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Paul Wong delighted over pairing of his 1970s experimental self-portraiture with works by Chinatown contemporary Theodore Wan

7 Day Activity
Paul Wong, 7 Day Activity, 1977/2008, video (still), Courtesy of Paul Wong Studio.

When experimental interdisciplinary artist and curator Paul Wong wanted to express himself in the 1970s, he often turned a camera on himself. For example, in 60 Unit; Bruise (1976), his friend and collaborator, Kenneth Fletcher, withdrew 60 units of blood from his arm on video and reinjected it into Wong’s shoulder.

Wong followed that intimate shocker with 7 Day Activity (1977) in which he photographed himself undergoing different treatments for acne. Another project, in ten sity (1978), was a five-camera surveillance recording of him inside the Vancouver Art Gallery expressing punkish angst and youthful rage.

“For me, the act of recording it and working with this material was a way of claiming that space and being okay with it,” Wong tells Pancouver by phone. “It was very radical back then.”

Paul Wong in ten sity
Paul Wong, in ten sity, 1978, black and white video (still), Courtesy of Paul Wong Studio.

Wong notes that nowadays, almost everyone turns a camera on themselves. But back in the ’70s, he wasn’t doing this in pursuit of followers on social media or to satisfy his own narcissism. Rather, he was making statements as an artist by publicly sharing private aspects of his life.

“In my case, my body was cheap,” Wong quips. “I didn’t have to pay for it and I didn’t have to get permission.”

In 7 Day Activity, he offered a critique of beauty culture as a “pimply, geeky, gangly, young man” of Chinese ancestry. Wong points out that he dedicated in ten city to his friend Fletcher, who had committed suicide a few months prior to this performance. Both works were digitally remastered in 2008.

Paul Wong
Paul Wong, Day 5: Zinc Ointment (from the 7 Day Activity series), 1977, colour photograph dry mounted on card, 61 x 42 cm, Courtesy of Paul Wong Studio.

Wong and Wan worked near one other

Wong created a companion to 60 Unit; Bruise in 1976 entitled 50/50. For a long time, he thought this film had been lost until it recently showed up in the Western Front’s archives. 50/50 was his first work in colour.

On April 20, the Richmond Art Gallery began presenting these works, as well as a newly re-edited film called Blood Brother (1976/2024), in an exhibition called Unit Bruises: Theodore Wan & Paul Wong, 1975 – 1979. Guest curated by Michael Dang, it also features self-portraits by another Canadian artist of Chinese ancestry, Theodore Saskatche Wan, who died in 1987.

Unit Bruises is part of the 2024 Capture Photography Festival Selected Exhibition Program.

Paul Wong Theodore Wan
Theodore Sasketche Wan, Panoramic Dental X-Ray (1 of 3), 1977, silver gelatin print on paper, 27.2 x 34.9 cm, Collection of Vancouver Art Gallery, Acquisition Fund.

The Hong Kong-born Wan and the Prince Rupert-born Wong were contemporaries in the 1970s. They both worked as conceptual and performance artists in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

Whereas some of Wan’s self-portraits depict the artist as a patient in formally constructed photographs with a medical or dental feel, Wong’s imagery in the exhibition is wilder and more freewheeling. Wong suggests that their different styles reflect that Wan had studied art at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, whereas he did not do any formal training.

“I was hanging out, getting inspired, and making things for a whole different kind of audience—basically friends and not for galleries and museums,” Wong explains.

TheodoreWan Paul Wong
Theodore Sasketche Wan, Bridine Scrub For General Surgery (5 of 10), 1977, silver gelatin print, 50.5 x 40.4 cm, Collection of Vancouver Art Gallery, Acquisition Fund.

Artist-run centres helped Wong progress

The Video In collective took their art extremely seriously. According to Wong, he and the others spent a great deal of time discussing the future of video as a tool for education and social justice, as well as an alternative to mainstream television and film.

Wong’s “have camera, will travel” mindset led him to collaborate with many artists.

“I never had a career path,” Wong reveals. “I just allowed myself to grow and evolve.”

The Richmond Art Gallery is presenting Unit Bruises alongside Hazel Meyer’s solo show, The Marble in the Basement. Curated by Zoë Chan, it pays tribute to Canadian artist Joyce Wieland.

“These two exhibitions share parallel interests in archives and the queering of art histories,” Chan says in a Richmond Art Gallery news release.

Meanwhile, Wong emphasizes that artist-run centres were critical in his artistic advancement.

“They provided some collective infrastructure, resources, ideas, and assistance—psychologically and financially,” he declares. “I could never afford to own that equipment, but as a collective, we could share. We could learn from each other and network with each other.”

Moreover, Wong maintains that the artist-run network helps Canada stand out artistically.

“It’s allowed for a whole different kind of experimental art to have been made,” he states.

Over five decades, Wong has witnessed tremendous demographic changes in Canada. But he hasn’t seen demographics of audiences, makers, programmers, and arts infrastructure personnel change nearly as quickly.

However, Wong still feels encouraged by new voices emerging in recent years. He’s particularly impressed by the works of Indigenous artists.

“A lot of it is urgent,” Wong says. “A lot of it is very original and a lot of it is very authentic… That creates an excitement.”

Event details

The Richmond Art Gallery presents Unit Bruises: Theodore Wan & Paul Wong 1975 – 1979 and The Marble in the Basement until June 30. Paul Wong will join curator Michael Dang in conversation in the Richmond Cultural Centre Performance Hall at 2 p.m. on May 25. Register through the Richmond Art Gallery website

Unit Bruises is part of the 2024 Capture Photography Festival Selected Exhibition Program. Follow Pancouver on X @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.