Lee Kit interview – Commodity Synesthesia

by Daniel Szehin Ho 何思衍 and Rebecca Catching 林白丽

Rarely do we see an artist whose career is so defined by enigma. Winner of the 2012 ARTHK Art Futures award, Lee Kit produces work which speaks in such hushed tones that viewers often walk right past it. Rather than shouting, “Look at me!” it is happy to sit back and watch the crowd go by, and the artist himself is notoriously absent at openings. (If present, he’s most often found lurking in a corner, sucking on a cigarette.) His “interiors” are composed of curtains and tablecloths, hand-dyed and lived-in, used by Lee Kit in his studio; his walls are adorned with cardboard paintings featuring faded logos of FMCG brands (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) such as Nivea and Joy. One such installation, at last year’s SH Contemporary art fair, had such a stealthy presence that some viewers thought they had stumbled upon an oddly placed public bathroom — its pastel hues matching nicely with the Shanghai Exhibition Center’s Sino-Soviet chic. And while his work places itself staunchly in the everyday and the personal, Lee Kit is passionately political in his views. randian sat down to chat with him over a pint of IPA after the opening of his show at Like-Dellarco (“Yu Di: Lui Chun Kwong & Lee Kit”; Jun 29–Aug 31, 2012) to talk about his work, life, and identity.

Portrait of Lee Kit.

Lee Kit currently has a show at the Minsheng Art Museum, “Every Breath You Take” (See Ran Dian’s review of the show by Wang Kaimei).

Daniel Szehin Ho: So you did this show with your teacher Lui Chun Kwong. How did he inspire you?

Lee Kit: I wouldn’t say inspire, but I was influenced a little bit by him — because I still think I am a painter, even though no one calls me a painter. He is a painter, obviously. Being a painter is more about daily practice. It’s like not only working in front of the painting but in every detail of daily life. In this perspective, in this sense, I am kind of influenced by him. My practice can’t be read as some kind of political statement but more like an individual. I can’t change the world or change the society, but I can manage my life…. I can change my life.

My personality is such that I don’t like statements. I don’t like any propaganda. I go on the street but I don’t want to call myself an artist. I just want to call myself a citizen, to go to a demonstration.

DSH: If you are in Europe or North America and someone asks you, “Oh, so where are you from?” What do you say? Would you say you’re Chinese?

LK: If I need to — talk about my nationality — definitely it is Hong Kong. I won’t write down China. It is strange. I am Chinese, of course; I don’t hate China. But I hate the recent China that is invented by the recent government. I would say they invented recent China.

I mean it is impossible to imagine. China is a strange invention now. In contemporary China, without the government it would be totally chaotic. Even worse than 50 years ago. First, it’s too large. If suddenly China opened up, it would be like a really huge zoo suddenly opening all its doors with all the animals running out. People usually imagine, “Okay, this zoo could open the doors and people can go in to change it,” but actually the animals in the zoo are not tame — they are all still wild animals.

RC: When you were living with your work, during the whole period, did that change the way you saw your work? Were you always thinking about it or did it just become part of the furniture, something that you didn’t think about?

LK: From the beginning it became my home. I realized that actually [the objects in my home] create an environment for me to live in. When I am in my studio, I’m not always working. Sometimes I sit there looking at the sunshine. And then I realize, “Oh okay, my tablecloth is quite beautiful.” Not the object itself, because it’s not only one tablecloth. Everything seems like my work, even the glass on my table. I always want to put that particular glass in that position. Yeah, no one’s going to move it. If you move it, I will put it back. I just want that glass in that position on that table.

RC: You’re just very particular about how it looks…

LK: I’m a control freak. In this way I create an environment or atmosphere for myself. It is parallel to my recent practice. I set up an atmosphere, more than show a painting or a setting.

DSH: And what’s this cream business?

LK: Cream. Another strange thing, I’ve liked Nivea, the hand cream, for a very, very long time. What is strange is I have a lot of associations with these kinds of products. It’s not only something which happened in the past few years; it happened when I was young, like if I missed this guy in my mind. Like for instance when you miss Daniel, his name will repeat in your mind, right? Daniel, Daniel, Daniel. But if I miss Daniel, his image is in my mind but the name that appears is Nivea or Johnson’s. I associate it — for example, if I miss Mary, the name in my mind is not Mary, it’s Nivea, but actually, this Mary, she is not my ex-girlfriend, she is not any important female to me, just maybe somebody who passed by. And I give her the name Nivea. And I keep thinking about this girl.

RC: And then you see a person walking and you attach that person to the nostalgia feeling or the missing feeling.

LK: Actually, the missing feeling.

RC: More of a missing feeling. And then you give a name to it like a brand.

LK: I associate that.

RC: Is there any rhyme or reason to why you use these beauty care products?

LK: I think it’s because when I am naked in the bathroom, I see mostly these kinds of products. And also I enjoy washing my hair, the smell, not thinking about things, just enjoying the thoughts in my mind and then when you open your eyes, all you see is the shampoo or the hand cream.

RC: That’s an interesting kind of process. From missing something that’s very familiar to attaching it to something that’s unfamiliar and then going back to something that’s familiar.

DSH: What other products do you have that obsession with? Is it usually products? Is it a feeling? Is it an experience?

LK: Maybe feeling. Because there is something I don’t understand, so I start to think about it. Missing. Why do you miss somebody? Missing. It’s something that you really don’t know how to describe, and you can’t avoid it, can’t stop it. Of course, I don’t want to take it too poetically, because it is already very poetic or very romantic. So the best way is if I present it not as a concept.

(transcribed by Natalie Kaplan) 

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