Feng shui, literally translated as "wind and water," is a philosophical system that dates back thousands of years. It is a means of harmonizing the energies in our environments, which are influenced by cardinal directions, the five traditional Chinese elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water), and even geographical or architectural features. Feng shui masters make recommendations on anything from the arrangement of objects in a home, to the orientation of an entire building based on its site. The tradition thus shares some fundamental similarities with contemporary (Western) curatorial practices, as revealed in The Ceiling Should Be Green. Both feng shui and curating are malleable belief systems involving the mapping of objects within certain spatial constraints, in the service of overarching historical or philosophical narratives.
Months after seeing The Ceiling Should Be Green, I visited the exhibition Bringing the World into the World at the Queens Museum, also in New York. There, I saw the work of an artist named Wong Kit Yi who likewise received a feng shui consultation from Mr. Ye in the process of creating her installations. The artist's six installations expanded upon the color symbolism, imagery, and linguistic peculiarities within the feng shui tradition. One intervention, The Green Sponge Rocks, emerged out of Mr. Ye's reading of the space as having too much of the water element. Rather than following his recommendation of placing plants in the area, the artist created Chinese scholar rocks out of green sponges, which could more efficiently absorb the metaphorical water in the space.
The truth is, Ali Wong and Wong Kit Yi not only share similar methodologies, but they also share the same body. In a recent artist talk at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), Ali stated: "What seems important to me in my curating and in the very idea of logical organization is that every system has its own limits. Every system breaks. There is always something in art that escapes the rational order." For the dual yet interwoven personas of Ali Wong, the curator, and Wong Kit Yi, the artist, the concept of one identity within one body is simply another system to be broken.
Kit Yi and Ali, could you introduce each other?
Ali Wong: Kit Yi is a New York-based artist born in Hong Kong. She graduated from the M.F.A. program at Yale University and moved to New York in 2012. That self-displacement was typical of her, because she is very independent and willful. And, to me, she is quite exasperating much of the time, with her intuitive, non-rational approach to everything.
Wong Kit Yi: Oh thanks, that's very "nice" of you. Ali is an independent curator based in New York. She is currently an archivist at the Asia Art Archive in America. She has a B.A. in fine arts from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She's very organized and strategic—but not nearly as creative as I am.
Ali and I work together a lot. We have different jobs; we take care of different tasks as we have different strong points. But we always help each other. We also share lots of things. We share one website, one Facebook account, one physical body, etc., etc.
Both of our names were assigned. "Ali" is a product of colonialism. Most of our English teachers were from the UK, and they had a hard time remembering Chinese names. One of them picked "Ali" from a dictionary. Even our parents call her Ali now.
You have used the system of feng shui to develop both artworks and curatorial techniques. What is your relationship to feng shui and how did you both come to use it in your practices? Does Kit Yi's relationship to feng shui differ from Ali's relationship?
AW: The name "Kit Yi" was chosen by our parents from a list of potential lucky names recommended by a feng shui master in Hong Kong. Kit Yi's relationship to feng shui is sort of assigned by fate.
WKY: One of our parents' businesses is developing small-scale real estate in Hong Kong, where the basic unit of thought is dollars per square foot. Our parents always consult a feng shui master before they put their building or rehabilitation plans into action. As an artist, I am interested in space, and alternative ways of understanding/organizing it. I don't think it's very important for me to identify my relationship to feng shui, or to decide whether I believe or disbelieve in it. I'm more interested in having a relationship to "undefinable" things. I'm drawn to the topic of feng shui because I still don't quite understand the system behind it. I'm curious about the connection—if there is any—between physical reality and the advice given by feng shui masters, and about the way those masters see an alternative world.
AW: I don't have a personal relationship to feng shui. I think feng shui is a culturally specific belief, somewhere between superstition and religion. It's something more than a petty ritual, but less structured than a firm system, and something realistic and effective in terms of space, but at the same time mystical.
For me, as curator, the exhibition The Ceiling Should Be Green was not an attempt to counter accepted Western curatorial practices. I was more interested in using a different way to select artists and organize their work at this particular exhibition space (P! in New York City). My co-curator Prem Krishnamurthy and I started this project by each coming up with a list of ten artists whose work we purely, or intuitively, like even though we are not entirely sure why. We then secretly researched the birth date of each artist for Mr. Ye's feng shui consulting service. I was interested in exploring what would happen if I gave part of the curatorial decision power to someone else—someone who would use none of the standard art-professional criteria and methods. I saw this as a way not to displace one curatorial approach with another but to add to the collective pool of possibilities.
In the exhibition The Ceiling Should Be Green, Ali brought in the feng shui master Mr. Ye to help select artists as well as suggest artwork placement and alterations to the gallery space. Kit Yi's video of this process, Kit Yi vs. P! vs. Qi, was included in the exhibition as well. In your projects, where does Ali end and Kit Yi begin?
WKY: There is no beginning or end. I'm two people.
I find it interesting that Mr. Ye finds it necessary to emphasize that he doesn't know art and that he isn't an artist, because I think that to some extent, the feng shui master and the curator are both fulfilling the role of organizing objects in space. Could Ali elaborate on the juxtaposition of the traditions of feng shui with contemporary exhibition practices?
