Plastic, plastic, every where,
All the fish are bereft;
Plastic, plastic, every where,
Not a soul is left.
I met Hong Kong painter Michelle Kuen Suet Fung at an artist residency in Alaska in 2016. She is a diminutive woman with a big smile, a big vision, and an even bigger heart. Four four weeks Michelle and I shared meals, living quarters, hikes, hopes, and worries, and together navigated the intricacies of ferry travel in remote regions. I was lucky to get to know her and her work, and to see the world through her eyes for those four weeks. I gained a friend, a colleague and a new tip for avoiding all those environmentally harmful plastic utensils when eating out: carry bamboo travel utensils (like these) with you at all times…
Michelle draws inspirations from a wide range of sources and popular sub-cultures, including fairy tales, children’s picture books, the Japanese Otaku, fifteenth-century European etching, as well as traditional Chinese painting. Animals and their relationships with humans is a long recurring thread in her works.
What are you working on right now?
I have three main projects in 2017. For the past month, I have been working on a book manuscript of “Plastic, plastic, every where!,” a dystopia of plastic consumption. (See video interview.) The cautionary tale begins in the present and spans about a hundred years. The narrative, which borrows from fairy tales, children’s literature, and prophecy, presents a future where humans’ frenzied consumption of plastic (as in objects like lifesaver donuts, telephone hotdogs, etc. …) has led the human race past the point of no return:
In the first half of the 21st century, marine animals have developed such an insatiable appetite for plastic that the nations of the world set up feeding stations. Over time, however, fewer and fewer animals show up to the feedings, and eventually, none show up. The global craze for plastic-eating originates from the 2084 annual meeting of the Great Five Industrial Nations on Miami Island, cut off from the mainland because of rising sea levels. At the meeting, China (in the form of a pig) proposes that if animals can learn to eat plastic, why can’t children?
The work was presented as a drawing installation in 2015. I have adapted the narrative into book form, and the story is shortlisted in the Young Writer’s Competition in Hong Kong. I will complete the manuscript in the spring and hopefully the book will be chosen for publication.
Concurrently, I am making “Plastic, plastic, every where!” into a moving drawings video. The work-in-progress has been almost two years in the making and went through substantial changes after my artist residency at Art Omi (NY, USA) last summer. This year, I will invest time to complete the final draft before pairing music and sound to the visuals.
Last but not least, China’s micro-narrative in “Plastic, plastic, every where!” has been developed into an autonomous work. In 2084, China has solved its pollution problems with Plan Polluta, condensing air pollution into building bricks. With these bricks, China builds floating artist colonies in the sky. I am making propaganda posters and banner paintings (loosely based on those from the Cultural Revolution era) to be shown in a solo exhibition at Pro Arts Gallery, Oakland, CA, in 2018. The gallery will be transformed into a promotional center for the Ministry of Polluta. Besides painting, I am also conducting research for the two performances that will take place during the exhibition.
You have lived in many countries. How do you think that influences your work?
I never quite knew how it affected me until last summer art critic Dominique Nahas described my works as cosmopolitan. It then dawned on me that I could only make cosmopolitan works because I was exactly that! I have lived in Hong Kong, Canada, UK and the US and speak three and a half languages (the half language is French.) I really enjoy looking at things from multiple points of views without realizing it. For instance, when I translate, I often find meaning differs slightly in different languages. It comes down to cultural sensitivity and connotations. However, I am poorly educated in the Middle Eastern, African and Native perspectives, and many other minorities. While it is impossible for any works to be truly inclusive, I hope my works are less about navel-gazing.
Do you consider yourself an activist? Why?
I have been asked that question before, and I don’t see myself as one. I think fundamentally activists work to bring about social change and artists focus on making their best possible work. I definitely belong to the latter group. Having said that, I do think the most compelling advocacy is to lead by example. Far from perfect, I strive to live a greener lifestyle. I stopped ordering anything take-out unless I have my own containers. I haven’t bought chemical household products such as laundry detergent, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, household cleaner for years. I make my own from food scraps or other greener materials. By persisting in my own habits, I see changes in people around me. I also share some of my insights on social media: the response is almost always encouraging.
You participated in the Tidelines Ferry Tour in 2016. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience?
That was a humbling journey. We toured eight communities in Southeast Alaska in one month under the theme of climate change. Having lived in Canada for almost two decades, I barely had contact with First Nations. I had to reassess my presumptuous assumptions about a green lifestyle in the 21st century. On this trip, I developed enormous reverence for a community for its respect of nature. Meat-eating is damaging to the planet in most developed countries, but salad-lovers may cause more harm in Alaska if we consider all the fuel and energy needed to fly in the leaves. The trip taught me to take my urban arrogant attitude home.
I wrote bilingual (Chinese and English) weekly blogs on the tour for Altermodernists, a Hong-Kong-based media platform for local artists:
What is the single most important thing artists can do to address climate change?
In this age of chaos and uncertainty, I hesitate to give artists an aura of visionaries. Artists should do what we have historically done well: Make great work. Facts do not compel change; pain and strong emotions do. If my work can elicit strong reactions that result in concrete change in one viewer’s behavior, I will consider my work successful.
What gives you hope?
It is relatively easy for those who live in the war-free First World to find solace: A blue ocean, a delicate flower, a cool breeze, a delicious meal, and our loved ones. When I gaze at these beautiful things, I have a fierce urge to protect them. When I look at my niece’s porcelain skin and watch her play with two leaves for almost an hour, I know we want to still have tigers, whales, elephants, and polar bears for her to experience. If we choose to have no hope, all battles are lost. I choose to have hope, because that is the only thing we have to go on.