Denise Kum


NameDenise Kum (she/her)
Country of BirthAotearoa
Place of ResidenceLondon
Dealer GalleryEmpty Gallery
ArtformVisual arts, Screen, Design
Decades Active1990s, 2000s, 2010s, 2020s


Denise Kum is a Chinese New Zealand visual artist and designer based in London. Known for using unconventional materials such as foodstuffs and synthetic substances, Kum’s sculptural work explores processes of decay and mutation. Alongside Yuk King Tan, Simon Kaan, Luise Fong and Haruhiko Sameshima, Kum was part of a small group of Aotearoa Asian artists who came to prominence during the 1990s. Kum is also an acclaimed makeup and hair designer working in fashion, film and television — a vocation she began whilst still at art school.

Kum grew up in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. In becoming an artist, she has cited the influence of her grandfather Charles (Chas) Chan (b. 1912, Dannevirke), an artist who designed the Chinese Sports Club float for the Auckland Carnival at Western Springs in 1951, as well as yearly decorations for the Chinese Ball. She attended Elam School of Fine Arts, graduating in 1992, and in the same year was a founding member of influential and enterprising artist-run space Teststrip. Remembered for its experimental and ambitious exhibitions, Teststrip radically altered the local art scene with many associated artists, including Kum, going on to garner both national and international recognition.

During her time at Elam and upon graduating, Kum exhibited prolifically. Her inclusion in major exhibitions such as Localities of Desire (1994) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, and Fusion: Hong Kong/Auckland artist exchange (1996) at Hong Kong Arts Centre and Auckland Art Gallery, cemented her prominence as a contemporary artist, both in Aotearoa and abroad. Kum was also represented by significant dealer galleries Hamish McKay in Pōneke and Sue Crockford in Tāmaki Makaurau, where her work was frequently exhibited throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

Kum’s early work was characterised by materials that visually alluded to minimalism such as steel and glass, containing or supporting viscous, formless substances that often intruded on the sense of smell. Whilst recognising the beauty and decay of organic processes, any notion of sentimentality was undercut by a frequent use of harsh lighting and an ambiguous symbolism which permeated the work. Kum presented in-your-face meditations on the aesthetics of mortality, bringing together “ideas of waste, utility, dysfunctionality and re-­presentation” through a formalist sculptural practice.

Sauce Box (1993), exhibited in Localities of Desire, included some of the ingredients for a meal of Peking duck arranged within glass boxes on stainless steel hospital trolleys. The work was described by fellow founding member of Teststrip, Giovanni Intra (1968–2002) in his essay on Kum for Art & Text 52, 1995, 'Toxic Taste':

Appearing as a decaying skyline heaped on a street vendor’s cart, Sauce Box comprises a reversal of the Vanitas tradition in Dutch still life. But nothing here forestalls the threat of decomposition as is achieved in Vanitas, which attempts to trick mortality through the virtues of painterly craft. On the contrary, Sauce Box revels in the processes of rot and organic dissolution. The materials are left to the ravages of the open air. This erosion of form - the stinking, dripping, and corroding - points to the inevitability of decay, synonymous with the sculptural act.

Kum left Aotearoa for London in 1999, where she gained a Masters in Fine Arts at Goldsmiths College in 2000 and her work became further characterised by distinctive overflowing forms. Using byproducts of petroleum with colours of toxic brightness, her large-scale installations — such as Flocculate Flow (2003), shown in Bloom: mutation, toxicity and the sublime (2003–2004) at the Govett Brewster Gallery — covered the floor with a mutant, geothermal landscape of pools and protrusions spilling into each other underneath a boardwalk-style pathway.

Kum has continued to exhibit both in Aotearoa and abroad, and is represented by Empty Gallery in Hong Kong. She is also a makeup, hair and prosthetics designer for film productions. She has worked on several high-profile feature films, including Whale Rider (2002) and Mulan (2020) both directed by fellow New Zealander and Elam graduate Niki Caro, and in 2021 was nominated for awards in three categories by the Hollywood Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild for her work on Mulan.

Kum is a second-generation Chinese New Zealander on her father's side, and third-generation on her mother's side. Her family's role in the market gardening history of Aotearoa, as well as her grandfather's artistic and musical abilities, are documented in a number of Chinese New Zealand history publications including Har Gee Chans in New Zealand (2014, p. 23–34), Zengcheng New Zealanders (2006; includes artworks by Kum) and Sons of the Soil (2012, p. 352–353).


