Louise Zhang: Diasporic experience through expanded painting practice

Written by Evelyn Challinor

As a settler Australian, I would like to acknowledge and pay my respects to the Yalukit Wilum people of the Bunorong Country where I currently reside. I would also like to further extend my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

I aim to explore the complex and nuanced experiences of Chinese-Australian diaspora as exemplified through the works of Louise Zhang. Firstly, it is important to discuss and contextualise a few key terms in order to identify how Zhang refers to these concepts in her work as these issues may be blurred or censored amidst visual abstraction (Zhang 2018; Zhang 2020). I will briefly outline the concepts of belonging, hybridity, Third Culture, racism, horror and anxiety before providing a visual analysis of Zhang’s works. I will also weave in my own personal experience as a mixed-race Chinese-Australian as this perspective intrinsically informs my analysis. I aim to utilise my bias of diasporic experience to aid interpretations of Zhang’s work. However, I cannot speak for the artist nor the greater Chinese-Australian community. To some extent, all art allows for us to project our own interpretations onto someone else’s creation. Zhang’s work allows me specifically to inject my personal memory and experience as a means of connecting emotionally and culturally to Zhang’s practice.

To begin, I would like to discuss what it means to be a Chinese migrant settler in Australia specific to notions of cultural hybridity and the third culture:

A third culture kid is someone whose parents [or family] is from one culture but they’re born into another and as a result, they’ve kind of meshed the two and created their own culture. Whether I’m Australian or Chinese, I’m actually both and that’s its own thing (Zhang 2020).

In her definition, Zhang refers to the two seemingly disparate cultures as either Chinese or Australian - never quite one, never quite both.  In this instance, out of necessity, a hybridised third cultural space emerges, i.e., the Third Culture. Professor of Cultural Studies, Ien Ang expands on this experience as likely to be the result of both implicit and explicit racist attitudes towards Asian Australians, where anyone who is perceived as ethnic (not white) is somehow un-Australian (Ang 2014:1189). Paradoxically, this attitude extends not just to migrants but also First Nations people as well. Professor and Chair in Race Relations Yin Paradies and researcher in Social Psychology, Dr. Adam Seet explain that the racial hierarchy in Australia appears to have a white monocultural society at the top and beneath them lie the non-white migrants and First Nations Australians (Paradies and Seet 2021:1035). To analyse Zhang’s work, we can look to the notion of the Third Culture as an imagined space somewhere simultaneously between and outside the Chinese and Australian identities. The Third space exists as an individual’s response to cultural alienation and therefore, the Third Culture becomes a place of both comfort and unease. It becomes a means of survival whilst living parallel to the disparate cultures.

To clarify cultural alienation, I will briefly digress to explain racism, somewhat succinctly for the purposes of this discussion. Racism can occur in either overt or covert forms. I define overt forms of racism as actions or words which are explicitly and undeniably discriminatory acts against a person based on their ethnicity. From the research of Dr. Samit Bordoloi (specialising in social justice, intersectionality and LGBT issues), assistant professor Chandra Waring (Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences) and Dr Wing Sue (Professor of Counselling Psychology) I will define covert forms of racism as “microaggressions”. Microaggressions are inexplicit and ambiguous comments or actions made against racialised groups. These behaviours can be difficult to identify and are often recognised by the victim in hindsight as the behaviour can often be well-disguised by faux friendliness, condescending humour and sometimes ‘coincidental’ racial profiling (Waring and Bordoloi 2019:155; Sue et al 2007:95). Understandably, dealing with overt and covert racism over one’s lifetime can generate anxiety as the emotional and mental labour it takes to address oppression can become exhausting (Zhang 2017). Perhaps it is this specific feeling of anxiety which Zhang alludes to in her work. So, in a visual arts context, what does the anxiety of a Third Culture Kid look like? I could probably point at myself in the mirror and show you but perhaps it would be more pleasant to look at some art.

I CAN BE WHATEVER YOU WANT ME TO BE, BABY depicts a photograph of a sculpture. The work is vibrant and saccharine in colour, the form is doused in a cool toned pastel gradient rainbow, almost like a Paddle Pop ice cream melting on a hot summer’s day. In this aspect, the sculptural blob is alluring to the viewer. I want to indulge the temptation to reach over and touch it, eat it, play with it, make a mess of it. However, the reality of squishing something like a melted Paddle Pop in between your fingers would likely bring about immediate feelings of disgust and repulsion. In I CAN BE WHATEVER YOU WANT ME TO BE, BABY (2013), what Zhang is really investigating is body horror abjection where blob oozes, bleeds and drips onto the floor of a white cube gallery space (Benton 2018; Khoo 2019). For the viewer, this sculpture may conjure visceral images of bodily fluids, guts, slime and gore (Zhang 2017; Zhang 2021). A person entering the gallery space may be unfamiliar with Zhang’s work and may miss the readings of cultural anxiety expressed in this piece. As this work was created earlier on in her career, Zhang’s Chinese heritage is not explicitly addressed in a visual form.  Zhang intentionally utilises abstraction as a means of blurring the cultural message to the viewer (Zhang 2022). We can see I CAN BE WHATEVER YOU WANT ME TO BE, BABY (2013) as a gateway into expressing the Third Culture space as it expresses inner turmoil for both the artist and the viewer.

