Anthony Key chose the title Enough [1] for this article himself, while having lunch in his lovely garden. It is a simple, short word yet it perfectly describes how Key feels at this stage of his life. The artist seems content and relaxed as he looks out over his garden and his lovely home, bought just a few months ago. He tells me he should be working on a new project for an upcoming exhibition but does not seem concerned that he has nothing to show for it. The project will surely be related to this newfound place, as the artwork Key creates is always intimately interconnected to himself and his life. As he describes it in his own words, his art process is a holistic one. “I make the work and in turn it makes me. This has been a process of becoming and maybe after seventeen years of making work, and therefore making myself, I have reached the state of simply ‘Being’.” As we sit on his self-built wooden patio, this sense of calmness and fulfilment is clearly visible on the artist’s face. The challenge now lies in expressing and integrating this sense of belonging into his work—a rather difficult task. How do you express the reassuring sense of home into art?

Anthony invited me to his house for a chat and some homemade nettle soup (the nettles picked fresh from the garden). It was the only way to appreciate where he now finds himself and what his art, at this moment, is all about. He patiently waited for us at the train station in Essex, just a half hour train ride from the hustle and bustle of downtown London. Essex is a wonderful little place that reminds me, coming from Barcelona, of typical English cottage-towns scattered among green, flowing hills, and one seems to automatically slow down here. No wonder Key and his wife fell in love with this place after having lived in London for so many years. One feels as though stepping into another timeframe in which stress is no longer welcome.

This feeling is also exuded by his new home. When we arrive, it immediately feels inviting. The garden is full of flowers, and an enormous walnut tree stands proudly at the centre. Anthony has started a little vegetable garden at the back. He shows me his studio, which in fact is the garden shed. It is suspiciously empty. He apologizes for the fact that he cannot show me anything but the space, in fact, says it all. On the shed’s outside wall hangs a rather peculiar collection of objects he found while digging in the garden, most of them discovered by his neighbour’s four children. It is a small collection that represents the history of this place: pointy, metal objects, rusty-orange from the passing of time. But Anthony seems proud of them and pins them to the wooden fence as though they were being exhibited at Tate Modern. To an outsider, this little pile of rusty rubble might seem insignificant, yet to him it is a genuine treasure.

As we walk over to the terrace, he vaguely points towards the patio and comments that his next project consists of making his very own pizza oven, right in the open air. “Can the work I do in repairing my new home be considered ‘Art’? Does Art have to be so narrowly defined?” he ponders. These are the questions Key asks himself and he admits that he does not have the answers and perhaps never will. The question then inevitably arises once again: What can be considered art and what cannot? In the case of Key, the process of embellishing his Essex home can definitely be seen as part of his artistic oeuvre because when it comes to Key, home and the feeling of belonging is what it is all about.

For many years, Key’s work has been related to his search for a place where he felt he could fit in, and now that he has found it, a period of pause and reflection seems to have announced itself. “Is this pause a period of taking stock of my work and my journey or has my internal turmoil which fuelled the work been satisfied?” Anthony questions himself. For somebody who has been on the wander for so long, the sensation of finally having “arrived” must feel both satisfying yet perhaps rather unfamiliar at the same time.

The word “home” should not be taken lightly when it comes Key. It took some years and wanderings in order to truly speak this word and mean it. He was born in South Africa, but his roots are Chinese. This “mixed-upness” is essential when it comes to understanding Key as well as his art. His works are often about identity, stereotypes, and culture. He himself is an example of a hyphenated individual (he does not fear to call himself British-Chinese). Sipping our soup in his backyard, Key recalls an episode while working in Japan. Being in the nation of the rising sun became something of an eye-opener for him personally. Living among the Japanese, he felt that physically he fit right in, yet culturally the gap for him was unbridgeable. It was then that he realized for the first time that he actually felt quite British. “For me, it meant the end of the imaginary homeland”, he says, and Britain became accepted as part of his identity.

Anthony Key moved to Britain in 1972. He was fascinated by the cultural melting pot he found, and this intrigue for exploring and understanding mixed identities and stereotypes, especially when it comes to Chinese culture, is noticeable in much of his artwork. Even though he often chooses to express his ideas in a humorous and inventive way, the underlying message is profound and says a lot about the artist. Examples are his work Self Portrait (1997), Chop Stick/Knife Fork (1997), and Trespassing (2000–01). Self Portrait seems unassuming at first, yet it is far from that. At first glance one seems to be looking at a glass Heinz ketchup bottle yet its contents seem somehow off. Taking a closer look, one realizes that the ketchup has been manipulated: it has been mixed with soy sauce, making the familiar, bright red colour transform into oyster-sauce black. The fact that Key chose to name it Self Portrait is a metaphor for his British-Chinese identity, the mixing of two ingredients that are stereotypical of both cultures. “For me, this work was a turning point in my career,” he says. “It was the first time I realized I was doing conceptual work.” From then on there was no turning back and almost all of his art has followed in much the same direction.

