China Up Close Symposium: Tilting Australia’s Axis
Wednesday 3 December, 2014 1:30-3:30pm

This is the transcript from my talk presented as part of the panel at ACMI's China Up Close Symposium as part of Yang Fudong's exhibition. 

Both Insider and Outsider

Slide 1: Dress Slide

  • In considering the theme of ‘Tilting Australia’s Axis’, my perspective has always been tilted towards China, inter-generationally.
  • I am an Australian Born Chinese visual artist/curator and academic
    with a longstanding interest in Chinese contemporary art.
    I have worked with Chinese artists in a number of capacities, over the years in both China and Australia.
  • Today, I’d like to speak about my position as both being an insider and outsider to Chinese culture, through my experience of working in China with the art community.
  • On a personal level, my heritage is Cantonese with ancestry from Southern China, Macau and Hong Kong, with family spread between Asia and Australia. I consider myself fourth generation Australian born Chinese with ancestors arriving at the turn of the twentieth century. In Cantonese, ‘Jook Sing’ is a term meaning a section of bamboo, where each end is blocked. This is used as a metaphor for overseas born Chinese, implying they are unable to connect to either culture. However, I am more optimistic than this and prefer to see myself as a connector between both cultures.
  • We were Arthur Caldwell’s ‘Two Wongs’ that apparently didn’t make a ‘white’. If you name the Chinese Australian stereotype, my ancestors have been in most of these roles. There was a market gardener, a Chinese restaurant cook, milk bar operators, a wife/ mother and grandmother denied a visa to reunite with her family and even a green grocer who was a Chinese community leader and suspected communist, who went missing in the 1940s here in Victoria. Through all this, we were still here to stay.
  • As an artist and curator, my experience in China was working with contemporary visual art communities in Beijing and more recently Shanghai and Suzhou.
  • It is actually quite a complex task for me to discuss my relationship with China and the administrative regions of Macau and Hong Kong due to the political division, former colonization, conflicting views of Chinese identity, which exist between the various generations and regions.
  • As an artist, my interests have often led me to reflect on the state of being between cultures and as a curator seeking ways to work with other artists to create dialogue and deepen connections between Australia as my home and China as my ancestral home.

Slide 2: Gong Fu Stills

  • Growing up in Sydney, I always had a personal interest in art, but did not come from a family particularly engaged with artistic practices. I was exposed to Cantonese/Hong Kong popular culture and grew up speaking Cantonese, evidenced by our ‘Super 8’ videos of my sisters and I impersonating Hong Kong Gong Fu/TV dramas in Hyde Park by the Harbour in the early 1980s.
  • Although my Father was born in Southern China and migrated to Australia in 1958, there was always quite a clear division of identity in the family, that we didn’t really identify with China as communist country.

Slide 3: Chinese-art.com

  • In the 1990s, as an art student, I began to question my position as an Australian of Chinese descent. This led me to realize my ideas of being Chinese were quite locally specific to the Cantonese speaking region and also to earlier migration patterns in Australia. I also became curious about the broader experience of being Chinese and wanted to understand what it meant first hand.
  • With the eruption of the internet at the time, I became aware of a growing contemporary art community in China, particularly in Beijing. I began following the website ‘Chinese-art.com’ and was surprised to find there was a very active contemporary art community. ‘Chinese-art.com’ was one of the earliest web journals dedicated to reporting on contemporary Chinese art and was written by Chinese and international art critics and scholars and published in English. This included publications by curators Hou Hanru and academic Professor Wu Hung.
  • This led to my decision to live and work in Beijing, China (2000-2), which was met with disapproval by some of my relatives, who had various experiences through the Cultural Revolution. Beijing at this time was in the early days of urbanizing and becoming more globally connected and economically focused. For some Australian Chinese, these developments were met with suspicion.

  • After moving to Beijing, I was fascinated with the idea of meeting contemporary artists and sought out the few contemporary art galleries. I came into contact with the editor of ‘Chinese-art.com’, Robert Bernell, just as I was deciding to return to Australia. He convinced me to work for him, as part of the editorial team and stay on. As an outsider, working for ‘Chinese-art.com’ ended up being an amazing, fast paced, wild goose chase of an experience. I was exposed to a wide variety of art activities and soon found myself also participating as an artist.

