Interview by Paul Harrison
Published May 2019
Hello Bettina, it is really great to discuss your work and invite others to look at your creative activities. We met at a group exhibition in London many years ago and I was really interested in your use of line. Your work was like a giant web that you spun into your corner of the room; it was really great. How do you view your work's progression from its early years to now?
Hello Paul, Thank you for initiating this conversation. It must have been almost six years ago when we first met. Thinking back through the years, lines play a consistent role in my practice, which heavily involves drawing. I am pretty obsessed with the line, a man made thing to help navigate and understand the world. A line could be a boundary that separates but also could act as a bridge to connect. My drawings have been mostly gestural and abstract with a lot of lines interconnecting and tangled together, suggesting different forms and patterns similar to gazing at clouds. I rarely plan what I draw but often start creating from a place of being open, marking down one line after the other, perhaps responding to what came before and constantly reorienting and staying open to possibilities as the drawing develops. I tend to describe my drawings as aimless wanderings, purposeless like how the Taoist would describe nature but spawn from deep within.
I like how you described the graphite wall drawing I did then as a giant web. I was also inviting people to draw with me on the wall and my lines ended up acting as a web that connected all the different colourful drawings together. Around that point I was just beginning to explore the performative aspect of drawing and I was starting to create the work live at exhibitions, sharing process. I later called this performative act as performance drawing and since then have mostly been drawing live in different context and using the act of drawing as a way to explore different subject matters.
Lately I am focusing more on movement and gestures and also different ways of documenting a performance, what is lost and what can be captured and their significance. My more recent works involve monotyping, performing actions with my body on a large piece of paper with a thin layer of ink underneath, where the resulted monotype would act as a print as well as a record of what took place on the paper. 365 is an example of this process.
365; performance drawing/live monotyping; performed at Imprints of Passing Time (solo exhibition supported by Arts Council England) at Surface Gallery in May 2018, Nottingham, UK.
I think your work has really progressed these six years and with each performance it is going in a really interesting direction. The significance of what is lost or captured, what remains but a trace. The transitory or ephemeral nature of your work makes it all the more powerful, empowered, and open. Your description of 365 makes me think of a French phrase il se rabat sur meaning to 'fall back on': it can suggest the rotation of a plane to coincide with another (a kind of loop), and a retreat or reduction to a lower level. Does this resonate with your experience of monotyping? and is there a specific feeling you have other than excitement when you initiate a performance?
365 involves walking around in circles 365 times, pairing Earth’s revolution around the sun with the modern-day desire to sprint away from the old and towards the new and questioning ideas of progress in our capitalist culture. I like that you mentioned a loop and a plane collapses onto another. In a way, the monotyping is translating the action from three dimensional space onto a two dimensional horizontal plane. Thinking more about the phrase ‘to fall back on’ suggests something secure, something that could protect and defend. I guess the monotyping creates a print that acts as proof of the performance as actions were performed on it, so you could say that we could fall back on to the print as evidence for the actions. In a way, to proof something is a kind of defence, but from what, from disappearance? However the process of making these prints is quite unpredictable, there are different factors at play such as room temperature, the quality of ink and how it was applied would affect the outcome and they are different every time and so in a way it does not bring about that feeling of security when making them but more curiosity and surprise. In fact, I try not to think about the outcome when I am making work/performing but focus on the action at that moment. I would start a performance by clearing my mind as much as possible and be open and focused. I think creating live work helps me practice focusing on the present moment a lot.”
Following on from the last one: the body is something which becomes more and more present in a performance what do you think about this? Its very mysterious how we think we are aware of what our bodies are, yet often for many of us this awareness is only an image, an image that needs to be experienced? Are there any artists that throughout your existence have proven to be inspiring and uplifting in ways that continue to drive you further?
