Review: Make Yourself At Home

Piss-bolting through Redfern on a rainy afternoon of last week, I bee-lined my way past bedraggled nine-to-fivers and arrived at the Chinalink Gallery.

The current exhibition, Make Yourself At Home, showcasing the works of four emerging Chinese-Australian artists, was a definite shift from the industrial streetscape outside.

Installed in the centre of the space was a lush carpet of freshly watered grass, enshrouded in thin gauze drapery. On an adjacent wall, strangers’ faces stared out at me from monochrome photographs, and in my peripheral vision emerged a generous array of painted penises. The whole room was unexpectedly filled with the nostalgic smell of wet grass, curiosity and an odd sense of homeliness.

Peculiar abodes are a common topic of thought for artist and the show’s curator, Shuxia Chen, who is responsible for the creation of the Alice-in-Wonderland-esque garden installation. ‘A home’, says Chen, ‘is psychological, individualistic, not just architectural’. Oscillating between China and Australia, Chang’s interior garden hits on anxieties inherent in diaspora when one is forced to ‘make’ a new home for themselves.

To capture lost memories, Chen has recorded her dreams over the past five months on cassette tapes, which she welcomes viewers to listen to within the organic archive space. As I started wondering how insightful listening to a stranger’s half-sedate morning ramblings could possibly be, Chen informed me that the gesture is a symbolic one. For Chen, dreams are deeply personal, spontaneous and emotionally revealing in the same way that one’s home is. This is her way of inviting people into her world – lily pads and all.

Mounted on the surrounding walls were the curious paintings of artist Danny Chang. I say curious because never before have I seen so many penises in the one work. I thought, wow, they’re not even subtly phallic; the walls are undeniably covered in penises. In addition to being sexually explicit, Chang’s paintings were imaginatively poetic, which thankfully added value and intrigue. One perplexing work featured a grieving red skeleton kneeling beneath a fractal of nine waterfalls spilling out into an inky blood wash. The skeleton’s foetus-brain was matched in peculiarity by its branch-like fingers and fused penis-vagina thumb.

In attempt to sift through the semantic layers of Chang’s paintings, I did what all art critics should, but don’t, do – I asked the artist. A reticent and cool Chang informed me that this particular painting was inspired by a trip to Japan during the radiation crisis of 2011.

In Chinese, the motif of nine waterfalls symbolises hell. Yet the unrelentingly visceral and graphic quality of Chang’s paintings was counterbalanced by visual indications of rebirth – both in the repeated embryos and reproductive organs. I asked Chang up-front about his penis obsession, focusing on a post-coital scene of little swimming sperm and rainbow butterflies. Chang let out a short ironic laugh, shrugged, and then indifferently confessed that it was simply a painting he did in college, showing his day-to-day life of sex, masturbating and somehow, butterflies.

Chang also talked briefly to me about the differences between his and his parents’ generation, having moved from China to Australia in the ‘80s and growing up in a techno-obsessed pop culture. However amidst this buzzing context, Chang’s work ultimately illustrates the loneliness of this Chinese post-80’s generation. Poignant experiences growing up, including the accidental pregnancy of a teenaged friend and her partner’s abandonment, self-discovery and adolescent frustrations all colour Chang’s paintings, which in addition to being quirky are very honest and very raw.

Born to a Malaysian-Chinese mother and Italian-Australian father, photographer Pia Johnson explores the unique appearance of interracial offspring. The title of her portrait series, ‘Who’s that Chinese lady who picks you up from school?’ humorously highlights other students’ confusion about the visual racial differences between Pia and her mum. The portraits are of Asian-Australians who Johnson recognises as the new ‘faces’ of Australia. Staring reciprocally at the row of faces, it’s impossible to pinpoint each person’s background.

No clues are offered by the artist, who has deliberately set up the subjects in identical backdrops, lighting and bare-shoulders composition. The result is a sameness that borders on banal; but it also enables Johnson to depict an ethnographic account that is based solely on facial features, leading the viewer to observe the playful ambiguity of racial hybridity.

On my way out, by a lavish bowl of traditional Chinese treats, I was lured towards the most mesmerising video installation by Cyrus Tang. Dusty white buildings intricately carved from plaster had been submerged in a tank of water and filmed as they crumble and sink in slow-motion. It resembled some kind of architectural avalanche, with ghostly remnants dispersing into a liquid sky.

Tang, originally from Hong Kong, artistically investigates themes of memory and reminiscence, domesticity and interiority, loss and dislocation. She writes, ‘These art projects outline my effort to construct an imaginary space which is made up of my distorted childhood memories and fantasies of homeland.’ Tang’s originally executed video evocatively captured the fragility of memory in a way that was chillingly beautiful and surreal.

In very different ways, each artist explores self-identity and belonging to a culture that is far removed from their Chinese heritage, despite Australia being so-called multicultural. Overall, the admixture of recorded dreams, phallic paintings, blank portraits and crumbling ethereal facades wasn’t quite the right fit but it messes with your head in a good way.

Make Yourself At Home is showing at Chinalink Gallery, 107 Regent St, Redfern, until February 23, 12 – 5pm.

Harriet Levenston