In the same year he made another work that also perfectly reflects his Chinese-British identity. Chop Stick/Knife Fork (1997) again expresses in an amusing and highly original way how it feels to belong to two cultures simultaneously – a pair of chopsticks that normally represent the East have a knife and fork perfectly carved into each end, and thus equally represent the West.

Trespassing (2000-2001), made about three years later, continues this play with the concept of identity. Barbed wire is made out of instant noodles, another Chinese staple food. The dehydrated noodle wire would snap easily when uncoiled and this might point to the fact that identities or stereotypes can be quite brittle when placed under stress. Stereotypes are formed by society, just like these noodles have been hydrated in order for them to fit comfortably around the reel. Yet, when they dry up and harden, they become highly inflexible and fragile; the same often can be said for stereotypes. The fact that Anthony Key uses the noodles to make barbed wire might also indicate how stereotypes or cultural identities can sometimes become a limitation, or even a kind of prison. Put into a specific box, it can often be difficult to get out, or to step from one into another, let alone being in two boxes simultaneously.

This interest in the complexities and vulnerabilities of stereotypes, double identities, and cultural melting pots runs non-stop throughout Key’s oeuvre. This fascination with his own British-Chinese identity and the possibility of its coexistence within one and the same person can still be perceived in more recent work. Noodle Tea Cosy (2015) consists of a white clay teapot that is tightly enfolded by what seems to be a knitted tea cosy. Yet, again, not all is what it seems. The cosy is not made out of wool but out of Chinese instant noodles. Tea, one of the most characteristic symbols for British culture is literally embraced (almost as were it a second skin) by a typical Chinese product. Or do the instant noodles, as in Trespassing, form an imprisonment of the teapot, and therefore British identity? Again, we stand before a metaphor of Key’s sense of individuality: The integration of British and Chinese culture into conceptual artwork that seems coherent and “normal” then becomes a representation of a highly complex reflection on the feeling of identity and belonging. It is works like this that encourage viewers to meditate upon their own uniqueness, the possibility of in-between identities, the “mixed-upness” of cultures, and the inevitable presence of stereotypes.

Throughout his life, and therefore his entire oeuvre, the main questions Key seems to pose are: Who am I? Where do I belong? Anthony tells me about on an ongoing work titled Returning Home (2013- ). It consists of an enormous wooden column made out of thousands of chopsticks that have been glued together to create the form of a huge tree trunk. “Wooden chopsticks returning home to its former state”, he clarifies. “This also echoes the walnut tree in my garden.” Viewed from above, the work counts exactly forty-two concentric growth rings which represent the length of time that he has been residing in Britain. It is a metaphor for putting down roots and the feeling of finally belonging. “This is an on-going work as I aim to add an extra layer for every added year I remain in Britain,” he then says. As Returning Home will expand itself as the years go by, Key will also cast out his roots deeper into this land he now unmistakably considers his home.

As we come towards the end of our lunch, Anthony recalls the time in South London where he would unconsciously hug himself. Living in small houses, he would often wrap his arms around his torso with the intent of making himself smaller. Here, however, there is no longer a reason to do so. As the magnificent walnut tree stretches its branches towards all corners of the garden, it is a gesture hard not to imitate. “You can even dine under it,” Anthony comments, “and we often do.”

After a long journey of searching, sometimes among different cultures and countries, this artist has finally found a place where he can honestly say “enough.” At last, the quest seems to have come to an end. Here he has found a breathing space where he can think and create in peace. “I am at a stage where I no longer have to go after things. I have learned that they now come to me,” he calmly states. “I might not have all the answers to my questions and perhaps I never will, but I am at peace. I know ‘enough’,” he then adds.

When I leave, Anthony asks me if I would like to take some walnuts back home. He walks towards the shed and comes back with four big nets filled with last year’s produce. “I’ll need the bags for this coming harvest,” he mentions and neatly pours some of the walnuts into white plastic bags. The comment seems casual but it is definitely not. He is already thinking about the next year, like the Roman peasants would only sow wheat when they knew they would still be around to collect it. It is a remark made only by those who are certain they will not be going anywhere soon. “It produces about eighty kilos a year,” he then adds: Too much to eat by oneself, but enough for sharing with friends, family, and curious pilgrims like me. When back in Barcelona I start cracking them one by one. They taste unusually sweet and remind me of that enormous walnut tree that stands at the centre of Anthony’s garden, and therefore right at the heart of his art. Home at last.

[1] All quotes by the artist are from conversation with the author held in Essex on July 23, 2015