When you are a body and making work in a space surrounded by other bodies, I think very quickly the body would come into focus. However I am interested in movement, movement created by the body but the body also needs to hold the space it is in. Experiencing the body via images could bring this disconnect with our bodies as it remains a visual experience and could become cerebral very quickly and not felt and embodied. I believe moving helps to connect with the body, but for a lot of us the way we live tends to be quite sedentary, so it could be hard to be aware of our bodies unless in times when we get ill. It was when I started learning martial arts (Tai Ji Quan, Xin Yi Liu He Quan and Seven Star Praying Mantis) that I realised how I was not fully in my body and how much I was in my head. It reminded me I have a body, as strange as that sounds. As I practice, I am learning to cultivate that sensitivity to the centre of gravity in my body, what muscles I am unnecessarily tensing due to habit and being more aware of how I am holding myself as well as owning my space, which really made a big impact in my life. I think this has influenced my artistic practice in terms of how I hold myself, how I take up space and how I move and think about movement. There are works by many artists / musicians / filmmakers / writers / playwrights that uplifted and inspired me and helped me carry on at different points in my life. It is difficult to say who has been constantly motivating me as interests, concerns and thinking change over time. Thinking more about this, throughout most of my existence I tend to be regularly energised by the attitudes from DIY subculture that began with punk rock. I am driven by the DIY ethos, of people banding together, learning and supporting each other and make things happen, which is very empowering. I think Joseph Beuys’ “everyone is an artist” and his idea of social sculpture are in a similar vein. I feel more and more these days that it is important to look at collectivity and explore how to be together in terms of living as well as creating.
COMMUNION (2016); performance drawing with audience participation; Performed at DRAW TO PERFORM3: International Festival of Drawing Performances on 30 July 2016, Crows Nest Gallery, London UK.
I also appreciate how martial arts brings an awareness to and of your body. However, I myself have never practiced a martial art my cousin has a black belt; I have always appreciated the visual form and the movements involved with Shaolin Tai Chi. Am I correct in saying that such movements are designed to re-align your body, your being, to that of the universal motion? So these Asian practices of physical movement and meditation are a kind of unity and something we consider as one?
I am not too sure I understand what you mean by movements designed for re-alignment to universal motion. I am a beginner and there is a lot I don’t know. The set forms (taolu) that I practice in Tai Chi Quan as well as praying mantis have movements that flow seamlessly from one to another and they involve your arms, legs and waist working together in unity. This is the most efficient way to fight effectively and to generate maximum impact. I also notice there is a tendency to flow with your opponents’ movements instead of against them during combat, where you use their weight against them. The more relaxed your body is the more powerful your strikes and the better you perform. What I find interesting is one way of making your body relax is to undertake a lot of physical training exercises, once your body is tired it becomes more relaxed and will surprisingly perform much better. This is why my class lasts more than two hours. It is strenuous though. I hope I am making sense as I find this practice hard to describe in words.
In regards to what you mentioned about unity, I assume you are referring to the spiritual aspect of Chinese martial arts practice? To my understanding, there are philosophies attached to Chinese martial arts, Shaolin involves Zen Buddhism and Tai Chi Quan has Taoist influences.
Kung Fu (a Cantonese term that is the umbrella term for Chinese martial arts, where it literally means skill) was originally created to fight people, so for self-defence or warfare. In a way, it is figuring out the mechanics of the body, how to use it as a weapon to attack and defend, but also for health and to strengthen the body. I find the history of kung fu interesting, where there was a time when martial artists were in a rebellion against colonialism and how it gradually became a sport. I have been casually reading up about it now and then so I am no expert.
I am not sure I answered your question at all…”
I want to hone in on a phrase you used to describe the awareness that grows when you contemplate the body. You said, 'becoming aware of the centre of Gravity running through your being' and this makes me think of several things: a process whereby we can gain awareness of the gravity both within and acting upon us and the gravity we transfer by way of being agents and actors. My question arising from this would be how you perceive time and space are we able to change and shape these phenomena or do they shape us? Art seems to favour the former out of the two options?
Perception of time is interesting as it changes so drastically depending on where your focus is at. I have created long durational drawing performances that lasted for six hours straight and the more I am in the moment and immersed in the process I don’t feel time passing at all and an hour could go by so quickly. However when my mind starts to become occupied with thoughts or concerns and I become restless and no longer fully in the process, I do notice time passing very slowly and five minutes could feel like hours. I do think creating art or the experience of it allows us to experience this altered sense of time and space. Thinking from a viewer/audience perspective, I guess film might be the most effective way to change the sense of time and transport us to different space. Perhaps it is my background in animation I automatically think of film. It is essentially playing with time, playing with frames.
I am also interested particularly in time that shapes us or the artwork, as in art that makes us feel time. For example Teching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1980-1981 (Time Clock Piece), where you watch him physically changed over the year in the space with the set conditions he enforced on himself. However the 16mm film of all the pictures he took of himself turned a year into 6 minutes, so art also changed time here. Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson, where the icebergs literally melted away over time and not only you feel time but you are reminded of the implication of the passing of time.
Towards All & Nothing (In memory of Li Yuan Chia) (2019); performance drawing; performed at Manchester Art Gallery 6 March 2019, Manchester, UK.
