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Two Polaroid photographs side by side. The photograph on the left shows a girl face down, leaning her head on the thigh of a person dressed in a short white skirt and grey sweater. The photograph on the right shows a bundle of red chopsticks tied together with string, lying on top of a surface covered in red fabric with images of large pink flowers.

Wong Wo Bik’s Daring and Beautiful Polaroids

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In this post, take a closer look at the work of Wong Wo Bik, one of the artists whose Wikipedia article was improved during the recent Art+Feminism: Wikipedia Edit-a-thon on Women in Art in Asia co-organised by M+ and Asia Art Archive. In total, participants added or improved over thirty Wikipedia articles about women artists in Asia in addition to Wong. You can see a full list of outcomes on the event's results page.

Hong Kong photographer Wong Wo Bik (b. 1949) is best known for her images of architectural landmarks documenting Hong Kong’s transition from a colonial to a post-colonial city. In contrast, her instant print photography reveals lesser-known aspects of her work that are experimental, daring, female-centred, autobiographical, and at times surreal. The M+ Collections contain examples of her architectural photography, but also a large selection of these Polaroid works. These include experimental works from her student years, as well as her more mature Polaroid works from the 1980s.

Wong began her photography career in the late 1970s. Drawn to buildings facing imminent demolition, Wong’s photographs of historical architecture and other sites contain the remnants of the lives of the past occupants. Wong’s works are important in the history of Hong Kong photography, paving the way for other photography-based artists exploring avant-garde visualities such as Holly Lee and Lee Ka-sing.

Two Polaroid photographs side by side. The photograph on the left shows an empty theme park ride in which people sitting in seats ride in circles around a large central rotation mechanism. The photograph on the right shows a view looking down on several floors of circular staircases that wind around a central pillar.

Wong Wo Bik, Untitled 5, Hong Kong, 1981–1983, and Steps leading down from Pao Sui Loong Galleries, Arts Centre, Hong Kong, 1982, M+, Hong Kong. © Wong Wo Bik.

In the early 1980s, after returning to Hong Kong from her studies in the United States, Wong began experimenting with Polaroid photography. An instant phenomenon that made photography more accessible, Polaroid photography was recognised by many artists for its creative potential. This was an association that Polaroid encouraged by supplying artists with cameras and film. Wong was the only artist commissioned by Polaroid in Hong Kong to publish her work in book form. In Color & Consent, Wong chose fifty of her Polaroids for publication.

Wong’s subjects in this series include herself, studio interiors, vintage fabrics, and objects from daily life. These are often juxtaposed in unexpected, unlikely, and sometimes surreal compositions. Because of the intimate and spontaneous nature of Polaroids, you are invited to view the images more closely and question the scenes and objects captured.

Two Polaroid photographs side by side. The photograph on the left shows a black net bag laid out on a surface of white fabric. Three leaves made out of translucent fabric are spread out on and around the bag. Two of the leaves have a butterfly embroidered on them, and one of the leaves has a cricket embroidered on it. A row of Polaroid photos to the right of the bag shows how these items could be combined in different ways. The photograph on the right shows a woman wearing a turquoise turtleneck cardigan with a 3D flower pattern stitched across the chest. Only the lower half of her face is visible.

Wong Wo Bik, Hung Hom Studio, Hong Kong, 1981, and Self portrait 2, Manila, 1981–1982, M+, Hong Kong. © Wong Wo Bik.

Two Polaroid photographs side by side. The photograph on the left shows a person’s bare feet sticking out from under a long red dress with small leaf patterns on it. One of the feet dig into a sheet of fabric lying on the floor. The photograph on the right shows a girl wearing white in a dark space with her back to the camera.

Wong Wo Bik, Hung Hom Studio, Hong Kong, Self-portrait #1, 1982, and Polaroid Spectra 5, 1986, M+, Hong Kong. © Wong Wo Bik.

As a student, Wong worked closely with performance artists. Her interest in storytelling through movement is reflected in the composition of her Polaroids that defy a coherent narrative, like a ‘story half-told’. This contributes to the surreal and sometimes jarring visual qualities of these powerful works. Wong also often included herself in her Polaroids, creating a tension between her role as the subject, and her identity as the photographer.

Interested in helping us contribute to Wikipedia? Join the M+ and AAA Wikithon Facebook group to take part and hear about upcoming edit-a-thons.

Two Polaroid photographs side by side. The photograph on the left shows a small metal fan against a background of red fabric. Four small rectangular pieces of paper are stick to different parts of the fan. The photograph on the right shows a big potted plant standing on the pavement next to a road. It stands behind a narrow white pillar, sticking out on each side of the pillar in a symmetrical fashion.

Wong Wo Bik, Hung Hom Studio, Hong Kong #3, 1982, and Polaroid Promotion 3, 1986, M+, Hong Kong. © Wong Wo Bik.

Footnotes:

  1. Eve Tam, Hong Kong/China Photographers Four: Wong Wo Bik, 2009, Asia One Product and Publishing Limited.

Image at top of post: Wong Wo Bik, Two sisters, Hong Kong, 1981, and Hung Hom Studio, Hong Kong #1, 1982, M+, Hong Kong. © Wong Wo Bik.

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