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  • Sep 01, 2021

Arriving Sideways into Meaning: Interview with Gayle Chong Kwan

Portrait of GAYLE CHONG KWAN in her studio, 2013. Photo by Georgia Kuhn. Courtesy the artist and Alberta Pane Gallery, Paris / Venice.

Medieval banquets, plastic-bottle stalactites, and ruins constructed from fruit skins are just a fraction of Gayle Chong Kwan’s fantastical explorations of simulacra and the sublime. Of Scottish and Chinese-Mauritian descent, she is known for creating mise-en-scènes with household and restaurant waste. Central to her work is an interrogation of colonial practice, and she uses these vistas not only to trace the legacies of colonization couched in certain dishes, but to reimagine waste as an artistic medium, destabilizing binaries of un/cleanliness and un/desirability in order to question the premise of such categories. In 2019, Chong Kwan was awarded the Sustainable Art Prize by ArtVerona and Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, where she was subsequently invited to develop a work with the university’s students and academics. Together, they created Waste Archipelago (2021), using food waste and fragments to examine our extractive relationship with nature and its links to colonial expansion. AAP spoke with Chong Kwan to discuss how decoloniality begins at a piece’s inception, and how we might sidestep the colonial trap by understanding art as relational, multifaceted, and in flux.

Food and waste have been prominent themes, mediums, and starting points throughout your career, from Paris Remains (2008), sculpted from citrus peels and apple cores, to At the Crossroads (2018), a banquet that utilizes ingredients from British colonies. What draws you to them?

 The role of food in a political or social sense comes through because I’m half Scottish and half Chinese-Mauritian, and Mauritius has a very particular sort of cultural makeup where the blending of different cultures and conversations happens through food. So food has always been a way of very intimately and emotionally forming some sort of cross-cultural communication. Take Salmi duck, which my father cooked to connect back home when he was in Scotland. It’s a really Mauritian dish, but Salmi duck itself is based on a sort of French wine duck recipe, and uses lot of different herbs and spices from Indian cuisine like cinnamon.

I think the notion of ruins has always attracted me. That moment at the end of colonialism—or not end of colonialism, because we have neocolonialism after, but I suppose the overthrow of the occupational administration—is this cusp, where things are hovering between destruction and construction. There’s this potentiality. And since my mother’s Scottish family were involved in the colonial administration in India, I’m literally a combination of both sides of the colonial coin where, again, things are cusped. I’ve also been drawn to London post-Blitz, because there was this strange moment where a lot of London was destroyed, but much older aspects of London’s history were being revealed as a result. There’s something about this between state that I find really rich and I keep returning to it.

Your work is often discussed as an interrogation of colonialism due to its content, but I wonder if your practice offers an answer in and of itself by stalling, in the words of filmmaker and writer Trinh T. Minh-ha, the West’s “totalizing quest of meaning.” Your focus on liminality and the cusp of so many states and cultures makes your work difficult to pin down.

When I began my practice, I just thought, “gosh, I’m quite a messy artist.” Because even when I was starting out, there was no way I could just do one thing. I had to have series of works because there was this relational dialogue, like doorways into other worlds.

I think doing my PhD really helped me understand of how little importance the outputs are. You ask about the totalizing quest for meaning, and that’s something I find very interesting, because it’s difficult in Waste Archipelago to know where the work is. It could be for the students in the sessions that they did, or it might be these processional walks. Or for people who experienced the DIY version on Alberta Pane Gallery’s website, it might be in the works they made. The relation between objects is where the meaning comes, and I think that’s why the most integral part of my practice is the process.

I suppose there’s the idea of “alongside.” I don’t know the answers to everything, but I know if I go alongside it, things can get revealed, somehow. It took me awhile to understand how political my work was, because it’s not sloganizing—but it responds to things in a fundamentally different way. For example, I’ve only ever done three portraits. The first was a commission by the National Portrait Gallery, where I worked with young refugees, and they designed their own portraits and told me how they wanted to be photographed. The second was The People’s Forest (2018), where I worked with people and made headpieces at particularly important places in the forest and again made photographs together. The last was in Waste Archipelago, where myself and another artist were photographed from behind, which I think is different to capturing the face because then your eyes and their eyes share the same direction and it’s really about the possibilities, and where we go from here. So this idea of representation makes me feel completely uncomfortable. There always has to be permission and involvement.

You mention this idea of process, of participation where the objects of the artistic study are not passive but agentive subjects involved in the making as well. What draws you to collective practice, and what are the effects of diffusing artistic authority?

