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Kato Wong

The doctor using art to protest the destruction of the NHS

Kato Wong left his career in medicine to reinvent himself as an artist – now he’s launching an installation to protest the controversial new junior doctor contracts

Few artists come to their career via the sciences. Even fewer go to the effort of training for half a decade to become a doctor; qualify; begin practicing and then decide to pack it in to pursue a career in the arts. To be fair, why would you? Artists aren’t exactly renowned for having job security or stability – and it’s hard to leave the comfort of a profession when you’ve spent so many years training for it.

Kato Wong – known as Chairman Kato – is the exception to the rule. He left his career as an A&E doctor to pursue a career as an artist and musician, and for the most part, has never looked back – although, as he acknowledges, “the transition was murder. Not having any money at first was really, really hard”.

Since then, he’s unveiled immersive visual installation 'Membranous Labyrinth' underneath disused railway arches; launched his first solo exhibition of oil paintings at A-side B-side Gallery; been commissioned by the Arts Council on a hospital-based photography series, and founded collective The 100% Club

Although his work doesn’t directly reference his time spent as a doctor, Wong tells me “the influence is everywhere – people always tell me they see my medical background in the visual installations”. This Friday 19, however, Wong will be taking over a gallery in east London and inviting members of the NHS to come down and create art with him over four days. 

Announcing the installation “Screw Jeremy Hunt, Let’s Paint”, Wong said “you’re a doctor and you’re tired, fucked off or just fancy doing something different, come to the gallery, hang out with me and make some art. You can scribble, doodle, write, paint, whatever. Prior experience or ‘skill’ is totally unnecessary. I will use the contributions to make a live, evolving exhibition in real time.” 

We caught up with Wong to find out why hates Jeremy Hunt, what it’s like to be the only doctor-turned-artist in London (probably), and about this weekend’s installation.

Dazed: Hi Kato, thanks for talking to us. Can you talk me through your decision to quit medicine for art?

Kato Wong: I was basically working as an A&E doctor and also doing art and releasing music and performing at the V&A and stuff. Things came to a head two years ago when I woke up in the morning and was like, right, I’ve got to do it. I was so conflicted and torn, and I’d been ignoring these feelings of wanting to make art for a while, and I just felt like I had to do it. 

What was the transition from medicine to art like?

Kato Wong: It was really, really hard. Aside from the whole ‘not having any money’ thing, the major transition was probably learning to face the unknown and let life lead you. That is the skill of an artist. That’s what its like being an artist. Jesus, it was a real uphill climb.

What are you hoping to do with your ‘Screw Jeremy Hunt’ installation?

Kato Wong: Since I’ve left medicine I’ve learnt about the power of how art can bring people together and galvanise them. And I’ve been following what’s going on with the junior doctors, and it fuels my urge to do something for sure. When I was a doctor things were pretty terrible back then. Resources were stretched, I frequently worked over my hours and was treated like shit and if someone had told me, ‘yeah by the way we’re going to take 40% of your pay’, I can’t imagine what that would have been like.

What was your reaction when you saw the news that Jeremy Hunt had decided to impose the controversial new contracts on junior doctors?

Kato Wong: When I saw the news I actually laughed. I thought, ‘this fucker’. I worked on the frontline of really impoverished areas of the UK, I saw what real people went through and their suffering and I just don’t see mainstream politicians doing anything to help them. And then when you look at the psychological impact of Hunt imposing these contracts on doctors – he’s trying to make them leave the country. That’s what it’s designed to do. They want a mass exodus of doctors, so the Tories can go ahead and dismantle the NHS. That’s the only fucking reason, as far as I’m concerned.

How does your medical background influence your art? 

Kato Wong: It’s weird. During my years as a doctor, I realised that medicine is actually an art, not a science. A junior doctor once asked me why she always got different answers from doctors about what to do in the same situations, and I told her – it’s because medicine is like an art. You make a call based on your experience, but it might turn out wrong, because biology always has the last word. The way you approach a patient when they’re grieving or they’re scared – that’s creativity. You bring something of yourself to each patient, in the same way that art’s about bringing yourself to the canvas. So art and medicine have a lot more similarities then people might think.

If you’re interested in attending the installation, you can get more details here.