Tong King-sum, "Wings" (1984), pine, 80 x 76 x 100 cm (collection of Hong Kong Museum of Art, all images courtesy Hong Kong Museum of Art)

Tong King-sum, “Wings” (1984), pine, 80 x 76 x 100 cm (collection of Hong Kong Museum of Art, all images courtesy Hong Kong Museum of Art)

HONG KONG — In the book accompanying her late husband’s retrospective, Tempting Touch, at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, Tong Chiu Wai-yee says: “When people talk about Tong King-sum, they focus on his flawed body alongside his artistic achievement.” What she says is undeniable, but Tong King-sum’s work was so focused on the human figure, so intent on creating otherworldly portrayals of his subjects out of luxurious teak wood, that it’s difficult not to mention he sculpted these bodies while his own was breaking down.

Born in Hong Kong in 1940, Tong King-sum was diagnosed with tuberculous arthritis as a child and underwent a series of surgeries, each requiring periods of recuperation in body casts that left him, as he would describe it, like a turtle that could only move its head and limbs. Tong walked on crutches for most of his life. In his later years he wheeled around an oxygen tank, but that didn’t stop him from creating larger-than-life-size sculptures out of teakwood that themselves almost seem to breathe, their adherence to the human form is so captivating.

Even when he wasn’t adding wings to biomorphic shapes, Tong’s sculptures elevated the organic curves of human bodies and desert plants to aspirational heights. Tempting Touch brings together many of these sculptures in an expansive show that also includes a recreation of the artist’s studio.

Installation view of ‘Tempting Touch: The Art of Tong King-sum’ at the Hong Kong Museum of Art

The sculptures are arranged in reverse chronological order, starting with nude female torsos from the mid-2000s that were based on live models — his usual subject had to be replaced for one sculpture when she was unable to do the nude handstand it required — and ending with simple wood carvings from the early 1970s that resemble belly buttons, crafted under the direction of his friend and mentor, Cheung Yee. In between are series devoted to wings and plants, as well as drawings and a wooden necklace the artist made for his wife.

The title of the retrospective, Tempting Touch, refers to the very real urge viewers have to put their hands on Tong’s sculptures. You are even allowed to touch one sculpture, an abstract piece from 1992 called “Conversation,” and the wood somehow feels warmer than room temperature. Call it the power of craftsmanship to elevate a material beyond its usual physical properties.

Tong King-sum, “Variation” (1989), teak, 118 x 48 x 40 cm (collection of Mrs. Tong Chiu Wai-yee)

The museum (which, by the way, has a stunning view of Victoria Harbor) made some curious choices in the presentation of the works, including the placement of some smaller sculptures on fake green grass. Works are lit by lights that turn on and off every few seconds, presumably to cast varied shadows and bring out different aspects of each figure, but the changes distract from the sensual simplicity of Tong’s creations. Nevertheless, the show is a triumph and a career-spanning introduction of the sculptor to many who had probably never seen his work in person before — including myself.

 In Tong Chiu Wai-yee’s essay, right after she calls attention to her husband’s physical disabilities, she writes, “Many expect to hear stories filled with blood and tears, like how he was bullied in life, or how he overcame challenges with tears in his eyes, yet he always recounted his life story as joyous.” The artist’s life ended in 2008, but you only need to look at the vitality of his sculptures to believe it was a joyous one.

Tempting Touch: The Art of Tong King-sum continues at the Hong Kong Museum of Art (10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong) through May 31. 

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Keith Plocek

Keith Plocek lives in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in LA Weekly, Vice, McSweeney's, Mental Floss and Glasstire. He teaches at USC. Follow him on Twitter @KPLO.