Hong Kong artist Movana Chen has been weaving people’s stories — literally — for more than a decade. In her ongoing project, Travelling into Your Bookshelf, she makes art works from books that she collects as gifts from people she meets on her travels around the world. After reading the books — at least those that are in languages she understands — she shreds them and then glues the thin shredded pieces together to make stronger material that she knits into pieces that can be either worn or displayed.
The results that emerge from this unique creative process are delicately striking and intriguing. Her wearable pieces — she calls them ‘body containers’ — are cylinders of neatly knitted paper that cover the entire body and head, with a tube that extends from the top of the head and hangs like an elephant’s trunk over the body. The idea, she explains, is to reflect how people are constantly hoovering up and absorbing ideas and inspiration from the outside world. By weaving their chosen books together, she creates a form of communication — ‘like a hidden code’ — between all the people who contribute to her work.
Sitting in her bright airy studio in Hong Kong’s Chai Wan district, Chen asks if she can knit while we talk, and sets to work with her wooden needles and about 12 metres of already knitted texts.
Where have you travelled to most recently on your Travelling into your Bookshelf project?
Movana Chen: I was in Sicily. I was invited to an artists’ resident programme. I travelled alone to Palermo. I only had a key and a hand-drawn map to find the house where I was staying. It was a town called Cianciana, with 2,000 people. It was very quiet and peaceful. I was there for three weeks. Some other artists came to see me. I don’t speak Italian, so we used body language or a bit of English. We laughed a lot.
‘For books I don’t like, I just use a few pages. I’m not destroying something, I'm recreating something’
How do you start work on a knitted piece?
Every project is different. Each piece has a different theme, it depends what book people give me. For example, this body container is made from maps of my recent travels in Sicily and Amsterdam. As you learn about other places and cultures, you open up a communication, and then you mix it together. For this one, Travelling into your bookshelf, I meet people when I travel, maybe through a friend’s introduction or an artists’ talk, or a chance meeting. I follow them to live with them. Every night I stay in a different place. It’s all spontaneous, unscheduled. I don’t do any research. I ask people to choose one meaningful book for me. Then I will read the story as well. I was not a reader before but now I read the story. You get close to people by reading what they give you, because they it’s something they want to share. Then I shred the books. For books I don’t like, I just use a few pages. I’m not destroying something, I recreating something.
Movana Chen (Chinese, B. 1975), Body container – Tin Tin, 2011. Knitted shredded Tin Tin comic books (French version), sculpture. 130 x 38 x 35 cm. This work is offered in our Asia+ / First Open sale in Hong Kong on 15 March. Estimate: HK$150,000 - 200,000 / US$19,200 - 25,600
How did you come upon the idea of working with shredded paper?
I was working as an accountant, and I started knitting. My grandmother taught me to knit with wool. I am the eldest of seven children. I was always knitting jumpers and scarves for my younger siblings. Now I am weaving people’s stories. I never imagined I’d be an artist. I studied fashion, but I found it is not a creative industry in Hong Kong. I took a class at night, a part-time fine arts course. I had to do a project and I measured my height in books. I am 139 books high. In my work, I used to shred confidential documents. It led me to the idea of what to do with the paper. I still have the shredder.
You have about 150 knitters worldwide working with you on this project. How did you build that community?
I often knit outside. People see me knitting, and ask to join me. They send me a book and I send them a knitting kit, with shredded paper from their book. Some knit fast, some knit slow. Some drop out, some are super busy. They lose their needles, or they don’t answer you when you contact them. I make a video of each of them knitting, just their hands. And I made a big video of all of them knitting. I can recognise who they are from their hands.
How would you like to see your knitting project evolve?
I’d like it to grow bigger. Not just 150, but more than 10,000, or more, around the world, being part of it. It’s like everyone living together, connecting and sharing.
Main photograph by Clement Ledermann