FENG SHUI was a site-specific installation and performance exhibition featuring photo-based work by four Asian Canadian artists presented through the demonstration of a designated cultural act in the ancient Chinese practise of achieving harmony or feng shui (wind and water in Cantonese). All of the artists and the curator were on site in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England for the 10-day installation period in August and September, 1993.
ON EDGE was invited by Locus + in Newcastle to curate this feature exhibition to coincide with the Tyne International Festival (June 26-Sept. 5, 1993) in that city during the month of September, 1993 and to conduct a complimentary curators' tour to Dublin, Eire, Belfast and Derry, Northern Ireland. The selection of artists and works for the exhibition was made by using feng shui. The basic tenet of the exhibition was to feature the artwork of Asian Canadian photo-based artists within a cultural context through the performance of a specific cultural practise.
On Edge has been involved with producing exhibitions in and from the U.K. since 1985. These have included the realization of artists' presentations, exhibitions and publication projects in both countries. In 1988, we curated ASIAN NEW WORLD an exhibition of sixteen Asian Canadian artists for the Chisenhale Gallery and Canada House in London. Based on the successful response of that export exhibition in the U.K., we curated YELLOW PERIL: RECONSIDERED that circulated throughout Canada in 1990-91. This was the first major touring exhibition and publication to feature the photo, film and video of twenty-five Asian Canadian artists. Our curatorial intention, then and now, was to address an Asian Canadian artistic practise and to introduce those new perspectives to the growing dialogue about cultural diversity.
The mass media of the industrialised nations has intensified the cultural, economic and political disparities of the global village. Yellow Peril focused on the work of artists who used popular media tools and formats that reclaimed media terrain and helped to identify and shape an Asian-Canadian sensibility central theme throughout the exhibition was around family, the struggle with the loss of identity, tradition, language, continuity and history.
Yellow Peril:Reconsidered was a precedent-setting project that has had a major impact in the Asian community, with other marginalized groups and the established white art community. In two short years we have witnessed enormous growth in the production, exhibition and appreciation of the work of others not solely produced from and for a Eurocentric perspective. Self-representation, gender politics, sexual orientation and race issues have been at the forefront of critical discussion and greatly influenced the work of emerging artists, exhibition organizations and the public. Many of the Yellow Peril artists have been more widely exhibited, published and acknowledged.
Since 1990, there has been an explosion of non-mainstream cultural expression. In Vancouver, the Chinese Cultural Centre exhibited Self Not Whole, an exhibition of visual and performance art. Kikyo: Coming Home To Powell Street, exhibition and book by Tamio Wakayama was presented at the Vancouver Museum. Laiwan, Kiki Yee, Sharyn Yuen and Henry Tsang have had solo exhibitions at the Or, Pitt and Western Front galleries. Eye Of The Tiger, the first exhibition of South Asian Vancouver artists took place at the Community Arts Council. Regional galleries in Kamloops, Burnaby and Richmond have also originated exhibitions. Import shows such as Disputed Identities at Presentation House in North Vancouver and Fabled Territories at the Vancouver Art Gallery, have also recognized this shift. Most recently, in November-December, 1993 the exhibition Racy Sexy at the Chinese Cultural Centre, continued to expose the existence and the development of a separate cultural identity to the dominant culture. The foundation has been successfully laid and this exhibition recognized that it is time to go beyond the issues and to produce more challenging exhibitions that would contextualize the more complex and innovative works of mature artists.
China is a 4000 year old uninterrupted civilisation. 1/5 of the world population is Chinese. Much of Asia has been influenced by Chinese culture, religion and art. Western (European) society has long been fascinated by and appropriated 'things Asian' but not Asian thinking. This inability to understand the cultural context of Asian thinking has created much fear and mistrust of Asian people.
Feng shui is the Chinese term that literally means 'wind and water'.. These forces are believed to be responsible for determining health, prosperity and good luck. It is an ancient traditional practise, somewhere between a science and an art form. The basic principle of feng shui is that it is not a rigid system, but one based on the belief that through the proper balancing of human existence with the natural order, life should be harmonious and therefore create good ch'i. No precise equivalent exists in the English language for ch'i, the spiritual energy or vapour that forms all matter including human life. Ch'i is the universal breath or energy that gives us our material existence and is reflected in our appearance ch'i-ch'ing (energy-image). Just as spirit or energy creates all living things in the universe, so the human spirit creates art.
