Art Culture

Art in COVID: Johnson Tsang – Still in One Piece III

The Hong Kong-based artist Johnson Tsang specialises in surrealist ceramic sculptures of the face, and his artistic reaction to the pandemic offers up a thoughtful examination of intimacy in a time of crisis.

There is an immediate awareness that the face-masks are floating, suspended, held together only by their kiss. The faces themselves are missing, as are the identity-defining eyes, creating a sense of emptiness. In this way, the masks stand for the ‘tomb of the unknown soldier’ trope. Each face amounts to an icon of every person affected by the pandemic, and this effect is aided by the lack of paint on the ceramic. There is no differentiation here between the skin and the fabric, perhaps indicating metaphorically the relation of COVID to the body and its features. Surrealism is clearly key to Tsang’s philosophy: there is a sharp tension between the hyper-reality of the skin and facial features and the imagined nature of the piece as a whole. This reflects the emphasis in early surrealism on child’s play and dreams – both conditions that Tsang refers to in interviews as inspiration. But this piece is less ‘fun’ than his others, as the immediacy of the pandemic plays intensely on the mind of the viewer.

Nevertheless, there is a distinct hopefulness present: it is a sweet sculpture, exhibiting love in crisis. Even before the pandemic, Tsang cited love as the ‘answer’, in conversation with Julie Antolick Winters: ‘there [is] something deep in our souls which answers all the questions and problems happening right now. That is love.’ COVID as a worldwide challenge has evidently drawn Tsang closer to this premise; even in crisis and when we are separated from one another, there is nothing material or immaterial that can separate us or eradicate the strength of love. But this is not as naïve as it might appear – Tsang notes that ‘the word ‘love’ for me doesn’t represent only the pretty things…hate and fear are not the absence of love. It is just part of it’. He does not ask us to forget about the grave consequences of the virus, nor does he suggest abandoning efforts to solve or eradicate it. Rather, he provides a solace and peace with his image of love and intimacy.

Tsang’s philosophy of love does not only appear in the piece itself, but in his methods and artistic process. Speaking to Klassik Magazine, he describes his enjoyment of discovering sculpture: ‘the clay seemed so friendly to me, it listened to every single word in my mind and did exactly [what] I was expecting…every touch was so soothing.’ This loving and gracious vocabulary that Tsang employs to talk about his artistic process imitates the themes that disseminate from it. The smooth ceramic emits a soothing effect to the viewer, and knowing that Tsang finds pleasure in the making of the sculpture gives us even more peace.

Love seems like a simplistic answer to such a complex and difficult time, but the sculpture is somewhat simplistic too. It doesn’t dwell on the intricacies and minutiae of a world pandemic, or claim to find a solution. But what Tsang does provide is a great sense of consolation and relief.

More of Johnson Tsang’s work can be found on his blog or Instagram page: