Review

Chinese Whispers and Other Stories, curated by Pia Johnson

Shu-Ling Chua reviews Chinese Whispers and Other Stories, currently showing in Canberra.

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Chinese Whispers and Other Stories features the works of four emerging female Australian artists of Chinese descent – Janelle Low, Pia Johnson, Siying Zhou and Tammy Law. Through photography and video, it challenges the viewer’s assumptions of (Asian-)Australian identity, migration, home and belonging.

On entering the gallery, one’s attention is captured by Low’s intimate yet incomplete self-portraits, juxtaposed against still-life images of Chinese-ness and Australiana. Condensed milk spills from an oyster shell while what appears to be white chocolate spiked with peppermint leaves is revealed as Tofu and Gum. Low’s series Reconcile (2016/17) speaks to the cross-fire of growing up between cultures and the fragmented self this fosters. The effect is jarring though comforting in its familiarity.

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Photos by Janelle Low

Johnson’s series Family Resemblance, after Wittgenstein (2015/16) builds on this understanding of self as the sum of fractured parts through twenty-two seemingly arbitrary images. The viewer’s gaze, drifting from incense sticks to mooncake, is jolted by the inclusion of pillow-shaped ravioli, a reflection of the artist’s mixed Chinese-Italian-Australian heritage. “The layout plays on ideas of the genogram and family tree, and looks at similarities and differences (of content and visual characteristics) of my heritage cultures, and their fusion of being Eurasian Australian,” Johnson explains.

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Photos by Pia Johnson

Our first Lamington made in Australia (2015) by Zhou is an hour-long video documenting the artist’s parents making Lamington. The couple bicker over whether to whisk the batter with a spoon or chopsticks and speak in a mixture of Mandarin (subtitled) and English, revealing an authenticity that is difficult, if not impossible, to imitate. It is a tender portrait of familial love and cultural adaptation. “Let me use chopsticks,” the father insists, dipping sponge into chocolate icing, then coconut flakes.

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A still from Our first Lamington made in Australia by Siying Zhou

Law’s series of photographs Belonging in Motion (2015/16) examines home and displacement from the perspective of migrants from Myanmar in Australia. Of the four artists, Law’s work is the most surreal. The fading light of dusk, combined with memories projected onto suburbia, heighten the sense of being caught not just between two countries but between the past and the present. Stripped of identifying landmarks, the subjects, faces blurred, could be one’s neighbours.

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Photo by Tammy Law

At the exhibition opening, Professor Jacqueline Lo (Associate Dean (International), ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences) comments on the persistence required to create a narrative. Chinese Whispers and Other Stories subtly shifts the labour of narrative-building from artist to audience. It simmers with questions, not just ‘Who am I?’ but ‘Who are you?’ or more pointedly, ‘Who are you to ask?’ It shatters stereotypes and rewards those who work patiently towards understanding. Viewers are compelled to sift for missed clues, thereby resetting preconceptions of (Asian-)Australians.

Visually stunning, the exhibition is an invitation to look beyond surfaces.

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Chinese Whispers and Other Stories is exhibiting at PhotoAccess in Canberra (Thursday 27 April – Sunday 21 May) and Blindside Gallery in Melbourne (Wednesday 21 June – Saturday 8 July).

‘Exploring Chinese-Australian contemporary art and the female perspective’, an in-conversation event with Pia Johnson, Siying Zhou and Mikala Tai (Director of 4A Centre of Contemporary Asian Art), will be held Sunday 21 May at PhotoAccess, 2pm. Free.

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