The Whole is Greater…
How the sense of self is shaped by cultural heritage has always been of personal interest to me. I am Australian born of a father with Polish lineage and a mother who is half Chinese, a quarter Scottish and a quarter Irish. I have a first name that has Latin derivatives and a Polish surname. I am constantly asked where I'm from or what my background is; which I do enjoy answering. However, since I was young, these questions as to who I am have ingrained in me a desire to understand what it means to be Australian, what designates one “Australian", what is “an Australian woman”, and perhaps it also placed a slight question mark over where other people place me. I can only imagine what this must have been like for my Chinese maternal grandmother (born 1912) growing up in Ballarat during the White Australia Policy. The reason I can only imagine is that she only spoke of the glorified highlights, no doubt embellished by nostalgia and for the sake of storytelling. Other than that there were large gaps and silence. It's a very common response. Silence.
The concept for this exhibition was sparked when speaking to artist Robin Eley, who is also of Eurasian descent, and we discovered (quite ashamedly) we had a commonality in knowing little of our Chinese background. Largely unacknowledged, it is at risk of becoming exactly that, a back-ground , only brought to the fore when people enquire prompted by your physical appearance. However your background never actually goes away and nor should it; it is at the forefront in numerous ways. Meeting with artist, Lindy Lee we discussed our own experiences with the deliberate eliding of and omissions within family histories, often a result of survival tactics at the time, but the potential for long term fallout is planted. For me this raised many questions about the generations of Chinese in Australia and what their individual experiences are.
Chinese Australia provides artists who have immigrated to Australia from China to contemplate issues borne of their personal journeys and their immersion into a completely alien culture and socio-political ecosphere. Psychologically and physically how do these artists place themselves within a Western culture and traverse their experiences of cultural duality, and what has come of this, both negative and positive? The exhibition also considers the experiences of artists who are “Australian Born Chinese” and those with Chinese lineage living in Australia and how they approach their heritage in a pursuit to piece together the self.
The eleven artists selected for the exhibition intentionally span a spectrum of generations and therefore work from an authority of varied life experiences. Some grew up in China during Mao Zedong’s military enforced Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. They risked their safety creating art that did not conform to the politically obligatory restrictions of production that condemned “individual artistic expression as counter-revolutionary bourgeois garbage” and deemed exhibitions that did not propagate the compulsory political ideal, and ultimately deify Chairman Mao, strictly forbidden. Some of the artists immigrated to Australia avoiding the impact of the Mao-era and, through their art, have not let their heritage become something of the past but kept it in the fore actively negotiating issues of the Chinese Diaspora, physical and spiritual identity, belonging and cultural “in-betweeness”, and the notion of home. Finally, the artists of Chinese heritage contemplate the issues this raises for them such as the cleave created between themselves and their ancestry, all the while wearing the obvious physical evidence of their racial lineage and consider how to bridge this void.
One of these artists is Robin Eley. His self-portrait, Bibliography shows his face with an averted “soul-searching” gaze painted on to a canvas segmented by sharp running vertical and horizontal creases. As a result, his face has the appearance of being pieced together like a completed puzzle. However, this divided self is painted on an assembled foundation of significant texts from both China and Australia. The ten hard covers represent what has gone before, of documented knowledge, and the cultural elements from which the artist is built, ultimately representing an avenue of knowing. Retrospectively, Eley looks to history contained in iconic texts to construct and bolster notions of the self. On the other hand, Owen Leong’s photograph, Tom considers the corporeal exterior and the way in which it is used by society to frame the individual. Australian-born of Chinese parents, Leong sees the face and body as an identifier used in post-colonial Australia to objectify people as the Other, in a continued attempt to maintain a “tenuous grip on ‘white-ness’ as a position of power” . Choosing to photograph, Tom Cho author of Look Who’s Morphing, was a deliberate choice. When we look at Tom’s face we are confronted by the pink ooze penetrating the surface and running down his cheek. Superficially it represents a scar or open wound but is also indicative of something below the surface. For Leong, the individual is not a static identity and has the ability to transform and morph, while the skin is a permeable layer rendering our inner identities in a continual state of flux.
