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Interview: Joan Cornellà on his new Hong Kong-themed exhibition

“I trust Hongkongers. I would like them to think and reflect on the bad in their society and not just take selfies with my paintings.”

A face emerging from a person’s rear end. A gun on the end of a selfie stick pointing at the photographer. A man smiling as death and destruction takes place in the background. These are just typical images in the comics and illustrations of Joan Cornellà. The Barcelona-based cartoonist shot to fame when he began posting his works on Facebook in 2013, subsequently garnering four and a half million followers worldwide for his dark yet hilarious illustrations dealing with subjects like sex and violence.

After a hugely successful debut in Hong Kong last year where there were hour-long queues to get into his self-titled show, Cornellà has created 38 new works based on his experiences in our SAR. Expect to see a darker side of our culture and society at his exhibition, especially relating to issues like cage homes and the selfie culture. We chat with the Spanish artist about the freedom comics provide and why Hongkongers absolutely must come to the show...

Did you always want to be an artist growing up? 
When I was a child, I was the kid everyone asked for drawings. I didnt have the chance to think to myself, “I don't want to be an artist, I want to be something else, like have a career in medicine.” Which was fine. If you have some talent, if you are good at something, thats the way to go. If youre good at something you should grab hold of it. 

Who would you say are your influences and inspirations? 
Its difficult, there’re always a lot of things that inspire my work. I would say comedy sketches. Comedians like George Carlin and Louis CK. Monty Python is a big inspiration; their movies and sketches, basically all of their material. I would add Kafka as well. 

You have a background in fine arts. What made you turn towards comics and illustrations?
I was fed up when I finished my studies in fine arts. I was trying to do something else, something less pretentious. At that time, I thought cartoons would be the best way to express myself and comics were not considered high art. It was a way of telling myself that I could try something new.

Are you worried that because of the superficial nature of social media, your work could potentially lose its deeper meanings? 
No. The readers and the public are the ones who do the work. I like my work to be open to interpretation. Thats one of the good things about my work, I think. 

How would you define your relationship with social media? 
For me, Im here in Hong Kong because of social media. But I hate some aspects of social media and the internet. For instance, Facebook can censor you. It can decide what can you post. For a lot of people, its a way to express themselves every day. Someone controlling the way you can express yourself, its like clipping your wings. For me personally, I can post something related to sex but it cannot be too explicit. I can easily show dicks in my pictures. I can do that. But toilet humour is not my favourite humour, Im more interested in things related to violence or death.

Are your comics a reflection on society or a way to express your darker side?
For me, its the way I see society. But I don't want to sound like I have a political agenda. I have interpretations of what politics should be and my work is a vague reaction to politics and society. I dont want to be direct and I dont want to explain. Thats why I think my cartoons work. Theres no discussion about ‘is he talking about this or that?’. 

Your work and topics can be quite dark. Is there a line you won’t cross? 
I think we all have limits. I like to be different but Im not. Like I said about social media, my process is about showing and expressing freely. And sometimes, maybe with violence, Ive considered that maybe Ive gone too far. But, at the end of the day, its just humour. Especially since its fiction. I dont work with real people and real things. If I made a joke about a real person, I’m not sure it would be the same. For me, its about fiction. As its a cartoon, its easier. Youre less limited. 

Whats your response to the criticisms about the taboos and violence in your work? 
Theres less of that since my work has become something mainstream. But in the beginning, there were a lot of people complaining and messaging me on Facebook saying ‘you're shit! I hate you. Now, my characters are more recognisable but thats not good. Its not good in the sense that when its not offensive to anyone, it means people have become too desensitised. 

So you're still going for the shock value? 
I think so. I dont want to be actively aiming to shock but I think I need that for my work to grab people’s attention.

Did it take you long to develop your signature style?
It wasnt immediate. Before I started doing comics four years ago, I was working on comics totally different. I used different faces and all that. But I became interested in these cartoons in old advertisements from the United States. They used certain graphic cartoons with a blank expression and I incorporated that into my comics where the eyes are like a void. They have no soul. For me, because the characters in the advertisements are so fake, they represent consumerism in the United Sates and the rest of the world. They are blank expressions. I saw some kind of psychopath in them. 

Your new exhibition is based on your experiences here in Hong Kong. What aspect stood out for you?
Im sorry, but I have say bad things about the city. I mean, people still living in cages is shocking to me. That was the biggest thing for me and I thought it would be relatable in my work. If you come to the exhibition, youll see some things related to that. 

How do you think Hongkongers will react to your new work? 
I trust Hongkongers and Id like them to think and reflect on the bad in their society, and not just take selfies with my paintings, which I think will happen anyway. But I think its much better if the audience can get something more out of it. I want my work to speak for itself. Im not trying to demonise anyone, but I like to look at deeper things. And darker things. 

Any plans during your time in the city? 
After all the work is complete, I need a party. I definitely need some beer. Perhaps some Hong Kong beer?

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