Ono Kang refreshes the idea of turning junk to treasure

Ono Kang exhibits his installation from his collection of over two decades


The proverb ‘One’s man trash is another man’s treasure’ best describes the exhibition titled Forged by Time – Ono Kang’s Visual Diary. Born and raised amidst the jetties of George Town, Ono Kang’s upbringing is deeply intertwined with the maritime tradition of his family members who were prominent junk ship sailors and traders in the charcoal industry. Although inheriting the business is a given, fate has other plans for Ono as the 90s saw the end of the industry, leaving the junk ship of his father and grandfather to rot in the mud under the pier.

A condition not well-known within the community, Ono’s undiagnosed dyslexia challenges his growing up in the village. The aftermath sees Ono dropping out of school at the age of 13 and then deciding to travel the world, starting from Singapore before going further and further, until he decided to come back to Penang in his twenties to start out his career as a tattoo artist.

Ono always has the knack of collecting thrown things. As a child, he enjoys not only kite fighting but the activity of collecting fallen kites. This trait follows him throughout the years and his return to Penang takes it into overdrive the moment he started to collect old items around Georgetown. Furniture, household items, gadgets and even factory machines are collected by him. Says Ono, “The scrapyard is my favourite sources of inspiration.”

Not stopping just yet, he began creating sculptures as his collections grew. On the subject of tinkering, Ono adds, “Growing up, I really like to tear things like radios apart and really study the parts and mechanisms of how they work.” Mirrored into his creations, most of his sculptures are marriages of multiple things forged into one. What makes them more interesting is how the materials collected for his works might even come from different periods of his life.

In 2018 when he turned 40, Ono had his first solo exhibition in Hin Bus Depot, Penang where he displayed works created from his collections of materials for over two decades. Subsequently in 2022, he went on to exhibit his artworks in Kuala Lumpur after not stepping into the city over twenty years. The latter is set in motion due to his fated meeting with renowned fashion designer, Dato’ Sri Bernard Chandran one day in Penang.

“A friend told me that there is a workshop in Penang where you can get vintage things. When I went down to see Ono, I realized that he really loved his collection; so much that he might not be willing to part with it,” says Bernard, who adds that he can resonate with Ono very well and later have become friends.

Their friendship sparked; Bernard even took Ono to Centre Pompidou in France for a better immersion into the arts. Not long after, Ono became part of an art residency programme by Bernard through his ArtisFair initiative, Lumina to transform his raw artistic expression into a more refined vision aimed at unravelling the story of his past.

In Forged by Time – Ono Kang’s Visual Diary, 16 installations were on display on the third floor of Fahrenheit88. All sorts of trinkets were pieced together with other things, namely a trumpet, globe, gramophone, even a cell door from Pudu Jail. Every piece from Ono’s installation is a tribute to his home, family, heritage, as well as the four decades of his life. The vast space between his works makes each piece stand on its own; adding on to what’s vital is the complexities present in every one.

Various feelings can be experienced upon viewing his works . Take for instance the one with the Pudu Jail cell door titled Inhale, Exhale, which emits a grotesque and fearsome feeling as a head and a hand sits smack in front of the door, resembling an electric chair. In contrast to this, wholesomeness can be detected in Journey where he successfully created a world map using electronic waste with strings, connecting Penang to various countries where his children reside.

Ono cultivates a newfound appreciation for everyday abandoned objects which are often overlooked or dismissed as junk, revealing their unseen potential and beauty while inviting viewers to see them in a new light. His work also serves as a visual diary, capturing and immortalizing memories from different chapters of his life.

Forged by Time was on display from April 24 to May 25, 2024 in Fahrenheit88. For those who are interested in following his journey, Ono can be found on Instagram by following the link here. Updates and upcoming events from ArtisFair and Lumina can be found here.

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