AW: Contemporary art curating, especially in United States, is ordinarily based on a set of value criteria—whether stated or unstated, conscious or unconscious. A work might be "good" if it is formally inventive, or perfectly fits the show's theme, or introduces important issues, or whatever. For example, a curator might decide to make intellectual interest (or formal beauty, historical significance, or social relevance) the primary consideration, with the gender and ethnicity mix of the show a secondary factor. Or vice-versa. These criteria, in turn, are themselves determined by a specific belief system—one that may be constant in the curator's practice, or simply utilized for a specific show. I wanted to know what would happen if I changed the criteria of selecting the artist list purely on the basis of birth dates.
Personally, I just think innovation is better than convention. The feng shui master uses the Nine Halls Diagram, which is from the ancient Chinese mathematical and divinatory traditions, to allocate the space for the work. What results does that produce in a room full of contemporary art objects? What does the process do to our familiar mental categories, to our perceptions and evaluations of art?
I have always understood feng shui as a very fixed practice with defined patterns and symbols. But in your projects, you've really opened up the possibilities of interpretation. For one of the works that Kit Yi presented at the Queens Museum in the recent exhibition Bringing the World into the World, Mr. Ye had told you to place rooster sculptures at the entrance. But because of certain limitations imposed by the museum, this evolved into rooster vinyl stickers on the revolving door. Kit Yi, could you expand on the process of accepting, rejecting, and manipulating Mr. Ye's advice as you develop your artworks?
WKY: The rooster piece is one of my six final pieces of sculptural and architectural interventions at the Queens Museum. In a sense, the works were not made by me alone but by an interaction between me and the limitations imposed by the space, the curatorial agenda, and the placement demands of more famous artists. Most of the other participants were chosen two years ago. But I was added only last February, four months before the opening. In a way, I was breaking into a preexisting system. So I had to adapt my work to the space that was left over.
Each of my six interventions was the result of a long, often uneasy, negotiation with the museum. For example, Mr. Ye highly recommended two roosters to be placed at the museum entrance so as to restrain the evil spirit from the nearby highway. The job of the roosters was to "eat the cars as if they were fleas."
I originally wanted to place two huge balloon roosters on the exterior of the museum. But that, and several other ideas, got rejected, due to the difficulty in maintenance. Finally, I was allowed to adhere two rooster silhouettes to the revolving doors. My very economical solution required just four pieces of vinyl to create two colorful birds. It's fun to negotiate with symbolic figures; they're not just made to be appreciated as objects, but to fulfill the feng shui functions.
I think the most reciprocally manipulative case was when Mr. Ye entered one of the museum galleries and detected too much "wood" element. He said that no woman should be allowed to show in this "gossipy space." I immediately turned to the curator, Hitomi Iwasaki, and said, "I definitely want to use this space!"
I created The Red Gossip Collection, a set of video interviews with male professionals in the visual arts and museum fields who I asked to gossip about the idea of gossip—specifically, gossip in the art world. Questions included: "What is the most common subject of gossip?"; "Does gossip ever boost one's career?"; and "Have you ever heard gossip about yourself?"
I pixelated the backgrounds, so that the speakers became "talking heads." Pixelation also enables images to be transmitted more quickly and easily, like gossip spreading. The sound is low, so the visitors must lean in close, as they would to someone gossiping in their ear. The furniture holding the video monitors was painted red to symbolize fire, which can burn off the wood elements and thereby harmonize the space.
My sense of both Ali and Kit Yi's practices is that they destabilize not only tradition but our impression of tradition. Feng shui shifts from this pedagogical and objective practice with a passive recipient, to this very intuitive, subjective, dynamic process. Both Ali and Kit Yi claim individual agency in the interpretation of Mr. Ye's advice. What are both of your thoughts on this?
WKY: The presence of two roosters matters; the exact form and material of the symbols don't.
AW: As in all mental games, you need rules to make it interesting. And I think the "rules" given by Mr. Ye really pushed my creativity in interpretation. Physical games can be similar. To quote from Kit Yi's artist statement: "my objective in ping-pong is not to win but to keep the ball moving in interesting patterns." In The Ceiling Should Be Green, I enjoyed passing power back and forth between myself, Prem, and Mr. Ye.
The liberties that are being taken with feng shui make me wonder if either of you personally believe in this tradition, even if that is not the focus of your work.
WKY: Literal belief is one thing, but curiosity is another. I'm often most attracted to the things I'm not sure of.
AW: You see what I have to deal with every day.
Finally, can you talk about what you are currently working on, or have planned for the future?
WKY: Since Ali is so much better organized than I am, and since she is acting as the agent for this undertaking, I'll let her explain.
AW: The plan is for Kit Yi to join a shipboard residency with artists and scientists, scheduled to take place in October 2015. The Arctic expedition will take her within ten degrees of the North Pole. I am currently offering patrons a chance to acquire the resulting works in advance. They can specify a word, a date, and a color. The three elements will be combined onsite, yielding individualized works to be presented to patrons by Kit Yi upon her return. If she dies at the North Pole, they're out of luck.