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Elemental and Outlaw - In Bridging the "Old" and "New" by Mica Chen

Updated: Jan 9

Mica Chen is a student in the Masters of Art Curating at the University of Sydney. This exhibition review was written as part of the unit 'Ways of Curating: Exhibition and Display"

Howie Tsui Retainers of anarchy 2017, Art Gallery of New South Wales © Howie Tsui

In tandem with Art Gallery of New South Wales' newly constructed north building, the Neilson Family Space on lower level 2 presents Outlaw, an exhibit dedicated to bringing non- Western art to the forefront. Although Outlaw describes itself as “[celebrating] the antiheroes of popular culture,”1 the majority of works exhibited within Outlaw are Asian art with only some notable exceptions. Similarly, Elemental — another ongoing AGNSW exhibit located in the Asian Lantern gallery of the south building — also explores Asian cultures, though it does so through a combination of artworks and art objects. These two exhibitions share an intent to introduce a deeper understanding of Asian culture using distinct curatorial strategies and visitors are recommended to experience both. For visitors with limited exposure to Asian history, Elemental is essential as a first step as it focuses more on traditional appreciation of and coexistence with nature, while Outlaw examines Asian culture from a contemporary perspective. This review intends to draw similarities and compare differences between the curatorial approaches unique to both exhibitions as well as evaluating their effectiveness.

Outlaw gallery view from the entrance, photo: Mica Chen

The AGNSW has a long standing history of collecting Asian art from as early as 1880s through various donations and gift exchange programs, particularly in Japanese arts. New Asian art galleries were also built in 1988 and 2003, then in 2022 with the north expansion. 2 The focus on collecting and exhibiting Asian art sets a model for the state in cultural inclusivity and decentralisation of the West. As aforementioned, it is for these reasons that Elemental is recommended as a first stop to establish a baseline understanding.

Elemental gallery view from the entrance; The Great Adventure of Material World by Lu Yang. photo: Mica Chen

In Elemental, artworks are intended to display in different sections according to seven different elements — fire, water, wood, earth, metal, wind, void. The gallery space was built with a simple squared shape. When visitors first entered the space, their attentions will be immediately attracted by Lu Yang’s video work The Great Adventure of Material World displayed in the middle, where visitors follow the genderless protagonist during their journey in realising their self identity. The positioning of this work is a deliberate choice made by the curator as an introduction to the exhibit, as all of the elements mentioned above and within this exhibit are infused within it. With this work’s visual attractiveness, when passing by the gallery visitors are drawn in to explore Elemental. Upon finishing Lu Yang’s journey, visitors are given the choice to continuing the exhibit from their left — entering the “fire” room, or to their right — starting with the “wind” and “wood” sector before reaching the “earth”, “water”, “void” and “metal".

Elemental gallery view photo: Mica Chen

As suggested in its name, Elemental is an attempt to understand the natural forces’ influence in Asian historical and contemporary culture. Each of these elements can be found in various asian countries’ narratives — typically east Asia under the influence of the Chinese Taoism “Wuxing”, the five elements. 3 In Chinese Wuxing philosophy, the five elements are metal, wood, water, fire and earth which seek to explain phenomenas on both macro and micro scales. 4 These five elements were originally a reference to the five near-earth planets — Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars and Saturn — which are observable with naked eyes.5 The philosophy was employed as early as from 1BCE in the Han dynasty and has influenced the Chinese and east Asian culture in many different fields including medical practice, astrology, martial art practice and military strategies.

