In the 40 years he has been a performance artist, Kwok Mang-ho has often depicted himself as an old imp in a second childhood.
He once strung up thousands of plastic bags in an avant garde installation at the Great Wall and on Tiananmen Square.
Kwok’s unusual art has been a source of pride and some annoyance. He is often misunderstood.
“I am a futurist artist of the next century, so people of this era can make little sense of my work,” says Kwok, 68.
“My works can be created with any form, quantity, media, idea and dimension.”
Kwok calls himself the Frog King, a moniker inspired by the protagonist in the eponymous tale by the Grimm Brothers, the 19th century German storytellers.
But the name originated from his childhood when he used to hear frogs croak endlessly in the fields night and day.
People found the sound annoying but Kwok heard music in it.
Seeing himself in these misunderstood creatures, Kwok began to call himself the Frog King and dress up in bizarre gowns and spectacles.
“I have since created frog artworks using a combination of graffiti, Chinese calligraphy and ink wash.”
In the 1990s, Kwok opened his One Second Body Installation in New York where participants were asked to put on “froggy spectacles” and pose for a picture with him.
There have been too many of them to remember.
“Some were taken away at parties. Some got broken. I myself have lost tons of them.”
A decade earlier, Kwok had experienced New York with all its absurdities and uncertainties.
“There were more than 170,000 art maniacs in New York in the 1980s. I was one of them,” he says.
“Living in a multicultural city, we were not fighting for individuality but for an independent existence. Everyone had their own views.”
He witnessed how fame and fortune made an artist friend arrogant. He spiralled into drugs and hit bottom.
In his worst shape, the man used his own blood to paint, Kwok says.
Kwok was not much better off.
“I was in the streets writing Chinese calligraphy. It was snowing and no one bought my work… when I had one or three US dollars from selling my works, I could go and eat.”
Kwok describes those days as moments of solitude “and I enjoyed them”.
He says impressive creations are made during times of suffering but not always.
“My current style of calligraphy is the result of years of training in New York,” he says.
“My work might be worth HK$500,000 apiece, which is small compared with what other contemporary artists make — several million dollars.”
That doesn’t bother him.
Too much money makes people fear for their own safety, he says, recalling some Beijing artists he met years ago who were terrified of being kidnapped.
But having experienced poverty, Kwok says he tends to be generous.
Once, he tore an HK$80,000 painting into several pieces and gave them to a group of teachers and scholars who were visiting the Cattle Depot Artist Village where his works were displayed.
He meant the torn canvas to be a little souvenir.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 26.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
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