Shy and re­tir­ing, Hong Kong artist Lee Kit talks Face­book, money and Ver­meer

Meet the cryptic artist LEE KIT, whose lat­est ex­hi­bi­tion has a last­ing power, as does his undy­ing love of Ver­meer

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SIT­TING IN MAS­SIMO De Carlo gallery with

Hong Kong artist Lee Kit on the eve of his most re­cent solo ex­hi­bi­tion, Some­thing You Can't Leave Be­hind, the con­ver­sa­tion takes a sur­pris­ing turn. “My favourite clas­si­cal artist is Jan Ver­meer,” he says. “I will travel to see Ver­meer's paint­ings.” He ex­plains his ra­tio­nale: “In high school, you only get to see a few artists: Pi­casso, Van Gogh, Con­sta­ble land­scapes… I looked at Ver­meer – mak­ing very, very beau­ti­ful but very bor­ing things – and I thought, ‘I love it'.”

This rev­e­la­tion sur­prises for two rea­sons. First off, it seems an un­ex­pected imag­i­na­tive leap from the con­tem­po­rary “asy­lum white” art space in which we're talk­ing. Sec­ond is what pre­ceded it, Lee dis­cussing a work on the wall that bears the let­ters: “you, f ***, you”. How to read such a work of art, this writer had asked, in a world where the cop­u­la­tive ex­ple­tive has been so re­lent­lessly in­voked?

“For me, it's muted,” he says, smil­ing. “There is no ‘sound' for this paint­ing. But it was from a song ti­tle by a Hong Kong band from Lon­don, Of course it could eas­ily be un­der­stood in dif­fer­ent ways in Hong Kong.” And also on a per­sonal level, he ex­plains. “Some­times it doesn't mean any­thing when I say ‘f *** you'. You can say ‘f *** you' to your part­ner the same way you say ‘I love you'. For this one, ‘f *** you' is too mute. It means noth­ing. It's too light. It could be three words. If we read it as a sen­tence and try to un­der­stand it, and try to think about why, it's not about the paint­ing or what we are think­ing about. I'm not try­ing to find a rea­son to jus­tify it.”

This ex­hi­bi­tion marks Lee's first in Mas­simo De Carlo's Hong Kong space in the On Ped­der build­ing, fol­low­ing last year's ex­hi­bi­tion He Knows Me in the gallery's Lon­don space. In ad­di­tion to the ex­hi­bi­tions, his solo project It Was a Cin­ema was pre­sented at Mas­simo De Carlo's booth in the Kabi­nett sec­tion of Art Basel 2017. Lee also took part in the 55th Venice Bi­en­nale.

The artist's prac­tice has been deeply rooted in his per­sonal sur­round­ings and daily ex­pe­ri­ences. Through a wide ar­ray of medi­ums that in­clude paint­ing, draw­ing, video and in­stal­la­tions, he ex­plores the hu­man sphere of emo­tions. Now split­ting his time be­tween Taipei and Hong Kong, Lee shares his lat­est re­flec­tions and thoughts through his new col­lec­tion. By ex­am­in­ing the habits and traces that com­pose our daily lives, he en­grosses the view­ers into a cryptic yet in­ti­mate ex­pe­ri­ence.

Lee has made pro­lific progress in a fi­nance-driven city where art is never an ob­vi­ous ca­reer choice. “Hon­estly, when I look back, I didn't even want to be an artist,” says Lee, as the rev­e­la­tions con­tinue apace, all with a wry smile and in good hu­mour. So what would he rather have done? “When I was young, I was very good at earn­ing money. Be­cause of my fam­ily bur­den, I had to earn money. I was a worker and DJ in a bar. That was in Mong Kok and it was the early 1990s. I was a con­struc­tion worker on a con­struc­tion site. I was a designer. I was a

teacher. I didn't want to be an artist.” But he so hap­pened to ex­cel. “I was good at art. I stud­ied art but I didn't want to be a pro­fes­sional artist be­cause I didn't know what a pro­fes­sional artist was or what it meant.”

He isn't a po­lit­i­cal artist, per se, but Lee at­tracted a great deal of at­ten­tion when he moved to Taipei in 2012. Why did he feel the need? “I was an­gry in 2012 be­cause of the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in Hong Kong,” he says, not­ing the fact but then draw­ing on prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions for the de­ci­sion. “If I re­ally want to make a paint­ing, I need dis­tance, oth­er­wise I can­not see the paint­ing. Paint­ing is very sim­ple; you need a cer­tain dis­tance. If you're work­ing on a small can­vas, you need dis­tance, and big­ger can­vases need even more. So I thought I should move some­where else.”

Ini­tially he thought of Ber­lin, but felt it too far and plumped for Tai­wan. “Also, of course, be­cause I love Chi­nese cul­ture,” he says. “I moved there with a small suit­case. I called a friend and asked if I could stay. For me, Tai­wan is a good choice. I didn't move there. I just had a small suit­case with me.”

As lightly as he trav­els, our con­ver­sa­tion hops and skips be­tween top­ics at some speed. His favourite book is One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude, by Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez, but he also loves the short sto­ries of Amer­i­can writer Ray­mond Chan­dler, whose books he can read “all the time”. He Face­books, but re­luc­tantly. “I don't re­ally like it be­cause it's also a kind of brain­wash­ing.”

He talks of Hong Kong be­ing a city where every­one loves money but in which its artists are “anti-mak­ing money”. And of art now be­ing part of “the en­ter­tain­ment sys­tem” and tak­ing greater con­trol of his own cre­ative des­tiny. “Maybe I want to do things apart from art,” he muses. “Some­thing for the peo­ple. I want to show some­thing that peo­ple don't know me for.” Lee's never been very “present” in a Jeff Koon­sian art way, so that ad­mis­sion runs counter to his more elu­sive per­sona. “I never con­tacted so­cialites. I never con­tacted cu­ra­tors or did pro­mo­tions, or ap­proached peo­ple for ex­hi­bi­tions or fund­ing,” he says proudly, as if to re­mind me of his “brand” and its or­gan­i­cally grown power.

Then we're back to Ver­meer – and the love still shows. “Ver­meer painted very nat­u­ral things,” says Lee. “When I first started trav­el­ling, I saw his paint­ings and no­ticed some­thing: I started to cry when look­ing at his paint­ings. Then I un­der­stood. And at that point, I can say I re­ally loved this artist's work much more than any other artist's work. Then I started to re­alise we had sim­i­lar­i­ties. For ex­am­ple, he al­ways has a map at the back of his paint­ings. His sense of light­ing is sim­i­lar, some­thing very ba­nal. The things in life that we paint… we like sim­i­lar things.

“I learned some­thing from his paint­ings: sin­cer­ity. It's not com­mon now. I think sin­cer­ity is very im­por­tant. As an artist, if you can­not be sin­cere, you can­not be hon­est. If you're hon­est but not sin­cere, it doesn't mean any­thing.”

And with that, he's gone.

From far left: Lee Kit in Mas­simo De Carlo gallery; Sorry, 2017; Some­one you can’t leave be­hind, 2017

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