Feng shui can be applied to minor everyday domestic life decision-making as well as to important business affairs. The application of feng shui can be simple or can involve a complex blend of: common sense, aesthetics/philosophy based on nature, astrology, numerology; the four directions: north, south, east and west; the five colours: red, yellow, blue/green, white and black; the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water; the five senses: sound, sight, feel, taste and smell; and the balance between these and other factors. At the core is the balance of yin and yang: masculine and feminine; dark and light; the living and the spiritual world; and in this specific case, the role of photographic images with the past and the present.
It is believed that bad feng shui can be avoided or diverted and corrected. Everyday feng shui advice is usually given by the clan matriarch or patriarch, by village elders or by feng shui experts who can often command large fees for their services. Professional experts/geomancers are respected members of the community. They are often consulted prior to the beginning of construction of new buildings, on the date, time and place for weddings, funerals, location of burial sites, the naming of children, and other important family matters and community events. The application of feng shui ranges from the planning of entire cities to the placing of a single flower, from the orientation of high-rise offices to the interior design of a studio, production of a painting or layout of a publication.
The recent influx from Hong Kong and of other Asian newcomers to the New World has had a tremendous effect on all aspects of life. A concrete and mundane example is found in the real estate market in Vancouver and throughout the Pacific Northwest. One out of five households in Richmond, the fastest growing community in British Columbia, is Chinese. A house with a bad combination of feng shui in its landscape siting, directions, numerics and architectural lines can make it virtually unsaleable. A similar house around the corner with good feng shui can command a much higher price and be sold quickly. Vancouver and Toronto are full of these real estate rumours and many are true stories. When the Bank of Hong Kong was opened in Vancouver in the mid-1980's, a feng shui expert was flown in from Hong Kong and consulted prior to purchase. The Bank of B.C. is now a subsidiary of the Bank of Hong Kong. He was paid $300,000 for his services after he had redesigned much of the near-new building's interior and insisted that a pendulum be placed in the main foyer because the building itself had been placed incorrectly on the site according to feng shui principles.
Before embarking on the project in Newcastle we were given a number of options for a site. Rather than the conventional warehouse setting, we chose a deconsecrated Christian church and its accompanying graveyard on the waterfront. There has been some sort of building on this site since the 12th century, with the present structure dating back to the mid-1700's. The building was deconsecrated in the 1960's, although the graveyard remained a religious site. The structure itself presented unusual problems for the exhibition, not the least of which that it is an officially listed and protected building in the U.K., and deemed a heritage site. We therefore could not affix any of the artwork on the walls or interior. The church's elliptical shape and domed ceiling included balcony railings around the choir pews on the second floor and these were what eventually became used for hanging the photoworks on banners and scrolls. This was one of the practical as well as aesthetic reasons why almost all of the work was presented this way.
Once on location at All Saints' Church we found that the church had originally been sited with the altar facing east and to the north of the river, ironically in accordance with feng shui requirements. Similarly, the headstones on the graves in the graveyard all faced east. Minor modifications had to be made inside the church, such as the introduction of an 8-foot diameter goldfish pond and the placement of mirrors around the altar and coffin to correctly balance the natural light. The living elements of goldfish and plants were brought in to establish a restful and calm atmosphere.
The works selected used photo-based strategies and were all concerned with aspects of family. The totality of issues covered a wide range of relationships, each providing clues to the other. Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, lovers, the living and the dead were subjects presented in formal portraits, in fragments of old snapshots and home video clips. They were presented as scrolls, banners, and panels with elements of colour, handmade paper, incense, electric candles, ferns, altars and text to breathe additional meaning into the life of the pictures. Produced independently and individually in separate studios and cities, the unique works were remarkably grounded together.
The accompanying performance by one of the artists, Paul Wong, opened the exhibition to the public. It related to ancestral worship - hanng san or 'walking the mountain'. This ritual is commonly performed at ancestral gravesites as a regular process of caring for and feeding those in the spirit world. Paper effigies of objects from the material world are ritualistically burnt and sent to those who came before. The artist's videotape Chinaman's Peak: Walking The Mountain played on the four monitors on the altar dais, providing a visual and aural accompaniment to the process.
