Interview #95 — Siying Zhou
by Andy Butler
Siying Zhou is a visual artist originally from China, now based in Melbourne. Her practice is primarily research driven, and she produces installation work across sculpture, video, photography, performance, drawings and text.
Siying recently won the Linden New Art Prize, and is currently exhibiting in National Anthem at Buxton Contemporary¸ Melbourne, Our Common Bond at Mayspace, Sydney and Those Monuments Don’t Know Us at Bundoora Homestead Art Centre, Melbourne.
Siying talks to Andy Butler about installation art, Chinese restaurants in Australia and the invisible history of Chinese Australian women.
You moved to Australia in 2003 from Nanjing in China, and you now make a lot of work about that space in between ‘Chineseness’ and ‘Australianness’. Can you tell me a bit about how your experience of migration to Australia has influenced the work you make?
Being an immigrant has granted me a perspective of ‘the other’. I am displaced from the place I have left and still disconnected to the place that I have moved into. This feeling might be permanent. But, I guess, to an artist, this distant social and psychological position actually brings a kind of advantage, because it allows me to observe, contemplate and examine my immediate sociocultural environment from a different perspective. This critical gaze is very important to me in my practice. Whereas, the reoccurring feeling of lacking the sense of belonging drives me to think often about the ideas about time and self. Such perspective and mind space have inspired me to be productive.
Recently, I also have realised that narratives and storytelling have played an essential role in my practice. I think it is due to my experience of being a cross-cultural immigrant. In my works, I challenge the existing beliefs and social norms, and create discursive narratives by juxtaposing multiple stories and converging, different perspectives. By living in a hybrid cultural situation, I have naturally been open to a large range of stories about people and places, different perceptions about the world, and the ways of storytelling. These stories and narrations form a rich resource for my art making.
I first saw your work on a large scale at the end of 2017 at the VCA Masters Graduate exhibition, with your installation, it’s neither this nor that. Can you tell us a bit about the installation as a whole, and the concepts you were thinking about?
This installation was the outcome of a two-year artistic research on the ‘in-between’ cultural space that I personally experienced after I moved to Australia. During the research, I sought materials and spatial representations that spoke to this ambiguous cultural space. The installation shown at the VCA masters graduate exhibition consists of eight individual works that I created at different times during the research. One work was a karaoke version of the Australian anthem in mangled phonetic Chinese, another was a video of my parents learning to make hot cross buns, another was me cooking as many German recipe’s as possible to see if I would turn German. I didn’t.
As a whole, this installation creates a fairly chaotic sensory space that feels like information overload. Each work reflects a propositional idea about the ‘in-between’ and holds a center of narration through the unique materials used in each work..
In the space of this installation, multiple viewing positions are formed from the dispersed layout of the works. There isn’t a spot where the visitor is able to see the entire installation at once. The visitor is directed to travel to different parts of space and gain a different view of the installation. As they change their physical location and move their body, the audience would have a sort of fragmented perception of it all – I hope. An overall meaning of the installation is drawn at the moments of not seeing, and through self-revelation.
Many reasons and thoughts drove me to take on this research project. One is my long resistance to work specifically on identity. Since I moved to Australia, I was indifferent to my Chinese identity, and had felt it was tokenistic, and opportunistic to produce works directly referencing to ‘exotic’ identity. However, I could not escape from the everyday impact of ambiguity and dislocation that were brought by the hybrid cultural experience. Hence, I decided to confront this subject of identity and work out where was my perspective is located as an immigrant.
I am displaced from the place I have left and still disconnected to the place that I have moved into.
You work across photography, video, performance, sculpture and more. Is it important for your practice to work with so many different mediums? Do you usually start with a medium first, or a concept?
I believe that each medium reigns over a way of narration and dictates a way of forming meaning for a work. When various media are presented at the same time, they generate a chaos in the process of cognition and demand an activate readership. In this way of processing art works as an audience member, one narrative could become the extension of the other, or could negate the idea that is drawn from the other. At the same time, the audience makes sense of what’s in front of them based off what they already bring to the experience.
In my work, different mediums come together to discuss different social or cultural circumstances, through different narratives. In one installation space, these narratives sometimes are connected; others are disparate; Or, some are fragments of a story; others are a complete plot. It takes a really active reading from the audience.
I have used this strategy of composing a space with multimedia objects to create a de-centralised view point for the visitor. Nothing is linear, nothing is clear, you can never get the whole picture at once.
I am not sure if there is a clear order and process in developing a body of works, material defines concept and concept defines material. Making, thinking and researching proceed at the same time.