Horror is this ambiguous and slippery thing and its monsters manifest the anxieties we have in our world. I believe that if we can better understand our culture’s monsters, we can better understand our culture’s anxieties. And as an artist, rather than be conflicted by this, I think we should embrace it and see what we can create from it…Slime [is] symbolic of an ungraspable, ambiguous slippery horror in my work. It changes shape, its slippery and messy and multi-layered. Third culture, I would argue, instils anxiety because in and of itself it disrupts what’s complete and pure because it can be so many things at once (Zhang 2017).

In 2019, Zhang began to address this iteration of cultural anxiety in a slightly more direct form. In Bury the Sun and all its Demons, Zhang makes overt visual references to her Chinese heritage through sculptures of Chinese moon gates structures and frames (Zhang 2019). In Bury the Sun and all its Demons (2019), Zhang’s use of colour takes on a new function for the viewer (Zhang 2021). The blob motif recurs throughout the paintings and sculptures in this installation. We can also see Chinese moon gates and lattice frames painted in confectionary pastel gradients.  The lattice frame on the right side of the image is accompanied by three trickling blobs which hangs atop the frame. Although the Moon Gates and lattice frames refer to Chinese tradition however, their colour palette denies them the ability to exist inconspicuously outside the white cube gallery space. Perhaps, this installation is an iteration of Zhang’s personalised Third Culture. It is a place not quite between but not quite outside China and Australia. Although there may be many
similarities, Zhang’s imagined Third Culture space cannot look exactly like mine or anyone else’s. This work is one of the many iterations of what it may look and feel like as Chinese Australian diaspora to relearn, reclaim and reimagine one’s cultural heritage. Although this work speaks to China, it does not speak on behalf of all Chinese Australians. It would also be entirely valid if a Chinese-Australian viewer enter the gallery space and find this work to be completely bewildering.

There’s an expectation I feel and that is representation and advocacy. While I do believe in those, I know now it’s not realistic for me (or anyone!) to represent my entire community or culture. I will represent and advocate, but I can only speak of myself, my experiences of my culture, not for others. And I’m not always going to be right and that’s okay because we always keep learning. I will always try to advocate, raise awareness or stand up for others, support them where I can but just because you are the only minority in the room, doesn’t mean you by default are representing all minorities. You can only truly speak of your lived experience and that’s enough and doing plenty (Zhang, personal communication, 16 September 2022).

I would like to conclude this discussion by acknowledging my personal bias and how it informs my interpretations of Zhang’s work. For myself, as someone who identifies as mixed-race Eurasian, I interpret the experience of diaspora as a complex journey with acceptance and belonging (Anthias 2008; Ang 2014; Bordoloi and Waring 2019).

It is also imperative to this discussion that I acknowledge my White passing privilege and how that has equipped me with more tools in my kit to survive and cope with xenophobia in my daily life (Paradies and Seet 2021; Butler 2017). Realising the complexities of racism in Australia and how that changed my view of myself has been a painful undoing and the journey is still ongoing and finding peace with my culture is a “dynamic, lifelong process” (Marks 2011). However, having focussed so hard on being a white Australian as a means for survival, I found solace in Zhang’s work as a means to remind me of my own heritage and place in the Chinese-Australian community (Paradies and Seet 2021; Pyke 2010). I do not intend to confuse this message by implying on Zhang’s that she experienced internalised racism herself. I also do not mean to suggest that the biracial experience is on par with the experience mono-ethnic diaspora but, I will say there is a lot of common ground. Therefore, Zhang’s works resonate with me on a very personal level and, I imagine they might read very differently to viewers of non-Chinese ethnic background. You don’t have to be Chinese to access Zhang’s works, that is the beauty of abstraction. This discussion offers just one viewpoint of many possibilities, and the discussion of Chinese diaspora can take on infinite forms.

Figure 1. Louise Zhang I CAN BE WHATEVER YOU WANT ME TO BE, BABY 2013 Expanding polyurethane, gap filler, acrylic, enamel, silicone 50 x 35 x 35 cm Courtesy of the artist. Image: Supplied by artist.

Figure 2. Louise Zhang 2019 Bury the Sun and all its Demons (installation view) exhibited at Artereal Gallery, Rozelle, NSW. Courtesy of the artist. Image: Zan Wimberley.

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