The artists exhibited were Lani Maestro, Henry Tsang, Paul Wong and Sharyn Yuen. All had works in progress, or in some cases completed, that were chosen and used as a starting point on site to further develop their pieces in accordance with the principles of feng shui and local conditions. One of the criteria for the artists was that their work had to fit into a suitcase and accompany them to Newcastle.
All the artists had been aware of, or practised feng shui in some form, and to varying degrees, through their families. Yet all had distinct and different experiences and understandings of its workings. One of the artists, Paul Wong, took on the role of feng shui adviser. In this capacity, he guided discussion and made suggestions about the placement of works and introduction of various elements. It was collectively agreed that the works would be placed together in such a way that none would appear to stand separately and that the absence of individual signage would convey the impression that the exhibition was a single installation. One work flowed into another with the diverse elements of the pond, incense, red cloth banners and ferns interspersed to draw them together.
Lani Maestro's work Become Sound centred on a black and white photograph of the artist's sister and sister's daughter, placed in the middle of a white cloth banner suspended below the choir pews and opposite the altar. It was combined with 13 small framed floral watercolour paintings by her mother that were hung in various positions on the back of the pew seats facing the altar. Additional elements included a twine of human hair and a rumpled piece of white cotton covered in cigarette burns. The focus of the work was the photograph of mother and child but the ancillary components provided an important subtext for the piece. There were subtle suggestions of torture and abuse in the cigarette burns and remnants of human hair juxtaposed with the fragile beauty of the women in the photograph and the delicacy of the floral paintings. It was a complex work overall and one that defied conventional interpretation.
Henry Tsang re-created the stereotypical wedding photograph in Double Happiness. Using an earlier series, Love Stories, as a starting point, he continued exploration on the theme of desire and its cultural context. Tsang produced his work, partly through the process of elimination, beginning with the photo-text pieces from Love Stories and the newer large format wedding portraits and then examining them in the overall view of the exhibition and its site. In the end, there were two works exhibited, one portraying the artist and his female partner in traditional Western wedding dress and the other in Emperor-style Chinese dress, both photographs similarly posed. They were placed on 6' x 17' red and yellow cloth banners and hung on either side of the altar in a heraldic manner from the choir balcony. The effect was stunning and jarring at the same time. The imagery, so consistent with society's traditions of expected behaviour, was conveyed here to mean far more, with hints and innuendoes extending the effect.
Paul Wong's video installation Chinaman's Peak: Walking The Mountain was placed on and around the altar, with a coffin sitting on a 4' x 8' mirrored panel as the central physical presence. Four monitors were placed around the circular altar dais providing view lines for the entire audience area. In front of the monitors separate shrine-like positions were laid out, each with incense, food offerings, and hanng san objects. The coffin's placement was as in a conventional Western funeral, in that it was placed at the front and centre of the church, but its location also symbolised the essential element for ancestral worship, surrounded as it was with votive objects and symbolic earthly goods. The windows forming a semi-circle behind the altar were hung with two black banners and one white banner, each containing separate calligraphy messages: Memory, You Are A Good Spirit and Your Spirit Will Always Be Remembered.. Cedar trees and moss, as well as additional mirrored panels were included on the altar, producing an overall appearance of serenity and solemnity. The altar was used as the focal point, the starting point to introduce the works and provide some sort of cohesion to the use of elements. It also served as the stage for the opening performance, where the artist enacted the walking the mountain ritual in front of the video monitors while the 25-minute videotape Chinaman's Peak: Walking The Mountain was screened. The performance concluded with the individual lighting of each artist's work by the technical crew.
Sharyn Yuen's six photo emulsion panels, entitled Full Circle, were hung from the balcony around the semi-circle of the auditorium. Hung by invisible thread, they appeared to float in front of the pews and into the main exhibition area. The photographs were of her mother, grandmother and great grandmother delicately placed on the banana handmade paper scrolls. Brief text descriptions of their lives were produced on 2'x3' mahogany pallets lying variously on the floor throughout the exhibition. The artist's female ancestors were the first artworks to be hung, and throughout the exhibition's installation gave the impression that they were watching the total take form.
The placement of the works on site was determined by the artists themselves, with some reverence to feng shui aspects. There were certain more fundamental considerations such as mentioned before that the church was a protected heritage building and therefore could not be damaged in any way. This stipulation included that none of the artworks could be hung or placed in a manner that would require nails or screws in any of the surfaces. The fortunate circumstance that most of the works were meant to be displayed on banners and scrolls allowed that this aspect of the exhibition went ahead without aesthetic compromising.
