By Thomas Connelly
We went to the Long Gallery on a bleak bleary rainy sort of Hobart day to see Made in China, Australia. I took the entire family, as it is always helpful to get the viewpoint of children who can see through the hype of art and bring all the five dollar words back to the reality of mud and play with a response that is based on love and play first and foremost.
Anthology is from a Greek word, which literally means a flower gathering. This exhibition of sixteen artists is, in the best sense of the word, a gathering of flowers. Like all such gatherings it is a mixed collection of artists and artworks. Like any good gathering it lets us compare and contrast between the different artists, the different ways of seeing and the different ways of playing. China has existed for thousands of years and is a country of more than a billion people. That brings a wide range of attitudes, techniques and abilities and becomes an interesting vein of artistic ore to mine. Some of the artists come from China; some are new arrivals to Australia while others have been in Australia for generations.
As it was the official opening of the exhibition, I was able to listen to the speeches and talks about the exhibition and more broadly the nature of being Chinese in Australia. It was disappointing to hear a Labor politician attempt to white wash the role of the ALP in historic anti-Chinese feeling in Australia. But mostly the speakers spoke with passion for art, and more importantly for the great role immigration has played in building the nation.
Coming as it did only a week or so after the leader of the opposition’s belligerent speech in China, the talks raised important questions around Australia's relationship with China. What does Australia want from China? Serenity without Buddhism, order without Confucius, hard work, but not too hard; work that does not embarrass the locals.
After the exhibition we ducked out of the rain to enjoy overpriced pizza and ice cream. We sat around the table and discussed the works we liked best and everyone in the family chose a different art work.
There was agreement about The Originals a work of intricately cut paper rabbits, by the Brisbane based artist Pamela Mei-Leng See. This seemingly simple work opened up questions about the fears of the introduced. The rabbit was first introduced for hunting parties but has spread across the country, threatening prime farm land. This theme is reinforced by her cut paper sparrows entitled ...place like home. An ellipsis adding mystery; another species introduced by nostalgic Englishmen that is now considered a pest.
My nine year old son enjoyed many pieces, but when pushed to commit he voted for a work by Lindy Lee, Sagacious Liu. Her family has had an on-again off-again relationship with Australia for some six generations. Based on questions of identity her work seems to ask questions about the nature of reality and how loss and memory are the basis for the present. He also enjoyed One Nien Sees Eternity. This work uses fire to burn holes into paper which together form an images inspired by the old atom smashing machines. Did the boy like the idea of fire and destruction to create things. He would not say, only giggled.
Our soon to be teenage daughter, with arms crossed in that pose that tween girls enjoy, liked the work Will Learn to Love Australia (Epitaph for Dad) by the emerging artist Clara Chow. This work spoke to the question; what is it Australia wants from China and from the Chinese. Using a banner from the shameful Lambing Flats riots the artist added Chinese elements that were innocuous and accessible. This showed her idea that assimilation was on one hand a purging of the undesirable while keeping the 'filtered' aspects of the culture which please the mainstream; a thin and rickety bridge to navigate.
My partner enjoyed the installation Sojourners by the artist Jane Quon. This was a powerful piece talking to alienation. Disembodied masks hung from cages, under bare harsh light bulbs. This is another piece concerning the difficult relationship between the Chinese and white Australia.
My personal favourite were the works by Chen Ping, The General and Joyful Red, Clear White. These works appeal to my interest in, for lack of a better word, dialectics; how things change, how two things interact and become one. Thick layers of green paint contrast with the bare white of the canvas. These ideas are ideas that can unite cultures. From the Chinese idea of Xue, the words of the ancient Greek weeping philosopher 'The way up/down are one and the same', to the most up to date ideas of writers such as Zizek.
There is much more to discuss, as I have only scratched the surface of the exhibit.
As questions surrounding China take centre stage in our national dialogue I would encourage all my fellow Tasmanians to take the opportunity to see this exhibition. It shows the diversity of Chinese artists in Australia, empty and full at the same time, rich and poor at the same time, loved and feared, courted and rejected. This exhibition seems to contain and explain much of the contradictory nature of this long and at times turbulent relationship.
Made in China, Australia is on at the Long Gallery, Salamanca Arts Centre till the 2nd September.