I am sure you’re really busy with new work for 2019 and 2020: is there anything you’re working on now or for the future that you wish to share?
2019 is shaping to be quite a busy year, which I am very grateful about. I recently returned from Hong Kong, where I performed ‘I am tired with you’ at Art Central in March as part of the Performance x 4A programme, which was an intense experience due to the busyness of the venue. It was interesting to show this work in the context of an art fair, which is a super active space of business and productivity and I was creating a space to do nothing in, a space of refusal in a way. This trip was also personally meaningful as it was the first time I showed in Hong Kong, which is my birthplace and where I left when I was 8 years old. It felt good to return as an artist and to share my work, as during my childhood doing art was not encouraged. I also went to check out many galleries and art spaces, some of which are artists run such as Form Society and Green Wave Art. In addition, whilst in Hong Kong I started experimenting with walking with the camera, linking walking to drawing lines (the point being me moving from one place to another) and having the camera attached to me to document whilst also being part of the act of drawing. Walking about in Hong Kong felt like reconnecting with it, reclaiming my forgotten or neglected relationship with it and reshaping and questioning my sense of belonging and identity again. Identity and sense of belonging are something I’ve only started to re-examine again since my teenage years because it was too difficult for me then as someone who felt in between cultures and not belonging to any one of them. I feel that I am gravitating towards the idea of exploring this re-examination or re-connection in my art practice. In March I also took part in Being Present: Performative responses to Speech Acts Exhibition, a very special performance programme that took place at Manchester Art Gallery. It was such a pleasure to be able to create a performative response to their exhibition Speech Acts that looked at how public museums reflect and shape collective imagination and how artworks can nurture new stories if they are shown in ways beyond the limited frames of biography and identity. This introduced me to the life and work of Li Yuan Chia, who I instantly became very drawn to and as a result created a performance inspired by and was a tribute to him. Currently, I am taking part in Syllabus IV, an alternative peer led artist development and learning programme delivered in partnership with six arts institutions in the UK (Wysing Arts Centre, INIVA, Spike Island, Studio Voltaire, Eastside Projects and S1 Artspace). It has been really rewarding being a part of it, being able to visit different parts of the UK and meet artists and curators and learn about their work, as well as learning by practicing ways of working and supporting each other and sharing our practices. I feel that the experiences gained in this programme will feed into my future work.
I really like the work 'Communion' (2016)... I like how you invited visitors to cut the drawing into shapes and really expand the lines and the layers at work in the exhibition. Could you describe this project; what it felt like creating/performing this work?
Thank you! At the time this work came about, I was drawn to the dynamics within collaborations and was thinking about how much do you hold on to and let go of in order to allow the new and unexpected to happen. I was also contemplating on destruction as part of the creative process. Therefore Communion involved me creating an intricate drawing for about 4 hours during an exhibition and afterwards invited audience to cut out a part of the drawing however they wanted and to stick the cut out piece onto an adjacent wall, whilst I sat and watched. It was interesting to see the different reactions, some people were very happy to dive into it and some felt bad to cut up someone’s drawing. It became quite playful. People ended up interacting with each other by responding to the different cut out shapes on the wall and adding to it, as well as cutting by following the drawn lines. I enjoy this playful way of interacting with an artwork. For me, the cutting freed the drawing and turned it from something on a 2D plane to something sculptural. I started noticing parts of the drawing/the paper collapsing outwards and the shadows formed. I didn’t expect to enjoy that so much. I was also drawn to how each individual choose to cut up the drawing and how they were also drawing too, drawing by removing with a knife. I created this work a few times in different places after the first performance in 2016 and each time yielded different results. Each time I was prepared to have the drawing being cut up so I was fine with that, but personally I did feel that I have preference over what shapes were cut. Large abstract shapes brought, to me, more satisfying results than geometric shapes like triangles and rectangles or even figurative shapes like an animal or a person. However what shapes I prefer is not the point, I like how the large drawing became a place for people to share space, play in, make shapes and draw together.
Live monotyping at Surface Gallery, May 2018, Nottingham, UK.
365 (2017); performance drawing/live monotyping; performed at Performed at Young Blood Initiative’s [IN]sane: Altered states of mind exhibition, 23 September 2017, London, UK.
Bettina Fung 馮允珊 is an artist based in London but born in Hong Kong.
She has maintained a unique mode of creativity that consistently grows from strength to strength. Please visit her website to keep up to date with her work.
If you like this why not read our interview with Realf Heygate
© YAC | Young Artists in Conversation ALL RIGHTS RESERVED