“I realize my fantasies on paper, injected with my sense of humor. That’s what turns me on”
images courtesy of the artist and Herald St, London
Cary Kwok is a London based artist, known for his exquisite, often erotic, ball point pen drawings.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, he attended a footwear course there before moving to London to further his studies in the mid 90s spending six years at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design studying fashion at BA and MA levels.
A fascination with fashion, period costumes, footwear and sexuality forms the nucleus of Kwok’s subject matter, the diversity of styles and street fashion of London as well as period films also influence him greatly. Subjects range from explicit male nudes to period portraits and still lifes.
Hairstyles and shoes are among his favored subjects with work often subtly alluding to issues of race, ethnicity, culture, gender and sexual equality.
Leo Babsky is a London based curator and designer.
Cary Kwok interviewed by Leo Babsky.
Leo Babsky: This last year has been an ordeal: how have you coped?
Cary Kwok: It’s terrible that the pandemic’s been affecting so many people. It’s been sad seeing all the suffering and craziness around the world and it’s weird that it’s altered our ways of life so dramatically. Like not having the options to do all the stuff that you can usually take for granted. I work from home so I don’t usually leave the house much anyway so I’ve been coping okay I guess.
LB: Have you learnt anything about yourself this year / does your art teach you anything about yourself?
CK: Because of the pandemic? I guess I’ve learnt to be more accepting and tolerant of things and behaviors that usually annoy me. Not saying I’m completely free of that but I think I have a better understanding of why things and people are the way they are. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the pandemic or it’s something I’ve learnt from relationships/friendships in general.
I often try to apply my sense of humor to my erotic work. I like to look at sexuality quite lightheartedly despite the fact that sex sometimes involves emotions and love.
LB: With your more explicit works, where do those models come from? Do people pose for you/ Are they from porn/ Your imagination?
Cary: They usually come from my head. I do sometimes find references from porn but I also have friends who pose for me too.
A good friend posed for me for my last solo show ‘Am I Turning You On’ at Herald St, London back in February 2020, just before the first lockdown. I was very happy that it was very well received. My friend’s a very good model, he’s handsome and has the sexiest body.
LB: I read an interesting thing you said in another interview about being a non-white member of an ethnic minority and how that made you feel somewhat responsible for ‘behaving well’ ; I think any member of a minority group can relate to that pressure to fit in, respectability politics etc. Have I interpreted that correctly?
CK: I meant to say ‘as a member of an ethnic minority living in the West’. It’s not so much ‘I’m not like those people, rather that If people see you as a representative of anything for whatever reason, you feel somewhat pressured to behave responsibly, to give those who are not familiar with your culture, sexuality or anything a good impression. It’s kind of like if someone has never had fish and chips before. You’d want to introduce them to good quality fish and chips, not give them some sloppy crap then wonder why they don’t want to try it again?
And if people already have a negative stereotype about your culture / sexuality or anything, perhaps your kindness, niceness or positive behaviors can be a more effective way to challenge their negative beliefs and somehow change how they see you. Rather than getting angry and questioning why people don’t look at you positively, which to me seems counter-productive. Directing anger at people who’re not familiar with you for not understanding you would only reinforce the negative stereotypes they already have about you.
I’m not saying I have to alter my behavior to fit in. I don’t go out of my way to behave differently to prove anything. It’s just the way I am, I try to be as considerate as I can. Also I feel responsible because I wasn’t born or brought up in the UK; I came to study and it was my choice to stay because I fell in love with the country, the people and the culture.
I’m not saying everything is perfect here, of course it’s not, but I feel that I’m an adopted member of society in the UK, even though I make my contribution, because I chose to live here.
I think it’s important for me to integrate while maintaining myself and the positive aspects of my own culture and beliefs, rather than asking society to change to accommodate me as someone who’s too arrogant to adapt.
LB: Do you think some of your more explicit work is a subconscious reaction to the queer, immigrant, POC experience, like ‘fuck you I am gonna draw an ejaculating dick!’ Haha
CK: Haha, no, that is not my personality. My ejaculating dicks are not a reaction to that at all. It’s never my intention to shock and I don’t think my work is confrontational anyway. It’s meant to be humorous. I like dicks. They fascinate me. My earlier work had more of a subtle political message about race and sexualities to it. Maybe my current work still does in some ways.
To me, male ejaculation is one of the most erotic, intimate and beautiful things to witness. I realize my fantasies on paper, injected with my sense of humor. That’s what turns me on.
LB: And what is the sexiest part of a man to you?
