A Conversation with Rachel Tai
Interview by Whitney McIntosh
Rachel Tai is an artist from Melbourne, currently living in Oxford. She recently completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts at Victorian College of the Arts.
Rachel spoke to Whitney McIntosh about her creative practice, bridging cultural divides through sport, and being 'half'.
How did you first get into painting?
I don’t think that I could really be classed as ‘the arty kid’. Even in high school when I got more involved in art I was never ‘the arty one’. I think I like art classes because I was kind of mediocre at it, it was challenging and different. Unlike Maths or Science, Art was difficult for me—I felt like I had no natural talent for it, so it made it interesting. I actually felt like I was learning and developing a skill.
Your artwork is very abstract while also being quite figurative. What’s your artistic intention behind your work?
To some extent the intention is to make a painting that is interesting to look at (I’ll have my artist card revoked for saying that, you’re not meant to admit you like to make pretty pictures), but each series is usually informed by an overriding theme. In general my work is about truth and illusion, a subject I think most more realistic oil painters find themselves thinking about when they ask themselves, but why paint it? Why not photograph it or just present the real thing?
Recently I’ve been feeling a bit like a frog in a pot of water, with the heat slowly increasing, not realising until it's at boiling point. I hadn’t really noticed how strange the world was. Now I’m realising how odd things are: I think it’s a common, even clichéd, feeling to have in your early twenties, realising that you need to critically engage with the world and question a lot of the normalcy you’ve accepted up until now. I think if you look at a lot of my work you can see that I’m working through this process. Sometimes I think it’s a bit embarrassing to admit that, but I don’t have any other experience besides my own to draw on, so it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise.
I’d love to know more about your creative process--how do you begin an artwork, and do they change along the way?
At the moment I’m working from collages I make from Vogue magazines. I flip through and cut or tear out colours or shapes I think are interesting, and arrange them like a jigsaw. Sometimes I include other things in the collages: usually food, peas and blueberries lately, although I do have a half finished painting with marbles in it. Then when I’m happy with a composition I photograph it and rearrange and photograph and rearrange until I’ve found a composition that excites me. They usually do change when I paint them. There’s nothing specific I deliberately change--I just continue to fiddle with it until I think I’ve done the best I can or, perhaps more accurately—until I think if I keep working on this that I’ll fuck it up.
What are you currently working on?
Since moving to England, I’ve taken a bit of a break from painting, not purposely, it’s just difficult to find time and space and to be in the right frame of mind to get anything done. But I have started my first post-move painting. I think it’s a bit more surreal than some of the other work I’ve done this year.
I recently discovered that Charles Dodgson, also known as 'Lewis Carroll', taught Mathematics at Oxford, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot, particularly when I paint. The thought of the man who wrote Alice in Wonderland teaching mathematics is just great. Maybe that’s what I should name the painting.
What challenges or surprises have you come across as an emerging artist in Melbourne?
There’s so much paperwork. When you imagine the hip Melbourne art scene it’s slick and cool and spontaneous (which it probably is in the parts). But the reality of artists running galleries and studios and putting on shows and doing residencies is that you need to write applications to get grants, you need to write proposals to get space, and you need to file tax returns when you get money. We should be so grateful to people who are willing to do the mountain of annoying admin, which allows for others to express their creativity.
Has your experience as being an emerging artist been shaped by being a female artist?
Definitely. I feel like if you’re a female who is creative, it’s seen as a hobby, and if you’re a male who is creative, you’re an unrecognised genius. Women artists are definitely underrepresented in galleries of every type, particularly galleries that display emerging artists. It’s something like two out of three graduates of Australian Universities with Fine Arts/Visual Arts degrees are female.
In my work I think my experience as a female definitely has a large influence on what I produce—in fact I think it’s one of the biggest influences. I know some artists get frustrated that they will always be referred to as a 'female artist' instead of just an 'artist'. I think in my case it fits, I’m quite happy to be a 'female artist'.
You’ve just moved to the United Kingdom. Do you have any initial thoughts about the transition and being an Asian-Australian in a different space?
Never in my life have I ever been asked as many times in a four-month period what my ethnicity is, as I have experienced since moving over here. In the name of non-discrimination when you apply for jobs here they ask you to fill in a survey telling them how you identify in terms of gender, ethnicity, and sexuality which I find really weird and creepy.