The placing of other objects and locating individual works was philosophically considered to be part of producing the harmony of the exhibition. The collaborative element amongst the artists was important and a constant consideration when choosing locations or elements for inclusion. Features such as the building itself, natural lighting sources and conventional exhibition concerns were often auxiliary and less significant. In keeping with the collaborative nature of the show, individual works were not labelled and signage was limited to a programme/brochure which was handed out at the door. The large-scale banners out in front on the church's exterior columns listed the exhibition title only, in English and Cantonese.
Throughout the course of installing the work, careful photo and video documentation was made with a focus on the pre-scheduled lecture tour of Ireland, which included Dublin, Belfast and Derry. The original plan to re-mount the exhibition in those cities had been abandoned for financial reasons and replaced with a curatorial tour. The reception was unexpected in some ways, accustomed as we were to addressing a converted audience, so to speak. Ireland is a completely unicultural society, with differences in religion but not in race or cultural backgrounds.
The intent and message of Feng Shui was almost completely lost on the audiences there for that reason, in the sense that they just did not get the point of presenting artwork from an Asian Canadian perspective. The perspective itself was an oddity, and certainly the perception of Canada as being exclusively white and European was dominant amongst those we met. The evident isolation of Ireland in general, and certainly Northern Ireland in particular, contributed to this misperception. In addition, a benign inward focus, likely produced by the isolation, prevented a larger world view of events and more specifically, the field of contemporary art.
The dialogues prevalent within Canadian and American art communities on gender, representation, cultural stereotyping are non-existent or in nascent stages there. Furthermore, the point of questioning the definition and relevance of contemporary work being continually judged by a European yardstick was lost on audiences that appeared to rely almost exclusively on accepted Euro/American based truths used to recognize art. It was difficult to depart from the inclination to view Feng Shui and its artists as exotic and colonial harbingers of the mysterious East.
An ironic footnote to the Ireland tour was an experience in a hotel in Belfast, where we had gone to meet the local sponsor of the lecture tour from Flax Art Studios. On arriving at the hotel which was in the university district of the city, and therefore largely non-sectarian and frequented by foreigners, we noticed the smell of incense in the hotel's lobby. On closer inspection, we found that there was an ancestral worship shrine set up behind the reception area. Later that evening we met the owners, the four Wong brothers from Toisan in Southern China, the same village that one of our artists, Paul Wong's family was from. They were very skeptical about the premise for our exhibition, having spent years and thousands of dollars studying the practise of feng shui. They had gone to the extent of bringing a feng shui adviser from Toisan to Belfast to check out the hotel and other businesses they owned in the city. The oldest brother carefully took us through the lobby and exterior areas, pointing out the changes and corrections that the feng shui master had made. He concluded his tour by relating that since the feng shui master had corrected the harmony in the building, the hotel had survived four bombing attacks.
The idea of presenting culturally specific work within an everyday practise, in this case feng shui, was meant as a beginning in looking at work as not oppositional, not just different or exotic but simply as being there, in a completely legitimate way and one that does not have to be defended. The presentation of a cultural context is not new and has existed for thousands of years, in the admixture within all cultures. What was perhaps novel here was that the work of Asian Canadians was taken back and presented in the colonial setting that had originally suppressed it.
In fact, the practise of feng shui which was widespread throughout China when the British first went there, was considered by the colonisers to be the most serious obstacle to Western thought and innovations. Chinese Emperors who had agreed to other forms of trade and relationships with the Europeans would refuse to accommodate on such things as the location of railways and bridges, whose placement had been determined by Western engineers as the most advantageous according to modern thinking. Whole communities, bridges and other forms of superstructure were located according to feng shui, a practise which infuriated Westerners trying to make inroads in China. Many of these colonisers left for China by ship from Newcastle. It was a fitting tribute to the sound common sense of the earlier feng shui practitioners to take samples of this everyday behaviour back to the source of its previous antagonism.
The work presented by the four artists was elegantly melded into a unique whole. It transformed a Christian church which had been the seat of much oppression into a benevolent and humanising space. Individually powerful and uniformly exquisite, the art pieces of Feng Shui were ultimately successful in their original intention as works of art. The meanings afforded to them by placement and context allowed for a certain universality which did not deride from their special quality. Harmony was achieved and a natural balance restored.