CK: Everything. It depends on the person. For some guys it’s their bodies, faces or hair. For some it’s their mannerisms, the way they talk or personality, cuteness. Sometimes it’s their legs and so on. But I am usually attracted to men who are sweet, funny, fun, kind, excitable and intelligent. It’s important to me he’s funny with a sense of humor. I don’t know, I can’t tell you what part of a man I find the sexiest.
LB: Are you close to your parents? What do they think of your work – do you shield them from the erotic stuff or are you just like letting them see everything and work it out for themselves
CK: Probably not as close as some of my friends are to theirs. Everyone has a different upbringing and past that defines the type of relationship they have with their parents. My father passed away when I was only a baby. My mother was a single parent. She had to work to put food on the table. I lived with my paternal grandparents for a few years. I only saw my mum at weekends. As a child I felt different to other kids who lived with their parents, but it also didn’t really bother me that much, it was just the way it was and that was all I knew.
I don’t really shield my mum or relatives from my erotic work. My mum’s seen some and she’s pretty open minded but quite reserved at the same time. She’s cool but she just doesn’t discuss it. A few years ago, she Googled my name for the first time in front of my cousins and me, and most of the images that popped up were my erotic stuff. She just said ‘Oh these are your work?’, and slowly turned away and changed the subject. It cracked us up so much.
We all deal with things differently. In her own way she is very supportive but subtly. I don’t need people around me to scream and shout to support me. Sometimes subtle acts of support mean a great deal more. On the other hand, some of my relatives are extremely gossipy, they found out about my work and tried a few times to get my mum to see it just to stir shit and asked what she thought about it, but what they didn’t know was my mum had already seen it. Interesting how people worry about things that don’t concern or affect them.
LB: Going back to race, I was talking to my friend the other day about how everything seems (is) so horrific with white nationalism and fascism coming back into the mainstream but in terms of minority rights, tolerance, representation etc things have improved in what is and what is not socially acceptable. On a micro level one thing I used to see on gay hook up or dating apps were gross things like ’no Asians’ or ’no blacks’ and this is something that is completely not tolerated now – as an Asian member of the gay community is that something you would agree with?
CK: I don’t know if those things are coming back into the mainstream. I’m not an expert but we live in a world of social media and Youtube that is controlled by an algorithm which picks what it thinks you want to see based on what you have watched or read. You could easily get dragged into an algorithm rabbit hole, being bombarded with certain problems it thinks you want to know about. It could potentially make you think something’s worse than it actually is. As you said, gay people are recognizing and addressing racism among gay people which I guess is a good thing.
I hardly use hook up apps these days so I have no idea if these things have improved. I’ve seen quite a few hook up app profiles that stated ‘No this’ or ‘No that’. I always found it really strange that people would publicly announce who they don’t want to fuck. People always argue it’s their preference. Some even argue it saves time, which is a weird thing to even bring up. It’s fine for you to have a preference, most people have preferences but announcing the groups of people you don’t find attractive is not exactly a preference. Publishing it on your profile, to me, seems rude, unnecessary, extremely narcissistic and almost insane. It’s basically like walking into a bar, pointing out the people you’re not sexually attracted to and loudly declaring you don’t want to fuck them before anyone even notices you or approaches you. Why would anyone sane do that? Just because you’re on an app doesn’t mean you suddenly can’t interact with humans like a decent considerate person. I mean, if someone you’re not interested in approaches you on an app, all you have to do is either politely decline, or simply ignore them if you’re too shy or can’t be bothered to reply. People are not throwing themselves at you every two minutes so there’s no need to ward them off before they even notice you.
LB: A lot of your work is cinematic and I read that you have movies playing while you are working: what sort of stuff do you watch? do you watch the same set of movies over and over or new stuff?
CK: I like having films on in the background or I listen to Youtube videos while I’m working. I watch a lot of different things but I do have a few films that I watch over and over again. One of those I never get bored with is Kiki’s Delivery Service. Koriko City, the city Kiki picks to live in, is such a beautiful city that I’d love to visit if it was a real place. Films I like are usually evocative and can transport me to a different world. I love films that are set in a fantasy place or with other worldly technology or films that are set in big cities or sunny European places. I’m very much inspired and influenced by cinema: how scenes are framed; what colours are put next to one another; and how a face or a set is lit. Period dramas, historical epics, Sci-fi, and fantasy are my favorite genres and I love romantic stuff which evokes emotions, comedies and also cheesy rom-coms too.
