Interview with Paul Mok

Paul Mok, Installation view, The Study of the Mundane, Zone III. 

Paul Mok: The Study of the Mundane

Gallery GAIA : March 5 through March 29, 2020

Art Mora Gallery : August 12 through September 9, 2020

By CORI HUTCHINSON, August 2020

Multimedia artist and architectural designer Paul Mok’s solo exhibition, The Study of the Mundane, at Gallery GAIA was first installed in March and will soon be reinstalled at Art Mora Gallery in August. In advance of its return, Mok and I corresponded about the facets and intention behind its first iteration, as well as the notions of play and the mundane that shape this featured work.  

CORI HUTCHINSON: Can you speak to the title of your recent exhibition at Gallery GAIA in Vinegar Hill, The Study of the Mundane?  

PAUL MOK: The title came from a Google Doc that I started on 15th December, 2019. That winter, I wanted to work on a new personal project. The goal wasn’t clear, nor were the expected outcome or the appropriate methods, means or media. I tried to clarify to myself the intention behind the project, so I typed out my thoughts on various occasions. The Google Doc began like this:

The mundane speaks in a language you don’t yet fully understand.

But it does speak. Especially in the bathroom. Between the curtain. The bathtub. The lotion bottles. The sink. The faucet. The mirror. The toilet. The tissue paper.  

And sometimes the stairs. Sometimes the living room, when the light is off and everybody goes to bed.

It is trying to tell you something. In a loud whisper. 

So how do you decode that? How do you study a language? How does one study a language? It shouldn’t be a foreign language. It’s a native one. But may be a slang.

How does one study a language? How does a field linguist study an undocumented language?

You need to collect data. A substantial database of “this means that”.

It became a 743-word document. The last input was on 7th February, 2020. At some point, I titled the document The Study of Mundane. I landed the solo exhibition in February. I gave this title to the exhibition, hoping that the show would become part of the materials of this project.

Paul Mok, Installation view, The Study of the Mundane, Zone IV.

CH: Is the mundane in your work a presence or an absence?

PM: That’s a great question. I have also asked myself: has the notion of mundane been addressed at all? 

In the last year of design school, I was captivated by the notion of “playing” I borrowed from developmental psychology. I think an artist or a designer at work is in essence very similar to a child at play - manipulating available materials semi-subconsciously to negotiate reality. And that is an action that, under observation, can generate meanings. For example, when a child projects affection to a blanket, the blanket becomes a transitional object - a tool to negotiate the inner and outer reality.  

I think “mundane”, in the context of my never-finished personal project, was just another word for “circumstances” or “reality”. And the creative process (making, writing, drawing, designing) is the means to approach circumstances. The “mundane” to me is like the blanket to the playing child. And objectively speaking, the blanket is a presence in the act of playing. And therefore, so is the mundane in my work. 

CH: What is the relationship between installation and the mundane?

PM: As previously mentioned, the making process itself is a way to process the “mundane” (reality, circumstances, etc.). The installations are the outcomes. Sometimes, even after an installation was completed, what exactly the making process was addressing would remain unclear. A Fountain Head is an example. I still don’t fully understand why I made certain decisions in that installation. I am putting it up again at Gallery GAIA in August. I’ll probably change a few things this time. 

And some other times, the specific set of reality that I was processing became clearer in retrospect. I was making You Killed A Kiwi - A Situation Comedy For Those With Wounded Egos when the pro-democracy protest first started in Hong Kong in June, 2019. I did not want my works to have any direct or conscious relationship with immediate incidents. I thought that most of the decisions I made in that installation were based on random circumstances (e.g. I put these clay objects in a box because I was moving in June and I started imagining them inside a box; I put an electric outlet in the middle because I saw one in a bar and I thought it made sense for it to be in the center of the box as a visual anchor). In retrospect, though, it seems I might have absorbed and translated into the piece the devastating news I watched night after night and all the racing thoughts I woke up from for months. 

Paul Mok, Installation view, The Study of the Mundane, You Killed a Kiwi.

CH: How does your academic background in architecture inform your design process?

PM: It gave me the time and space I needed to approach design conceptually and personally. I even had enough time to learn something and unlearn it.

I was first trained to derive iterations of design from a clear, singular concept. I got pretty good at it. In fact, not only was I good at it, I was able to formulate in my head an obscure “formula” to generate “good designs”. It got me through 3 years of college and 2 years of practicing architecture in Hong Kong, and eventually got me into the design school at Harvard. 

But something was missing. These “concepts'' too often turned out to be alibis for personal aesthetic preference. And, most importantly, it seemed to me that nothing significantly new could come out from it. When I went back to school for a master’s degree in 2014, I told my roommate, “I could see the ‘dead-end’ of this way of design”. 

Without the concerns of budget and client, I had the time to struggle with tremendous doubt and self-criticism. I would pace around the design school lobby at 4am, among all the student projects in exhibition (mine included, sometimes), asking myself why all the designs looked the same. It took about 2-3 years before the aforementioned method began to take shape. 

Paul Mok, Installation view, The Study of the Mundane, A Fountain Head.

CH: What is the story behind the finger-like forms in You Killed A Kiwi and A Fountain Head? 

PM: There isn’t any particular story behind them…

When I first moved to New York, I lived in a very small flex-room in Manhattan. I mainly worked on drawings for about a year. At some point I had the urge to start making things with hands again, so I bought a few packs of clay and started smashing them, squeezing them… and that’s how they turned out. 

I made many of them, without any clear purpose or intention. It was only till much later that I decided to curate them into installations. 

CH: Are you living with any of these shapes right now? 

PM: Yes. They are on the floor, on the window sills. They are in the background right when I am typing this.

Paul Mok, Installation view, The Study of the Mundane, Zone III.

CH: What is the function of text in your practice?

PM: I think texts can capture a particular condition in a way similar to how a photograph would capture a scene. And occasionally, it helps to work out the intention behind an on-going project by putting some fleeting thoughts into words. 

CH: Who are your influences?

PM: I was drawn to psychology before architecture. Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections was my favorite book in high school. Nine years later, when I was researching for my graduation thesis in a master program in architecture, the Bollingen Tower - a house Jung took 13 years to build it himself - was my first architectural reference. The conception of the thesis took a lot of inspiration from the book Playing And Reality by the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. 

In 2009, I picked architecture instead of psychology. My twin brother, on the other hand, majored in psychology. But no, I have not discussed any of my projects with him. In fact, I can’t even remember when was the last time we spoke… he also switched to environmental science later on. 

CG Jung's tower in Bollingen, Swiss, 1998.

CH: Have you committed to any future or ongoing projects? 

PM: In my next project, I want to be able to capture existence (circumstances, a specific reality, a critical human condition, etc.). I just submitted an installation proposal to an open-call here in New York. I’m waiting to hear back.

I have also been drawing a triptych of stroke-drawings since quarantine. They are similar to the Draft series that I have done before, but a little bigger - each drawing will be 2.5’ x 3.5’. WM

Cori Hutchinson

Cori Hutchinson is a poet, watercolorist, and library assistant living in Brooklyn. 

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