But who knows maybe being of 'mixed/other' ethnicity might have worked in my favour, maybe these workplaces are low on their 'mixed/other' quota and I could have been their token 'mixed/other'. In the end I took a job that didn’t ask so we’ll never know.
Growing up as both Anglo and Malaysian, did you have strong connections to your parents’ respective identities?
Not really, I would say as a child/teenager I would have been raised culturally as about 95% White Australian, 5% Chinese Malay. My mother (my anglo parent) organised our household, so aside from celebrating Chinese New Year, and having a special drawer made for those giant 10kg sacks of rice, our household was pretty much run like a white household. My older siblings were probably encouraged more to engage with our Asian 'side'—they certainly got forced into going to Chinese School a lot longer than I did. I gave up after a year— though no regrets—it was awful.
I think it is a shame that I can’t speak my father’s first language though and that if I could I probably would have a stronger connection to my Chinese/Malay self. I get the feeling that that was a conscious choice by my dad not to speak to us in Hakka or Mandarin as children, but I’ve never really asked about it. I’ve also never really asked my mum if she was consciously thinking of us as biracial when she was raising us. I’m assuming she must have when we were little because we looked more obviously mixed race.
I feel like passing as white did play a big part in how I don’t have a strong connection to my Asian side, because I wasn’t forced to examine it. I know you and Leah were forced to examine with your cultural identity more than my siblings and I ever have. It hasn’t been until the last two or so years when I’ve really started thinking about my cultural identity.
You focused on playing high-level netball for a long time before turning to the art world. How was it being in the netball scene as an Asian-Australian?
It’s definitely a white-dominated world, but I never felt that my being mixed really factored into people’s thinking or behaviour. But, then again, I pass as white and the only real clue they would have to my cultural identity would be my last name.
I did get the feeling that any sporting talent I had was attributed to my white side, like any academic talent is attributed to my 'asian side', but I couldn’t point out a definitive instance as to why I have this impression. Which I think is unfair—my dad plays more regular sport than my mum! I do think there is a power in sport to bridge cultural divides. When it came down to it I don’t think my coaches, teammates or their families could care less if I was asian or white, just as long as I was scoring goals.
Do you have any advice for emerging artists?
I would say, find a way to make being creative and making art as part of your routine. For some people this is really easy and they do it naturally, but I think it’s important to make a conscious choice to include art in your life, and find a way for it to work for you. It doesn’t have to be in a conventional sense of sitting down and making a painting or writing a poem, but just to engage the creative part of your brain regularly and keep an eye on what’s going on in an artist community.
Also, don’t bully yourself by constantly comparing your work and your output to other people; some people work quickly and some people more slowly, some people have more time than others or more access to materials. It’s taken me a long time to realise it’s just not useful to try to compete in some made-up competition as to who’s being an artist best.
Who are you inspired by?
A lot of my favourite Melbourne based artists show out of Daine Singer - Alice Wormald, Kirsty Budge, Zoe Croggon, Sean Bailey. I went to uni with Nell Pearson and I’ve never been let down by one of her works.
What are you currently listening to?
I listened to Jack White’s Acoustic Recordings as I did the dishes last night.
What are you currently reading?
I’m re-reading A Room of One’s Own (I’ve just moved to Oxford), I’ve also be re-reading Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts on the bus, but I just spilled water on the copy that you gave me for Christmas. Still readable though.
How do you practice self-care?
I eat chocolate for breakfast. Technically not good for you, but makes everyday feel like a treat day.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
At the moment it means feeling a bit guilty, I’ve never really engaged with my cultural identity because I’ve never been forced to. It’s part of my white-passing privilege that I’m able to engage and disengage when it suits me. This puts the burden on other people to do the heavy lifting for me.
I don’t go out of my way to identify myself to others as a WOC or Asian-Australian, which only contributes to the lack of representation out there. I shy away from having intense discussions about cultural identity with people I know I won’t agree with because I can’t be bothered trying to explain my views to them.
My artwork often reflects my experience as a woman but rarely consciously my experience as an Asian-Australian. I’ve got lots of homework to do before I think I’ll feel comfortable defining my cultural identity.
Liminal is a proud recipient of the Victorian Government’s VicArts grants program.
This interview was supported by Creative Victoria.