Paul Wong is a multidisciplinary artist best known for his video and live art projects. He is self-taught and has been exhibiting videotapes, installations, photographs and performances since the 1970's. He is an extraordinary artist and visionary whose ideas and works have influenced an entire generation. He has paved the way for his art form from being referred to as ‘not t.v.’ to a respected practise on a national and international stage. Born in Canada his works often address his cross-cultural influences of being Chinese and Canadian.
His early works were troubling and alienated more conventional audiences, yet proved magnetic to the burgeoning disgruntled youth movement in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The angst and hopelessness of that generation (late 70’s punk, early 80’s void culture) was encapsulated by Wong into stark works like 60 Unit Bruise (1976) and in ten sity (1978), and into lavish nothingness pieces like Prime Cuts (1981), Confused: Sexual Views (1984) and Body Fluid (1986), a portrayal of 1980’s glamour transformed into proletarian chic. Vacuity was in and Wong embraced it. Later, Wong began to explore his Chinese heritage with Ordinary Shadows, Chinese Shade (1989) and Chinaman’s Peak: Walking The Mountain (1992). Once again he mirrored his times in reflecting the shift toward inclusion, multiculturalism, and an interest, and acceptance of the ‘other’.
His work is influenced by, and critical of, mass media and pop culture. He vacillates between fiction and nonfiction, positioning biographical portrayals of his friends with ostensibly autobiographic ones of himself. He uses a vast array of elements from the organic (roses, incense, earth, candles, fire, cedar trees, oranges, bottles of Scotch) to products that characterize the 20th century (mirrors, motorized devices, M16 rifles, Harley Davidson motorcycles, welding kits and state of the art digital technologies).
His work has been shown in exhibitions around the world, starting in 1974. He has represented Canada at international festivals such as Edge 88 in London, England (1988), The Museum of Modern Art in New York (1978- ), Life/Live at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris (1996) and Journey to the East, an experimental performance festival in Hong Kong (1998). His work has also been presented at many non-gallery sites, abandoned warehouses, malls, cabarets, deconsecrated churches and carparks from Belfast, Shenzhen, Regina, Taipei, Halifax, Newcastle to Venice.
He received national recognition with a solo show On Becoming A Man at the National Gallery in Ottawa in 1995. In 2002 the Vancouver Art Gallery presented Paul Wong From The Collection. This exhibition of photoworks, videotapes and installations included Confused: Sexual Views, originally banned by the VAG in 1984. His seminal work, Hungry Ghosts, was presented in Extra 50 at the Venice Biennale in 2003.
Hungry Ghosts was a 5 channel video installation and large format laser prints. It included new and remixed materials from projects on death spanning two decades. The video installation provided an ephemeral form of interdisciplinary elements configured with fleeting moments, manipulated images, visual clips, photographs, text, narrative stories, home movies, sound bites, edited fiction and real time documents digitally beamed onto transparent surfaces.
There were elements from previous works such as: Murder Research (1977) - investigation of a murder; in ten sity (1978) - performance for the suicide of a friend; Dave (1991) - a funeral for a murdered Hell’s Angels enforcer; and Chinaman’s Peak: Walking The Mountain (1992) – ancestral worship and feeding the hungry ghosts.
The video projections were shown on a moving vaporetto (sea bus) that transported the work and audience on a journey. Hungry Ghosts was a transformative work constantly moving, providing a site for remembering the past while sailing in the present. It was a novel medium for dealing with such intensely personal and emotional subjects such as death and loss. Wong described it as a site of memory where the very private becomes public, as a virtual ‘walking the mountain’, a way to honour and remember those who had gone before.
Parallel to his outstanding contribution to his own career and the field of video and media art, Wong has consistently had a strong local, national and international commitment to developing new avenues for production, exhibition and distribution. From his early days in the 1970’s he lobbied The Canada Council for equipment and support for his field, made public appeals for access to the television media and broadcasting at the CRTC, and produced groundbreaking exhibitions like Yellow Peril: Reconsidered (1990), a national touring exhibition of 25 Asian Canadian artists working in film, video and photography. This was the first exhibition to feature Asian Canadian work with such prominence and led to the development of a community identity that resulted in numerous subsequent shows.
He is a media art pioneer and the recipient of The Bell Canada Award for Video Art (1992). In 2002 he received the Asian Heritage Transforming Art Award for his influence as a mentor and in 2003 he was the given the National Film Board of Canada Trailblazer Expressions Award in recognition for his strong leadership in the area of diversity and culture.
He is well known for his curatorial, cultural consultancy and community art projects. He is a regular and vocal participant at national symposiums and international conferences on art and culture. He is a past member of the Canada Council Media Arts Committee, a cofounder of two artist-run centres, the Satellite Video Exchange (Video In) in 1973, one of Canada’s first and longest-running media production centres, and On Edge in 1985, an organization dedicated to producing and exhibiting work previously marginalized by conventional definitions of what is ‘art’.
Wong has produced, created, presented and performed his art for over 30 years. When others left the field because they tired of the poverty and alienation, Wong stuck it out. When others became co-opted by the systems they had earlier railed against and later joined, Wong stuck it out. He has survived countless incidents of censorship and controversy. He has somehow managed to be a ‘working artist’ since he was 18 years old. He has had no other career.
Paul Wong was born in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. He lives and works in Vancouver.
by Elspeth Sage
def. hungry ghosts: those in the spirit world who are cared for by the living. A main principle of ancestral worship where hungry ghosts are fed so they will not come back and disrupt the lives of the living.
Elspeth Sage is a co-founding director of On Edge, curator, writer, and producer based in Vancouver.