hei hei

I remember Hei telling me that he was thinking about leaving Photo for Crafts last year, and looking back on some of the work he’s made recently it certainly would’ve been a shame to not have seen the work he’s been making since he told me that. Though, I will say I do understand the allure of Craft and Material Studies- being a few weeks into my first class in the department, it’s definitely tempting.

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Hei hei was born and grew up in Hong Kong, and described the culture in school as extremely rigorous. Most days were school until 4 and studying at the library until 10 in the evening, with a heavy emphasis on getting accepted into college. He described it as hard and didn’t particularly care for the culture. Additionally, he was also part of a winning basketball team his final year of high school, making it all the way to the final four before losing. It’s fun thinking back sometimes on those little branches of my own life that didn’t end up growing, and downright fascinating when you hear about someone else’s.

That’s especially true in the midst of college when everyone is in the process of rapidly, aggressively inventing and reinventing themselves as individuals. It’s sometimes bizarre looking back on child Nick as someone temporally so near but mentally so far. In that way, it’s been interesting for me to get to know Hei hei and considering his life before coming to the US. Thinking of how profound of a shift that is, and how he grew up as many years as I did in a culture, a part of the world that I have virtually no firsthand experience of. In other words, just as I came from my basis of 18 formative years in Harrisonburg, Hei Hei came from Hong Kong with an entirely different set of experiences and culture and associations that serve as the “raw material” entering the whirlwind of art school, and life.

And personally, I’ll admit, it’s sometimes hard for me to relate to people from entirely different parts of the world. In high school I was pretty good friends with a couple exchange students from China who were also into photography, and as much as I enjoyed their company and talking to them, I always felt like there was a cultural barrier between us in some ways. Not a barrier that could not be overcome, but how could spending the majority of our formative years in cultural contexts that are completely different not be something that needs to be acknowledged when forging a better friendship? The people I grew up around in Harrisonburg (or even in Virginia, the US in general) seem to have a very basic level of “click” that someone from another part of the world and I might not have. At least, as people become more separated by age, geography, culture, etc., that natural association, that “click” seems to get narrower.

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Hei hei’s work is in some ways about this idea of crossing cultures and that slippage in the difference, but in my many more subtle ways, his work has challenged me massively on the relatively narrow mindset I have in considering people from cultures outside of the US. Some of his work is just about growing up in Hong Kong and pictures of his friends, family, travels, some serious, and some just casually learning the tools of photography. While presenting his previous work in our concepts 2 studio, he showed us an album of photos he had taken while on a bike trip around Taiwan (which, first of all, sounds amazing). It ended with a photo of a sunset and our professor asked him why he took that and he answered, laughing, “because it was a pretty sunset”. When he described growing up and learning photography, he said most of his photos were “boring stuff everyone takes photos of like his friends and flowers”.

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Hei hei’s work walks the line, in my mind, between what I think are equally untrue statements when considering people from other cultures, one being “we’re all the same” and the other being “we’re all completely different”. I think the former might be a bit more widespread than the latter, but I think it ignores the significance of cultural differences and how they really affect how we interact. However, the latter ignores the fact that yes, we are one humanity and our differences are ultimately secondary to our similarities, and these differences can be overcome, albeit only by acknowledging them and not trying to erase them in favor of one culture or another.

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Some of Hei’s work deals directly with this crossing of two cultures, such as Bok Choy, the piece pictured above, wherein he brings visceral life to the idea of trying to combine, digest, and reconcile two cultures. Hei hei’s work is partly funny, partly serious, as well as partly planned, and partly spontaneous. In the piece, he gathered many US foods (beer, hot dogs, mac and cheese, etc.) as well as rice and soy sauce, and mixed them all together and attempted to drink the whole concoction. He did it for a group of people and was laughing the whole time, but the final piece was a recorded video of the event overlaid with a blast of US culture in the form of TV shows and movies.

Although the piece was funny on one level, there were several moments where he was trying to eat it that a deep sense of discomfort and almost disgust came across his face. That was indicative to me of the fact that while it’s easy to laugh about the differences between cultures, remark on the similarities, make simple jokes about one culture or the other, ultimately there is a deeply difficult thing about coming to an entirely different culture, something very confusing and challenging. I can’t adequately say how lucky I feel to know Hei personally, being such a talented artist in portraying and making me think, really think, about these difficulties.

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However, to say his work is only about cultural differences between Hong Kong and the US is to narrow it to a massive degree. Hei hei describes it as a process of getting to know himself first before he branches out, so I see some of the work of differing cultures be a part of that process. Recently, Hei’s work has started focusing on strangers and what can be known about someone within limited sets of intimacy and interaction in a public space. For his concepts 1 final, Hei met Jeffrey, pictured above, on the street and ended up spending the whole day with him, getting to know him, and even creating this bizarre series of images in the hotel room where Jeffrey lived and Hei had maneuvered his way into.

This is the body of work he’s currently working on, and I eagerly await seeing more work in this line of thought- what can be known about a stranger. I’ve never been comfortable enough to approach strangers and photograph them in any meaningful way, so I really appreciate Hei’s skill and ease in making this kind of work.

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Tying all this together, finally, is Hei hei’s extreme attention to detail in craftsmanship. As I said at the beginning of the article, Hei hei was considering leaving Photo for Craft & Material Studies, and his work in photo has always reflected this concern for quality. I can’t say enough times how much I appreciate people who take craft seriously, as it only raises the standard for everyone else in the department, making everyone else’s work better. Hei re-did the Bok Choy piece several times (despite being highly unpleasant) because it needed to be improved on. The Jeffrey series was immaculately photographed and printed, as well as placed into about 15 frames for the final installation. His work is always a joy to look at in the sense of how finished it always looks.

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Although I haven’t seen much of the work that he’s done exclusively for crafts, there is something he told me that especially stuck with me. Basically, he described working in Crafts as an escape when his work for photo became too mentally taxing. Working in the crafts studio (especially glass) basically requires an emptying of the head and absolute concentration on the materials. When working on glass, if his concentration slipped or thoughts wandered, he ran the risk of completely ruining the piece he was working on. Thus, he would spend hours and hours in the crafts studio entirely focused on making this one thing, and he would leave feeling physically tired but mentally refreshed, with this mental space in the crafts studios. I certainly admire this, and having been in a crafts studio myself for about a month now, I can certainly understand where he’s coming from.

You can see more of Hei’s work at his website: heiheii.hk

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