“I was an insomniac as a child,” Tintin Wulia recalls, smiling. “I would always go and knock on my parents’ door and say, ‘I can’t sleep,’ and then my dad would say, ‘Oh, just count the stars.’ But I always counted them all and still couldn’t sleep, so I started telling myself stories. Sometimes I would tell myself this apocalyptic story where the whole world was attacked by aliens and everyone had to group together and support each other – I was always a warrior and had purple hair. I always dreamed of this idea that the whole world would come together as one.”
“And then,” Wulia sighs, “I grew up, and that’s not the reality at all.” But Wulia didn’t waste any time wallowing in despair over the state of the world. Instead, she turned this early disappointment into the driving force behind her art, which questions inequality, prejudice and the many ways in which people use and abuse each other.
Wulia is especially concerned with people’s obsession over national and cultural identities, and how international borders have become sites of discrimination. “Growing up in Jakarta, I always felt that I wasn’t part of society, basically because I’m a minority Chinese-Indonesian, so there’s this discrimination that I could feel, even when I was quite young,” she explains. “So I started thinking about international borders because I was wondering, ‘Why do I not feel part of this society? Why am I discriminated against?’”
All of these ideas are condensed into Lure, an interactive installation that’s perhaps Wulia’s most famous piece – even though, at first glance, it doesn’t look like a work of art at all. Lure consists of four lined-up claw machines, the infuriatingly difficult games found in arcades and shopping malls around the world. But instead of the prizes being cheap soft toys, Wulia filled the cases with piles and piles of passports.
Gallery goers were encouraged to play the games and, if they won, could take the replica passports home. When it was exhibited at the Art HK fair in 2012 (the predecessor to today’s Art Basel), Lure got some people so excited that it was easy to forget that the work posed some serious questions: how much of a role does luck play in determining our nationality? Why did so many players favour some passports over others? When did that bias become so ingrained within us? From a player’s perspective, the challenge of winning any passport at all also called to mind the frustrations of dealing with the bureaucracy that surrounds international travel, and the powerlessness of not having the “right” passport or visa.
“Lots of my works are games,” Wulia explains. “My work is about interaction between people, and games give me an excuse to interact with other people.” This desire to engage directly with her audience means that Wulia is one of the few artists who openly admit to enjoying art fairs. “When I came in 2012 for Art HK and showed my passport piece, I basically fell in love with the art fair. People were queuing up to play the machine and it was really crowded and busy. I make art because I want to communicate with people, and art fairs are another opportunity to have encounters with people.”
So Wulia was very happy to be involved in Art Basel in Hong Kong earlier this year, for which she created an enormous installation called Five Tonnes of Homes and Other Understories. Just as Lure did at Art HK, Five Tonnes stood out like a sore thumb at the fair. For a start, the installation really did weigh five tonnes. And on top of that, it was made from bales of cardboard that Wulia had collected from recycling centres around Hong Kong, so looked rather different to the easily collectible paintings and sleek, shiny sculptures that surrounded it.
“All the bales did have to go through fumigation,” Wulia admits, smiling. “It wasn’t like it was fresh from the streets – it all had to be fumigated so it didn’t offend the other works.”
Several things inspired Wulia to make Five Tonnes. “With my games I was creating objects that made a link between people, so I thought, ‘Now I’ll try and find the object first, and see how that object links people and how different people use that object.’” And in Hong Kong, the object that Wulia thought linked everyone was cardboard.
“I was coming to Hong Kong every year and I saw all the cardboard that Filipino domestic workers were using to build cardboard houses on Sundays,” Wulia remembers. “Then next to Osage Gallery there’s this recycling point, and I saw lots of elderly people pushing trolleys with cardboard on it. And then I found this article about this woman called Zhang Yin, who owns a company called Nine Dragons Paper, and at the time she was one of the 10 richest people in the world and her business was recycling cardboard waste. So there was this cycle that connected all those people.”
Five Tonnes shocked the crowd for two very different reasons. The first surprise was that Wulia had used her installation at Art Basel – the largest, swankiest art fair in Asia – to comment on the poverty that still exists in Hong Kong. The other shock was that in between multi-million-dollar canvases, Wulia had installed what was – at the end of the day literally a pile of rubbish.
“This isn’t a particularly serious point and wasn’t my main motivation,” Wulia explains with a wry smile, “but I was thinking about how people go to the art fair and say about the art, ‘Oh, come on, this is all garbage’ – and then I put real garbage there.”
When Five Tonnes was taken down at the end of Art Basel in Hong Kong, other organisations and galleries quickly got in touch to ask about exhibiting it. But while those details are being finalised (it takes a while to work out how to display five tonnes of cardboard), Wulia has several other pieces in the works.
“I’m going to use similar methods that I used in my project in Hong Kong in upcoming projects and think more about how things that are moving around the city are connecting people,” Wulia says. “I’ll develop this at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam as part of a project called Koneksi-Connectie and at Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago as part of its Jackman Goldwasser Residency.”
So even though the world hasn’t lived up to Wulia’s rosy childhood dreams, it does seem like she’s managed to carve out an international, border-hopping life for herself, which may be as close as it’s possible to get to her utopian dream.
“But I’m still an insomniac,” Wulia counters. “Some things never change.”