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Peer-reviewed journals and magazines

Floral resistance to authoritarianism and incarceration in porcelain installations by Ai Weiwei and Cai Guo-Qiang‘, esse arts + opinions, no. 99 (April 2020): 70-77. Author interview available on YouTube.

Guan Wei’s “Australerie” ceramics and the binary bind of identity politics‘, Index Journal, no. 1 (March 2020).

“Splendid Deformities”: An emancipatory critique of cultural homogeneity in Sin-ying Ho’s deformed ceramics‘, View: Theories and Practices of Visual Culture, no. 24 (January 2020).

La maladie de porcelaine: Liu Jianhua’s Regular/Fragile (2007) at Oxburgh Hall and the history of massed porcelain display in English aristocratic interiors‘, Oxford Art Journal 42, no. 3 (December 2019): 253-81. Awarded the inaugural Oxford Art Journal Essay Prize for Early Career Researchers

Remembering people and places past/passed in contemporary ceramics by Ah Xian, Ai Weiwei, Sin-ying Ho and Liu Jianhua‘, Garland, no. 15 (2019).

Smashing vases: Ceramics and the aesthetics of destruction in works by Ai Weiwei and Liu Jianhua‘, ESPACE Art Actuel, no. 122 (Spring-Summer 2019): 36-45.

The China/Avant-Garde exhibition and Xiao Lu: 30 Years On‘, 4A Papers, no. 6 (2019).

The visual and tactile experience of the monochrome: Mapping surfacescapes in Ai Weiwei’s Colored Vases and Liu Jianhua’s Container series‘, TAASA Review 28, no. 1 (March 2019): 4-6.

‘Drifting through the Porcelain Capital: Art residencies and the enforced continuity of an illustrious past in Jingdezhen, China’, Kunstlicht 39, no. 2 (2018): 39-49.

Sin-ying Ho’s Garden of Eden‘, TAASA Review 26, no. 4 (December 2017): 12-14 & cover image.

Negotiating ‘Chinese-Australian’ Identity: Ah Xian’s Dr John Yu (2004) and his China China series (1998-2004)‘, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 17, no. 1 (August 2017): 33-53. – Awarded the 2018 Best Scholarly Article in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art Prize

Flesh and Clay: Ah Xian’s Porcelain Body-Casts‘, Fine Print, no. 8 (2016).

Exhibition reviews

The archive and the public square‘, Art Monthly Australasia, no. 324 (Winter 2020): 54-57.

Between art and life: The 8th Korea Artist Prize‘, AMA Blog, 9 December 2019.

After travelling to Singapore this June for ‘Awakenings: Art in Society 1960s–1990s’, I received an invitation in October to the equally spectacular ‘The Square: Art and Society in Korea 1900–2019’, at Seoul’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA). This was my first encounter with an art scene perhaps unfamiliar for many readers in Australia, but remarkable in depth and diversity.

A highlight of my stay was the MMCA’s exhibition of works shortlisted for the 8th Korea Artist Prize (on view until 1 March 2020), awarded on 28 November to Jewyo Rhii. Although little known outside Korea, this is one of the most prestigious honours an artist in that country can attain. Rhii was chosen ahead of the three other finalists selected in March – all women at the height of their careers with international reputations for interrogating artistic, social and cultural issues of global significance.

Love Your Depot (2019), Rhii’s prize-winning installation, offers a solution to the precarious working conditions she has endured throughout her career, travelling constantly in search of opportunity while entrusting her work to storage facilities that can’t guarantee security or consistency. Despite the endemic scale of this issue, it often remains hidden behind gallery walls with other under-acknowledged aspects of the industry, from marketing and sales to conservation and disposal. Rhii exposes these after-lives of the work of art in a cavernous ‘laboratory’ that can serve as a storage space, public forum or broadcasting studio, flexibly adapting to suit participating artists. Shelves and stacks filled with paintings and sculpture are the most engaging aspect of the installation, calling to mind the trend for ‘open storage’ sweeping South Korea’s arts sector and used to great effect at the MMCA branch in Cheongju, and the nearby National Palace Museum.

