• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Where everyone gets a Buddha

Serious fun with artist Yuk King Tan.

The interview with Yuk King Tan, two days before her show Overflow opens at City Gallery, Wellington, is one of the more casual I've done, but I get the feeling it's pretty normal for Yuk. We sit at the edge of the installation space upstairs in the North project gallery and watch Tobias Berger and Richard Maloy beaver away laying out Yuk's major work in this exhibition, the commissioned installation Overflow.

Berger is Yuk's husband, formerly director of Artspace in Auckland and currently curator at the Para/Site Art Space in Hong Kong, and Maloy is one of the newer stars in Sue Crockford's stable of younger "World Famous in New Zealand" artists, who's made his mark with engagingly incompetent constructions such as his now famous "Kissing Booth" at the Canberra Contemporary Art Space last June and July. This is some serious assistance.

We're joined by City Gallery's curator Sarah Farrar and Yuk chats to her while I eavesdrop, take notes and occasionally interfere with a question. The interview's sense of casual fun underpinned with thought captures the impact of Yuk King Tan's work. I first encountered this in 1995 when the Auckland Art Gallery installed her The New Temple assemblage as one of its window projects in Wellesley St.

The work featured a witty miscellany of objects collected from the artist's friends - masks, guns, dark glasses, binoculars, sandals, basins, car jacks, table-tennis bats, etc. The objects were reproduced as red wax casts and displayed a bit like a symmetrical quasi-ethnographic cabinet of curiosities. It established a number of qualities we now expect in Yuk's work. It was exquisitely elegant, both in its appearance and its thought. It conveyed a sense of cultural strangeness or estrangeness without being abject. It translated mostly familiar objects to an "exotic" oriental cultural space and toyed with the idea of commodities and low-level commerce as the trade and exchange zone of cultures.

It addressed what reviewer Tessa Laird has called the "two-to-tango fact of exchange", how capital's effects and products must be both produced and acquired before there's much to say about them. Yuk's adroit conceptual skills - what Laird has called an "ideas-trader" - are in this zone. It's never been a zone where sonorous questions about identity were going to get a lot of purchase, so to speak. The work's always deflected such enquiries back into the bourse of ideas-trading, where the flightier trash emporium or disposable products of global capitalism are given the job of representing the serious issues of cultural trade and exchange.

I leave this entertaining interview a couple of hours later with the gift of a trashy toy gun made of paper - a flammable facsimile of a weapon that can be burnt as part of customary Festival of Hungry Ghosts funerary rites. The theory is, you may need a piece on the other side. The thought's at once amusing and sinister, as if the afterlife isn't going to be different from this one, just more disposable. Also available for vaporising to the next world are paper cans of coke, paper money and bullion and paper cellphones - among other essentials.

One of two "snowflake" works included in the exhibition, "Sunset Industries" (2005), a crisply printed LED print, organises images of flammable paper objects (including the gun) used in such Chinese funerary rites. The patterning of "Sunset Industries" is modelled on the structures of snowflakes. It's also based on a kaleidoscopic, 12-sided dodecahedron structure within which each unit mirrors (and therefore reverses) its neighbour. The effect is simultaneously precise and arbitrary. It represents an order that seems more the result of chaos than design, or an idea of order as ephemeral, about to go up in smoke - a kind of temporary paralysis.

This is what happens to the more incendiary of Yuk's works, such as her Flightpatterns piece, The Floating World, commissioned by Connie Butler for the Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles. This work was developed from a 1997 commission The Picturesque, at the Govett-Brewster in New Plymouth. Yuk enjoys remembering the compliance dramas and "lovely firemen" involved in setting off these works, whose sputtering pyrotechnics traced the scorched ghosts of their passage to the next world on the pristine gallery walls of this one.

There are no fires lit in Wellington's City Gallery when the exhibition opens, though the wine is an icky colour from something squirted out of eyedroppers. After the speeches, Yuk makes presents of child-sized military caps and cheap, imitation Gucci handbags. The effect's anarchic - deflating the seriousness of the event, but serious about the ephemeral brand chaos of cheap global commodities. I'm tempted to make a connection between works of art that have to explode in order to be realised and artworld dignitaries who have to look ridiculous in order to be taken seriously.

The market that Yuk has ransacked for the flammable paper objects photo-graphed in "Sunset Industries" is an Asian one. The image market from which the objects in the second "snowflake" work in the exhibition, Shock and Awe (2005), have been sampled is a combination of Time magazine and the Al-Jazeera website. Within the temporary paralysis of Shock and Awe's mirror images, George Bush Jnr and Osama bin Laden are cheek to cheek. The work's pristine, LED moment of arbitrary order freezes a narrative explosion outwards from a core of September 11, 2001, to the London underground and bus bombings of July 7, 2005. These two "flake" works are carefully chosen in the complete context of the Overflow exhibition - as Yuk suggests, they're templates for the big floor piece.