As of today, Taoism is almost completely out of practice in contemporary Chinese culture, while the Wuxing philosophy still holds enormous impact in people’s daily life. 6 So where does the curator generate Elemental’s idea of seven elements rather than the more commonly known five? Where do the two other elements fit in the Wuxing philosophy? Originated from the Chinese and Indian Buddhism belief, the concept of Godai — the five great elements had merged into Japanese culture during the eleventh centutry CE which has replaced wood and metal with void and wind.7 Therefore we can conclude that the curator has consolidated the Japanese Buddhist model into the original five-element model to include a wider range of works. However, there is little to no room for creativity and imagination when curators are meant to construct an educational show for their visitors who are new to Asian traditions. In fact, in closer examining the works displayed, the total number of Japanese art and objects greatly exceed works originating from other regions. Amongst all, Buddha statue/sculptures manifest repeatedly and are often placed in the center of each element/room, which creates an impression that this exhibition is for one specific religion rather than understanding a broader context of the culture. If the curator’s intent were to examine Asian art and culture through the lens of nature worship, then the origin of the elemental concept must be looked at as well. But it is clear that this exhibit has failed to include Chinese Taoism as a precursor in its agenda. Generally, Elemental and its curator seems to favour Japanese and Buddhistic collections as the focal point; therefore the aim to examine these natural elements falls short as it ends up diluting a visitor’s experience in both classical and contemporary Asian culture.

Elemental gallery view, the “Fire” room, photo: Mica Chen

There are a total of 114 works displayed in this exhibition, but only 26 of those were created within one century which has suggested an imbalance between “old” and “new” art. Moreover, the majority of objects displayed behind the glass hold a blurred distinction between cultural artefacts and art objects. There is an attempt to blend the historical timeline within the exhibition when the curator chose to display both classical and contemporary works side by side rather than following a chronological timeline. Typically with Thao Nguyen Phan’s video work Becoming Alluvium and Robin White’s textile work To see and to know are not necessarily the same, yet they sat next to/right across from 17th century calligraphy work which disrupts the historical atmosphere. However, this conscious choice is hardly enough to favour a discrepancy between mixing or separating historic and contemporary works. The overall ambience of the gallery space is largely static and this indicates a sense of mature, aged, and/or bridging the outdated. Considering AGNSW is an art gallery rather than a historical museum, the works chosen for Elemental is questionable based on its goal of understanding old and new Asian cultures.

Elemental, Guanyin, bodhisattva of compassion, Buddha sheltered by the seven-headed serpent Muchalinda and objects displayed in the “fire” room. Photos Mica Chen

While it was never the AGNSW’s intention to address and recognise the two buildings as the “old and new building”, it is an undeniable fact that the north building contains more contemporary features — from its year built, architectural style, and exhibitions offered.8 This becomes especially clear when comparing Elemental and Outlaw, where Elemental noticeably presents a substantial amount of cultural archives whilst Outlaw depicts vibrance and life in its dynamic and aesthetic choices.

In contrast to the Asian Lantern Gallery, Outlaw’s space is furnished with black walls and only essential lightings to highlight its artworks which are arranged with heavier visual consideration. The exhibition, residing in AGNSW’s colloquially accepted “new building”, hosts a very healthy mixture of eleven historical and eight contemporary artworks. Furthermore, Outlaw engages a linear display in presenting its works, thereby providing visitors the simplicity to experience the art in one direction. In minimising the use of multi-room structure, Outlaw is able to effortlessly bring down the chronological and geographical borders which are typical features of classic art exhibitions and may often limit the overall experiences they could potentially provide.

Like Elemental, Outlaw utilises video multimedia to immediately catch visitor attention -- the difference, however, is in the sheer scale of the video works chosen. When first entering the gallery space, visitors will be easily drawn into the enormous Retainer of Anarchy, by Hong Kong- Canadian artist Howie Tsui, which is presented as a giant animated scroll on their right-hand side. This video work explores the Kowloon Walled City (KWC), a chaotic, self-governed community9, which existed outside of law and legislations during the British government’s settlement in Hong Kong. The art style and characters in this work were inspired by old Chinese Kung Fu novels and folklores and is an excellent choice as an opening of the exhibition through its direct delivery of the antihero/rebellious theme. Sitting stools are provided looking directly at Tsui’s work for visitors who wish to spend time finishing the video, though it is worth noting that Retainer of Anarchy doesn’t have a finish — instead, the video runs on a non-repeating algorithm. This innovative feature adds zest to the exhibition’s highlighted intention in promoting contemporary culture and technology.

