While one might have a hard time describing Trevor Yeung’s broad art practice without yoking together more than a few disciplines—ranging from horticulture to installation art and photography. Certain denominators in his vastly conceptual art can be deciphered as relating to very current issues of identity struggle and social realities. Yeung has been on the art radar for quite some time, with major exhibitions under his belt, including the 10th Shanghai Biennale and a solo exhibition at Hong Kong’s Gallery Exit last year. ArtAsiaPacific met the Hong Kong-based artist in Zürich, where he is currently enrolled in a residency program, to talk about his experience in Switzerland, his past exhibitions and his lifelong endeavor to cultivate fish.
Your projects always seem to rely on sensual, almost psychological, stimulation of a space. How would you describe your approach to creating artworks?
My practice is based on observation. I need to understand the people and the environment first, an approach particularly relevant now that I’m in Switzerland on my very first residency. You can tell by looking at my work Artist Studio Party (2012) that I always put myself in an outside position, and take a step back to investigate the overall circumstances or relationship between people. Everyone has different ways of getting accustomed to a new place or situation. Some tend to immerse themselves quickly, whereas I adapt much more slowly. I start with studying [my environment] from a distance and gradually become a part of it. This enables me to gain insight into how viewers approach my room installations, and make it possible to arrange for them to explore [the exhibition space] accordingly.
Your materials seems very particular. Did you know early on that plants would be an aspect of your work?
When I studied installation and photography at Hong Kong Baptist University, I made artworks using the given techniques of our classes. Later, I started using material from my everyday life, because it made more sense to me to use a plant that I had at home as a medium [for my work]. Just like other artists knew how to use a brush to paint, I knew how to work with these materials. It was interesting to see how the materials could change, not only during an exhibition, but develop over a longer period of time.
Is this why you also use live fish in aquariums?
Maybe. They have their own system, and I am the person who operates it. As a provider for an otherwise autonomous world, I try to project myself into it and ask myself what I would need if I were the animal.
Growing up with pets and plants affected me in my daily life. I was always trying to organize my pets’ and my own personal environment meticulously, but all of us have our limits of control. It seems ridiculous to me, because I never know what my pets actually think and end up projecting my own rational perspective onto them.
Do you have any examples of artworks that this thought of control relates to specifically?
I had an exhibition “That Dog at That Party” at Gallery Exit in Hong Kong in 2014. That installation stood out for me. I literally wanted visitors to look at things from the perspective of a dog at a party. I wanted them to insert themselves into this space, where some of my works could be approached instinctively while others required a more sophisticated mindset. The installation was a controlled environment—just like a fish tank being decorated.
But after all, you can’t control everything, can you?
There was one amusing story recently. In a Hong Kong exhibition at Para Site earlier this year, I was lucky enough to be on site to go there regularly and maintain the aquarium standard for my fish in the installation Live in Hong Kong, Born in Dongguan (2015). Art Basel Hong Kong had just started a week after the Para Site exhibition’s opening, and everyone had gotten very busy. So every night after the art fair, I went back to Para Site to check on my pets. In one aquarium, the water got very milky, and I didn’t know what was happening. After the fair, I found out that the fish was pregnant and I ended up with a lot of babies to take care of. They were actually mating during Art Basel!
Do you have plans for any other pets?
I seldom use [other] live animals in my works. With fish it’s different—I know fish and am comfortable with treating them. Since I was little, when I had personal issues, or was simply happy, I went home to take care of my aquarium—as a sort of meditative relief. My house was always small, so I could only have smaller-sized pets. No cats or dogs. Instead, I had fish, birds and turtles; and even squirrels, insects and other small reptiles.
I also try to select weaker, less fortunate animals. In Hong Kong, we have this culture of comparison, and I personally feel like one of the more average people. I relate to disadvantaged or “ordinary” creatures and will always try and help improve their living situation. It is not about something fitting into one’s own space, but more about trying to understand space as a point of departure in creating a connection between human and his pet.
Could you explain further how your installations reflect on personal experiences?
The way I imported fish from mainland China is [similar to] how Chinese people used to come to Hong Kong illegally in the 1970s. This association to the same history is what I wanted to portray in my art, since my parents also moved to Hong Kong this way.
I try to talk to people about how I deal with my identity, as a mainland Chinese growing up in Hong Kong. Chinese immigrants in Hong Kong have a hard time integrating into society, but I came to Hong Kong so early that everybody assumed I was a local. I didn’t tell anyone and didn’t know what to make of this when I was in school. So instead, I went home and took care of my pets.
Today, I try to be more open, to express this difficult topic through my art, to provoke emotional responses and make people understand, especially in this time of conflict between China and Hong Kong. To me, it signifies a concealed, deep connection with the farmed, “transplanted” fish in the works, which are originally from Thailand, Japan and even Germany.
Are there any new directions you want to pursue during this residency in Zürich?
The first time I came to Switzerland two years ago, I had the idea of researching animal rights in Switzerland—something that is mostly neglected in Hong Kong. When I first started my current project, I was conducting a very rational inquiry on animal rights statistics, but after visiting pet owners and talking to them, I realized this research should focus on an emotional approach. I interviewed five families about their pets and tried to find unique moments to capture on camera that would lead back to the spatial possibilities for animals here in Switzerland.
The further I got in my research, the more I realized this also relates back to the living situation of humans in different cities. I will always try to make the connection from observing plants or animals to certain aspects of our human reality. When I see a fish, I simultaneously try to think like a fish as well.
This interview is published in conjunction with Trevor Yeung’s New Current in ArtAsiaPacific’s September/October 2015 issue available now.