Key works / presentations

2014 — A world undone, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, Tāmaki Makaurau

2010 — Beloved, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Ōtepoti

2009 — Taste: Food and Feasting in Art, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, Tāmaki Makaurau

2009 — City, The Academy of Arts, Tsinghua University, Beijing

2007 — The Secret Life of Paint, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Ōtepoti

2006 — Metropolis Rise — New Art from London, CQL Centre Moganshan, Shanghai & DIAF 06, Space 798, Beijing

2004 — Shapeshifters, M-Project, Galerie Mitterand, Paris

2004 — Long Life, The Chinese Art Centre, Manchester

2003 — Bloom, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, Ngāmotu

2001 — Alive!: Still Life into the Twenty First Century, Adam Art Gallery, Pōneke

2000 — Plastika, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, Ngāmotu

1998 — Leap of Faith, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, Ngāmotu

1998 — Currents, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, Ngāmotu

1998 — 11th Biennale of Sydney, Sydney

1997 — Thinking About Contemporary Art, Centre of Contemporary Art, Ōtautahi

1996 — Transfusion/Fusion, Hong Kong Arts Centre, Hong Kong and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Tāmaki Makaurau

1995 — The Nervous System, City Gallery Wellington and Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, Pōneke and Ngāmotu

1995 — Northern Exposure, McDougall Art Annex, Ōtautahi

1995 — Recent Sculptitecture, Horribly Desirable, Hamish McKay Gallery, Pōneke

1994 — n+1 Cultures, Artspace, Tāmaki Makaurau

1994 — Art Now: The First Biennial Review of Contemporary Art, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Pōneke

1994 — Localities of Desire: Contemporary Art in an International World, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

1994 — Critique: The International artists’ museum fax project, First Draft, Sydney

1993–94 — Mediatrix, Artspace and the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau and Ngāmotu

1993 — Under My Skin, High Street Project, Ōtautahi

1993 — White Light Wet Heat, window work at Auckland City Art Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau

1993 — Work — Denise Kum & Julian Dashper, Fisher Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau

1993 — Denise Kum, Hamish McKay Gallery, Pōneke

1993 — Illume, Teststrip, Tāmaki Makaurau

1992 — Teststrip Stock Show, Teststrip, Tāmaki Makaurau

Key awards

2004 – ‘Breathe’ Residency, Chinese Art Centre, Manchester

2003 – Creative New Zealand New Work Grant

2002 – ‘EAF’ Residency, Experimental Art Foundation & School of Art, University of South Australia, Adelaide

2000 – Saatchi Prize, Goldsmiths College & Charles Saatchi, London, finalist

1999 – Creative New Zealand Project Grant

1999 – UK/ NZ Link Foundation Fellowship

1999 – NZCA Grant

1995-1996 – Creative New Zealand Fellowship

1994 – Australia / New Zealand Foundation Grant

Related entries

Last updated: 4 March 2024 Suggest an Edit


Andrew Clifford, 'Chemical Sister: The schlocky TV shows of her youth provide the fizz for Denise Kum's art', NZ Home and Entertainment, April-May, 2006

Courtesy of Denise Kum

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Exhibition text for Denise Kum's exhibition Grosser Forms of Superstition, Sue Crockford Gallery, 2006

Courtesy of Denise Kum

Press release for 21 : Discussions with Artists of Chinese Descent in the UK published by the Chinese Arts Centre, Manchester, England, 2008

Courtesy of Denise Kum

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From the publication 21 : Discussions with Artists of Chinese Descent in the UK, 2008

Courtesy of Denise Kum

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Denise Kum interviewed by curator Chris Chapman during her residency at the Experimental Art Foundation, London, 2002

Courtesy of Denise Kum

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From the exhibition catalogue for Mediatrix, Artspace, 1993

Courtesy of Denise Kum

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Selected text and press relating to Denise Kum, compiled by Empty Gallery

Courtesy of Empty Gallery

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Clipping of magazine article.

Article about Teststrip by Stella Brennan, New Zealand Listener, 1998

From the exhibition catalogue for Beloved, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 2010

Courtesy of Denise Kum

Black and white photocopied newspaper article.

Review of Kum's work at Sue Crockford Gallery in the New Zealand Herald, 1999