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Shaping sensual knowledge

Sunday, June 22, 2014

In Joshua Lue Chee Kong’s first exhibition, Moulded Memories, a number of fantastical characters take shape. It is the first time the trained graphic artist is working with polymer clay, a material often used in stop motion animation. Lue Chee Kong studied at the Savannah College of Art and Design (Scad) and worked with Alfalfa Studio in New York. In T&T, he is a freelance branding and publication specialist and design consultant. Marsha Pearce interviewed him about his show, which opened on June 12 at Medulla Art Gallery.


This body of work was triggered two years ago with an invitation to a Raku pottery class taught by Bunty O’Connor. Can you pinpoint what sustained your interest in clay beyond those classes? When I was in college, sculpture was one of the subjects but I wasn’t interested in it at the time. Bunty’s personality and the learning environment she created kept me moving and working with clay.


You link this collection of clay pieces to memories and your being captivated by dreams. How have memories and dreams played a role in this work?
I think a dream—and I am saying this without any scientific backing—is a visual cue that takes a moment or a part of our day and does not let us forget it. We only remember parts, though, not the entire day, and it is often tied to our senses: something we heard or saw, for instance. This collection of work comes from the sensory knowledge I have collected over the years; the work comes from my dreams.


Part of your sensory knowledge seems to include folklore. There are local folklore characters present in this body of work: Papa Bois and La Diablesse, for example. Why is mythology of interest to you?
I have always been fascinated with the stories people tell. I ask myself, “How can I tell these well-established stories and make new narratives?” I think I have taken up the mantle of such artists as Alfredo Codallo, but in telling the stories, I am going in a direction that appeals to a wider age range.


Each of your pieces can be a protagonist in a fanciful tale. Do you use any particular visual strategies for drawing people to the characters you create and the stories that can potentially unfold with each one?
I do a lot of faces because it is something people can relate to. They can have a private conversation with the pieces. 
People have also mentioned the Play-Doh or Plasticine look of my work, which draws them back into their childhood, their memories and imagination.


During your time at Scad you produced a screen-printed book called the Mystic Beings. The book includes images of deities that represent the elements of earth, wind, fire and water. Do the clay sculptures continue this investigation of the mystical and spiritual?

The clay sculptures do have a mysticism to them and are, in a way, a continuation of ideas in that book project. I love going to churches, temples and other places of worship. They all have iconographies, symbols and deities, which are reflected in my work. 

I incorporate shapes and symbols that even I don’t know what they mean. They come from my subconscious, from what my dreams make me remember. It is only when someone comes and says, for example, “I see a Hindu symbol,” that I can identify some of the forms I have produced.


Can you tell me more about the process of creating these works?
While I am working, I have no idea what I am doing. The shape forms itself. I have dot—visual points in my head that I want to connect—and the shadow of the work, but I don’t have the final idea. The process happened in two ways: After a hard day at work I would sit with the clay, which would form itself in one night, or I would have an intricate idea in my head for days and it would continue to develop until I was ready to sit and produce it. People see the details in the pieces and say that it must have involved a lot of hard work and that I must be a very patient person but the process didn’t feel like work. I enjoyed it. I had fun.


I notice your use of the word “enjoy.” Do you know that Raku is the Japanese word for enjoyment?
I didn’t know that. I guess my enjoyment started with Bunty’s Raku classes. By shifting from graphic design to this sculptural work, I experienced the enjoyment of unrestricted freedom. 
Graphic design is more client-based […] but this art was for me. There was no one saying: “I don’t like those colours.” I also felt joy in moving from working on a computer screen to working with physical materials from the start of the creative process.


Do you feel your training in graphic design has influenced this work?
I am not sure I am completely clear about how graphic design influences this work. However, in my training I learned about design elements and principles: line, shape, space, texture, balance and so on. I love symmetry. I love balance—visual balance. I don’t think people are conscious of my use of symmetry in this work. Even the layout of the exhibition space at the gallery is balanced, down to the spacing of the pieces.


What is next for you? Will you continue to work with clay?
Yes and no. I am always experimenting and clay is one part of that process. Clay will influence my next project in some way. I want to do a performance art piece. It is something I have never done. I always want to try something different at least once and learn from the process. That is the great thing about creativity. There are many paths of expression you can follow.


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