Kwok Mang-ho, or Frog King, in his studio in Hong Kong, wearing his Life Body Installation (2014), which combines fishermen, agrarian and Taoist traditions. The cape is crafted from a painted pair of pants. 

The digital camera Frog King uses to document daily life.

Frog King Kwok Mang-ho

Hong Kong
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

On a bright March day, the afternoon sun beats down on the tile roofs and red-brick facades of Hong Kong’s Cattle Depot Artist Village, a former slaughterhouse facility north of the city center. Built before World War I and renovated in 2001, the single-story complex is now home to 20 rented studios and artist-run spaces comprising a total of 15,000 square meters. Aside from the faint sound of taxis cruising by outside the complex gate, it is quiet and still in the open courtyard around which five identical buildings stand. Even the doors are all painted the same color. But, surveying the scene, it is not difficult to identify which studio belongs to Frog King.

Reams of paper adhered to brick walls flap in the breeze, discarded furnishings and found materials stand propped against the length of the building while vines climb up the walls from a group of plants clustered around the door. Cast-off piano parts, including a keyboard, lie stacked below a dusty window against which fabric is piled high. A sound sculpture built of metal parts mounted on a wooden stand invites clanging by passersby, and then there is the telltale symbol: a peeling wooden sign depicting the outline of a frog, hung atop the open door. 

Inside, the 68-year-old conceptual and performance artist Kwok Mang-ho, known as Frog King, is getting decked out in his Life Body Installation (2014), a whimsical, colorful costume that is itself a feast for the eyes. Layer upon layer of stripes, patterns, calligraphy, pom-poms, beads and sparkly jewelry are topped off by “froggies,” the plastic sunglasses affixed with myriad decorative elements that Kwok developed for his popular “Froggy Glasses Project.” An ongoing series started in New York in the 1980s, the interactive project invites participants to pose for photographs while sporting the flashy eyewear. These now-legendary spectacles are a hallmark of Kwok’s practice, often as part of his performative Frog’s Nest (2011– ), a site-specific mixed-media installation originally presented at the 2011 Venice Biennale and regularly adapted since. 

Once he is fully attired, Kwok and I begin to tour the three sprawling—yet jam-packed—spaces that make up his studio. The Guangdong-born artist has rented one of the spaces for nearly 15 years; six months ago, he took on an additional room to handle the overflow of found material he uses in his eclectic practice, as well as the trove of memorabilia he has acquired over a 40-year-long career. It has been calculated that Kwok has created more than 5,000 works of art since 1967.

Prior to Cattle Depot, the peripatetic practitioner had gone through more than 20 different studios in four different cities, together with his wife Cho Hyun-jae, an artist and designer. “We’re like modern gypsies!” he laughs. These days, Cho works from home, leaving Kwok with full run of the place. He leads me down narrow alleys between ceiling-high drifts of stuff. “I prefer to spread my roots in one location,” he adds.

The artist demonstrates his ink painting technique.

A fuzzy, mixed-media sculpture, Frog Dimension 2015 – Symphony Frogchestra #8, perches on a working table. 

Ink supplies and several rubber and stone seals from his eclectic collection.

Spread them, he has. As we sidestep our way through hoards of raw material and ephemera, Kwok waxes nostalgic about his life and career. Considered by some to be China’s first performance artist (beginning with Plastic Bag Project, 1979), he describes his beginnings crafting burnt calligraphy works such as Fire Painting, Forward(1977) and Fire Painting, Butterfly (1978) on kite paper found cheaply at a Hong Kong market. He recalls his New York period (1980–95)—what he calls the “golden age of the East Village underground graffiti scene”—during which he organized and participated in happenings, performances and artist-led exhibitions. He remembers drawing a frog in New York’s snow-covered downtown streets and running Kwok gallery there for two years, where he met Ai Weiwei and Martin Wong. He tells me about his move to Shanghai for several months in 2012, during which he gained fresh energy and a sufficiently capacious studio space to create large-format action paintings on massive rice-paper scrolls—among them Frog Fun Action C (2012) and Frog Fun Action D (2012). I recognize a few carved wood sculptures and columns that were shown last year at “Totem,” a solo exhibition of his work mounted by Hong Kong’s 10 Chancery Lane Gallery. We navigate around tanks of tropical fish, which Kwok has diligently replenished from the same stalls at Kowloon’s Mong Kok goldfish market since he was a child. Ceiling-high shelves are brimming with scrapbooks, photos, fliers from his events over the years—he has saved it all.

