OzAsia Festival visual arts: A common spirituality

Chris Reid

“Artists can never be tourists,” declares Ashley Crawford in his catalogue essay for the compelling OzAsia 2016 exhibition Unworldly Encounters. Artists reflexively respond to their surroundings and develop not only new art but new ways of seeing the world as a result of immersive travel experiences in their own and each other’s countries.

 

Unworldly Encounters

Crawford accompanied a group of Chinese and Australian artists who undertook the first of three extended road trips through China and Australia in 2011. In Unworldly Encounters, four of those artists—Shi Jinsong, Cang Xin, Sam Leach and Tony Lloyd—show work inspired by the most recent trip which took them through southern China, Tibet, Arnhem Land and the Kimberley and culminated in a residency at Oratunga, north of the Flinders Ranges. This project, conceived and managed by AEAF director Steve Eland, has already produced several exhibitions in China and Australia. Unworldly Encounters is thus an ideal inclusion in the OzAsia Festival, whose ethos is cultural awareness-raising and artistic cross-fertilisation.

This exhibition looks as if it was conceived by a single mind rather than four separate artists, such is its coherence. Shi Jinsong’s extraordinary Other Shore forms a visual spine running through it. Winding across the entire length of the gallery floor is a blackened S-shaped trail of the ashes of animal bones and timber he collected from the Flinders Ranges and then burnt. Cang Xin’s Salvation is a series of ink-on-paper illustrations mounted in a line that runs from the floor up and along the gallery walls, starting from a series of calligraphic forms constructed from rows of seed-pods. Looking as if they have sprouted from the pods, the illustrations are of primitive life forms, the sequence’s form referencing Tibetan ‘spirit ladders,’ images drawn onto rock faces to allow spirits to climb to heaven. The seed pods are from Adnyamathanha country, Cang Xin’s work thus implicitly linking two significant cultural traditions with the origins of life.

Sam Leach’s Sky Burial is a platform bearing human bone fragments, referencing the Tibetan ritual practice of dismembering the deceased and feeding their remains to vultures instead of burying or cremating them. Tony Lloyd’s The Ocean Floor comprises hundreds of seashells suspended from the ceiling in a formation that outlines a mountain, suggesting how underwater mountains can be formed from shell deposits over millions of years.

Unworldly Encounters pays homage to the rites and traditions of Tibetans and Indigenous Australians and their territories, it speaks of geological time, human evolution and mortality, and it evidences four artists’ journeys of personal and artistic transformation that bridge cultures and generate a common spirituality.

Divine Interventions

By contrast, Damien Shen and Badiucao’s joint exhibition Divine Interventions looks critically at contemporary Chinese and Australian politics. Australian-born Shen, of Chinese and Aboriginal descent, produced a series of large-scale drawings entitled Team Gweilo. “Gweilo” is a derogatory Chinese term for Westerners and the drawings are of Australian politicians whom Shen considers have made racist, sexist or other inappropriate remarks. Badiucao (a pseudonym), a Chinese immigrant to Australia, has installed a series of election posters of Chinese President Xi Jinping, mockingly titled If You are the One, which he has over-painted, establishing a parallel with Shen’s portraits. On the floor is Badiucao’s Why Do They Buy Out Our Baby Formula, a series of images of dead babies outlined in white powder (formula) on black rubbish bin liners that refers to the deaths of Chinese babies fed tainted Chinese-manufactured formula and the consequent purchase of Australian formula by Chinese parents.

At the Divine Interventions opening night performance, Badiucao, wearing a mask resembling those imposed on inmates of the Don Dale Detention Centre and bound at the wrists, sits on a child-sized chair facing into a corner as if he is himself a child detainee. Hooded accomplices cut him free and he proceeds to paint “gweilo” calligraphically over Shen’s portraits in red paint, defacing them. As well as critiquing Chinese and Australian politics, the exhibition represents a cathartic personal journey for both artists, in which they reflect on their own identity within Australian society.

At an artists’ talk involving all six artists from these two exhibitions, Badiucao, who wears a mask at public events to hide his identity, raised the issue of the invasion of Tibet by China, and a vigorous debate ensued over the impact of Chinese politics on Chinese art, artists and the community generally. Shen indicated that the Divine Interventions exhibition shifted his artistic practice to a new level of political awareness and he and Badiucao gained valuable experience in working cooperatively.

 

Record Light

While Divine Interventions is confrontingly political, Hong Kong artist Kingsley Ng’s enchanting exhibition Record Light creates a magical visual and aural experience that makes its comments more subtly. Ng uses electronic technology to create a language of wondrous lighting effects, as in Moon.gate. On entering the darkened CACSA gallery, we first see what looks like dappled light entering through a window and illuminating the gallery floor. But there is no window and this poignant image is a projection, an illusion. A portable radio emits pre-recorded fragments of programs sourced from the ABC, SBS, Vision Christian Radio, Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi, Radio ENA and 5PBA. The flickering light on the floor appears synchronised with this rapid succession of topical news bulletins, documentaries and religious messages, as Moon.gate gently reflects on the complex and conflicting philosophies and beliefs evident through Australian media.

Ng’s Record: Light from 220 16’ 14” + 1140 08’ 48” comprises a music box through which viewers are invited to feed a paper tape like a piano roll that triggers not only sound but also light effects in a wall-sized projected image of the Hong Kong nightscape. The title’s coordinates identify the source of the effects as the Hong Kong Peak, and this transformation of sound into light using old and new technologies is as romantically evocative as the location.

Spring: Homage to Liang Quan comprises a low, cloth covered table holding an empty glass which appears to cast a shadow that moves across the table as if glass and table form a sundial and the day’s length is compressed into a few moments. Numerals then appear through the cloth: the latitude and longitude of an unknown location and time of day. On the adjacent wall, identified by coordinates, is a list of locations from which bottled water is sourced. The work speaks of the proliferation of imported bottled water and invites us to think about the commodification of this essential substance with which we might fill the empty glass. The light patterns simulate the light that might be seen at the locations listed on the wall, transporting our thoughts to those places. The cloth on the table turns out to be the paper used by Chinese calligraphers, so that the work symbolically substitutes artificial light for the calligrapher’s ink, while beneath the paper, a flat screen emits the illusions.

The central work in Ng’s poetic exhibition is his enthralling Galaxy Express, a row of screens showing images of train windows flashing by, as if the viewer is observing a moving train at night. A female narrator describes her train journey through time and space towards the centre of the galaxy, a surreal story in which passengers of the future travel back to the past in order to escape their no-longer habitable earthly environment. Again, Kingsley Ng demonstrates virtuosic use of light effects and sound, this time to comment on the impact of environmental degradation on the future of humanity.

These OzAsia exhibitions offer profound insights into contemporary life and politics, and the vital message that emerges is that we are one community inhabiting a tiny, disrupted planet and trying to speak to each other.

Unworldly Encounters, Australian Experimental Art Foundation, 9 Sept-15 Oct; Divine Interventions, Nexus Arts, 8 Sept–11 Nov; Record Light, Contemporary Art Centre of SA, 10 Sept–16 Oct

Top image credit: Galaxy Express, Kingsley Ng, Record Light, Contemporary Art Centre of SA, image courtesy OzAsia 2016

13 October 2016
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