Cyrus Tang’s video Memento Mori (one translation from Latin is “remember you must die”) also explores the identity contained within the face, however she uses un-fired clay casts of a multitude of faces to create her work. The colourless faces slowly submerge and begin to erode into a liquid until they are reduced to the original grey matter, then they form again and reemerge as another face and the cycle is repeated. Through this means, Tang’s hypnotic video also addresses the concept of reinvention and rebirth within the individual. However, unlike Leong’s work, the faces are not easily definable by race or sex and therefore tend to morph into one to become without their individuality. There is a pensive sadness about Tang’s video, a sense of dislocation and loss. The faces continually disappear into the black and their re-incarnation is not necessarily a joyous moment, as they too are quickly swallowed up in the nothingness. How many times can one be reinvented before the self is eliminated forever? Tang’s own experience of moving from Hong Kong to Melbourne and the resulting sense of displacement is drawn on in this work.
Song Ling’s two paintings Beauty and the Beast 2 and Beauty and the Beast 3, depict women wearing masks concealing their noses and mouths. In these impactful portraits, Ling raises the concept of concealment and duality. The coverings on these women’s faces change their beautiful appearances to mysterious, sinister or even ugly; allowing the one person to embody multiple identities. This is not a culturally specific notion at all, existing in various forms and versions around the world. However, given Ling grew up during the Cultural Revolution and produced ‘un-authorised’ art, hidden identities are not an uncommon occurrence. The mask obscures the mouth and we wonder what is not being said. Are the masks deliberate or are the subjects being censored? Is it a reference to the Confucian mechanism of hiding one’s thoughts behind a blank façade thus resulting in the face itself as a type of mask or a reference to the stereotype of Asian inscrutability? Moving from China to Australia in 1988, Ling paints these works drawing on elements from his traditional Chinese painting training but meshes them with a graphic print-like technique. The watery acrylic runs freely like ink down their faces and is contrasted by the geometric dot-matrix points which give shape and form to create their skin and features. This choice to use his formal training and reference to the current technological era serve to create a tension within each work, and in this instance, amplify the ambiguity about the faces we see before us. Furthermore, as a founding member of the significant Pond Society, a radical artistic group formed as a response to the Post-Mao era and the resulting flood of outside Western information and visual stimuli coming in, it was not uncommon for artists at this time to readily adopt Western stylistic techniques and fuse them with the traditional. Critic, scholar and curator Gao Minglu refers to this as a period of “cultural collision between China and the West” and signified a time where art was loosened from the strictures of political control.
Lindy Lee also confronts notions of division within the self, once commenting on her own feeling of “being neither this nor that but both” ; a dual self. Through her art practice, Lee has traversed through her generations to recover elements of her concealed past. However, in her artwork, Stealing Bamboo Shoots she draws on her spiritual belief and the Zen Buddhist practice of ‘flung ink’. Performed after meditation, the Ch’an (Zen) monks fling ink from a container and the marks are the direct result of all the universal elemental forces at that very moment in time. Stealing Bamboo Shoots is the outcome of Lee flinging molten bronze and then positioning the seventeen pieces together to form a complete circle. A powerful symbol within Buddhist belief, a circle can represent the wheel of life that has no beginning and no end, while it also signifies that we are all interconnected and cannot step outside this. There is a wonderful beauty and resolve in the way Lee has collected these individual pieces, snapshots of time, and elegantly assembled them to create a unified whole… ultimately, greater than the sum of its parts. Radiating from this circle is a restfulness and a completion that is only achieved through the synergy of all the parts functioning together as one.
Zhong Chen’s painting, Kung Fu 27 is a work that recalls Chen’s youth spent practicing kung fu. Thick black lines reminiscent of calligraphic strokes form the monk’s body in his poetic pose, while the explosions of background colour is the chi (energy) created by the rhythm of the subject and the artist's own expressive gesture as he engages with the canvas. Even for non-practitioners of kung fu, the move is immediately recognisable as a martial art. Proliferated through Chinese cinema and Hollywood, kung fu has become synonymous with Chinese culture and philosophies to a Western audience. It represents an influential migration of the culture and for many young children in Australia watching a Bruce Lee film or taking up a martial art is the first time they dip their toe into Eastern philosophy.