  • The art community at this stage was very much an underground community, but was beginning to gain some international attention. There was an increasing representation of Chinese artists at major contemporary art events such as the Venice Biennale.

  • Beijing, being the political capital of the country, had locally specific, complex conditions and attitudes towards the activities of the contemporary art community. There was little understanding from authorities in regards to contemporary art. Certain art forms such as ‘performance art’, popular at the time, were deemed unacceptable in public, this included galleries. This only led to art communities to become more cohesive and self-contained. At this stage, the art market was small but growing and dominated by foreign collectors. There was still few commercial art galleries and a limited art buying Chinese market.

  • It was a restrictive time in some respects. Contemporary artists felt they were a marginalized community, but it was also a period of great social transformation and new opportunities. As a result, artist and curators were finding innovative ways of presenting their work in unusual and alternative spaces. It reflected a city, in which the arts infrastructure was still forming. I felt there was a great sense of collaboration, support and enthusiasm between the individuals of the art community. The nature of these activities reflected a time more driven by experimental exploration than commercial outcomes.
  • There were many art events occurring in the city, which were activated by independent artists or curators, but there was limited media focused on contemporary Chinese art. As a result, our company was a hub for contemporary art activity. Artists, art critics, curators, academics all came through our offices to discuss projects they were working on. It was quite an informal arrangement and was pre social media, so artists would often finish a body of work and arrive with evidence for us to view, usually in the form of photography, which would almost immediately be uploaded to our website.

Slide 4: 798 Factory

  • During my time working for ‘Chinese-art.com’, I was fortunate to witness and participate in the establishment of the 798 Factory arts precinct. The Chinese art offices relocated there in 2001. At the time 798 was still a disused factory site, there were only a handful of artists studios there. Prior to this, the art community was quite nomadic, moving around to affordable places. The building we rented was a dilapidated ‘Ping Fang’ building which used to house the canteen for factory workers, and needed complete renovation. It was amazing to see how quickly the 798 site flourished into a cultural precinct, with many studios, galleries and artist-run restaurants establishing themselves in the precinct in a short period of time.

  • My own experience was heightened by the fact that I was immediately accepted by the art community because of my Chinese heritage and art background, even though I felt quite foreign, speaking a new dialect and not being quite familiar with the culture. For the first time in my life, I was referred to by my Chinese name, it was a ‘sliding doors’ moment for me. At the time, the art community was also particularly male dominated, completely different to my own art school experience. Being a female artist of Chinese heritage was an advantage, as it was unusual and created a point of difference. Without looking for opportunities, I was often invited to exhibit alongside other Chinese artists, which generally excluded other foreign artists living and working in Beijing.
  • Working in China certainly broadened my understanding of the experience of being Chinese and perhaps led me to many further questions about China’s relationship with Australia and position in a globalizing world. The experience gained, gave me a lot of confidence to pursue a career in the arts and stimulated my research interests in how locally specific social, cultural and political conditions influence the way urban art communities form. The strong sense of community and artist initiated activities I experienced, certainly influenced my working philosophy as an arts worker.

Slide 5: Zhao Bandi

  • After this time, I continued to develop activities between Australian and Chinese communities. This included the curation of Zhao Bandi’s ‘Gone with the Panda’ at Newcontemporaries, Sydney (2004) and producing the ‘China Now’ (2007) seminar for the Chinese New Year celebrations at the AGNSW.

Slide 6: Meridians

  • As an arts researcher in Melbourne, my focus on ‘The City as a Curated Space’, led to further collaborations in Shanghai and Suzhou. In 2010, I curated ‘Meridians: Shanghai’, an ‘art in public space’ collaborative project between Melbourne and Shanghai artists, leading to the ‘Art in Chinatown’ series of exhibitions in partnership with Melbourne’s Chinese Museum.

Slide 7: Lumens Festival

  • In 2012, ‘Lumens Festival: Curating the Ancient City’ was a contemporary video and photography festival situated in the lime washed canal walls of Suzhou. This project focused on re-imagining and activating the ancient heritage landscape through contemporary art, amidst the rapid modernization of the urban landscape. Works by artists from the sister states of Victoria and Jiangsu were screened, acting as a public visual dialogue between Australia and China.