LB: Talking of movies : a. Who is your favorite actor, b. Favorite actress, c. Favorite porn star
CK: I’m not sure I have favorites. If I do, they change from time to time. I can tell you who I admire as good actors at the moment. After seeing Call Me by Your Name I thought Timothée Chalamet was so good and natural. I had never heard of him before this film and the naturalness of his performance really gripped me. Especially in the scene where, after he sees Oliver off at the train station, he calls home and asks his mother to pick him up. Before he can even finish the sentence he starts crying. It felt so real and I remember how I was when I was in love at that age. And the last scene with him in front of a fireplace with tears rolling down his face, it’s a beautiful film.
Of course I like watching attractive actors but I appreciate actors who are natural and subtle a lot more so I can experience the story as a witness. There are a lot of male actors I find attractive… I’ve lost count.
My taste in men is pretty broad. It’s hard to explain what I find attractive but I know when I see it. I can give you some examples, like Seth Rogen and Chris O’ Dowd, to me, are in the same category. They’re pretty sexy, have such cute smiles and I love the way they laugh. Nish Kumar, the comedian is very cute, I love the way he’s so committed to his laughs, I know it sounds weird but I find that quite sexy. I love Richard Ayoade, he’s very handsome and I love his mannerisms and his intelligence, quick wit and humor. James Acaster’s awkwardness is rather endearing.
Jason Lee was really cute in Kevin Smith’s films! And the young Marlon Brando and Tom Hardy are kind of in the same category. Especially in their casual clothes and Tom with his messy hair and unkempt beard. I really fancy Nick Helm: he’s very handsome and I love his energy. I have a thing for scruffy guys.
Tang Wei in Lust, Caution was amazing. Her performance was incredibly genuine, powerful but subtle. It didn’t even feel like I was watching someone act. It felt like I was witnessing a real person. She was incredible and the perfect person for the role. To me one of the most beautiful women who has ever graced the silver screen is Charlotte Rampling. An ultimate Beauty. She was and still is simply stunning, also an amazing actress.
I’m not sure I have a favorite porn star… There are some hot ones around…
LB: Do you listen to music in the studio ? What are you listening to right now
CK: I’m not listening to anything specific right now. I listen to a lot of different things from Old 80s/ 90s Canto Pop to Bowie, to the Smiths, to Chopin, to 60s Pop, Rock or Motown, to Deee-Lite, to 20s jazz, to Li Xianlan, to Françoise Hardy, to Mina, to old Bollywood soundtracks, to Róisin Murphy, then to 90s Brit-pop. I’m not an expert on music at all or on any particular genres and my taste is pretty broad; I like music from a lot of different eras and genres depending on my mood.
I sometimes like music I can dance to and sometimes I like emotional stuff. Melodies and lyrics are important. One of my all-time favorite tunes is There’s a Light that Never Goes Out by the Smiths. And John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane, Eva Cassidy’s version of Songbird, Sade’s By Your Side, Lord Huron’s The Night We Met, Elton John’s Your Song, and a few others, they get me every time.
LB: One thing that I think has come from the past year is a greater appreciation for our support systems in friends and family. In that spirit, who or what has been the biggest inspiration in how you live your life ?
CK: I find inspirations in a lot of things. I’m inspired by beautiful things around me in life.
Architecture, clothes, period fashions, art, films, stories, how the sunlight hits a window and creates a reflection or when the light hits on a building and casts a beautiful shaped shadow on
a building next to it, how clothes can be layered to create proportions, volumes and silhouettes. And love, friendships, family, kindness, emotions, humor, common sense, human interactions,
a chat or a rant over a pint or a meal with good friends and family. Those are all the things that give me joy and inspiration. I love being around fun and funny people, I think the older I get the more I appreciate people who are kind, good-hearted and empathetic.
I think curiosity is exciting and inspiring, curiosity to want to learn about things in life. I don’t mean nosiness. Nosiness annoys me.
People fascinate me. I like people who are humble enough to be inspired and learn from others. People who can take criticism and think they always have room to improve. People who are interested enough to look at things from different perspectives and not scared to hear opinions from others with different views and beliefs even when those views and beliefs make them feel uncomfortable or question their own. People who don’t only surround themselves with like-minded people so that they are just constantly patting each other on the back. And people who are good enough friends to give you constructive criticism too.
LB: Now that we are (kinda) coming out of lockdown what are your hopes and dreams for the next year both personally and professionally
CK: I’d like the world to be kinder, happier, more empathetic, less hypocritical, with fewer double standards. I’d like to keep making work. And a few personal things I’m not going to share here!
LB: Finally, who is your secret (or not so secret) Crush!
CK: A friend I gradually fell in love with …
LB: Thank you Cary!
Leo Babsky is a curator and art advisor. He set up his consultancy, LB~Curatorial in 2016. You can follow him @lbcuratorial .