Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Charlie Booth interviews Gayle Chong Kwan

Curatorial Fellow, Charlie Booth, took a break from installing the current exhibition, Betwixt and Between, to catch up with artist Gayle Chong Kwan. Chong Kwan experiments with overlooked objects to explore the space between imagination and reality through constructed landscapes. 

Over a cup of coffee she asked her a few questions about her artistic practice and the upcoming show and managed to gather some advice for my own project opening in December at South Square Gallery.  

CB: You have a long history of exhibiting in a diverse range of locations and countries, what drew you to show at Thornton and South Square Gallery? 

GCK: I first came to South Square Gallery over a year ago because there was a possibility of a commission with the Bronte Parsonage. I was initially drawn to apply for the opportunity because of my PhD research in which I am looking at artist’s imaginary worlds and I was interested in the miniature creations in the early books produced by the Bronte Sisters. 

When I came to South Square Gallery I was surprised to find a contemporary gallery so successfully combining the historical with the modern. My academic background is in history and politics and notions of archive and so historic spaces have been part of my research. I am also drawn to exhibit in slightly unconventional gallery spaces as well as in the public realm. 

CB: How would you say your academic background influences your artistic processes?

GCK: In some way it’s strange when you go to art college; you think you almost have to let go of methodologies that you have previously developed. When I went to Central Saint Martins College of Art I soon realised that actually it was all those methodologies and interests that became the driving force behind my own artistic process. In a way with all the projects that I do there’s an element of research or engagement within a context or a particular community as well, quite a lot of my work are one or two year projects that will be rooted within very specific locations, such  as a project I did in Berlin with the city’s allotments, or the large-scale photographic work I developed for London Underground. 

I think research and scientific methodologies weave in and out of my practice. I don’t really see a separation because I think they are all related. In fact, I have previously created work amongst historical collections as well as contemporary galleries; so sometimes I bring things to the venue as well as take things away. 

CB: As an artist who exhibits internationally, working amongst and with a broad range of communities and locations; has there ever been an instance where its felt problematic to come in to another new place as an outsider?

GCK: I think in some way I’m looking for a place to belong and by doing these projects I’ve sort of become and been taken under the wing by particular areas and the people. I’m always curious by and slightly envious of people’s rootedness with landscapes in which they live or were born – perhaps because I’m betwixt and between myself. I believe it’s a sort of fruitful, creative thing being inbetween though. I think that by the end of my residencies and projects I do sort of end up belonging to those communities in a way, it complicates as well as reassures my sense of place and belonging.

CB: Some of your earlier work has been influenced by your own diverse family identity – do you find that you are drawn to projects that you already have a personal connection to?

GCK: I think in some ways experiences can become part of your personal background; your identity is not necessarily limited to your familial heritage. For example I helped fund my way through art college by working as a chef in large scale catering and so some of my earlier projects were based around food, but that is only one part of the work I make, and wider issues of post-colonial history, trade, and consumption have always interested me.

CB: South Square Gallery is committed to being a test-bed for experimental and original work? How have you found experimenting and creating Betwixt and Between without a set brief? 

GCK: I’ve used this opportunity as a chance to ask questions to myself and of my work. I find that often an experimental body of work has a different level of finish, it is more of an open-ended questioning, I sometimes prefer the conversational aspect than idea of a completely ‘finished’ work. 

CB: I am currently planning a series of residencies here at South Square (Dec 14-Jan 15) and a  lot of your previous commissions have been part of residencies- I’m eager to find out your experience of, and what you think about, residency programmes?

GCK: There was a point when I had spent almost three or four years going from residency to residency; however that was a particular moment in my life where I could do that.

Residencies are very interesting because it relates to how you reside in a space but there is a catching up needed; the art world needs to do to accommodate different people’s needs.  Now I have a four-year old son, I have to approach residencies in a different way and negotiate them; however sometimes it’s just not possible to do them. As a female artist with children I would estimate that 70% of the residencies are not possible for me. 

I think that during residencies there can be this emphasis on continuously making new things and quite often you don’t have the time to stop and reflect about what is important. Residencies leave you in a state where you are always arriving and making new work. 

The residencies that I now look for involve much more focused bursts of activity or over a much longer timeframe, which is particularly important in terms of work within communities. There was one curator who said that going for one long stint of a residency just doesn’t work. They suggested that you go first for some initial visits, then you go away to ingest and finally come back to create the work, which I think is an interesting way of approaching them. People have to negotiate how they work for them because everybody has different techniques and processes. I do enjoy residencies because they get you get out of your own personal studio, though I’ve never been the kind of artist who just stays inside in their studio. I feel that studios for artists should not just be a fixed place but much more than that. They are in a world, within a context and made by the people who live there. 

Betwixt and Between 
02 Aug- 21 Sept 2014

18 Sept - Artist talk 7pm, Food and Drink 8pm