For the exhibition Those Monuments Don’t Know Us, you’ve created a new body of work for an installation called ‘We are here for your Happiness’. What are the ideas behind your work, and what has drawn you to them?
One line of thinking that was important in the conceptual development of this installation was about the complex cultural dynamics of Chinese restaurants in Australia. With a long history and high popularity of these restaurants, they’ve had a monumental significance to Australian culture. They have been a part of constituting Australian culture since the 19th century. But it seems contradictory that a type of Australianness has been formed through a Chinese identity.
This inter-cultural tension can be seen in many aspects of Australian Chinese restaurants. In the book Melbourne by menu: the story of Melbourne’s restaurant revolution, Rita Erlich, a food critic for the Age newspaper during the 80s and the 90s, wrote about Flower Drum, a high profile Chinese restaurant in Melbourne. Rita believed that it was the philosophy of prioritizing customers’ personal taste and ensuring their happiness that differentiated Flower Drum from other prominent non-Chinese restaurants. (Hence the title of my work “We Are Here for Your Happiness”). Rita’s description pointed out a dilemma in Chinese restaurants in Australia. On the one hand, they are obliged to underline and preserve a “Chinese” identity, because being “Chinese” is their business brand. They try to inform this sense of Chinese culture through all sorts of sensations: the visuals, the taste, the service. Difference to the dominant culture and being the “Other” are a heavy focus in this brand building. On the other hand, these restaurants compromise their definition of “Chinese” and reduce their Chinese qualities in order to accommodate the needs and happiness of the non-Chinese customers. They can’t be “too Chinese” or foreign or they’ll lose customers and their livelihood.
The cultural space of Australian Chinese restaurants is both inclusive and exclusive. They not only provide a sentimental refuge for the diasporas to be nostalgic, to connect to the past and to revisit who they were, but also create an exotic other space for the non-Chinese to consume. In this space, certain content becomes invisible to certain cultural groups. (for example, the practice of double menus).
The cultural space of Australian Chinese restaurants is both inclusive and exclusive.
You also use work with your father in ‘We are Here for your Happiness’, can you tell me a bit more about this work?
In making this installation, I used an incident that happened to my father to suggest this violent tension in formulating an Australian Chinese identity. In this incident, my father (who had recently moved to Melbourne) was charged by the police for practicing Tai Chi with a dummy sword at a public park. He broke the Victorian law of carrying weapons in a public space. It was this incident where two cultural entities clashed. One was my father who intended to keep practising his Chinese identity in Australia; the other, was the police, who implemented an Australian cultural practice.
I made a video work of my dad practicing Tai Chi in a classic Australian outback landscape, and there’s a voiceover recounting this incident of him being arrested. I made a sheath out of stubby holders and fringing to make the dummy sword look more “Australian”. Over the top of the video is a recording of me narrating this story.
In using work this video of my father, I was also thinking about dynamics of gender in identity formation for Australian Chinese. In the whole installation, the existence of the female characters is noticeable - besides my voice telling the story, there are replicas of female body parts, like hands and legs, displayed around the installation space, and a photograph of a friend doing the Asian squat in the bushes. However, this female figure is always incomplete, you can never see her all at once. This speaks to the invisibility of Chinese Australian women; it also contrasts with the complete and enlarged figure of an Australian Chinese man in the space. This contrast generates an implicit narrative about the ambivalent power dynamic between the two genders.
What are the reasons behind you being so drawn to the history of Chinese people in Australia? How do questions of gender play out in what you do?
I don’t have a long personal history and connection to this country – I was the first person in my family to immigrate to Australia. This has left me feeling sort of incomplete, which has really drawn me to Australian history. In this way, I hope a sense of belonging might be recuperated. In the exploration of the diverse narrations about Australian history, I am naturally drawn to stories about the Chinese Australian community. Perhaps it’s an innate drive, or a surviving instinct to grasp the familiar things. I feel that by studying the history of the Australian Chinese community and building an understanding of life that those Chinese who came earlier than me, I would inherit a tradition that could fully transplant my disconnected cultural roots into Australian soil.
Gender plays in to this too. As a woman, I wonder how Chinese women who came before me dealt with the cultural and social challenges, what they thought about their new home in Australia, how they reconciled homesickness and anxiety about an unknown future, how they interact with the dominant ‘White’ culture, how they interacted with Australia’s Indigenous history, how they maintained their beauty in this new social and natural environment …
Frustratingly, these answers are difficult to find. The history of Australian Chinese is full of stories about Chinese men, and stories told by Chinese men. Even today, this male dominated voice continually echoes in events of recounting on Australian Chinese history.
