Kerry Ann Lee has recently returned to Wellington after a stint as senior lecturer at the Otago Polytechnic School of Design. Though based in Dunedin, she was by no means restricted to the cold south; her tenure was regularly punctuated by artist residencies in settings as disparate as New York, Taiwan, and Shanghai. Now back in her hometown, there’s little in her well-equipped flat-cum-studio to suggest her recent itinerancy, bar a stash of wrapped works in one corner.
I first encountered Kerry Ann’s work through her project Home Made: Picturing Chinese settlement in New Zealand (2008). We met each other more recently when Kerry Ann shared her experiences of living and working in China at Te Papa’s symposium ‘China in the Pacific’. Her artist project for the 2014 Spring Season of Ngā Toi | Arts Te Papa is themed around the provocation, ‘Who do you think you are?’
Cultural identity is always a slippery beast: not everyone wants to talk about it up front. But Kerry Ann’s art has never shied away from her heritage. Her 2013 installation, The unavailable memory of Gold Coin Café, used multimedia and laser cut-outs to imaginatively ‘excavate’ the former site of her parents’ fish-and-chip shop, the artist’s childhood home. Like much of her work, it might be read as a kind of personal history of the Chinese diaspora in New Zealand - a paper bridge between there and here.
I started our conversation by asking that gnarly question: how relevant, or otherwise, is it to be described as an artist of Chinese descent?
Kerry Ann: It seems to be a useful place to start here in New Zealand, because even outside professional circles people are always asking, ‘Where are you from?’ I don’t have a problem with people framing my work as such because these are themes I’ve worked with directly, through projects like Home Made and, more recently, Gold Coin Café.
Rebecca: Your work often dredges through memory and explores the boundaries between private and public. How do you negotiate these?
Kerry Ann: This is something I can perhaps attribute to being involved in zine culture - the idea of everyday life and honesty coming through, that there is a kind of strength in storytelling.
By creating a visual installation for the gallery space, you’re creating an experience for people. They’ll never know the full story ’cos it’s your story that you’ve lived through that you’re trying to translate. But what you’re trying to share is that sense of enchantment and wonder, through a fragmentation of things from the past.
I like the idea of fragmentation: bringing things together, referencing and using found imagery and materials to the point at which they become synthesised and crystalised into something quite unusual or new, creating a sense of visual déjà vu, moving from fantasy to reality.
Rebecca: So in a way what you’re doing is going from fantasy to reality and back again. If you consider memory a kind of fantasy, then you’re returning to the real and then making it new.
Kerry Ann: Yeah, it’s the strange bridge that you build between these worlds. That’s the nature of things. It gets in the hyphenated, in-between spaces, culturally.
Rebecca: That’s a phrase Aaron Seeto [director of Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art] has used, the ‘hyphenated identity’. It seems different to ‘hybrid’, which sounds more biological.
Kerry Ann: With the hyphen you have got both worlds there and you can move in between. That’s the bridge - the hyphen is the bridge. Hybrids are taking things to the max, where it becomes a natural merge of things. Those are like the strange fantasy environments that I create through my digital montages, where you take everything and make a third space. They are almost gateways into other possibilities.
Rebecca: Bridges, gateways, other worlds … We’ve talked before of your interest in architecture. In your presentation at Te Papa, you spoke of your love of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
Kerry Ann: Yeah, even Rem Koolhaas [curator of the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale] quotes Calvino. He’s a favourite for architects and artists who like things like dreamscapes. I love Calvino for his humanness in approaching the world. For me, it’s always a sense of interpreting scale and bringing it back to the scale of, I guess, myself.
Historically, Western cultures have used architecture for its symbolism and power. There’s a lot of deconstruction of that, or questioning of that, that I am interested in.
Rebecca: And then developing countries are emulating the role of architecture as something to be used to assert dominance, by building bigger, taller, more magnificently …
Kerry Ann: Exactly. One thing I found really inspiring in China was my discovery of heterogeneous features in new building blocks in Shanghai. They’re replicating different elements from classical Western architecture such as high-end Grecian columns, ornamentation from the Middle East, a bit of brutalist modernism, and fudging it all together. Like another cultural interpretation, almost a postmodern take, but a Chinese postmodern take, divorced from the histories, looking purely at style and surfaces.
Again, crossing boundaries between fantasy and reality, but not so much a bridge as a superhighway. There’s a lot going on and it’s not just China, it’s all over the world right now. ‘East-West’ is one way of looking at the world and at cultures, but it’s east, west, north, west, east, and all this stuff in-between.
Rebecca: Your practice ranges from very sophisticated digital imagery to the handmade, such as the paper cut-out. It’s such a traditional form in so many cultures. When and why did you start using it?
Kerry Ann: I was really drawn to it from an earlier time through punk and protest graphics in terms of its immediacy: a sense of control over found and produced truths, visual truths, and crafting and recrafting, extracting, cutting out shapes and forms from a larger thing. And what you take away and what you leave behind is just as important. The paper-cut emphasises that, and questions what’s of value. Is it the positive image or the negative space around it? And when you present one or the other, what does that say?
