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Interview: Doris Wong Wai-yin on conquering fears and finding inspiration post-motherhood

"For me, it's about not letting motherhood stop me from making choices"

With a childlike aura and a constant smile on her face, Doris Wong Wai-yin is the opposite of a tortured artist. Known for utilising humour throughout her work, whether dark or political satire, and as a person who doesn’t take herself too seriously, Wong has shifted her outlook and now looks at life anew thanks to motherhood. After taking a five-year hiatus to focus on her family, Wong is back on the art circuit with a brand new solo exhibition at Spring Workshop titled Without Trying.

“The new show is about the changes in my life over the past few years. Whether it’s to do with identity or work, these issues are symbiotic with my creativity,”
says Wong. The exhibition, curated by longtime friend and director of Spring Workshop, Christina Li, is largely inspired by the transformation Wong experienced as a mother. The show also explores the identity crisis that many women around the world struggle with: juggling the role of wife, mother and working woman. Through a mix of installation, paintings and video art, Wong uses her refocused curiosity towards the world to let go of the emotional and psychological burdens of the past and to move forward and embrace all her identities without any fear or hestitation.  

One of the more well-established artists in the city, Wong’s journey to becoming an artist wasn’t exactly deliberate. “When I was young, I was never the kid who was good at art,” she reveals. “I didn’t enjoy studying and really rejected the idea of doing more exams in university. That’s why I decided to study art instead. It sounds a bit silly now when I’m saying it out loud.” Wong’s work caught the eyes of established institutions early on during her university years, including the likes of 1A Space and the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. She went on to acquire a master’s degree before making art her profession. “I wasn’t sure about a career before,” Wong remarks, “but I became more and more interested and passionate about art during university. Back then, I was very fortunate to be asked to be part of different exhibitions and it became very natural to follow the path to becoming an artist.”

A multidisciplinary artist who favours painting, photography and videos, Wong does not believe it is always better to focus on a single medium. She tells us: “My work stems from any emotions I feel strongly, the experiences I’ve had and reading particular sentences in books that really resonate with me. Then I transfer those feelings into different mediums.” Never shy about tackling the unknown, Wong learned photography and video techniques from scratch in order to find the perfect tool to tell her story. “I never think too hard on it, on which method to use,” she says. “It’s about using the best medium to express my message.”

Wong has created many politically inclined artworks and installations in the past, including live performance art involving unknowing participants – one of whom turned out to be Legco member Leung Kwok-hung – passing around a gold coin to question people’s value system. But with parental responsibility has come a new perspective and motherhood has prompted Wong to think about her own identity and personal struggles. The various artworks and installations on display are focused on how Wong deals with those obstacles.  

One of her most ambitious and cathartic installations at the exhibition are a trio of wooden pyramids titled Wish You Were Eternal. Sealed within the pyramids are cut-up pieces of every single one of Wong’s previous artworks to show her process of moving forward into a new chapter of life. “Cutting them up was a little heartbreaking. It’s saying goodbye to my work forever.” Wong jokingly adds: “In some way it feels like a waste. there were some good pieces there that I’m really proud of.” A monumental and irreversible move, placing scraps of her old artwork inside these pyramids is a symbol of immortality. “Even though my old artworks are in pieces now,” she says, “my experience with them lives on. Hopefully it shows that this exhibition is important to me and very close to my heart.”

Another striking – pun fully intended – installation is a lightning bolt hung above the pyramids, inspired by a book passage on fear.  “It’s about not letting fear get in the way of decision,” says Wong. “It’s about not letting fear paralyse you into staying in the same place or thinking of all the different consequences which end up with you not making a choice. For me, it’s about not letting motherhood stop me from making other choices and to be more than a just a mother.”

The video art in the exhibition has to do with the idea of recalibrating her new identity and tackling her problems, which includes stomping on foods and standing in 22cm thick platform shoes just to be taller than her husband (fellow Hong Kong multi-disciplinary artist Kwan Sheung-chi). The audience should also pay close attention to the titles of her work. Many of them act like mantras and contribute to the general theme of reincarnation and overcoming fear. 

Held at Spring Workshop, one of the many emerging art lofts in Wong Chuk Hang, the exhibition is designed akin to a journey with Wong herself. At the beginning, viewers are welcomed by an open space of installations displayed together to create landscape scenery. The shift into expanded installations demonstrates Wong’s move away from small paintings. Then, as the artworks move into a corridor with videos and paintings on the walls, the spacing allows the audience to feel closer and more intimate with the artist. 

Stepping back into work and presenting a solo exhibition after a long period away can be daunting for some artist but Wong puts everything in perspective and says that putting on a show is a lot more relaxing than raising a child. “I don't really get nervous about things any more, except when it concerns my son,” she says. “That being said, I’d forgotten how difficult it is to do a solo exhibition.” But does her style differ now? She continues: “I wouldn’t say my style has changed. It’s more my motivation for creating art that’s changed. There were also more negative and darker thoughts when I was younger. Now, I like to focus more on expressing myself.”

With a special publication featuring Wong’s creative process and personal reflections on the works (expected to be published in late September), Wong hopes her new artwork can show how it’s possible to find methods that help with coping in a positive way. She confides: “I’ve learned new things to prepare for this exhibition, things I used to be scared about. The exhibition shows how I dealt with those. I hope the audience can learn about looking within yourself, knowing your fears and gathering the courage to face them.”

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