Materiality, memorabilia and mass production: encounters with Frog King at Papay Gyro Nights

Our first encounter with Frog King was at the start of Papay Gyro Nights 2013 festival. It was the opening of the festival, a cold winter night’s procession on the dark moonlit northern island of Papa Westray. It was also his opening night, and the Frog King was in charge of leading the flame-lit convoy. He introduced himself by throwing open his suitcases, carried all the way from Hong Kong, and encouraging everyone to dress up Froggy Style using the contents of his luggage. Contained within the cases was a veritable Frog Kornucopia of fabrics and accessories. But most distinctive of all within this sea of sateen, nylon and viscose, amongst the reds and pinks and golds, were the plastic Froggy Sunglasses. These had been collected from various workshops and installations (Froggy Sunglasses 10 Years project, 1989-1999). Acting as both a barrier to and a metaphor for the eyes, these sunglasses are contradictory accessories. They form a recurring symbol in the Frog King visual vocabulary, and are repeatedly referenced in his images and his work. As artefacts, the combination of cable ties, white tipp-ex and marker pen combine to transform the cheap sunglasses into fantastical objects. For the audience, our participation with these artefacts was similarly transformative, as the wearer of the sunglasses became another being, a gyro even. Plastic and other synthetic materials dominate the glasses and fancy dress items[1], along with the occasional brightly coloured feather boa. The glasses have wear, a patina of usage and a history of disguise. For the opening fire procession we were highly flammable in our garb, but the biting wind carried us away.

Frog King is a pioneering contemporary artist from Hong Kong who has been practising his own brand of mixed media art since 1967. Combining activism, public art, installations, performance and ink drawing, his work has a political message; he draws his audience into his projects through participation – art and public are brought together (Tak-ping 2011, 24). His on-going project ‘9 million artworks’, for example, involves the mass production of art – ripped paper, drawings, calligraphy – an assemblage of ephemera, which workshop participants help to generate. His work is a ‘process of doing’ (Chia 2011, 10). Central to his praxis is the use of both his and others’ bodies as canvas, by the dressing up in froggy regalia, improvised storytelling and performance. Frog King is truly international, transporting suitcases full of accessories, dressing up clothes, materials and artworks around the world and redistributing them at a global yet personal scale.

In February 2013 the Frog King Art Institute was established in the community room at Papay school running a number of workshops during the festival. The small room was transformed into a veritable Frog’s Nest[2] and adorned with posters, materials, artworks and froggy stuff – everyday objects and materials with a common theme of brightness and contrast. Works were hung from the ceiling and stapled to walls. The room, and anyone who walked in, became his installation and part of the performance. His treasure trove of suitcases was opened once again and fancy dress was passed round and put on – dresses, scarves, hats, wigs, capes, necklaces and bras. Everyone had gained a taste for dressing up during the opening fire procession and knew what to do. Frog King commented on the honesty of Papay folk in that everything was returned from its first outing, including all the ‘rare and expensive’ froggy glasses. The old adage that less is more does not hold true here: for Frog King, more is definitely more. Frogtopia is a place where all is laid bare and experienced – art is life, life is art, art is frog.

Frog King’s artworks are mostly throw-aways / give-aways, made to play a part in his performance, be consumed and added to the tally (how near to 9 million works is he? Is he counting?). A midden of fancy dress, ripped paper, plastic, stickers, feathers and tinsel rapidly accumulated in the centre of the community room floor. He delved into his suitcase yet again and pulled out the next exhibit, told us how and when he made it, how much it was worth, and then gave it away. ‘This is a rare laser print, I just photocopy them onto silver paper[3], very effective, worth millions, who wants it?’ Hands shoot up as everyone quickly realised that everything is for taking, everyone can have a piece of Frog King to take home. After the first few rounds of redistribution, he gives away clear plastic bags for everyone to store their loot (is the bag a piece of art as well?). Soon, everyone is clutching a bag stuffed with Frog King memorabilia; perhaps some A4 laser prints, laminates, plastic shapes, an ink drawing[4], a book if you were lucky, an A3 print if your hand went up fast enough. By the end, there was a resistance to receiving more stuff, once the realisation sank in that it would just keep coming. It became overwhelming. The materiality of Frog King had become too much. His free art had consumed us. We now had the capacity to start our own Frog’s Nest. One participant, realising he had been turned so quickly into a mass consumer, was giving it back. So Frog King’s art was mass produced, mass-consumed and redistributed. The froggy assemblage he brought with him had some material removed and redistributed, other material added, ready to move onto the next workshop somewhere else in the world where the process starts again.

Returning to the Frog King Art Institute in June, when we were running a workshop with the school children, we went back into the community room. It felt very empty and cold with a large sink unit at one end that we hadn’t even noticed before. The clean-up operation had been thorough, but were there any vestiges of Frog King’s residence? There were some posters on the wall that had been donated and some pipe cleaner sculptures on the windows sills that had been made with the children. Searching harder, below an old catering machine stored in the corner, we found some scraps of ripped red paper and a white plastic shape. Elsewhere in the school there were posters and a copy of his book was tucked into the school bookcase. Residues of Frog King had survived.

References:

Chia, B 2011. Frogtopia Hongkornucopia. Reading Frog Kong Kwok. In Frog King Kwok. Frogtopia Hongkornucopia. 54th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale, Italy. Exhibition Catalogue. Asia One Printing Limited, Hong Kong.

Hinterthur, P 1985. Modern Art in Hong Kong. Myer, Hong Kong.

Shun-kit, W 2011. Ink Frog. In Frog King Kwok. Frogtopia Hongkornucopia. 54th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale, Italy. Exhibition Catalogue. Asia One Printing Limited, Hong Kong.

Tak-Ping, T 2011. ‘Art is life, life is art’: Frog King’s art and life as secular pilgrimage of illumination. In Frog King Kwok. Frogtopia Hongkornucopia. 54th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale, Italy. Exhibition Catalogue. Asia One Printing Limited, Hong Kong.


[1] Plastic was an early theme in Frog King’s art, for example he used plastic bags in environmental pieces at the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1979 (Shun-kit 2011, 17). Indeed, his early use of found materials and waste in his art was daring in Hong Kong (Hinterthur 1985, cited in Tak-ping 2011, 20); a materiality and documentation based on improper finishes and ephemera (Chia 2011, 11).

[2] A ‘Frog’s Nest’ refers to Frog King’s studio in Hong Kong, however he can rapidly transform a space into a new nest through making, adorning the walls and amassing materials (Tak-ping 2011, 21). For Tak-ping, the nest of ‘urban trash’ is a ‘reflection on our current state of over-production arising from consumption’ (ibid. 22).

[3] Works are often photocopied and/or laminated and given away free, breaking down the ‘aura’ of art and the traditional monetary exchange (Tak-ping 2011, 23).

[4] Frog King’s use of ink art challenges traditional Chinese calligraphy with modern Hong Kong contemporaneity (Shun-kit 2011, 16).

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This entry was posted in Contemporary Archaeology, Frog King, Materiality, Memorabilia, Mixed media, Papay Gyro Nights, Performance, Plastic and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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