The other finalists adopt a more eclectic perspective on social issues. Birdsong entices viewers to enter Young In Hong’s To Paint the Portrait of a Bird (2019): a caged passage between two austere chambers, on the walls of which birds projected in silhouette tower over bare, twisted branches, their magnified size and shadowed anonymity blurring the boundary between spectator and spectacle. Embroidered textiles arranged to resemble a Confucian ancestral shrine introduce a note of domesticity – rather than a family patriarch, however, the central hanging is adorned with yet more birds, perched on the limbs of a stunted tree, as if seeking solidarity in their shared confinement.

A comparable reclamation of patriarchal space is enacted by Hyesoo Park, whose project unfolds like a social experiment, with the artist as chief investigator. The first stage of her work involved the distribution of a survey built around the question, ‘Who is your “we”?’, to which almost all participants responded ‘family’, even while naming friends and lovers as their most trusted companions. Park cites this contradiction as evidence for her guiding hypothesis: that traditional family bonds are declining in South Korea but have been artificially prolonged as a state mechanism for social control. Like Young, she exposes inequalities and stereotypes masked by Confucian emphasis on ‘family harmony’, noting the pressure felt by women to marry and have children. Her Perfect Family, a satirical reimagining of state-sanctioned initiatives, proposes a market-driven solution, questioning whether domestic bliss can be sold as a package deal.

Ayoung Kim has chosen, like Rhii, to focus on the hidden social crises produced by constant motion and precarity, though her attention to their impact on human relationships suggests closer parallels with Park’s work. For Tricksters’ Plot (2019), Kim has added further conceptual complexity to her Porosity Valley video project, first shown at the 2017 Melbourne Festival. Shocked by the detention of those seeking asylum in Australia, she draws a comparison with the prejudice faced by Yemeni refugees on Jeju Island, south of the Korean Peninsula. Her disorienting digital installation cites a range of sources, from Mongolian folktales to Octavia E. Butler’s techno-feminist novels, to complicate the stereotype of refugees as a threat to the status quo by highlighting their social invisibility and, above all, their essential humanity.

Rhii, Young, Park and Kim take very different approaches to their chosen subjects, testing the boundaries of artistic practice, but are united by their desire for broader relevance beyond the museum and their attention to some of the most pressing issues of our time: gender inequality, shifts in family structure, the precocity of a life in motion, and the prejudice and paranoia of refugee politics. Despite the unfamiliarity of their names for many in Australia, their work transcends national borders.

The factory-assemblist and the scholar-artist in the historiography of Chinese art‘, Art Monthly Australasia, no. 319 (October 2019): 46-53.

Awakening unheard voices‘, Art Monthly Australasia, no. 318 (September 2019): 32-35.

Reigniting the past: Three explosive displays of Chinese art at the NGV‘, AMA Blog, 28 June 2019.

This winter at the NGV International is devoted to the grand sweep of China’s history, from the ancient Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BCE) to the current generation of young artists. Until October, the gallery is home to three displays of Chinese art combining past and present. In defiance of the icy wind and rain outside, each display offers a variation on a central incendiary theme, balancing meditative stillness against explosive spectacle.

As I entered the warmth of the gallery on a late May morning, my eyes were drawn to a blaze of colour in Federation Court. ‘SO – IL: Viewing China’ (until 4 August), a glacial conflagration of pink, green, yellow and blue acrylic vitrines, designed by New York-based architects Solid Objectives – Idenburg Liu, rivals the bombastic splendour of Leonard French’s iconic stained-glass ceiling in the Great Hall. Yet it was the objects within these vitrines that captured my attention: Chinese white porcelain of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, and its European imitations, once valued for their monochrome purity but here rendered kaleidoscopic by the mirrored podiums in SO – IL’s luminescent cases, revealing qualities of surface and tone that might otherwise be missed.