Soon, we reach an open area where Kwok practices his ink painting. Trained under Hong Kong New Ink Painting master Lui Shou-kwan and at Grantham College of Education (now the Institute of Education), Kwok is a gifted practitioner who incorporates ink across a range of media including collage, site-specific installation, graffiti, performance, photography and assemblage. He clears the table, unfurling a large sheet of rice paper off a roll plucked from the chaos. Without hesitation he begins to paint, smoothly and decisively, abstract shapes and text streaming forth. “My brush moves automatically,” he says. “It just flows.” His final touch is an inscription for an auspicious Lunar New Year. 

Next, he reaches for a nearby bucket of water, takes a swig, and holds the water in his mouth for a few moments before suddenly spraying it out across the canvas. Blurred and wrinkled, the piece is now suitably imperfect. It is an approach he developed during his New York years. 

Last, the seal. Kwok’s collection of seals is scattered across the table—found rubber shapes, traditional stone seals, modern versions picked up in China, Korea, New York. He dips them in red ink in contrast to the black and white of the ink and paper. 

Most of Kwok’s recent calligraphy work is in ink pen. A night owl and “nonstop working machine,” he draws on lined children’s notebook paper, working deep into the night, free-associating thousands of lines of words and phrases in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and English. “Give me one sentence, the whole thing comes out,” he says of the ceaseless and uncensored flow of ideas in his mind. 

Leaflets and photocopies of Frog King’s ink work on the exterior of his Cattle Depot Artists Village studio. 

The entrance to the artist’s working space.  

In addition to his prolific ink creations, Kwok documents each and every part of his day with a small digital camera he keeps in his pocket: getting dressed, eating breakfast, making art, street scenes, visits to the printer. Even downtime watching television is chronicled. The many pockets of his camping vest brim with memory cards holding thousands of digital images. It is yet another extension of a body of work dedicated to breaking down barriers between art and life. 

Kwok calls his practice “playing” or “making a mess” and refers to himself as a child at heart. But there is a solemnity below the bright facade. Underneath his flashy attire and spry zeal, Kwok is getting older. Now approaching his 70s, he suffers from pain in his joints. His physical energy ebbs. Life hasn’t always been easy. “I’m 68. I went through many difficulties,” he tells me, remembering his early years in New York, when he survived on a paltry income from selling calligraphy drawings for “a couple of bucks” on the streets of SoHo. He scavenged for food outside markets when money was tight, never veering from his drive to create art. “No matter what situation you have to fight against,” he says, “continue on and do your thing.”

Our visit nearing its end, and we approach a bin of wigs and “froggies” Kwok keeps by the door for visitors to goof around with. Cattle Depot is not technically open to the public, but a steady stream of people trickles in throughout the day. Kwok leaves the door open most of the time. Although the artist has given away so much work over the years that his advisors have intervened to protect his finances, most guests still leave with a gift from Frog King.

As we step back out into the late-afternoon sun, Frog King spots a large bamboo and fabric banner leaning against the exterior of his studio. He begins untangling string and fabric, attempting to present it. A young woman walking by is called over for assistance; soon, she too is elbow deep in the pile, sporting froggy glasses and sorting through the jumble. Shortly thereafter they extract and proudly wave the banner as Frog King directs the frenzy, shouting, “Action! Action!”

“Here is the real fun!” he bellows. It is an apt finale to my visit to the twisting, veering, spiraling, winding, wild and wonderful Froggy-verse of Kwok Mang-ho.

Interior view of Frog King’s studio.