Paper is a great, disposable, accessible thing. I love the fact that anyone can make paper-cuts.
Rebecca: It’s such an interesting form. So culturally specific, but also so transcultural.
Kerry Ann: Yeah, it’s an international language because it’s cheap, it’s readily available, it’s cheerful - cheap and cheerful! In folk culture, paper-cuts are often used to put on windows, as good luck tokens above doorways. They’re always made for a space.
Rebecca: How important is space to you when you are conceiving a project?
Kerry Ann: I am mindful of the idea of occupation, even if it’s a momentary occupation of a space. I would always scratch the surface and find out a little about who was here before, what was going on in the neighbourhood, who actually will come through the space, and what they are going to take away. It’s a real thing to be able to show work in a space. I don’t take it lightly.
Rebecca: You really care about your audience, or your potential audience …
Kerry Ann: I guess, without sounding too much of a cornball! I care that they get something out of it. I do feel like there’s an element of conversation I want to have with audiences that come through.
Rebecca: And with projects like Gold Coin Café, it’s a site in Wellington that people will know, either historically or in the present.
Kerry Ann: It’s such a Wellington project!
Rebecca: Yes, and you think, the Yeung Shing, that’s where I had the best Hokkein noodles ever, that’s where I went after that gig at Bodega …
Kerry Ann: That was such a specific project in terms of inviting people in, making them feel like they could have a place in the conversation. It’s the memory of a little kid who grew up in the back of the shop, but I get other people’s memories: ‘I remember, I used to be a customer…’
Rebecca: So again, it’s those histories that are shared but not.
Kerry Ann: And what you think is a private world is actually quite public. It’s a strange thing, going back into those spaces. It’s not that you’re going with the mindset that you’re looking for something that you lost, but that you’re revisiting a scene of a life that you’ve already lived.
When I found out about the cafe, a friend told me that it had been stickered and was going to be demolished. My family had long since moved on, but I had a hunch that there was something in terms of how I could synthesise what very little I knew or remembered of that place with the actuality of that place being torn down. And what it did remind me of was those torn-down buildings in Shanghai, the old posters and the old calendars that were still on walls that were smashed down. I didn’t see them as rubbish, but as remnants. They were visual substrates that I looked for to make new work.
Rebecca: Yes, that rampant destruction, or reinvention, in those cities can be quite shocking. But then this city, Wellington, is constantly being rebuilt too.
Kerry Ann: We have a different way of processing the idea of heritage buildings in New Zealand. In China you can’t get stuck on things. The cultural engine of the city is to invent itself, or move forward. It doesn’t take account of the stories of locals. They have a different relationship to what you think of as their heritage, their history through architecture. They’re not always the only store of memory and history in that city. And it’s a slippery one as an outsider that you don’t get a full grasp of.
Rebecca: Did you continue to feel like an outsider?
Kerry Ann: Yeah, I think so. Working as a cultural outsider is an interesting space. You feel like you can get in, but you have to go the long way round. You have to go through the service exit because you’re Chinese, like all the other Chinese people, except you’re not Chinese.
I was talking with a student from Shenzhen about the differences between old and new Chinese and New Zealand. He’s from Guangdong, and my family’s from Guangdong. But he’s new school, and I’m old school and even further away. What we’ve inherited in terms of Cantonese cultural customs is Victorian in comparison to what goes on locally there.
Rebecca: Isn’t that a symptom of what you hold onto when you are away? The core values of a culture, what you pass on …
Kerry Ann: And you have to move between these spaces quite freely. There was no way I could go in claiming anything of what I grew up with as being relevant over there. I knew it was going to be a big, strange beast. And lo and behold, it was!
Rebecca: I loved that you said you went to New York before you went to Shanghai so you could relax before you went to the crazy big city.
Kerry Ann: Quite often I enjoy big cities. I like the anonymity and the vibrancy. New York is like a second home. It’s comfortable. It feels good because everyone is from everywhere. That level of diversity is part of the fabric of that place.
In a different way, the anxieties of locating to China were a lot to do with the overseas Chinese relationship with one’s heritage. A home country that you’ve never been to, which is funnily enough called your home country. And when people say, ‘Go back to China,’ well, I never went there to begin with.
One thing I love that my mum always says, in response to ‘Where are you from?’ She always says, ‘Made in NZ, but my ingredients are from China.’ Mama Lee’s gold …
Kerry Ann Lee currently lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand. She exhibits work through Bartley + Company Art in Wellington and is represented by Whitespace Gallery in Auckland. Her artwork can be found in public and private collections throughout New Zealand, Australia, Europe, USA, and China. Kerry Ann Lee’s artist project, Knowledge on a beam of starlight, is in the Whare Toi | Arts Studio, Level 5, Te Papa, from 22 August 2014.
Rebecca Rice is Curator Historical New Zealand Art at Te Papa. She researches and publishes widely on colonial New Zealand art, and has recently curated exhibitions on the work of Petrus van der Velden and the Chinese artist Shi Lu.