Beyond the bustle of Federation Court, an entirely different atmosphere suffuses the blockbuster pairing of ‘Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality’ and ‘Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape’ (until 13 October). Entry to this dual exhibition is gained through a dim passageway, with six screens along one wall playing a looped sequence of digital terracotta warriors dissolving and reforming in swirls of shimmering dust. A soundtrack of ethereal chime music recalls the resonant tones of Zhou bronze bells, cleansing the air of polluting influences. Overhead, a trail of porcelain starlings blackened with gunpowder signals Cai’s tutelary presence.

In the main exhibition chamber, after passing through two galleries filled with a dazzling array of Zhou, Qin (221–07 BCE) and Han dynasty (207 BCE–220 CE) treasures, visitors are confronted by eight terracotta warriors in two rows of perspex cases. As in ‘Viewing China’, mirrors are used to great effect: one is mounted behind each warrior, facing another on the back of the case in front to create a mutual reflection in which single figures are multiplied into ranks of identical officers, infantry, archers and bureaucrats, receding into a seemingly limitless optical void. Viewers, too, are reflected, inviting a comparison of clay and flesh in which the imposing stature of the warriors provokes a realisation of our own mortality and vulnerability to the passage of time.

Another parallel with ‘Viewing China’ can be found in Cai’s two porcelain installations: Transience I (Peony), a mound of ceramic blossoms, and the 10,000 starlings of Murmuration (Landscape) (both 2019). Like SO – IL, Cai has saturated the white glaze of his starlings and peonies with iridescent bursts of colour, though, rather than the play of light on acrylic, he has deployed his signature mastery of gunpowder. Flowers and birds alike have been exposed to controlled explosions that have left them unharmed but coated with pigmented residue: charcoal black in Murmuration and a festive blend of red, green, yellow and blue in Transience. Cai used the same process to create the three ‘gunpowder paintings’ commissioned for this exhibition: broad expanses of silk and hemp paper scarred with calligraphic trails and crackling pulses which nevertheless, like the Buddhist deities in SO – IL’s vitrines, exude a meditative tranquility amid explosive light and colour.

The dialogue between ancient and contemporary is continued on the gallery’s top floor with ‘A Fairy Tale in Red Times’ (until 6 October), a selection of work by 26 Chinese artists on loan from the White Rabbit Collection, Sydney. Many of these artists rival Cai in reputation and their work resonates just as powerfully with the first emperor’s disinterred armies. The slumped shoulders and resigned expressions of migrant workers replicated in resin for Zhang Dali’s ‘Square’ series (2014), for example, offer a striking counterpoint to the impassive stoicism of the warriors, while the ragged pigeons tearing at their clothes are a far cry from Cai’s majestic flock of starlings. The display also includes rising stars like Cheng Ran, whose video work with French artist Item Idem, Joss (2013), lingers over the burning of cigarettes, handbags and other luxuries modelled in paper as offerings for the dead, voracious tongues of flame recalling Cai’s controlled explosions.

Yet the people and objects variously immortalised and immolated in these works are not proud warriors or emblems of a glorious heritage – they are the forgotten and overlooked, denigrated emblems of human greed and desire. This is the most incendiary aspect of all three displays: their shedding of new light on things that have long been hidden, ignored or denied.

Regional dialogue and homely conversation: “Awakenings” at the National Gallery Singapore‘, AMA Blog, 18 June 2019.

At the National Gallery Singapore’s Coleman Street entrance on my first night in the city, as I left the damp heat of an early June evening for the cool marble chambers of what was once City Hall, my eyes came to rest on a bed of impossibly golden roses, their gilded petals catching the rays of the setting sun. Yet this thriving growth of emerald green, one of 142 works selected for ‘Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s–1990s’ (until 15 September), a comprehensive survey of over 100 artists from 12 Asian nations, conceals a sinister reality: these are water hyacinths, ravenous weeds that choke rivers and render streams stagnant, while the roses striving upward from tangled leaves are plastic imitations, enchanting yet lifeless, and even more polluting than the hyacinths that surround them.

