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Michael Lau about his new collaboration with Puma, how he got to where he is today and much moreEDGAR talks exclusively to Hong Kong-based artist
Tell us about your start as an artist and how that led to creating urban vinyl figures and becoming known as 'the godfather of toy figures'...
I graduated from the Design First Institute in Hong Kong in 1992 while doing painting restoration as a part time job as a student. I held my first solo exhibition in 1993 at the Hong Kong Art Centre and my second, a series of paintings titled “Watergarden,” again at the Hong Kong Art Centre in 1996 while working at an advertising agency as a visualiser. Apart from my passion in art, I have an avid interest in collecting vintage G.I. Joe action figures. I began this once I started working and was able to support that interest as an adult, as toys were scary to me as a kid. The end of the 90s was a boom of the street culture phenomenon; a lot of my friends lived within street culture worlds like skateboarding, hip hop, and graffiti art. I really like street culture myself and also got a lot of inspiration from my friends living in that world. So, I started a comic named ‘The Gardeners’ in a local lifestyle title called East Touch in 1998. I was trying to create my own little utopia of different personalities from the street culture world, living their way, having their own language and attitude in their own little Garden. After the two exhibitions with painting, I started thinking about what to do for the third one, and I thought why not merge the Gardeners with my passion for 12” action figures to create my own “Gardener” series in 3D form? So, with a loan from a friend and from the government, I took one year to create 99 12-inch action figures, which I conceived as a new form of art, not just as a toy, and launched the exhibition titled the “Gardener” on Sep 29, 1999 at the Hong Kong Art Centre. The response was overwhelming, I never expected it would receive such worldwide attention too. Many people wanted to buy the work, but it was certainly not possible for me to hand make every piece with such demand. So, I started exploring vinyl as a medium for limited edition production and in a 6-inch size, which I launched in 2000. It was an immediate hit and I started to create a lot of work under the same material and size that I pioneered. The price point and edition size are obviously not meant to be for children, so people started calling it a designer toy. I later created the term ARTOY (Art Toy) with my exhibition in Seoul in 2013. Since a lot of designers and artists followed suit in my path in the 2000’s; the designer toy has become a genre on its own. I think that’s why people credited me as the Godfather of Toy Figures.
How does the street culture of Hong Kong affect your art? What inspires you?
Hong Kong is a melting pot of east and west, we are lucky to be exposed to many different cultures here, which helps to set my perspective on an international lens. From its background as a leader in toy manufacturing back in the 70s and 80s, to the array of people and toys that I was able to be exposed to in Hong Kong in my toy collection days. And finally to the 90s at the boom of the street culture, where I had so many friends from that world (skateboarding, hip hop, graffiti...), the city allowed my creativity to fly in creating work that is in a way authentic to a part of Hong Kong history, yet not only ‘Hong Kong,’ but international in flavour.
Toy figures, paintings and footwear are just a few of the pieces you’ve created - how would you define your artwork and style?
No matter if it is a toy figure, painting or footwear, I always create my work as a piece of art. In recent years, I had declared the statement “All art are toys, all toys are art.” Some people collect toy figures, some collect sneakers, some collect paintings and some collect watches. No matter what you collect, such items to the collector have an ability to provide emotional value, in the same way that toys can provoke wonder and curiosity. To every collector, their collection is their beloved toy as well as a work of art. I have been relentlessly trying to challenge the notion of contemporary art under that thinking. I always like to put a message and meaning behind my work in a light-hearted way. Even in delivering serious topics, while also adding a bit of my dry humour and quirkiness.
Do you have a personal favorite piece or figure that you’ve created?
The “Gardener” always has a special place in my heart. I still remember the day when I finally completed the series; I looked at them and I cracked into a crazy laughter. I felt I had invented a new form of art.
The Worth Cat is a toy figure you created to embody the Puma Cat logo. How did the idea come about, specifically the idea of using a sample fabric to create the cat?
I wanted to present a Puma Cat logo that is fitted to the Michael Lau aesthetic while respecting the concept of the capsule collection being about process of ‘Sample’ creation, hence, the idea of using the shape of the sample fabric as its form.
Michael Lau: “I felt I had invented a new form of art”
You’ve worked with Puma before for the Suede 50 collection, but this is your first full line with the brand. What made you decide to partner with it again?
To me every collaboration is always for good friends or good money [laughs]. Jokes aside, it was a happy experience to work with the Puma team for the Suede 50 collaboration. They respected my design concept, and it took them a long time in finding ways to realise it - the end result was pleasing to all. I appreciate partners who gives me total freedom to do what I want while supporting me to execute it. I’d never designed a full line of apparel like this one before, and it is always nice to have the opportunity to try something new and different, so I thought, why not.
The collection inspiration comes from the product creation process and manufacturing errors – how do you find beauty in these mistakes...
Anyone who has ever worked in a production process has interesting stories about errors made by the factory when developing a sample. During my twenty years of manufacturing experience, whether for a toy, installation or sculpture work, I’ve always been amazed by the ‘creativity’ of the factory in the mistakes they made. At times, you might even be inspired. So I thought why not celebrate these ‘errors’ and turn them into an aesthetic of its own.
How did you merge your design aesthetic and style with Puma’s designs and silhouettes?
Puma has been very open to support my concept, so applying my design aesthetic and style to apparel is just a different medium of 3D form. In the end, like every one of my collaborations, I hope to deliver a 1+1=3 result that respects Puma’s DNA while delivering Michael Lau’s style and story.
Tell us about a key look or favourite piece that embodies the collection. How does it express the feel of the collection and the two brands?
I like the whole collection; it is hard to pick a single piece. But if you insist, I would say the ‘Sample’ Suede shoes in poppy red. You can clearly see the story of the ‘Sample’ concept from last time being evolved. Many of the design cues, the aesthetic and silhouette of the Puma Suede are obviously there, yet you can see a strong Michael Lau influence, which makes it interesting and different. That’s why I call it 1+1=3.
How would you describe the collection in three words?
Sample, trial, error.
END OF INTERVIEW