In the studio with Caroline Wong, whose practice responds to traditional, restricted representations of East Asian women. We met with Caroline to tell us more about growing up in Malaysia, unexpected sources of inspiration, and her artistic journey to today
When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?
The drive to create art has always been in me, but it had been repressed throughout most of my 20s. I’m 35 now and it’s only five years ago that I decided to get back into drawing and painting and develop an artistic practice.
Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Malaysia but grew up in London. Both these places have definitely influenced my aesthetic. Malaysia is hot, lush, abundant, and full of saturated colour, and the culture is a very food-centred one — gastronomic pleasure seems to be at the heart of everyone’s lives, and anyone who knows Malaysian cuisine knows that the flavours are delicious but very full-on. So I try to communicate all of these intense, sensual qualities through my palette and application of materials. As for London, it has its own kind of intensity but it’s of a more edgy, fraught kind. The Japanese street photographer Daido Moriyama once said ‘cities are enormous bodies of people’s desires’, which I very much agree with, although I’d add anxieties to that mix. I feel there’s a generalised hunger or restlessness driving London: the frantic pursuit of dreams, desires, and opportunities, the constant search for variety and novelty and not getting enough of it. Most people get tired of it all after a while, but the buzzing energy and limitlessness of London have always been stimulating to me and definitely find their way in my work.
Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work? Was there a pivotal moment when you felt you were on the right track?
My artistic journey is a short one as I’ve only been seriously making art for the past 5 years. In the years preceding that I felt rather repressed and directionless, doing a degree that I wasn’t particularly interested in and drifting between jobs I didn’t like either. All I can say is that something happened before I turned 30, a kind of wakeup call, and I felt this urgency to get back into art. Developing my art has been a transformative process, and everything that happened or didn’t happen before has strongly influenced the aesthetic and themes of my practice.
What’s the message of your work? How would you describe your aesthetic?
I don’t know if there really is a message in my work. I think most will pick up on the feminist aspects of my work because it addresses and subverts past portrayals of women in East Asian art which have depicted women mostly as passive, decorative objects. And it also raises issues surrounding the mis- or underrepresentation of Asian identities in the West and questions of agency. But alongside the more obvious socio-political aims, I do, somewhat paradoxically, regard my art simply as a personal means of escapism, a kind of detachment from reality, an immersion into bodily, sensual pleasure, and a return to a more simple, childlike state of being. When I’m immersed in that state of pleasure and creativity, political and theoretical frameworks can seem somewhat burdensome.
I’d describe my aesthetic as a blend of feminine frivolity and gluttonous excess.
Who/what are your greatest influences?
Chinese figurative painter Liu Xiaodong has always been a big influence. We work on a similar scale and as if we’re in a hurry, so there is always an unrefined quality to the final image. Although Liu doesn’t explicitly relate his process to hunger or consumption, I feel his paintings speak of an insatiable appetite for experience and sensation.
I also love the novellas of Belgian writer Amélie Nothomb. Cravings, alcoholism, and restriction are recurring themes, along with female friendships that are ideal or toxic. The tone of her writing is childlike yet erudite, girly and lighthearted yet dark and sinister. I like the way she marries these contradictions.
Otherwise I like good food, good company, laughter, silliness, cats, and the simple pleasures of life.
An unexpected source of inspiration?
I think I have known this all along but have only recently acknowledged and discussed it in depth in my MA thesis (which I titled ‘Gluttonous Pretty: An Aesthetic of Excess’), but one of my many inspirations is the realm of child’s play and how I return to this idyllic phase through my own creative process. Marlene Dumas wrote a poem called ‘The artist and her models — or girl with a doll’, and while the poem — a short meditation on beauty, fashion, and painting — is quite enigmatic, I do feel that the whole process of setting up a scene, deciding on an outfit, and inventing and embodying a character in my drawings and paintings is similar to the experience of playing with dolls. Childhood for me represents a time of doing things more freely, getting lost in daydreams and fantasy worlds, and not being bound by ideas of good or bad taste. When I talk about this analogy of playing with dolls, people often look slightly alarmed, but I’m all for frivolity and fun.
What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?
Ideally, I’d like the viewers to lose themselves in the works the same way I lose myself in the process of creating them. I view both consuming and creating as ways of escaping and disconnecting from life’s complexities and hope that the viewer too will experience that when looking at my work. However I am of course aware that my paintings — given their large scale and saturated, often lurid colours — may be ‘too much’ for some viewers and therefore challenge the representation and perception of Asian women as diminutive and delicate. So the desire for escapism goes hand in hand with the desire for subversion.
What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you experiment?
I would say that since starting my Masters in Fine Art at City and Guilds two years ago, my work has been moving away from my more rigid, classical training in portraiture. I wouldn’t say my practice is making a radical break from portraiture or realism, but I’m definitely allowing for clumsiness, disobedience, playfulness, and my love of excess to influence my aesthetic.
What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a good piece of work?
I like working at night…artificial light and the knowledge that most people are asleep seem to be requisites for creating work, along with listening to trashy, guilty pleasure dance and pop music. Otherwise a long period of not making work before getting stuck in seems to make a huge difference.
Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?
When I created the paintings of Alisa, I only had a vague sense of the story I wanted to tell. I just knew that she’d be alone at home and drunk and that the domestic clutter around her, together with the bright colours and my scruffy paint application would be an expression of her drunken, carefree state. I know some people question my preference for the home as the setting, seeing it as something regressive, but I’m really just drawn to the warmth and intimacy of the home, and interested in how one’s personal clutter and mess become an extension of the model’s and my own inner world. I should also add that Alisa, who is a burlesque performer (Evelyn Carnate) and who has modelled for me several times, has been a big inspiration to these works mainly because she’s someone who, in her performances, revels so shamelessly and confidently in all things bad taste, so I have definitely tried to channel her energy into these paintings.
Something in the future you hope to explore?
I have several projects on the go that I’m hoping to develop, but they’re all devoted to the representation of Asian women and their search for pleasure. One is a series of ‘cat women’ drawings. In these my protagonists are depicted literally behaving like cats: eating on the floor, climbing onto the table, dozing off after a heavy meal. It’s just an ode to the carefree, pleasure-seeking habits of cats. I also am continuing to build a series of paintings in a similar vein to the paintings of Alisa, depicting drunken, debauched women in domestic environments.