Indonesian artist Siti Adiyati conceived this fusion of nature and artifice for a 1979 exhibition by Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (the ‘New Arts Movement’) which formed in response to the ‘Black December Affair’ of 1974, a dispute between student artists and the Indonesian Academy of Fine Arts. Her work vividly captures the three main curatorial themes of ‘Awakenings’: the questioning of convention by artists across the region from the 1960s to 1990s; the influence of the city and consumer capitalism in these decades; and the emergence of new forms of social activism and political organisation. As one of 14 artists to sign the ‘Black December Manifesto’, Adiyati was committed to that document’s vision of a new Indonesian art typified by diversity and innovation, as shown by her radical turn away from conventional media for Eceng Gondok Berbunga Emas (Water Hyacinth with Golden Roses) (1979/2017). The combination of living plants and plastic flowers also reveals an incisive social critique, exposing the consumerism encouraged by President Suharto as little more than a semblance of prosperity that failed to conceal the suffocating realities of poverty and authoritarian control.

The location of Adiyati’s work in an entrance courtyard reveals another broader theme, not only in ‘Awakenings’ but throughout the gallery’s exhibition program, and even in the institution as a whole: the activation of transitional spaces. The architectural identity of the gallery rests on its fusion of City Hall with the former chambers of Singapore’s Supreme Court, transformed by glass-and-steel canopies and bridges into a 64,000m2 edifice. This architectural union finds an echo in the 2018 projects commissioned for the gallery’s ‘OUTBOUND’ initiative, in conjunction with ‘Awakenings’: Australian Gary Carsley and Singaporean Jeremy Chu’s The Regency Made Me Blind, and Nowhere by Jane Lee, another Singaporean. Both are installed, like Adiyati’s garden, in transitional spaces – the steps and landings between floors – that have become sites for encounter, transgressing conventional boundaries between artist and viewer. For Nowhere, the tangled skeins of paint in Lee’s Raw Canvas, first shown at the 2008 Singapore Biennale, are repeated in the seat of a bench on which viewers are invited to sit and contemplate a mirror mosaic on the opposite wall, their distorted reflections incorporated into the painting behind them.

On the floor below Nowhere, the murmur of voices draws gallery visitors to another recreated installation: Korean artist Lee Kang-So’s Disappearance, Bar in the Gallery (1973). For the first iteration of this work, Lee transplanted tables and chairs from a much-loved chumak tavern to Myeongdong Gallery, Seoul, introducing a homely camaraderie to the austerity of the ‘white cube’, with the promise of makgeolli rice wine and friendly conversation. For ‘Awakenings’, Lee’s vision has been revived in the largest of two passageways connecting the three gallery spaces in which the exhibition is installed, roughly coinciding with its core themes. Visitors must walk past these tables to reach the final section containing some of the most politically charged works, including Tang Da Wu’s They Poach the Rhino, Chop Off His Horn and Make This Drink (1989) and FX Harsono’s What Would You Do If These Crackers Were Real Pistols? (1977/2018), the impact of which lingers as the sequence of galleries leads back to Lee’s tavern.

Here, the underlying aim of the exhibition emerges most clearly: to inspire discussion, reflection, a realisation of connections between works, and between different cultural, political, social and personal worlds. Set against the backdrop of bleachers with a capacity of thousands on the green of the Singapore Cricket Club outside the gallery, readied for National Day on 9 August, these discussions recall the civic functions for which the gallery buildings were intended. More importantly, they reiterate the guiding ambition at the heart of ‘Awakenings’: to seek a shared purpose uniting the tangled threads of history and everyday life, not by imposing a single point of view, but by recognising the multiple perspectives that have developed across the region from the 1960s to today.

Pictures of transition: Contemporary paintings from Myanmar‘, AMA Blog, 16 April 2019.

Myanmar, though not as widely associated with contemporary art as neighbouring China, India and Thailand, has established a presence at international biennales, art fairs and auction houses following the dissolution of military rule in 2011 and easing of restrictions placed on artists, both in subject matter and access to global audiences. ‘Pictures of Transition: Contemporary Paintings from Myanmar’, an exhibition of 40 works by 23 artists presented at the ANU’s School of Art & Design Gallery in March, was a product of this shift and had the distinction of being the first public display of such work in Australia since the inauguration of Burmese democracy. The works chosen varied widely in style and content yet were given coherence by their arrangement into five themes: abstraction and individualism, urban life, rural life, sociopolitical life, and beliefs.