The global market from which the astonishing assortment of objects in the installation Overflow has been drawn includes the Warehouse in Wellington. The red shed, with a kind of weirdly appropriate brand consistency, given Yuk's fondness for the colour of firecrackers, lamp tassels, animal-astrology masks and shrine candle wax, has been the source of the installation's Buddha figures. Other sources have been markets and junk emporia in Shenzhen, Australia, Germany and Hong Kong, where Yuk currently lives. If the Buddhas come from Kiwi red sheds, where do the Bruce Lee figurines come from? The toy tanks, cellphone covers, wristwatches and plastic model aeroplanes splattered with white candle wax like Judy Darragh's ejaculate-festooned "Wild Thing" (1999)? What about the crude wooden crucifixes, the fans, the artillery shells, electronic calculators, police truncheons, toy helicopters and microphones? The Chinese Buried Army statuettes, passports, transformer figures like the ones subsumed by Japanese neo-pop out of graphic artists like Katsutaka Miyatake and robot anime, the film-set clapperboards, charging taurus miniatures and much more?

The point is, you can't really know and Yuk's not telling (red-shed Buddha aside). The fact that it doesn't matter is what matters. The point here's the anywhereness of things, despite their air of cultural, even geocultural, specificity. But Yuk's conversation isn't the product of vapid globalism. Far from it.

The initial concept for Overflow was called "Power Systems" and she set out to take a look at "desire, status, money, aggression, luck and control". The smallness and cheapness of the items was intended to highlight the paradoxical "domesticity of these objects connoted with 'power'". The organisation of "Power Systems" (and the final patterning of Overflow) was intended to suggest power operating also at the microscopic, viral level. The two-to-tango principle of commercial and cultural exchange goes all the way down to seething, microbiological activity. Are we having fun yet?

"The collection will have pieces that suggest status, control and power - designer goods next to copies of designer goods - toys of violent roleplay such as guns, tanks and shells - paper tokens of symbols of wealth. [The work] obeys rules and strategies involving underlying systems of need and desire or trade and value. There's also a type of wealth in aesthetic mass. The work's about different systems that relate to the order/disorder of our wider environment."

There's one question we have to get to sooner or later, but its obviousness makes it best approached indirectly. I tell Yuk a story told by the Australian cultural theorist Meaghan Morris. Morris left Australia because she was fed up with Australian politics and took a job as head of the Kwan Fong Cultural Research and Development Program at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. There, one of her first PhD candidate dissertations was written by a young Chinese scholar on the subject of Hong Kong's wet markets. The external examiners were all from the US, Britain and Australia - and all had cultural reactions to the wet markets that, Morris believed, prejudiced their assessment of the PhD candidate's research. They were incapable of reading the dissertation without feeling disgust for the subject matter. To Morris, there seemed no escaping the "intellectual colonialism" of the international academic community.

This is good, an interesting story, thinks Yuk. She can also see where it's headed.

So, how does it feel to be a 34-year-old woman of Asian ancestry, born in Australia and raised in New Zealand, a veteran of artist residencies in Australia, Germany and London, with international shows under her belt in Germany, Australia, the UK, US, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Brazil and Lithuania - to be now, for the first time, living in an Asian city?

"The thing is, there's so much pre-literature. Hong Kong's layers and layers of colonisation and recolonisation and all its records and products. And it's full of global citizens from Shanghai, New York and London. Its friendships are transitory. Now, it lives in the shadow of China, which is bigger and more powerful. Is it even an 'Asian' city? There are really no fixed heritage points any more. Heritage is now about change, about moving markers, about relationships to global capital, reverse colonisation, migrancy, commerce."

Yuk says she feels freer in Hong Kong. There are good artists there, though they're overshadowed by the huge resources available to artists in China and also by the huge challenges to freedom that some Chinese artists confront. Artists in Hong Kong are freer of the "art industry". Yuk says she has more time to think - to reflect on and plan her work.

"As for the place of order and feeling culturally at home - how do you organise a market? A wet market with trussed livestock or a supermarket with use-by dates on labels? Who do you trust? Objects in markets are organised according to priorities of seductive experience - combinations of strategy and chaos - like a truly great city, at once seductive and repellent."

And the familiarity, the homeliness of order? "There are kinds of belief and order that are shared equally by stock markets and astrologers using numerology. They don't differ much."

There are two other works in Overflow: a collaborative photographic work with Neil Pardington, Loudspeaker #1-#6 (2005), in which Yuk's face is obscured six times by a loudhailer as she stands in locations in Hong Kong. The work appears to echo the Korean artist Kimsooja's Needle Woman (2005), in which the artist was videoed standing facing six more or less hostile city streets. But the Pardington-Tan work isn't uneasy in this way. Nor is the video work Meeting (2005), a whimsical and touching 11 minute and 15 second DVD loop in which couples encounter each other (or don't) in Hong Kong locations.

Both these works might be most obviously about communication - how to do it across interpersonal, cultural and geographic space. Hel-lo - can you hear me loud hailing from Hong Kong? Can you hear me calling from 5cm away? Can you hear me thanking my helpers at an exhibition opening? How to listen, how to hear, how to look and see? How to look-see-hear those amazing temporary paralyses that can become art, those seductive marketplaces where chaos has stopped for just a moment?

OVERFLOW, Yuk King Tan, City Gallery, Wellington (until February 6).