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Where's the frame

February 3, 2022 12:56 PM


Michael and Chiyan Ho are a fascinating artistic duo. Not only because they work and produce work with the two of them together, but they also work in a very unique and mesmerising visual language. Almost unsettling figurative, it’s textured, and has a very uncommon colour palette - it’s amazing! In this 'in conversation with' edition, Michael and Chiyan Ho take us through their journey from how they started working together to how they transitioned into being artists after graduating from the Architectural Association. We also talk about how they explore the notion of how within the Chinese diaspora, cultural mismatch and cultural (re)discovery, where Eastern traditions clash with western aesthetics.

We are in awe of your amazing works as an artist duo. What made you decide to pair up and go through the artistic journey together?

CH: Thank you for the kind words! I suppose our notion of working together started long before we actually made any work together. During our years at the Architectural Association, we always appreciated each other’s work. Although at the time we were pursuing individual projects, we would always be learning from and pushing one another’s endeavours, in that sense we already saw the value in teamwork. It was sort of an unspoken idea that we would ultimately work together as a duo and during our penultimate and final years at the AA we finally started to experiment and consciously make work together. 

MH: Yes, it was quite a natural transition since we had also been living together throughout the years of AA and coincidentally always ended up in the same units and because of that people had already started to perceive us as a duo back then.

As written in your site, both of you graduated from the Architectural Association (best architecture school in the world!!!). Why the sudden change in your career path? And can you share with us a little bit about your experience in AA?

MH: We both started in the AA Foundation course, in which we currently also teach – we made a full circle. The course was probably one of the formative years for us. Coming from High school, I had never been exposed to conceptual thinking and in that sense, the course was truly eye opening – I really loved it. We both appreciated the diversity of architectural education, especially since the AA places emphasis on critical and conceptual thinking and you would get all kind of projects that are really pushing the boundaries of what architecture could be. Looking back, it really has shaped our critical outlook on life and prepared us with important skillsets. 

CH: The reason why we changed was because we felt there was a disconnect between the architectural education and profession, which is why we decided to pursue an art-based practise after all. Unlike architecture, art allows us to create without having to propose a solution to issues, but rather to challenge social and political tensions and to pose these questions to the audience.

You have created pieces that represent the idea of ‘Chinese diaspora, cultural mismatch and cultural (re)discovery, where Eastern traditions clash with western aesthetics’ as described in your page. Tell us more about your experiences with how and when you encounter the culture clash.

MH: We have and still are encountering these clashes in our lives, I guess that is just part of being diasporic. The earliest memory of a cultural clash I can think of would probably be at home with my parents. They have always tried to teach me Chinese values which often times would go against my own as I have been growing up in a small town in Germany. As one of the very few Chinese people, I wanted to assimilate and felt very disconnected to my Chinese heritage. It was only when I was older that I started to appreciate Chinese culture and understood where my parents were coming from.

CH: I would say I had a very similar experience growing up. I grew up in a village where there was only one other Chinese family who coincidentally owned the local Chinese takeaway. I would always remember that on their menu they would have the classics like sweet and sour pork, kung pow chicken, etc... but they would also serve up some British classics such as fish and chips. I always found this peculiar, to me it represented a rather poignant example of this clash of cultures.

Michael and Chiyan Ho, Midnight Pearl, 2020

Have you experienced creative blocks? If so, how have you overcome them?

MH: For sure, we have experienced them many times and it would be worrying if we weren’t. It sounds cheesy but mistakes are invaluable to the process of growing. We are lucky that there are two of us in the studio so whenever we do face creative blocks, we are able to go into long discussions, trying to dissect the issues and find ideas. 

CH: It’s quite rare that both of us would simultaneously be in a rut, its usually just one or the other. So, in this scenario we are often able to resolve one another’s creative block.

I see a repetition or pattern of element in your pieces. What inspired you to create them?

MH: The patterns or more abstract elements of our paintings that are visible is actually the paint that is bleeding through from the back of the canvas to the front. We initially developed this specific painting technique for our first series of paintings we created as a duo during the pandemic. At that point in our practice we were looking into Chinese erotic paintings and how they have been banned in China since the cultural revolution. Often times these paintings needed to be hidden in people’s closets or under the bed. We were intrigued by this idea and started to paint on the back of the canvas to paint something that is hidden in plain sight behind another painting. As we turned the canvas around to paint on it again, we noticed subtle qualities of the paint coming through from the back and the way it was diluting or abstracting the original image. The back to front painting technique was seen as a way to sneak Chinese erotic paintings into an exhibition in China. Since then, we have refined this painting technique and used it to depict an endless liminal landscape that is often referencing the New Territories in Hong Kong to talk about notions of in-betweenness, belonging and home.

Michael and Chiyan Ho, Where Moonlight was Drowned, 2020

Most of your exhibitions (group and solo) happened during the pandemic. To you, what has been the hardest part of exhibiting your work during this time?

MH: In general, the pandemic has had a very positive impact on our practice and was somehow perfectly timed as we had just graduated from the AA. As London went into lockdown, we were able to focus and experiment in our studio undisturbed by any external factors, ultimately allowing us to find our voice and current practice. 

CH:  We needed to produce work that we felt spoke to us rather than the intension of trying to get exhibitions, although we did participate in online group shows and E-publication during the pandemic, which of course was missing the physicality of the artworks – the priority was definitively placed on producing works that resonated with ourselves.

Michael and Chiyan Ho, The Return of the Perpetual Foreigner in One’s Own Mind, 2020

Are there any pieces of work that you are most proud of? Why?

MH: For us it is probably the body of work that was presented at Soft Opening as part of Intra-action curated by Kate Wong. It was in some sense a milestone for us after a whole year locked in our studio and experimenting. It was a tough year with a lot of ups and downs, we spent hours just discussing work that we had produced ranging from sculptures to garments to videos, but they were lacking something, perhaps authenticity? Not sure. Anyways, it was only until we produced the series of paintings that were shown at Soft Opening, that when we looked at the work it felt “right” to us (aesthetically and conceptually) and it really set the direction of our current practice.

Intra-action Part 2 at Soft Opening, Picadilly Circus Underground Station

If there is a song that could perfectly describe your lives, which one would it be and why?

MH: I think I’m speaking for both of us, it has to be Maggot Brain by Funkadelic. Eddie Hazel guitar solo is just pure catharsis.

Michael and Chiyan Ho, Quick on the Draw, 2020

Do people’s reactions to your work ever affect what you create or don’t create?

CH: I don’t think so, we always try to present work that correlates with our own opinions, but we wouldn’t want to prescribe these attitudes onto the audience. We feel comfortable for our work to have a number of (mis)interpretations, and we see this as an invaluable quality of art. Often these new readings can reveal an element of the work that might have been disregarded.

What is the best advice you have been given in the art realm?

Trust your gut or as George Clinton would say, “free your mind and your ass will follow”.

To follow the projects Michael and Chiyan Ho are working on, you can visit their Instagram.

All photos courtesy of the artist.

where's the frame - ‘in conversation with’ is a weekly series featuring emerging vanguard artists. Stay tuned for more interviews, published every Friday.

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