For most Australian viewers, the last two themes were likely most familiar, calling to mind Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the country’s Buddhist temple architecture. Daw Suu (2016), a sensitive portrait by Zwe Yan Naing, fulfils the first expectation. What seems at first an expression of devotion is complicated, however, when closer inspection reveals a collage of postage stamps, transforming Aung San Suu Kyi into a symbol for a new nation united in diversity, and celebrating the freedom of communication brought by her election as State Counsellor in 2016. Yet the fracturing of the political leader’s face could also be read as a subtle allusion to the cracks that have started to appear in her public image as news of persistent human rights abuses continues to emerge from Myanmar.

Buddhist themes predominated further into the gallery, most clearly in Shine Lu’s The Buddha’s Face (2014), one of a series of canvases recreating past schools of Buddhist art, from ancient Indian Gandhara to the nineteenth-century Burmese Mandalay style. Like the faded protagonists of a timeworn temple mural, comparable Buddha images emerged from inscrutable drips and fields of colour in Htoo Aung Kyaw’s Narrative (2013) and Lola Hasta (2017), fusing the refined iconography of the Pyu and Bagan eras with an emotive response to the pressures of contemporary life.

More than recognisably Burmese subjects, it was this range and mastery of technique that proved most appealing in ‘Pictures of Transition’. The artists, ranging across generations, handled their materials with sensitivity and expressiveness. A dizzying array of drips, slashes, voluptuous strokes, ethereal washes and impasto outcroppings of paint carried viewers through an equally eclectic range of inspiration, leaving little doubt about the defining trait of contemporary art in Myanmar: its strident individuality after five decades of government repression.

A meeting of heroes: Selections from the Townsend Collection of Chinese Woodcuts at the NGA‘, AMA Blog, 6 October 2017.

To commemorate Art Monthly Australasia’s thirtieth anniversary this year, 32 Chinese woodcuts are on display at the National Gallery of Australia from the collection of over 250 presented in 1985 by the magazine’s founder Peter Townsend. In addition to the circumstances of their collection, which Claire Roberts has recently and amply covered (see August’s 300th edition), they afford a vital glimpse into modern Chinese history.

Those selected cover a period of 14 years, from 1935 to 1949 – a tumultuous time, as their subjects show. The first three introduce two key figures in the founding of the woodcut movement: writer Lu Xun (1881–1936), represented in a portrait by Ma Da (1940), who inspired many artists and remained a tireless patron until his death; and Li Hua, founder of the Modern Woodcut Society in 1934 and figurehead following Lu’s death.

Li’s works exemplify a central theme: the horrors of war. The 1940s in China was a decade of unrelenting conflict, marked by the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45) and hostilities between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Guomindang or Nationalist Party (GMD). Two generations (1940–45) is a romanticised portrait of the military as allies of the rural population, prompted by Li’s role as an official GMD war artist. The bitterness of life exposes the true face of war: a blind, starving beggar, huddled in desperate attempt to seek shelter. Similar themes are taken up by Gu Yuan, Huang Xinbo and, in a gruesome image of soldiers drinking their enemies’ blood, Liang Yongtai.

A second theme is the CCP coopting of woodcuts. In A meeting of heroes (1939–49), Shi Lu depicts Mao Zedong as a friend to the people, discussing politics with model workers. The display concludes with two works in colour (of only seven polychrome prints) that typify their use as propaganda. Jiang Feng and Wo Zha take up Mao’s call to learn from folk art in their adaptations of traditional nianhua or ‘New Year prints’, celebrating communist values of literacy, hygiene and labour. Alongside monochrome evocations of death and suffering, such colourful images of happiness and prosperity demonstrate the range and artistic vitality of Chinese woodcuts during the 1930s and 1940s.

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