Closing the Distance
Curated by Sophia Cai, Bundoora Homestead Art Centre, Melbourne
11 February–30 April, 2017
Closing the Distance, curated by Sophia Cai, is an exhibition of works by Chinese diaspora artists. The twelve artists in the exhibition present the complexities of the Chinese migrant experience—of living with the spectre of a vast culture that at times feels impossibly distant, and likewise inescapable. Many of the works grapple with the shifting cultural space that migrant communities inhabit. While the main thing that ties these artists together is a shared cultural ancestry, the exhibition avoids making sweeping claims about a definitive Chinese identity.
Cai has wielded the disparate practices of the twelve artists to open up questions of memory, history, belonging and place. These questions play out in varied and surprising ways, and it is especially interesting to see the generational difference in the age range of the artists. There are works from artists who would have lived in eras as formative as the Cultural Revolution or the White Australia policy, alongside works from younger second-generation migrant artists.
Mounting an exhibition like this at the Bundoora Homestead Art Centre brings a political and emotional charge to much of the work. The Homestead is far from a neutral gallery space. Housed in a colonial property built in 1900 in the British Queen Anne style, the impressively restored 14 room mansion exudes White colonial wealth. The artwork is installed in repurposed living rooms, studies, hallways, bedrooms; there is a sense that the exhibition is intervening in White Australian history. This unique gallery environment allows Cai to instil parts of the exhibition with the intimacy of personal experience, and the strange unfamiliarity of being non-White in a profoundly White country like Australia.
Given the institutionally White nature of the contemporary arts sector broadly, and in Melbourne acutely, including only Asian artists—most of whom work in Australia—is a political statement. Notwithstanding recent ground breaking shows such as Sovereignty at ACCA, and some elements of the Asia Triennial of Performing Arts, it is still a relatively rare event to have this many non-White Australian contemporary artists of such a high calibre in the same exhibition. Australian artists like Owen Leong and Kevin Chin are represented alongside international artists Shen Wei (China/USA) and Chun-Yu Liu (Taiwan/UK). Closing the Distance is demonstrative of how a thoughtfully curated exhibition around a common non-White cultural background can bring out an analysis of difference within diasporic groups. At the same time, Cai is able to gesture towards a commonality of living within a White colonial culture that demands assimilation, and the complexities of coming back home to the spectre of China.
Louise Zhang’s and Jason Phu’s paintings, and Pia Johnson’s photographic installation speak to personal experiences navigating an inherited non-White culture. Zhang’s three large works are hung in a small, repurposed bedroom. Somewhere that you think is good but it’s actually evil and then you die (2016) is exemplary of the divide between the beautiful and the grotesque that Zhang treads. Somewhere… is reminiscent of the shapes and textures of Chinese Shan Shui painting, repurposed into a kitsch aesthetic that both draws in and repels the viewer. Positioning these works in such cramped, domestic space opens up lines of engagement between the obvious references to traditional Chinese cultural motifs and a sense of being an uninvited guest in a young girl’s bedroom replete with sugary pop-culture artefacts; of trying to internally process disparate cultural markers.
Por Por’s House (2014) by Pia Johnson likewise is given over to a domestic space. In a much larger, well-lit and open bedroom, Johnson’s photographic installation offers snapshots of her grandparents’ suburban Australian house. The colonial space of the gallery draws out the tensions between the recognisable ‘70s shag carpet, light blue walls, doilies and family photos that define visiting relatives’ houses, and the objects and artefacts that act as an homage to the living Chinese-Malay culture transplanted to a foreign country. There is a sense of rediscovering and living with the migrant history passed down through generations, and casting it as homely and familiar.
Jason Phu’s series of works make use of one of the most interesting areas of the building. His playful works on paper are hung in the landing of the first level—a space complete with a largescale stained glass feature window in the roof, impossibly high ceilings and ornamental balustrades. The space brings out a bratty and transgressive element to his work, which combines Chinese calligraphy with drawings of his armpit, worms, a rotting pear, and shampoo, among other subjects. The most effective is his two and a half metre ive been drinking in this city for 10 years now, I thought id have a great bunch of stories, but all I can tell you is that, I got drunk (2016), with images of the Sydney Opera House, Chinese cultural motifs, and alcohol consumption.
At the other end of the building, Lindy Lee, Cyrus Tang and Pei Pei He have works shown in close proximity, that taken together deal with memory, and the depth of the history of Chinese culture. This especially comes through in the works of Lindy Lee and Pei Pei He. Lee’s large shan shui landscapes are burnt on to sheets of black steel, and Pei Pei He’s Eastern to Western Perspective (2016) on a five metre scroll of rice-paper is a meditative cityscape of a crowd in front of a tram, drawn in small horizontal lines. Cyrus Tang’s Encyclopaedia Vol 6 (2016)—a sculpture made of cremated book ashes—questions whether these works can be read solely as nostalgic throwbacks to Chinese culture. Instead, the works together bring about a sense of irrevocable loss within migrant communities.
Guan Wei’s A Mysterious Land, No. 10 (2007) and Land of the Dreaming, No. 4 and No. 5 (2014), ask possibly the most difficult questions of the Chinese diaspora and other Australian migrant communities in the exhibition, and make best use of the unique gallery space of the Homestead. The Mysterious Land series is the outcome of work Wei undertook with Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. No. 10 is a triptych of a colonial Australian bush scene, with silhouettes of recognisable caricatures—a stockman, Ned Kelly, an Aboriginal with spear and shield—foregrounded by three faceless ghost-like Chinese figures. Opposite this work, Land of the Dreaming, No. 4, are two blue and white vases that draw out similarities between Taoist and Aboriginal art aesthetics. In a space that is such a symbol of White colonisation, the works highlight the relationships between Cultural minority groups that exist within a hierarchy where Whiteness is firmly cemented at the top.
Overall Closing the Distance is an impressive exhibition in the way it goes beyond the tropes normally projected on to non-White people. The works of these Asian artists are not a ‘celebration’ of diversity, nor do they focus on the happy migrant story of overcoming adversity and assimilating into a host country. In bringing together these artists, Sophia Cai draws out the nuance, depth and difference within the Chinese diaspora, and asks questions of the ways that migrants navigate White colonial values.
 Capitalising the W in White is a political decision, in line with Whiteness studies in Australia, especially the work of Ghassan Hage. It acknowledges that ‘White’ is not just a falsified skin pigmentation called ‘white’, but a historical set of ethnic values and beliefs from northern Europe that have been transplanted in Australia. It helps to draw a distinction between ‘fair skin’ white and White cultural values that govern our institutions, not least our art institutions.