that my mother brought over to Canada. So, given that in the video I am shown taking apart the sewing machine, a labor-intensive process (it is a three-hour long video) in that sense my title is quite literal. I think when you look at it without any description—the link between identity, family and culture is immediate.
What/who inspired you to create this work?
I was inspired by a long history of artists that work with taking things apart. But that is a trope, it is like saying people paint. I was inspired by (thinking back to art history, and personal history), Scott, my prof, because originally the project was going to be less personal, and the idea was to take it apart and create a mock landscape of the skyline of Hong Kong and just to comment on how Hong Kong has developed from this manufacturing port to this global conglomerate city. So it would be cheeky and fun. But after talking to him, it is still a good idea but it’s a little too one dimensional, when you look at it doesn’t have much to talk about. It needs to be like glue to suck you in, but it’s only relatable if it’s deeply personal, because when you are sharing deep feelings, everybody, even if they haven’t gone through the same thing, gets it. And it sticks with them longer, I feel like.
What message is your work meant to send? Who is your audience?
The message of my work is that on one hand, it is important that we acknowledge and respect our own history, but at the same time it is okay to break away from it and make our own path. My audience is everyone. As opposed to some of my other work, it is personal so it is relatable and everyone can empathize with it. But, someone with more of an art history or visual arts background, and of course second-generation immigrants, may understand it in a more conceptual way.
Hm, that reminds me of the book I am reading right now. It’s called the Buddha of Suburbia, and it really reflects this second generation struggle and yet deals with the issues associated with the fragmentation of a culture as a result of immigration and societal pressures. So, if you say it is easier understood with an art history background, I can understand that, because as a “halfer” I am able to relate to the main character Karim. Whereas someone else may not be able to, to the same degree. I guess what I am trying to say here, is when an artist makes art, or an author writes, they have to appeal to all audiences, even those who can’t fully relate. So how does your piece do that, do you think?
I think art in general is quite universal already. I mean you’re not telling your audience everything, you are showing it to them. So in that sense there is no wrong answer. It is a perfect thing to say about art, because each individual personally brings a different background and is informed by a different experience. I think the gesture is universal enough. I mean, in life, we all take apart something and in breaking it down we try to make sense of it, don’t we?
So how do you think your work relates to an “immigrant experience”?
Well, the title has a big part to it, as well as the setting of the piece. Due to the fact that it is filmed in a domesticated space (my living room), it ties everything back together with family and the home and taking something symbolic to the family and deconstructing it within a specific, symbolic space. Also, I projected the piece back on the cloth that I worked on. The cloth was covered in oil and there were rust stains all over it too. It was evidence of taking it apart, and of the labour I put in. It became an evidence piece that reflected back on itself. It is not so much about the first generation, but the second generation and how we deal with the expectations that our parents put on us. It is about the deconstruction of those very expectations, and how we are trying to break away from that and make a name for ourselves.
As an Asian artist in an immigrant family, how well do they understand your art and what you do? Does that matter to you?
I don’t think they understand it at all, which is fine. I think that the fact that they don’t understand adds to it, you know? There is indeed that generation gap. I mean especially for this piece, since it is more personal and it is a gestural piece. There is this hump to overcome where I am trying to reconcile with myself and what I am doing, and where I stand in relation to art history and with my own personal history as well.
What do you mean by personal history?
In terms of personal history, I mean that my family came from a long history of clothing manufacturing. I mean the sewing machine is the backbone, so it is more or less the backbone of my family history. In that sense, by taking apart the sewing machine, I want to deconstruct my lineage, because I really believe that if you don’t understand the past, you cannot make something that is new and your own.
What obstacles do you feel you face as an Asian artist? Is there some art you feel you cannot do?
I think that definitely there are, but it comes down to how you exercise it and what you want to portray and express in your art. bell hooks, she puts it really well, she said “when I make art about the body it immediately becomes about the Black female body. Whereas if the body is nude coloured, then it talks about the universal body.” So I definitely think there is that connotation that no matter what, I am an Asian artist because a lot of my work is drawn from my own personal history and identity as Asian Canadian. So I think I approach my work with that problem rather than trying to depart from it.
I’d like to give you a quote from a book I recently read called The Buddha of Suburbia. I’m interested in how/whether it speaks to you and if you can see a similar sentiment reflected in your work: “Watching Jamila sometimes made me think the world was divided into three sorts of people: those who knew what they wanted to do; those (the unhappiest) who never knew what their purpose in life was; and those who found out later on. I was in the last category, I reckoned, which didn’t stop me wishing I’d been born into the first.”
I can certainly relate to this quote, and I am glad that you thought of it! I do wish I knew at first that I wanted to make art, but it was unfortunately not so simple. It really wasn’t until grade 11 that I got more encouraged, exploring that side of me. And when I knew what I wanted to do, it felt great. Like the quote says, it is sad not knowing who you are in life, so that’s why most of my art is self-reflective and about contextualizing myself as an artist. Art is a process as much as life is a process, so if you imagine the two as a parallel, then it is like when I am creating art I get to discover more about myself. Currently, what I need is to reflect upon is who I am right now, so my work is largely self-reflexive. But, the great thing is, it evolves and changes alongside me.
Artist Statement: Chloe Kerr
Local UBC student artist Chad Wong is continuing to try to convey complex ideas about identity and culture. Having come from a long history of hard-working, business-driven ancestors in Hong Kong, Wong has described his decision to become an artist as something that “always spoke to me, but when I found that I had a real talent in it, and my art was something people wanted to see, it was then that I knew who I could be and where I might just fit in.”
In particular, Chad Wong’s art piece “Taking Apart My Family”, a three hour-long video installation, deals with the hopes and expectations that his parents have put on his shoulders, and the very pressure of upholding one’s family history. In his piece, Wong takes apart an industrial sewing machine that has been in his family for generations, projecting the video back on to a large dirty oil rag. At first, the act itself seems blasphemous, but when I sat down with him for an interview at his mother’s house this past week, he explained that the gesture is universal enough, stating: “we all take apart something, to try to make sense of it.
So, in that respect this piece has a lot to do with trying to reconcile with the self and find who you are, and what you want to do” (Wong). Wong wants to make sense of both the immigrant experience, as one that is linked to personal history and the preservation of cultural tradition, and the child of an immigrant family, who is torn between bridging a relationship between their heritage and their families expectations of them, while, at the same time, trying to form their own identities. Evidently, Wong’s work is meant to be self-reflexive. As he explained to me, it is “meant to be a representation that we are marked by our families’ histories, but we cannot let that be what define us” (Wong).
Indeed, Chad Wong would agree that the process of taking apart your family, as well as personal experiences, is important for children of immigrant families who have certain expectations of you. As he proudly told me, “once you hold up that sheet, and see who you are, and where you came from, well, anything is possible” (Wong).
Chloe Kerr is an English Literature major who loves to dabble in the art world whenever she isn’t burrowing her face in a novel or writing a paper. Chloe, who recently completed her undergraduate Bachelor of Arts degree, has taken many creative writing courses, and credits her biracial background (her mother is Chinese and her father is Scottish) for her curiosity and passion for studying and exploring all to do with multiculturalism and immigrant culture.