Kurt Tong (b. 1977) can be recognised for his tenacious commitment to learn about his Chinese roots through the medium of photography. Multi-disciplinary in nature, Tong’s previous work has investigated sculpting, Chinese inks and monographs alongside his photography, earning solo exhibitions at Arles (France), Jen Bekman Gallery (USA) and Compton Verney (UK). His work was thoroughly admired by an audience of over 30,000 people when it exhibited with UP Gallery (Hsinchu City) at PHOTOFAIRS 2019. We had the exciting opportunity of collaborating with Tong onsite in September for an exclusive #ArtistTakeover. After publishing the video interview live to our social media feed, we deemed it important that we share the exciting content with our wider audience...
PF: Please explain your exhibiting series to us. What were you trying to convey to your audience?
KT: Hi! This work is titled ‘Sweet Water Bitter Earth’. The aim was to see if I could reconnect with China as a country. In previous projects I have connected with my ancestors, making me realise that I never properly experienced China. I was born in Hong Kong and I grew up abroad, therefore, I wanted to explore what China meant to me. So, I went back to my ancestors home town, and I could sadly make no connections!
The paternal side of my family worked out at sea, they were fishermen or deckhand, in order to connect with them I ended up throwing all the negatives that I took in their hometown into the sea, that is why they’re damaged that way! My maternal grandfather was a landlord, so the other image is damaged from me walking around all the old house he used to live in. From these two types of images I wanted to further explore China, to see what relationship I had to it. I bought an 80s camera. When looking for how I imagined China, this all came from 80s TV documentaries. Armed with this new camera I travelled all over to find scenes that resonated with me. The resulting images are almost an over-romanticised vision of China.
KT: When I took this 80s camera to different parts of China, it was the first time I'd visited the non-tourist areas in the North-East and North-West. The landscape was so amazing, it almost felt emotional to look at, which generated that feeling that I was connected to China. I thought, “this is my motherland”...
However, the minute I came across people on the trip, as my Mandarin is elementary, I got that shock of disconnection again as I could not communicate with them. I realised I didn’t belong there. You can see the images in the series start off with vast landscapes with tiny people in, but as I got closer and closer and saw people upfront, I captured the moments where people looked disengaged, no one was looking at one another, no one was looking at me. This reflected that feeling I got when I couldn’t connect to the people because of language.
PF: Please highlight one specific image from the series to expand on…
KT: If I had to select one image, it would be this scene (points at above image from series) which was taken in Luzhou. I was walking around with my camera, I saw the bridge first which I found incredible. As I approached to try to make the image, I noticed this man sitting underneath the structure by himself. It demonstrated how I was feeling - a vast country with so many people around, with dominating landscape and architecture, and I am just a minute isolated figure in the middle of it all.
PF: What changes have you noticed in contemporary photography today?
KT: I find a lot of photography can be quite restrictive, as it’s an old invention, so I think a lot of artists are now looking for a way to expand that language. Since I started doing projects about my family, from the first one until now, I started incorporating a lot of mediums that are outside of photography. Even with this series, you can see there are performance elements to it, such as the negatives being exposed to water or being walked on in the various environments. If you look at my other work, I enjoy incorporating participatory elements, where I invite people to drink tea within the exhibition space. I do a lot of sculpture, and some of my recent projects have included Chinese ink work. I want to tell certain stories, and I’m not afraid to use mediums beyond photography. You notice in contemporary art, as you see in art fairs and art exhibitions, that a lot of photographers are expanding the language and medium now.
PF: What advice would you give young, aspiring photographs?
KT: What really worked for me when I was younger, was that I began as a photojournalist. I really didn’t know what I was doing or what excited me. At some point I realised, I was always looking for something that didn’t exist. I think my own career and own artistic language really developed when I started looking at myself. My daughter was born and I realised I didn’t really know about being Chinese that I could teach her, so I found my artistic voice through this exploration. I started really concentrating on those things that are personal to me, which caused me to make better work. I knew what I was looking for, it was just a matter of finding it.