John Young's photographic works Manchurian Snow Walk and Manchurian Snow Walk (Completed) document the significance and insignificance of place depending on where one is positioned. By walking in a snow forest from one tree as a point of origin to eight other trees (one at a time) and back, and recording each place by looking back at the previous, Young brings to the fore how one's perspective confirms the prominence of place given any point in time. Understanding his own migration to Australia from Hong Kong incorporated elements of chance, Young is concerned with the Diaspora of different cultures around the world. This work considers places of origin and randomly selected destinations and how one's immersion to a new point changes one's view on the origin and where you are now located. Does the best understanding of place come from being in it or looking back at it? Choosing to do this in a changing natural environment, he also explores the notion temporality in these moves. These endless shifts in perspective on origin and destination are valuable when considering the migrations of people around the world and how we understand it by where we ourselves are posited.
Chonggang Du's painting Pose is rich in symbolism as he seeks to understand his position in society though navigating the irony contained in both his current and previous socio-political environments. He incorporates signifiers from Chinese and Western cultures to create a direct juxtaposition to ask how and through what we are being informed. Du considers the lust for material goods and consumerism in the West and its usage as a method of societal control. In direct comparison, Du depicts symbols of the strictures and control methods ingrained in Chinese societal practice. This re-contextualisation of the commonplace from both societies prompts a reconsideration of the familiar and the foreign.
In a celebration of city life, Pei Pei He's eight meter rice paper scroll documents bustling city scenes showing people immersed in their daily routines amongst the congestion of Melbourne traffic. These scrolls encapsulate He's fascination with her energised home but play an important part in documenting snapshots of modern life. Having been taken from city life under the Mao regime, she spent eight years as a teen working the fields of rural China in an attempt to "re-educate" her. He now eagerly embraces what seems mundane about city life and creates a kind of instant romantic nostalgia. Monochromatic in appearance, she records the scenes with thousands of tiny lines meditatively drawn to create what already looks like a hazy memory. Employing the traditional method of documenting important history on scrolls, He acknowledges the magic in our everyday lives, prompting us to not take it for granted.
From the populated streets to the most solitary moments, Kordelya Zhansui Chi's two sculptures of scantily-clad women on the toilet are candid and indulgent. They encapsulate the most private liberation, where you are left to be alone and truly be yourself. One figure smoking and reading a book while reclining nonchalantly on a Western style toilet and the other figure elegantly perched on a typical Shanghai-ese style toilet enjoying a coffee and a cigarette. For the artist, these times represent true liberation and peace. There is a relaxed sensual confidence in both women and a luxurious-ness in their revealing attire and ankle boots. This voyeuristic peek is a moment most of us have experienced; they are not culturally specific but are a universal truth. Some things remain the same no matter where you call home.
When Zhou Xiaoping arrived in Australia in 1988 he ended up pursuing an incredible journey. To understand the very heart of Australia, he delved into the remote areas to learn the country from its indigenous population. He spent many years traveling with Aboriginal elders and prominent Aboriginal artists. They created art together and truly engaged in inter-cultural exchange. Zhou felt it was the way to understand the core of this land. In his installation, Heaven, People, Earth a typical round Chinese dining table set with bowls and chopsticks. For the most part, it's a recognisable scene from any Chinese restaurant in Australia, however Zhou has painted the bowls using traditional designs he learnt from Johnny Bulunbulun in Arnhem Land and the layer of uncooked rice covering the table top has concentric circles etched into it. Circles are common in Aboriginal art practice being used to signify a site of significance such as a campsite, waterhole or meeting place. It's a time to share stories, discuss issues and engage with one another, regardless of culture. In Zhou's fusion of the two cultures, he represents the universal language of hospitality that echoes around the world. How often have Australians dined at a Chinese restaurant, what outback town does not have a Chinese restaurant in its main street, or a major city its very own China-town? Hospitality is at the core for all of us and is a time-long bridge between cultures.
Chinese Australia offers a collective narrative drawn from firsthand experience that speaks to all Australians. In a time where frightening views still remain on immigrants and the media perpetuates the degrading term “boat people”, Chinese Australia provides a timely platform to voice the individual journeys of these generations of artists who passionately contribute to Australian society and ultimately, shape Australian culture. The exhibition provides a thread of conversation between these generations while encouraging an inter-cultural dialogue between the artists and their audience, aiming to eliminate that silence. As individuals and as a society we need these valuable pieces of knowledge, as when placed together, the resulting whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There should not be silence.
Image: Song Ling, Beauty and the Beast (C)