The Iconography of Globalism

Will Kwan

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Will Kwan's research-based practice interrogates the convergence of material culture and globalization. For Displacement (with Chinese Characteristics), the artist reenacts Robert Smithson's earthwork Spiral Jetty in Shanghai where Smithson's archetypal spiral is recast as an ancient Chinese symbol that also happens to be the Bank of China's logo. The series Endless Prosperity, Eternal Accumulation features eighty hongbao, Chinese red envelopes used for giving money, all of which have been stamped with bank logos, an example of the finance industry's infiltration of local traditions. The artist is particularly interested in how materials become charged with meaning and carry powerful cultural, economic, or political weight. In Flame Test, what appear to be national flags are actually carefully cropped press images of their defacement during flag-burning protests.

On the heels of his participation in the 2014 Folkestone Triennial, Will Kwan discussed his work, the impact of global practices on culture, and displacement as both artistic strategy and social reality.

—Eva Heisler
Visual Editor

Let's start by talking about your newest work, Apparatus #9 (The China Watchers: Oxford University, MI6, HSBC). This work, produced for the 2014 Folkestone Triennial, is a large three-panel screen erected beneath the timber roof lattice of what was once a sitting area with stunning views of the English Channel. The piece, with its ornate design, is a subtle reference to chinoiserie in English material culture.

This work began as a plan for a set of large sculptures inspired by wooden lattice screens that are a common vernacular element in traditional Chinese architecture, meant as a porous threshold that frames a view while also functioning as a wall. Today this type of latticework is found mostly in commercial and corporate settings produced with contemporary building materials, and used when a sign of "Chinese-ness" is required.

My original project was to build the lattice using traditional joinery techniques that do not require hardware or adhesives so that the sculptures essentially hold themselves together with tension and force. Instead of geometric patterns, my screens are depictions of organizational charts of large state-run entities in China such as the Bank of China, COSCO, the Poly Group, the People's Liberation Army, and the Communist Party of China. The work is a comment on how regimes invoke tradition as a source of legitimacy while adapting to changing social and political circumstances to maintain control.

I was asked by the curator of the Folkestone Triennial to develop a version in Folkestone, Kent, for an outdoor site that overlooks the English Channel. In this unexpected context, the work had to refer in some way to Britain's relationship to China. Given Folkestone's history as a seaside resort, I decided to make an oblique connection to the design history of chinoiserie, where there is a tradition of building outdoor structures for gardens and other leisure spaces using decorative motifs that are interpretations of Chinese ornamentation. The lattice designs for the Folkestone set are based on the organizational structures of three influential British institutions with an "interest" in China: the University of Oxford, HSBC Holdings PLC, and MI6. Installed on an arbor that overlooks the Channel, the work has viewers look through the screens at the horizon and the container ships that continue to haul goods between China and Europe.

Endless Prosperity, Eternal Accumulation (2009) is a series of photographs of your own collection of hongbao, Chinese red envelopes used for giving money. Can you talk about this work, and about your process of collecting these envelopes?

Endless Prosperity, Eternal Accumulation is an installation of photographs of envelopes used in the Chinese custom of giving gifts of money as a symbolic circulation of wealth. The practice has been usurped by multi-national banks as a marketing tool specifically targeting their Chinese clientele. Many banks today print their own hongbao and emblazon them with their logos mixed in with an assortment of Chinese iconography and script, references to Chinoiserie and Chinese art, and colonial-era symbolism. The work highlights the profound incursions that corporate forces have made into cultural life.

The process of collecting the hongbao involved contacting family members across the world and asking them to send me hongbao from the banks in their region. This process underscores another element of the piece—the complicity between global finance and the Chinese diaspora. The work traces a network of Chinese settlements and markets across the world and their participation in the circulation of capital.

Flame Test (2010) is a series of flags that have been silkscreened with images of flags in the process of being burned in protests. The images, from press archives, have been tightly cropped so it is not immediately apparent that the flag sports an image of its own defacement. I find this a really moving work because it suggests that contesting the nation-state (including flag-burning) is integral to the nation's public face. Can you talk about how you got the idea for this work, and where, and how, it's been installed?

The idea for this work arose when I was living in the Netherlands and seeing front page photos in newspapers in 2006 of the burning of Danish flags after the publication of the cartoons of Muhammed by the Jyllands-Posten. The photogenic image of flag-burning seemed to me to be a default sign, a performance of defacement meant to provoke, but successful today only in illustrating dissent. I decided to research the history of this type of imagery and began searching press archives. I found thousands of images involving the burning of flags covering nations from every continent and region in the world.

The work has been installed in Toronto, Turin, Liverpool, and Hong Kong, in both gallery settings and in public spaces. The flags are always shown in a series, with no fewer than five flags, in horizontal rows to evoke the banks of flags often found outside large institutions or corporate headquarters.

