KV Duong’s Studio Artwork. Photo courtesy of Art World Database

AWDB Spotlight: Interview with artist KV Duong

AWDB speaks with contemporary artist KV Duong, a multi-disciplinary artist known for his explorations of queer identity and his heritage. Ethnically Chinese, he was born to a family displaced during the Vietnam war and raised in Canada. Duong shares his family’s story and explores his own unique identity through multimedia artwork and installations.

Currently pursuing an MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art, KV Duong has a Masters degree in Structural Engineering, and was a self-taught artist up until now. From 3 February to 2 March, 2024, his work will be displayed at Fiumano Clase’s ‘Discoveries V’ exhibition. 

We speak to Duong about drawing inspiration from his queer identity, his family’s experiences, and his pivot from engineering into the art world.

How has your upbringing and background informed your art practice (being a third culture kid, queer, having a background in engineering, etc.) ?

The older I get, the more I realise that my life story is unique: living in three distinct continents and moving through numerous countries with different languages and cultures. This multifaceted background has influenced my perceptions of the world and shaped the way I carry myself. Reflecting on my parents’ narratives of their earlier life in Vietnam, they endured impoverished circumstances during wartime. When we moved to Canada, we became a family of modest means, relying on government support and welfare to subsidise our living expenses. Navigating the challenges of growing up as a gay individual within a conventional Asian household really moulded my responses and conduct in the broader world. I think of myself as a storyteller, much like a musician or a songwriter who articulates their life journey through music. My life narrative is what I aspire to convey through my artistic practice.

A lot of your artworks stray from conventional methods such as painting on canvas, instead using materials like latex, ink, wood, metal, etc. Is there a specific reason for that?

When trying to carve out a distinctive voice within the art realm, one encounters an abundance of artists and exceptionally talented individuals, making it challenging to establish one’s uniqueness. My attempt to find my distinctive expression involves using unconventional materials, with a particular focus on latex during my MA. Latex has been used by both historic and contemporary artists. I’m attempting to bring my own unique aesthetics and life narrative into my work, and it is the presence of my own life story that imparts a sense of personality and individuality to the work.

My background in structural engineering significantly shapes my material selection process. Over the course of 25 years, which includes my educational background, I have been dedicated to analysing industrial materials and designing them to optimise their application for human use. These materials range from reinforced concrete, steel, and carbon fiber to wood and masonry.

A constant fascination with materiality and an in-depth exploration of intrinsic properties have been integral to my artistic approach. In my recent artistic exploration during the Master’s program, I have delved into the use of latex. The incorporation of latex serves as a nuanced reference to French colonialism and rubber plantations in Vietnam and delves into queer aesthetics and culture. Latex, often associated with condoms and fantasies of fetish life, carries connotations of skin, intertwining with themes of identity. The work in my studio comprises components of latex either independently or cast onto door panels. These components, referred to as latex substrates, incorporate a medley of fabrics, including hessian [akin to a coffee bag], muslin [reminiscent of medical bandages and domestic cheesecloth], and rice paper. This deliberate amalgamation of diverse textures aims to explore the resulting textural nuances emerging from the substrate combination.

You’ve also done some performance art. What are your inspirations or elements that are incorporated into your performances?

In the more traditional paintings of the past, I have incorporated images of my performances, using my body to imprint onto the canvas. Some of the smaller latex pieces feature photographs of my partner and I during the Covid pandemic. Those were also performances, captured for the camera.

My entry into performances happened unexpectedly in 2017. After attending the Venice Biennale that year, I was inspired by the work of the Hungarian performance artist, the late Tibor Hajas. He collaborated with a photographer friend to address the political suppression at that time, and their series deeply resonated with me. Feeling compelled to present my own version of a queer upbringing, the performances initially manifested as photographs before evolving into live performances within a span of three months. It was a whirlwind. 

The last performance I undertook was in September 2023, and there might be another one in July 2024, incorporating latex. However, it demands considerable headspace, planning, and time, so I’ve put it on pause during my studies to concentrate on my painting course.