Where were Chinese women in the Australian Chinese community? Were they safe? Were they protected? Did they work as hard as their husbands? Did they freely engage with others outside the Chinese community? The lack of the immediate information about Chinese Australian women has driven me to dig more out, and provided a space to imagine.
When I search for history and tradition that might possibly be formed by Australian Chinese women, I would like to imagine and visualise a representative figure. However, an ubiquitous image of Chinese women that is circulated in today’s Western mainstream media troubles me like a buzzing noise. In contrast to the invisibility of Australian Chinese women in Australian history, this image of Chinese women is sold everywhere for people to consume. In this image her body is tightly wrapped inside ChangSan. Her slender leg is partially shown through the high side split of the dress. Her face is framed by black straight band fringe and consists of the lips painted in red, high cheeks and long narrow eyes. She is as fictional to the non-Chinese as to me.
This stereotypical image of Chinese woman in ChangSan actually tells and reflects the sexual desire of the White straight men and is from an utterly external gaze. But what could replace this stereotypical and sexualised image? What is the image of Australian Chinese women that reflects the psyche of diaspora and a hybrid cultural identity? That is what I hope to discover from the search for the historical existence of Chinese women in Australia.
Even today, this male dominated voice continually echoes in events of recounting on Australian Chinese history.
You’ve had a really exciting and active couple of years, where you’ve made a lot of art that has gotten a fantastic response. Why do you think people have responded so well to the work you’ve made recently? Where do you see your practice heading in the future?
It is really lucky that I have kept making and showing after I graduated from MFA course in 2017. Some of my works produced from MFA have got chances to be shown to the Melbourne public outside the campus. I really appreciate the trust and support that I have received from people whom I have worked with in last two years.
To be honest, as an artist, how audience responds to my work is always a mystery. It is difficult to draw an overall sense of affirmation from the public about my works. To answer your question, I can only imagine that the reason that my works appear interesting to some people is that the content and concerns informed through my works happen to converge with their concerns and interests. Or perhaps, we share the same sense of humour. But I think this connection between the artist and the audience is personal and temporary. I don’t think the public interest in my works will necessarily always be there. I am prepared for one day when my works are considered irrelevant and become something that matters only to me.
I don’t really like to think about future, as it produces anxiety, like what Foucault says. I think I would keep working on the research-based projects, producing installation works and experimenting on narrations. But I would be keen to do more collaboration with artists who are in different fields, such as theatre or fashion. If I am lucky enough, I would like to work towards being a full-time artist.
For the exhibition To Master Your Mother Tongue that you had at Pavement Projects, you ran a dumpling making workshop where participants brought along ingredients like banana and cheese, peanut butter and Sweet Baby Ray’s gourmet sauce to make non-Chinese dumplings. What dumpling flavour do you think best describes you?
Haha. Good question. It was a fantastic experience running that dumpling workshop together with Otao Kichen. I appreciate so much that all the participants of that workshop were so supportive and played along with the requirements I sent to them. Surprisingly, after being steamed, all the ‘non-authentic’ dumplings tasted great! I would like to think my personality aligns with the dumplings with the banana, ricotta cheese and mixed vegetable fillings, that one participant, Amie Anderson, created. They are strange but complex, not so serious but have a memorable texture.
Do you have any advice for emerging artists?
I am not sure I have got enough experiences to advice emerging artists. I guess, if someone wants to listen to me, I would say: to be brave enough to trust your instinct and give faith to what you are interested in; to always work hard; and to be generous to others and yourself.
What are you listening to?
I am following a few podcast programs. At this moment, I am listening regularly to Wilosophy, LA review of books radio hour and New Yorker Radio hour. Also, Three Bellybuttons is the podcast that I am producing. In each episode, I invite two speakers to share their recent experiences in the arts. I hope through this podcast, people can be familiar with contemporary art and hear honest, authentic and critical voices about the art.
What are you reading?
I am reading a few books by Chris Kraus, and some e-flux journals.
How do you practise self-care?
I am a Scorpio, which means that I am quite sensitive to what my body needs. But it doesn’t mean that I do what my body tells me. The idea of not being productive and off the grid horrifies me. I often feel guilty and self-loath if I do nothing ‘valuable’, like take time off from thinking and making projects or have idle moments. So, my practice of self-care at this moment is to stop having the negative thoughts when I am not working and to live the moment.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It means I share a commonality with some Australians. This commonality may give me a community to tap into. It also means that I should be always ready for situations where I am overlooked or mis-perceived.