Research is central to your practice. How do you see the relationship between your research and your visualization of knowledge (or visual construction of an argument)? I'm thinking here of the three-channel video installation Canaries (the bank and the treasury) (2007-2012). The work has been described as a "visual essay on global finance." Can you talk about how you arrived at the complex organization of this work?

Canaries (the bank and the treasury) is a multi-media work involving video, photographs, and printed matter, documenting a research project that proposes a speculative link between the iconography and concepts used in Taoist funerary customs and the banking industry in Hong Kong. The work examines how both belief systems make use of ideas such as debt, transaction, and currency.

The work centres on the headquarters of HSBC (formerly the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank), which was founded in the early years of the colonization of Hong Kong. I shot footage of the surrounding city from the top floor of the bank building, essentially using the skyscraper as a tripod. This imagery was interwoven into a three-channel video installation of vertically stacked projections that contained images from the bank's archives, scenes of everyday life in Hong Kong, and documentation of the production of a Taoist funerary effigy of the HSBC bank tower and its eventual burning. The projections are stacked in a vertical configuration to reference the compositional structure of traditional Chinese painting, particularly work that depicts vertical subject matter such as mountains. This compositional technique incorporates simultaneous perspectives and timeframes, allowing me to interweave the diverse sources of material in the video projections.

You have several projects that reference canonical works or styles in North American art but do so in non-Western contexts. For example Displacement (with Chinese Characteristics) (2006), was an earthwork you constructed in Shanghai. A clear allusion to Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, your earthwork reproduced, like Smithson's, an ancient form (in this case an ancient Chinese round coin with a square hole in the middle), but this ancient form is also the logo of the Bank of China. Can you talk about the execution of the work, your employment of local workers, and the local reception of this work?

The work was executed with incredible support from the staff and workers at the [Shanghai] Duolun Museum of Modern Art that was hosting me as an artist-in-residence. The piece was built with help from a group of Shanghai art students. It was important for me to work with a group of people living in the city, but not migrant workers, whom I would have difficulty relating to but also who are already overexploited by the Chinese labour market and even by artists.

The local reception of the work was limited. It was only promoted within the small local art scene. The piece was also meant as an intervention (we did not get permission to install the work), so after it was built and documented, it was left simply to exist and be encountered by passersby.

The reception in the international art world after the fact was more extensive since the work is meant to be iconic. The project was exhibited in Toronto, New York, and Seoul as photographs and as video documentation edited to parody Robert Smithson's film for the Spiral Jetty.

I am particularly interested in your allusion to Robert Smithson. A writer referred to this work as a parody of Smithson but your engagement with Smithson, however critical, is much more complex, isn't it?

The reference to Land Art in Displacement (with Chinese Characteristics) was a way for me to come to terms with how to make a work for the scale of Shanghai. I was interested in the massive demolished districts throughout the city: vast rubble landscapes that were simply overwhelming.

How important is Smithson's practice—as a dialectic between site and non-site, the visible and the non-visible, the material and the textual—to your overall practice as an artist?

Not very important. It made sense conceptually for Displacement (with Chinese Characteristics) because it was about a kind of displacement of material, but more importantly, I was interested in displacement as a social reality. I'm not so interested in Smithson's rather theoretical exercises with material in relation to the gallery. I am concerned with displacement as it affects people, and as a consequence of power relations.

This brings me to the question of globalization in general, and in art. Elsewhere, you have said you are interested in "the basic iconography of globalism." Can you say more about how your work explores the "iconography of globalism"?

I'm interested in how cultural prestige and political authority are produced, regulated, and challenged through the use of visual culture, rhetorical techniques, and social protocols. The iconography of globalism, which I interpret as signs and practices used by corporate culture and hegemonic forces, depicts the world as fluid, seamless, synchronized, neutral, and universal. This iconography is diverse: from representations of time, to corporate identity, neoliberal architectonics, and symbols used to enforce ideas about law and order, high culture, and global development. One need only spend a little bit of time exploring the corporate content generated by institutions such as the World Economic Forum or companies like Goldman Sachs and Barclays to be able to understand the complex visual culture of globalism.

As an artist, you interrogate globalization in terms of economics and material culture. What are your thoughts on art and globalization? For example, your work Untitled (Art | UN) (2011), addresses the rhetorical packaging of art fairs.

Untitled (Art | UN) was an attempt to speak about the role that art fairs and the art market now play in shaping the discourse of art on an international scale. I recognize that major museums, art spaces, and art biennials—institutions that I rely on to sustain my practice—are linked to art fairs and commercial galleries through curators, collectors, corporate sponsors, and governments. However, I believe that the mandate and the audiences of the former can be quite distinct from the latter, that the two are interconnected but not necessarily symbiotic. I feel that the public culture that museums, art spaces, and biennials should foster can exist without the contemporary art fair. I think the promise and potential of art depends on it.