Before I was a Critic I Was a Human Being: An Interview with Amy Fung

Interview by 
Isabella Wang
Amy Fung

This interview was conducted over email.

Amy Fung is a writer, researcher and curator born in Kowloon, Hong Kong, and spent her formative years in and around Edmonton on Treaty 6 Territory. Her writing has been published and commissioned by national and international publications, galleries, museums, festivals, and journals since 2007. Her multifarious curatorial projects have spanned exhibitions, cinematic and live presentations, as well as discursive events across Canada and abroad. Before I was a Critic I Was a Human Being (Book*hug, 2019) is her first book.

ROOM: Your debut book, Before I was a Critic I Was a Human Being, will be released this May with Book*hug. CONGRATULATIONS! Talk me through the process and how this book came to be. How does it feel to have a book out in the world?

AF: Thanks, Isabella. As I’m typing, the book has just arrived from the printers, so it's both exciting and nerve wracking in that it's now real and can live on its own. I have done a lot of projects and events that were responsive to very specific issues, or are tied to me in a very physical way, so to have something that can be understood and contextualized in a myriad of different ways feels new.

As for process, the project started as a smaller idea, based on my encounters with visual artists and communities across the country. It was originally going to be a small run published by Artspeak Gallery in Vancouver, but as my research grew, it started feeling more like a book that needed to circulate beyond the so-called "art world." It remains a co-publication between Book*hug and Artspeak, and I thank them both for supporting me through this project.

ROOM: What a pleasure it has been to read your book! You bring to it a double consciousness with the words, “Born in Hong Kong and raised in Canada, my mind has been a deeply colonized place.” How does language become a way of navigating that?

AF: Throughout the book, the subject of the English language comes under questioning. Language is where ideas, memories, and histories unfold inside of its linguistic limitations. How you see and think and hear the world is deeply affected by the languages you speak, and English takes a very capital "I" subject first approach, which translates to its thinking. As a subject of two different British colonies, I have been taught to think and speak and see in this way, but it is something that was learned, and can be unlearned.

ROOM:  Would you like to speak more to the idea of belonging and identity that is so integral to the overall gesture of the book?

AF: Belonging to a place that never imagined you being there in the first place is a bit of a quagmire. This is something that I think a lot of people of this hyphenated generation deal with, but maybe don't quite know how to articulate, this sense of estranged belonging. Throughout this book, I am trying to give a sense of what it means to feel like a citizen without falling blindly to national tropes, especially when that national imaginary have continued to exclude people like me.

ROOM: For those of us who do not have the same field of expertise as you do, I would love to hear more about your work as an art critic. Tell us about the broad range of art that you frequently write about.  

AF: I started writing about art in a very broad arts and culture sense for the weeklies. My background was in literature and film studies, but I was always searching for representations that I could identify with, and that led me straight into the art world where identity and theory could live and respond in a fairly timely way. As I started to focus my writing on only contemporary art, I naturally organized by region as a way to demarcate where I was living at the time. At my busiest, I covered everything from museum exhibitions and international premieres to graduate shows and studio visits. What I learned over the years was that this country’s art scenes rarely talk to each other or pay much attention to each other, but I always found it hilarious how outside of Canada nobody cares if you’re an artist from Vancouver or Regina. I think my art writing was always about trying to understand a place through its artistic output. It feels very simple, but a city or town’s art scene has a direct correlation to its civic demographic and/or power structures. I’ve just been trying to understand where I live.

ROOM: Adding to the discourse around reconciliation and colonization, in what ways does art inform culture? How does art criticism work to dissect national myths and power dynamics?

AF: Let’s not get the category of “art criticism” mixed up with what I want it to be. There are thoughts that the role of criticism borders on an act of translation. However, in a place like Canada, where we borrow so heavily from American discourses and influences and the national imaginary is tied to landscape paintings as the stand-in for how we want to see ourselves, criticism, in my opinion, needs to be aware of which lineages it is perpetuating and provide context for what it is we are actually looking at in our current socio-political times. But more often than not, art criticism is just a regurgitated press release or a sloppy call-out and people seem very happy with those options.

I’m a firm believer that art does matter in allowing people to see and feel another person’s perspective of the world. Not all art does this, or does this well, but that’s not what you’re asking.

As for colonization in the art world, there’s lots of it.

ROOM:  Where do you turn to for inspiration?

AF: I take a lot of walks. I’m curious about things I don’t understand. But I’m not someone who believes in “inspiration” as a starting point to write. I would never write anything if that was the case. Just to me, most of what’s going on in the world doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, and writing is my preferred way of trying to work it out for myself.

ROOM: So much is on the horizon. What are you most looking forward to?

AF: I’m looking forward to this book living beyond my head.

Isabella Wang's debut chapbook, On Forgetting a Langauge, is forthcoming with Baseline Press in 2019. At 18, she is a two-time finalist and the youngest writer shortlisted for The New Quarterly's Edna Staebler Essay Contest. Her poetry and prose have appeared in over twenty literary journals including CV2Geez MagazineCanthius, and carte blanche, and she holds a Pushcart Prize nomination for poetry. She is studying English and World Literature at SFU, working is an assistant editor with Room Magazine, volunteering as the youth advocate for the Federation of BC Writers, and co-ordinating the bi-weekly Dead Poets Reading Series. 

“It's Canadian, feminist, and one of my favourite things ever.”

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