Outlaw gallery view opposite to Retainer of Anarchy, Banners from Lost Lot, Eko Nugroho and Snuff Bottle (‘tales of white snake’) close up view. Photos: Mica Chen

Looking directly across Tsui’s work there are ten Japanese and Chinese prints created in the 19th century on display. While the prints were made during different eras and across different regions, their varied art styles resonate well with Tsui’s video work due to their resemblance. With such arrangement, the curator once again draws the visitors’ attention to appreciate the artworks’ similarity rather than differences. Moreover, this choice of display is by design asking the visitors to disregard the chronology of time and geographical borders. Each of the prints capture a scene described in historical fictions, often from stories about heroic disruptors who took actions against the injustices relevant to their time period. Likewise, Eko Nugroho’s six large textile works displayed in the further end, adjacent to Retainer of Anarchy reflect a rebellious community under the Indonesian government’s suppression. The comical and playful facade of these works entice visitors to inspect the pieces closer where upon further investigation, one can find ironic messages written in bold letters left intentionally as a mockery to politic and governing bodies.

Whilst the gallery space is intended to be a simple structure, the curator has designed a small side room for Meriem Bennani’s video work Guided tour of a spill (CAPS interlude) to provide individual attention. However, Retainer of Anarchy plays its sound effects via a 6-channel audio system from the major room which introduces a strong disrupting factor for visitors viewing Bennani’s work. With the understanding to the curator’s means for exhibiting artworks that celebrate the unconfined community in contemporary culture, displaying two video works in such close proximity forces both to inevitably contest for attentions. In addition, the Snuff bottle (‘Tale of white snake’) has also fallen into victim to Retainer of Anarchy’s overbearing nature, situated in a forgotten corner next to the 5-channel video screen. Despite the curator’s best attempt to use a literal spotlight to bring attention to the art object, many visitors seemed to miss it, whether in favour of watching the many variations of the video work beside it or because Snuff was overshadowed entirely.

Outlaw, by its original definition, is meant to describe an individual who exists outside of or against legal structure as a criminal penalty or to avoid imprisonment. In modern day, the term outlaw has been repurposed and transformed by popular culture since the late 19th century to celebrate illegal yet just behaviours.10 Either and/or both definitions are well interpreted through this exhibition with a Non-White lens. From the ten Oriental prints to Bennani’s CAPS, all present fictional characters who are traditionally seen as disruptors in society but represent and celebrate minority factions who have suffered or continue to suffer from oppression under their respective jurisdiction(s). For example, CAPS presents its visitors with video clips of imagined freedom fighters training and preparing for confrontation with border police and their governing body.11 In Nugroho’s banners, calls for injustice and brutality treatments are delivered as a self-explanatory message when one looks closer; needless to mention Retainer of Anarchy where the animation revolves around a small community was surrounded by untouchable by governments and authorities.12 Even the tiny Snuff Bottle in the least visible corner wholeheartedly embodies the spirit of Outlaw as it was legally permitted for medical use but covertly contained illegal substances like tobacco instead. 13

