'Frog King' leaps into art on Hong Kong streets

'Frog King' leaps into art on Hong Kong streets

Street carnival art installations outshine professionals' work, says Hong Kong's artist at the Venice Biennale
frog king kwok mang ho
The Frog King enjoys himself at the opening of his Venice Biennale exhibit.

A massive hat, bug-eyed sunglasses, giant frog medallion, pendants, ragged gloves, painted vest and long skirt covers the artist Frog King from head to toe. In homage to Surrealist French artist Marcel Duchamp's signed urinal “Fountain,” ink-soaked toilet paper rolls dangle from the King's wrists.

“I don’t call myself avant-garde," says Frog King. "I call myself ‘doing something I like.’ I explore something and play."

We met the 64-year-old Frog King at his studio at the Cattle Depot Artist Village in To Kwa Wan. The studio is a nest of costume props, ink drawings, book piles, photographs, mementos and discarded junk collected from the neighborhood. It is a personal museum packed with 40 years' worth of artwork from 3,000 shows around the world.

China’s first documented performance artist, the Frog King's real name is Kwok Mang-Ho. Currently representing Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale in Italy with his exhibit "Frogtopia Hongkornucopia," Kwok was a pioneer of contemporary art and performance art in Hong Kong in the 1970s.

Hong Kong Frog King Kwok Mang HoThe King's froggy sunglasses.The show in Venice partially reproduces his studio in Hong Kong -- an indiscriminate jumble of everything and anything to do with Frog King's experiences. It is Kwok’s ideal of transcending conventions through multi-media artwork using calligraphy, graffiti, video work, sculpture and interactive art.

Wearing his signature outfit, Kwok becomes the living embodiment of his art. When he speaks he sounds like a Taoist sage who sprinkles frog references throughout philosophical musings about peace and love.

“Art is about keeping on doing it. Art is frog and frog is frog. Create is good. Not create is good," says Frog King in his typical fashion. "I think art is about nonsense. You cannot explain it; it’s not logical.”

Tadpole to king

Kwok has identified with frogs from a young age. The hop-happy amphibian is a symbol of his fluidity and adaptability. It also works with the ladies.

Art is frog and frog is frog. Create is good. Not create is good — Frog King

“When I was about five years old I usually went to this huge rock called Big Froggy Rock in Happy Valley to watch the horse races. I climbed up there and maybe I got some kind of spiritual energy. Later, it was taken down. Then when I was a teenager, I was usually chasing girls, and I used to tell them, ‘Hey, I’m the Frog Prince!’”

Although he initially studied traditional ink painting, the Modernist art movements of the 1960s and 1970s heavily influenced his work and he developed a reputation for rebelliousness.

Kwok dipped fish in ink, and let them swim on rice paper. He filled his mouth with ink and spewed it over surfaces. In 1979, he performed his “Plastic Bag Project” at the Great Wall and other iconic Beijing locales.

Most Hong Kong people didn’t understand or appreciate his artwork, he said. He moved to New York City in 1980 and immediately fell for the city’s multicultural art scene. When Kwok began working as an underground graffiti artist and needed a logo, a frog seemed a natural choice.

“I automatically matured into the Frog King,” he said. “Frogs are amphibians. They can go through life in water or on land. They explore two different worlds, so they have lots to share with the friends and experiences.”

His frog logo was designed to resemble a bridge or a sailboat facilitating cultural exchange, with two frogeyes representing Eastern and Western perspectives. Kwok eventually moved back to Hong Kong in 1995.

Froggy tour of Hong Kong

The Frog King's studio-museum is conspicuous among the Cattle Depot's other tidy old brick buildings.

Paper and posters plaster the exterior of Kwok’s building. Plants and trees that he rescued from other people’s garbage surround the museum in a clump of greenery. Fresh bananas and other fruits recently spray-painted silver sit outside his door.

Inside, Kwok says he “collects the things that other museums don’t keep,” such as plastic toys, kitsch and even old tools that he recycles into his art.

“City, art and daily life blend together -- daily life is art,” he says.

Kwok’s performance art is greatly influenced by the “Happenings” created by Allan Kaprow during the 1960s. Kaprow was a pioneer in American performance art and was concerned with blurring the barrier between art and life.

To appreciate the art of daily Hong Kong, Kwok recommends self-guided trips to three street markets for observing improvisational “street carnival art installations, with very cluttered and condensed material goods and culture all meshed together.”

The top sites he lists are Mongkok’s Ladies Street, the Goldfish Market along Tung Choi Street and Sham Shui Po’s electronics shops and flea market stalls along Ap Liu Street.

“If you ask me where to look at art, Nam June Paik, in the 1970s, took people to walk around the streets of New York City as an art tour. This is exactly the same,” he says. “You walk in the street. Sometimes people don’t realize it’s a very rich art show, maybe better than what artists are doing.”

He also warned art-lovers to keep an eye open to his beloved frog imagery. He said Hong Kong Island looks like a frog when viewed from aircraft coming into land at the airport, while the Bank of China Tower’s interlocking triangles and the Tsing Ma Bridge resemble the eyes in his Frog King logo.

Hong Kong Frog King Kwok Mang HoFrog King's performance "Ink Party."“If you don’t pay attention you missed it, but if you have the idea, you can see many froggies in this world.”

Kwok welcomes visitors to his studio, though his opening hours are irregular. He is often away from Hong Kong for exhibits or projects abroad. The best way to arrange a visit is by e-mail or to call in advance.

“When you see the Frog King, I will take care of you, share my art and introduce my nine million works to you. I always give a souvenir to the people,” he said.

Getting there

Frog King Kwok Museum Cattle Depot Artist Village, Unit 10, Block 571, 63 Ma Tau Kok Road, Kowloon, frogkingkwok.com, +852 9311 2262.

Frogtopia Hongkornucopia at the Venice Biennale, June 4 – November 27, Arsenale, Campo della Tana, Castello 2126-30122, Venezia, Italy. WebsiteHong Kong Frog King Kwok Mang HoFrog King's installation "Yum-dimension."