KV Duong performing ‘My Mother Is Beautiful’ at Mother Art Prize Performance evening, 2023. Photo courtesy of Jamie Baker
KV Duong performing ‘My Mother Is Beautiful’ at Mother Art Prize Performance evening, 2023. Photo courtesy of Jamie Baker

How much has your upbringing in Canada affected your art practice? Especially as a queer diasporic artist, your experience must differ from queer artists in Asia.

I believe that growing up in the Western gay culture inevitably influences and is reflected in my art. My life experiences will be distinctly different from someone who spent their formative years in Asia. While I speak English with a Canadian accent, which may facilitate working within a Western context, my proficiency in Vietnamese and Chinese is poor. This limitation hinders my communication, especially when attempting to establish a presence in the local Asian market.

Differentiating between diasporic artists who grew up in Asia and my global experiences seems challenging in terms of the output of my art. An exhibition I co-curated and participated in, ‘No Place like Home’ (Museum of The Home, 2023), showcased diverse Vietnamese artists in the UK. The exhibition delved into the theme of home within the Vietnamese diaspora. Despite varied backgrounds, each artist’s output was distinctly unique. Pinpointing the artistic output based on location is difficult; rather, it is shaped by personal experiences. 

View of entrance reception at Museum of The Home. Photo courtesy of the artist’s website
View of entrance reception at Museum of The Home. Photo courtesy of the artist’s website

How do you feel sharing your artwork to viewers, who are usually strangers, as a lot of your artworks derive from very vulnerable or personal family experiences?

I believe that going through this MA Painting course has truly taught me to comprehend not only what I am attempting to create but also the significance of how the audience perceives it. The clarity and conciseness of your aesthetic language play a crucial role in conveying your intended message.

The latex doors in my current series represent border control or access, symbolising the passage into or out of a country. Metaphorically, it embodies the access of an Asian person in a Western society. In this series, I deconstruct the door frame, aiming to signify the breakdown of barriers or potentially interrogate the language. If you consider the Chinese characters and their strokes, they often exhibit square and rectangular shapes, particularly in the word ‘nation,’ which is a reference I’ve incorporated. Breaking the strokes apart becomes a way of disassembling the meaning of the word. So, ‘door,’ ‘border control,’ ‘nation,’ and ‘access’ become themes of breaking down and putting back together. This is the current concept for these pieces, subject to potential changes or developments over time.

KV Duong, ‘Untitled (Nation Green)’, 2023, Acrylic on latex, painted wooden stretcher, 198 x 100 cm. Photo courtesy of the artist
KV Duong, ‘Untitled (Nation Green)’, 2023, Acrylic on latex, painted wooden stretcher, 198 x 100 cm. Photo courtesy of the artist

The narrative initially originated from Vietnamese colonisation, although this is a second-hand experience derived from my parents. Engaging in conversations with my tutors and peers, especially discussing border control, colonisation, and migration control in London—where these issues are particularly relevant at the moment—shaped the narrative. The story has evolved from Vietnamese history to the current situation in the UK, drawing from my own experiences living here. The personal has become political and universal.

About your upcoming group exhibition ‘Discoveries V’; tell us more about what you’re presenting, and the ways to appeal to viewers and to collectors in the art industry.

‘Discoveries V’ opens at Fiumano Clase Gallery in Mayfair. I will be showcasing the full-size latex doors publicly for the first time. It’s both exciting and nerve-racking to see how these pieces, which have lived within the safe studio space until now, will respond to a public audience. I’ve known the gallerists [Francesca and Andres] since 2018, so it’s thrilling to finally have the chance to work together.

In terms of appealing to a new audience and potential collectors, I’m uncertain if I have the answer to this question. My motto in life and in my art practice is to maintain high quality and low expectations. As long as I consistently produce excellent content, the rest is beyond my control. However, I am optimistic about the next few months ahead.


‘Discoveries V’, is showing at Fiumano Clase Gallery (Mayfair) from 3 February to 2 March, 2024. For more information please click here.