Apart from critiquing its display choices, Outlaw is an exhibition that rendered its intended theme through the selected artworks very successfully. In addition, by using minimal spot lights and black- painted back drop, the vibrance of the artworks is highlighted and the simple structure for the gallery space speaks for the minimalistic approach in contemporary culture.14 Narratives for the oriental prints are also missing from this exhibit which obscures visitors to better understand the relationship between Outlaw and the artworks. Although it is not explicitly announced in its wall texts, visitors would recognise Outlaw as another Asian art exhibit due to its dominating art style. The intention to compare Outlaw with Elemental — an exhibition dedicated for Asian arts — in the original south building arises for the aforementioned reason. In Elemental, the gallery space is constructed according to a soft colour palette and with an Oriental style touch in its decor which does immediately explain to visitors its intended art region in a direct tone. Both galleries are well tailored stages for their stars to shine. However the curator for Elemental strongly favours arts from certain regions with a tilted focus on statues and sculptures relating to Buddhism. This leads visitors to experience the objects and lessons of Buddhist history more heavily, thereby diluting the intended communication of Elemental’s theme. Furthermore, looking at its ratio of artworks by periods, Elemental advocates for more historical than contemporary and as such, it fails to align with AGNSW’s vision to bridge the “old” and “new.”15 In AGNSW’s best interest, Elemental is better-off reducing its objectives and act as a historical exhibit for Asian arts. This will provide visitors a clean introduction and bridge to other contemporary art exhibitions in alignment with the Art Gallery’s vision.

1. Exhibition wall text for Outlaw, 03 Dec 2022 - 30 Jun 2024, at Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney.

2. “Illustrated History”, Art Gallery of NSW, last modified n.d.. about-us/history/illustrated-history/

3. Hayashi, Makoto; Hayek, Matthias (2013). "Editors' Introduction: Onmyodo in Japanese History". Japanese Journal of Religious Studies: 3. doi:10.18874/jjrs.40.1.2013.1-18. ISSN 0304-1042.

4. Fairbank, J. K. (1994). China: A New history. Harvard University Press. Gong, W.; Li, Z.G.; Li, T. (2004). Marketing to China’s youth: A cultural transformation perspective. Business Horizons 47/6 Nov-Dec, pp. 41-50.

5. Dr Zai, J. Taoism and Science: Cosmology, Evolution, Morality, Health and more. Ultravisum, 2015.

6. Kommonen, Kirsi. "Narratives on Chinese colour culture in business contexts: The yin yang wu xing of Chinese values." (2008).

7. Van Der Veere, Henny. A Study into the Thought of Kōgyō Daishi Kakuban: With a translation of his' Gorin kuji myo himitsushaku'. BRILL, 2021.

8. Michael Brand ed., The Sydney Modern Project: Transforming the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney: AGNSW, 2022), 29-30.

9. Nufrio, Anna Vincenza. "Kowloon Walled City as urban border. Community-based home and neighborhood building: an interview with Greg Girard." ASRI: Arte y sociedad. Revista de investigación 8 (2015): 12.

10. Botterill, Jacqueline. "Cowboys, outlaws and artists: The rhetoric of authenticity and

contemporary jeans and sneaker advertisements." Journal of consumer culture 7, no. 1 (2007): 105-125.

11. Wall text for Guided Tour of a Spill (CAPS Interlude). Outlaw 03 Dec 2022 - 30 Jun 2024, at Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney.

12. Lai, Lawrence WC. "Un-forgetting walls by lines on maps: A case study on property rights, cadastral mapping, and the landscape of the Kowloon Walled City." Land Use Policy 57 (2016): 94-102.

13. Wang, Jinpeng. "From Micro to Macro: Jade Snuff Bottles in Qianlong Era." PhD diss., Sotheby's Institute of Art-New York, 2020.

14. Nikolić, Milan, and Dragana Vasilski. "Minimalism in contemporary architecture as one of the most usable aesthetically-functional patterns." Facta Universitatis-Series: Architecture and Civil Engineering 15, no. 3 (2017): 333-345.

15. About US, Art Gallery of NSW, last modified n.d.

Mica Chen is studying Art Curating at the University of Sydney where she is cultivating an avid interest in museum and gallery management. Mica is a progressive thinker who challenges curatorial strategies and their long-term applications. Among recent conversations in arts and culture, Mica is a big proponent for including nonhuman subjects in museums, as well as reuniting Science and Arts. 

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