One thing I’ve been really interested in is Lygia Clark’s “ritual without myth.” Usually, ritual activities are things that have a particular sensorial or experiential moment and are tied to an established narrative. However, “ritual without myth” is all about inviting people in, and leaving space for them to bring their own stories and histories.

Part of winning the Sustainable Art Prize was an invitation to develop a project with Ca’ Foscari University, which I was able to use as a way of really exploring this devised practice. I set up eight monthly sessions with the students, working with academics exploring different aspects of waste I was interested in, like anthropologist Mary Douglas’s writings about purity and categorization, or philosopher Jane Bennett’s ontological conception of “vibrant waste.” In other iterations of the prize, the artists who were invited to develop projects with Ca’ Foscari already had an idea of what they were doing, and the students were mainly involved in physically helping them make it. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to explore from the start with them. And it became a very generative process, with ideas flying from the students, the academics, and me into this improvised thing that became very difficult to segment.

How do you navigate the tension between polyphony and disorganization, and ensure that the lack of fixed meaning isn’t the absence of any?

In my PhD, I explore a neologism I call “imaginal travel,” which is concerned with images in their most essential sense, and the way we apprehend the world before verbal meaning. In the imaginal, there’s always a movement between the internal and external, individual and collective, surface and depth. It’s a way of thinking about how we move in the world that rejects the totalizing, colonial aspect of travel, because in essence, colonialism understands the self as travelling through empty space, or rather space that’s emptied by imagining it as a future prospect for “development.”

I suppose I’m anti-organization in the sense that you shouldn’t categorize things in neat boundaries, because when you do that you negate and obliterate other meanings that already exist. The starting point for Waste Archipelago was thinking about how things are categorized as “out of place,” and Jane Bennett’s idea is that there is actually a vibrancy to waste because what seems “out of place” is usually organized in its own way already. We just have to be more attentive to what it is.

Maybe we can understand meaning as a sort of folding in—a moment when things come together to rest. All you can really do is open up different moments where people can make their own journeys between, and that’s it, that’s enough. I suppose I can only describe this as a “felt practice,” something that helps each person locate their meaning through an internal and external intimacy. This other work I’m doing right now, called Dream Tapestry (2021), is completely inside folds and seams of clothes that were donated to me, where I have hand-sewn accounts of people’s dreams during the Covid-19 lockdown. Some of them are going into a museum in London, but the majority I’m going to give to charity shops around my area. And I absolutely love the idea that people might buy these clothes because they like them, have them on, and become part of this very intricate web, part of another relation with other things.

It’s very difficult to have a practice that has got all these different moments and says, “it’s this, but also this, and this as well.” But all you can do is lay them out, and let people find their way within that. Or not; it’s up to them. So always veer toward the complex, and encourage movement between things where the destination doesn’t have to be absolute.

GAYLE CHONG KWAN, Dream Tapestry, 2021, used clothes,

Are decolonial art practices enough to push back against the colonial structures within the art world at large? Museums, for instance, were a significant part of the colonial project, and they’re critiqued today not just because of stolen art but because of their success in creating Others by classifying and putting objects on display. What is your take on working with such institutions?

As an artist, I find myself working between museums and community-led movements, which is difficult because I do think museums are these mausoleum-like, classificatory institutions that take everything out of their relational cosmologies in often very violent ways. Ultimately, it’s at best appropriation and at worst looting objects and forcing them into this Linnaean system of “objects are like this.” But you can’t go out and do nothing. I suppose it’s about engaging in a way where you’re saying, “it doesn’t function like this anymore, what about thinking of things in a different way?” When I was Artist-in-Residence at the Victoria and Albert Museum, I was very clear in saying I wouldn’t work in certain ways, and tried to push my understanding onto them as well.

However, I was struck when the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums was signed in 2002. Essentially, they argued, “OK, things have come from difficult places, but we are providing universal open access.” But the idea of “universal” is totally Global North-centric. If you put something in the British Museum, it’s only really open to the British public. Everyone else would have to take a plane or a train just to access their cultural heritage, which would have been taken and separated out of context anyway because they’d be approached with Western understandings of relationality. There was this big show of Pacific art in Somerset House, and there were protests outside because the way things were organized and curated was absolutely offensive to the community. They were very, very clear in saying, “these aren’t the objects of our ancestors, these are our ancestors.” So imagine you’re part of the Samoan community, and you have to travel that far to see your ancestors, who are completely misdefined because such complex meaning couldn't fit into this kind of museology. And you can’t touch them and there’s no more meaning in the objects anyway because they’re no longer used. So I think this sort of universal idea of museums is just completely untrue, and things have to change. 

Gayle Chong Kwan’s “Waste Archipelago” is on view at Galleria Alberta Pane, Venice, until September 4, 2021.

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