Me, My Parents and My Art Practice
by Simon Fuh
I arrived in Taipei to heavy rain. My Dad had messaged me a set of instructions to get to his apartment in Neihu, and I followed them closely – I wouldn’t have been able to ask for directions in Mandarin. He met me at the bus stop with an umbrella and a pair of flip-flops and showed me to my new room: a beige paneled square, with half-unpacked suitcases strewn on the floor amidst a maze of clothing racks and plastic-wrapped suits. Pressed into the corner was a new mattress, without sheets or a pillow.
It was in this room that I first met Ken – the artist Kenneth Jeffrey Kwan Kit Lau – over Instagram. His profile, @fy_ca, was recommended by a mutual friend from his BFA graduating class in Guelph. Ken quickly inquired over direct message as to how I’d discovered the relatively obscure account. The conversation flowed from there. The NBA finals were on, so we talked about our favourite basketball players, hip-hop, contemporary artists and Asian street foods. He was in Canada, so his messages kept me company at odd hours.
He’d turn out to be a confidant while I was in Taiwan, where I came after my estranged father invited me to work alongside him in his rooftop studio for six months. Although he and I had become closer over the last few years, we’d never spent much time together. He had outed himself as an art school drop- out, which surprised me at first, as I knew his mother, my Amah – a tough, financially successful Taiwanese immigrant – would never support her children on a path that almost guaranteed instability. Though his invitation was nerve-wracking given our lack of history, I went, intrigued by this unexpected familial encouragement for a career I knew to be a tough sell.
When I arrived, he was attempting to coat horseshoe nails, bent and soldered in the shape of human figures, with nickel stripped from Canadian coins via electroplating. His wide-ranging creative interests also included model airplanes, puzzles and candle-making. Occasionally, he would unsuccessfully try to monetize them by selling them on the street, or in a market. He would become fixated on the branding of his product, designing custom presentations and logos. Eventually, his interest in a new project would outweigh the old, and he would move on. I told him that he should just experiment without sale as the final goal. “Like an artist?” he responded, knowingly. I was reminded of what a friend once told me: being an artist doesn’t make you any freer, it just exchanges one set of problems for another.
We eventually negotiated common ground in our shared studio, exchanging compositional advice and opinions on each other’s work. I once asked him if he had ever asked his mother for her thoughts on his work. “She told me: ‘It’s still not too late to become an architect!’”
My mother didn’t want me to be an artist either. We only spoke about it once, but her rejection still stings. I was 17, and though I had grown up with almost no exposure to art, the idea of becoming an artist – the supposed freedom and commitment to learning that I felt it espoused – was something I dreamt of. When I finally told her that I intended to switch out of studying engineering and into visual art, she responded, “And then what?” A single mother of one, my mother had been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, and was not in a state to consider decisions she deemed risky. I sunk into the couch while we sat, speechless, staring blankly at the TV.
A few months after returning to Canada, I saw a call for submissions posted by Can’t Complain Gallery for an exhibition with the working title Only My Parents and My Sister Will See. “Yes, only my mom, my dad, and my sister will be the visitors,” the post read, “Can you make them understand and appreciate more about contemporary art?” I laughed out loud, and then sent in my submission. Sardonic though it seemed, there was something about the call’s buried sincerity that touched me and reminded me of my own struggles with my parents around my pursuits. I also happened to know who posted it.
“I can’t bridge my world with theirs with just one exhibition,” Ken told me, “but, I can say it was like a big family gathering.” Only My Parents and My Sister Will See was the working title for what became the exhibition Under One Roof in May 2018, hosted in Ken’s family home in Mississauga, where they moved from Hong Kong when Ken was a pre-teen. It included works from 12 artists from Canada, USA, France, UK, Iran and Mexico, spanning what seemed like every corner of the house.
The installation was informal and casually decorative, not imposing too much on day-to-day life in the household. Some works played with the functionality of specific rooms and appliances: Brent Cleveland’s small, colourful portraits lived amongst the yard tools in the garage, and Glenn Espinosa’s silver necklace, with a pendant image of a person reading, hung in the freezer. My contribution, an inflated smiley-face balloon trapped in a glass bell jar, sat neatly on the coffee table. “When you put art in a home setting, it’s completely different,” Ken said. “You can sometimes feel tense and self-conscious in the white cube. I wanted to bring [my family] closer to my idea of what art could be.” I initially perceived Ken’s initiative as forceful in its drive to “make them understand and appreciate” contemporary art, but viewing the artworks revealed that Ken, and many of the artists involved, were genuinely interested in offering a more accessible variety of art to his family.
This premise reminded me of Jeremy Deller’s Open Bedroom (1993), a tongue-in-cheek response to the open studios that his peers were hosting at the time in London. Deller waited until his parents were away on vacation, and then replaced all the artwork in their home with his own, reframing his embarrassment at living and working at home in his mid-20s as a “feature.” Under One Roof, on the other hand, involved Ken’s family all along; his dad helped install some of the sculptures, while his mom chose the placement for most works in the show and helped document the installation. Ken’s mother enjoyed the process so much that she even requested that they open their doors on Saturdays for public viewing.
I asked him what his parents think of his career choice, and he told me that his mother, despite her recent enthusiasm, still believes that “the artist thing” is merely a dream. He and his parents rarely discuss his career path, and when they do, it’s not always completely transparent. Of his recent three-month residency in Paris, he said: “I didn’t even tell them it was a residency. I told them it was an internship with a studio space.”
So often what artists do gets translated into the language of professionalization, especially in the presence of skeptics, outsiders and funders. While a great deal of artistic practice is simply absurd in any other context, masking that absurdity by reframing every action through the lens of productivity or innovation feels like a cop-out. At the same time, for many artists, financial precarity is a given condition, and eschewing a supposedly more financially secure future in the name of one’s art practice can seem deeply hubristic, or selfish, especially to the artist’s family – who may or may not be relying on their child’s income as part of their own life plan. For artists, gaining parental trust often means asking them to take a leap of faith into contemporary art itself – which, in a world that prefers the measurable, is no easy sell to those who aren’t already initiated. Each artist, then, is forced to form language around what they do, based on the languages they know their families understand. While such earnestness may be rewarded in moments, I realize now that the lack of permission granted, the impatient lines of questioning and the failure to relate to my biological family almost completely disappear in the company of my peers: my chosen family.