360° Me: Cary Kwok

The book, the tune, the film: what’s inspiring the art world’s queer provocateur right now?

By Louis Wise  Below image: Cary Kwok (Rhys Thorpe)   Wednesday 24 June, 2020   Short read

A man standing against a wall.

Hong Kong-born and London-based contemporary artist, Cary Kwok, is celebrated for his intricate, erotic drawings of subjects ranging from priests to Popeye (parental discretion applicable). His art often depicts and explores sexuality, especially that of an LGBTQ+ bent – hence his lauded status as a queer icon in cultural circles. Here, he discusses his influences and desires.

1. The book 
‘When I was 16, I discovered a book of homoerotic art by the artist Tom of Finland. The explicit and honest depiction of gay sex blew me away. I had never seen anything like it and was definitely not an expert in that [area] at that age. I loved it because it wasn’t pretentious or disguising itself as anything else – it was generously letting the viewers into his world of sexual fantasy.’
2. The tune 
‘As a teenager in Hong Kong, I was obsessed with The Smiths. There’s something so beautiful and romantic about "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" – my favourite. It was quite a strange thing to be into in Hong Kong; there wasn’t really an indie scene at all. I discovered a whole lot more when I moved to London, aged 17, to study fashion.’
A book cover called Tom of Finland with an illustration of a half naked man on it.
Two men standing under a willow tree.
3. The film 
‘I’m a big fan of Studio Ghibli films. Kiki’s Delivery Service, from 1989, is one of my favourites – the vibe, the scenery and the fact that she can fly. I fall in love with anything that features spaceships and flying things.’ 

4. The artwork 
‘For my first show, I turned up with a drawing of a big dick with people flying around it, surfing on semen. It was called “Fountain” and my gallerist loved it. I didn’t mean to become an artist, I thought I was going to be a fashion designer. I’ve always drawn, though. When I was studying fashion at Central Saint Martins, I gave [legendary late tutor] Louise Wilson a drawing of a cock and she thought it was funny. But she didn’t keep it. Later, she said, “Oh, I should have…”’

5. The destination 
‘I lived in Italy for a few months when I was still studying fashion. I was on an apprenticeship with the shoemaker Sergio Rossi in a town called San Mauro Pascoli, which is between Rimini and Bologna. Every weekend, I’d visit a different place, like the beautiful, ancient village of San Leo, or Positano. When I got to spend a week in Naples, I can honestly say it was love.’
A cartoon of a girl flying above a city on a broomstick.
A collage of a piece of art and a coastal town.

'When I was studying fashion at Central Saint Martins, I gave [legendary late tutor] Louise Wilson a drawing of a cock and she thought it was funny. But she didn’t keep it. Later, she said, “Oh, I should have…"’

6. The interior 
‘I’ve lived in London pretty much since university. Every time I move, I decorate – I can’t live in a place without putting my stamp on it, and love colours, cosiness, textiles and fabrics. I often go shopping in markets, and in the bedroom of my east London flat, I’ve put up an antique luggage rack from a train, which I found in Berlin. I’ve hung several hats on it; some of them I’ve made myself, one I bought in Turkey, another in Brick Lane and another is a farmer’s hat from Hong Kong. They hang next to a painting by a fellow artist from my gallery, Djordje Ozbolt.’

7. The meal 
‘I loved eating dim sum growing up in Hong Kong. There’s a really good place in London called Royal China; my favourite branch is on Baker Street. It’s the most authentic dim sum in the city. I like all kinds of food, though. For Japanese, it has to be the ramen at Kanada-Ya, for Italian I love Ciao Bella in Holborn, and Dean Street Townhouse is one of my favourite restaurants in the capital.’
Dim sum dumplings on trays.
A brutalist architecture building.
8. The routine 
‘I never get up at the same time every day and I eat when I’m hungry. The only products that are really important to me are my fragrances, because I’m very sensitive to smell. My perfumes are mostly rose, woody, musky, spicy and powdery.’

9. The detox/ retox 
‘I love an old-school pub, and a couple of my favourites are The Cock Tavern on Mare Street and a brewery nearby called Hackney Church. I have a friend I often go drinking with; sometimes, we’ll start with drinks on the Southbank. I love people-watching there. Then, we’ll do a pub crawl all the way home, going via Barbican, the City and Shoreditch. As for the rest of the stops on the way home, I don’t always remember those.’
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