Paul Mok – The Study of Mundane

Paul Mok in dialogue with Art Spiel on his show at GAIA in Dumbo

Paul Mok – The Study of Mundane – 2020 – image courtesy of the artist

Designer, architect, and visual artist Paul Mok shares with Art Spiel the origin, idea and process behind his installation based solo exhibition at GAIA in Dumbo.
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AS: You were born in Hong Kong, worked as a designer and later also studied architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. What brought you to installation?

PM: Architecture and installations are different only in a practical sense, I think, not in the essence. I have spent about a decade now in the field of architectural design, and I don’t see putting up installations in an art gallery as a deviation from my career at all.

In the book The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennette defines identity as the “meeting point between who a person wants to be and what the world allows him to be.” Many of my friends are architects. And many of them, because they are architects, only care to design architecture and only find things interesting when they are “architecturally interesting.” That, to me, is like putting the cart before the horse (putting identities before selves). It’s a counter-productive way of being.

The other way to answer your question would be that I never intended to make installations. I was making something because I felt the urge to approach a fundamental problem through making. Some of them ended up being installations. So making installations was never the intention. It was an end-result.

AS: Tell me about the body of work in your current show at GAIA – what is the idea behind it.

PM: In 2018, I graduated from the design school with a thesis titled To Play. “Playing” is a notion I borrowed from developmental psychology, which could mean negotiating the perception of reality through the act of creating.

I titled it The Study of Mundane because, at some point, I have come to realize that the mundane (the faucet, the shower curtain, the lotion bottles) “speaks” in a language I don’t yet fully understand. I then asked myself, If I were to call that a language, how would I decode it? What would a field linguist do to study an undocumented language? I concluded that he would need to collect data, a substantial database of ‘this means that’. “Mundane” here is just another word for “existence” or “being”, and to collect “data”, I had to make. And make a lot. The show is a small collection of the outcomes from that process, a glimpse into the “database”.

AS: Let’s look at Out of Thick Air for example – origin, material, process?

PM: Out of Thick Air is a display I designed for a lifestyle brand WORM NY, whose founder, Amanda Maldonado, granted me complete creative freedom. I made it out of the insulation foam sealant from Home Depot. When I first got my hands on that material, I did many experiments. I realized I could spray it to create a cloud-like sculpture, and I could also spray it on a water surface to create flat platforms. With these two techniques I ended up making two displays. I did not include any of these two display designs in the exhibition. The making process, though, was documented as photographs and were nailed to the wall of the gallery.

AS: What would you like to share about A Box with Two Titles.

PM: That box was an outcome from a pretty peculiar, and to a very large extent, aimless process that lasted for about half a year.

I work full time as a designer in an architecture office here in New York. At some point, I started making these gestural forms out of clay every night after dinner. I didn’t know what they were (I still don’t), but I kept making them. In the summer of 2019, I had to move from Wall Street to a dungeon in Brooklyn. I thought I needed to put them all inside a box. That was when the idea of having a box first came. Then one night, I was having drinks with my girlfriend and her friends in a bar, and I saw an electrical box on the wall. That was when I decided that there would be an electrical outlet in the middle of the box. That electrical box became a conceptual anchor.

Since it was a box put together without any clear intentions or statements, it is very open to interpretation, though that doesn’t mean it is neutral. I realized that I was composing it when the big protest first started in Hong Kong. I didn’t consciously want my works to have any direct relationship with the event, but in hindsight, one could claim that 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. Some people found the forms phallic. Some said they looked like little creatures. To me they are just gestures, like the strokes in a Francis Bacon’s painting.

Paul Mok – Out of Thick Air – 2019 – photo courtesy of the artist

Paul Mok – A Box With Two Titles – 2019 – photo courtesy of the artist

AS: Your installation seems to include text. How do you see the relationship between image and word in your work?

PM: Texts turned out to be a tricky part of the exhibition. Initially, I thought no one would take a close look at those writings, but to my surprise, quite a few visitors read through all of them. I guess for most people, the texts seem to be telling you something “directly”. But the texts are not any more direct or indirect than a doodle on a napkin, or a casually taken photo. You know how, when you are sitting in a cafe late at night and your mind starts drifting away but you still see everything in front of you: the cups, the shy young men, their laptops, the coffee stain, the old man in red checkered shirt reading a book of crippled, yellow paper, and you want to take a photo to capture all that, or draw a sketch. For me, that’s what those short writings do. And that’s why, even though some people call them poetry, or short stories, on my website I just call them “facts”. Because they are facts. As factual as an image you take at a certain time with a certain sensation to process a certain set of given circumstances.

To me, images, texts, drawings and forms are just means to approach and address something. Even architecture is just a means – a relatively more complex one. I am a designer and I have been seeking something beneath these means, a concept perhaps, for the lack of a better word. While chasing that concept, I naturally make use of all the tools I could get my hands on. Some turned out to be texts. Some turned out to be images. Some turned out to be gestural forms. Some turned out to be functional. Some turned out to be architecture.

Paul Mok – exhibition set up at Gallery GAIA – March 2020 – photo courtesy of the artist

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: