Yellow - a primary colour; a hue of skin associated with East-Asian physicality; the emblem of Hong Kong's fight for democracy. Natalie Quan Yau Tso finds herself surrounded by this colour, as a queer Hong Kong immigrant artist working on Eora land, and her first solo exhibition, I Have Arrived at Yellow, signals a coming to terms of sorts with the personal and political implications of this colour.
At the forefront of Tso's work is the concept of trauma - the forms in which it manifests; the ways in which it is experienced and the means taken to process, accept and heal from it. In this way, her art becomes a coping mechanism for her, and she creates as a means to survive. Trained as a painter and ballet dancer, art and performance has always been an outlet for Tso, and she draws from herself her pain and parts of her physical, bodily self to evoke slippage between personal and political trauma. There are many layers to this experience; trauma can be physical, mental, racial, sexual and political, sometimes all at the same time. Tso activates these experiences through visceral and corporeal memories as a means to process them; I Have Arrived at Yellow follows a curatorial narrative that moves from themes of hair to skin to flesh. "I've always thought that the body holds trauma and stores it in different places," she muses, "Hair is the physical witness to trauma, skin is the surface on which racial trauma takes place, and below it all, there is flesh, where trauma is hardly visible yet wholly dictates the political body."
Wedding - a multilayered title, signifying a disturbance to what is considered the most sacred and established form of human union. Tso presents a tapestry of sorts; a carefully crocheted piece created by laboriously connecting strands of her and her partner's hair with hair gel. During the exhibition opening, the artist selects objects from a traditional Cantonese sheung tau kit and attempts to comb through this work. This alludes to the ancient Cantonese wedding tradition of the hair combing ceremony, where a "fortunate" family member combs through the bride and groom's hair while performing other symbolic rituals and reciting wedding blessings. Tso points out, however, that this tradition is highly misogynistic in that marriage in Cantonese culture, as it is with many other cultures too, signifies a transition into womanhood and a handover of the bride from the father to the groom.
Further, the blessings objectify the woman and essentially determine her worth as a wife by how many children she can produce - (may you fill your home with your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all over the place). "I'm queering and challenging the outdated and sexist idea of marriage," Tso explains, 'traditionally the hair combing ceremony is supposed to rid the bride's hair of knots, but since this work is made of knots, I won't be able to follow through.' Also, the marriage and union of same-sex couples is still outlawed in Hong Kong. Wedding is thus not so much a complete rejection as such, but rather an awkward sense of respect for and desire to complete the ritual, accompanied by the realisation that the concept of it no longer carries the same meaning and importance in contemporaneity that it once did. There is an anticlimactic moment of realisation that the artist is unable to complete the ceremony as it traditionally should be, but this moment asks the audience to consider: what is this sacred union truly about, and what happens in the critical instance when two individuals do not adhere to its traditions?
Following Tso's bodily progression, two haunting yet painterly masses of skin-like substance converse in reflection. Made up of cleaning detergent, glue, salt and acrylic paint, one hangs loosely, suspended from the ceiling, while the other clings to the floor. These works are reminiscent of Tso's recent works in her Peeling series - the artist calls this material "skin", for its uncanny yet intimate resemblance to human skin. This work, titled Yellowing, explores Tso's personal experience with assimilation - "I feel myself splitting into two entities, the migrant self and the assimilated self". The two "skins" stare at one another, neither fully recognising nor completely foreign to the other, both embodying a sense of powerlessness in their delicacy and display. They are dyed yellow, yet in this work a stark and uneven whiteness pervades and saturates the pigment. "I moved to Australia from Hong Kong when I was 14,' Tso remembers, 'and I faced racism, but at that time I wasn't aware enough to term it that - I couldn't understand why people were being mean to me.' Yellowing stands as a dialogue of two selves, caught between the deeply felt need to assimilate and the cultural identity of the individual. There is a sort of shame felt between the two works, as they struggle to find peace and co-exist in the space, painfully aware of each other's presence.
Finally, there is flesh - Tso presents Nothing Happened Here, a seventeen-minute long video of a performance work that took place in her bedroom. The video documents the artist eating a misshapen clump of cheungfun, a traditional Cantonese steamed rice roll, with chopsticks. During this process, Tso recites and sings passages from a history book about the political events that took place in Hong Kong in 2019, which has now been banned in both China and Hong Kong.
The book details the turbulent relationship between Hong Kong and China that began in 1997 when Hong Kong, once a British colony, was handed over to Chinese power under the structural policy of "one country, two systems". These political sentiments took physical form in 2014, when peaceful demonstrators took to the streets of Hong Kong to advocate for democracy but were forced to defend themselves with umbrellas when Hong Kong police responded to the protests with tear gas. Political instability has since become a daily part of Hong Kong life, but this peaked again in 2019 following an amendment to the Fugitive Offenders Bill. These protests quickly grew violent as police officers were accused of using excessive and disproportionate force, injuring and even murdering civilians. In response, the Government has declared in the Hong Kong National Security Law that peace and stability has been restored to Hong Kong - the Law itself, vague in its writing, brands itself as the peaceful reason that the protests have stopped. "It was the end of a revolution," Tso laments, "and leaders we relied on started to be imprisoned, and news just started to disappear"; as part of this law enforced a censorship of sorts not dissimilar to the strict censorship laws enacted in Mainland China.
Tso's narration becomes increasingly muffled - perhaps this is because her mouth is full of cheungfun, or maybe it is the unconscious act of self-censorship. In this process of telling, singing and eating, however, the artist realises that her cheungfun is inedible and spits out yellowed and chewed up remnants of the dish while still attempting to feed it to herself. "I am eating, swallowing, digesting and regurgitating," Tso notes, "but I am also remembering, vocalising and storing Hong Kong's recent history within my body."
There emerges another layer to these simultaneous yet seemingly unrelated acts - the cheungfun becomes a metaphor for the recent political events in Hong Kong, and the artist. "The slow erasure of Hong Kong culture, which came about as a result of this censorship, is more difficult to accept than the censorship itself - I want to conserve this history; to tell and feed it to my self, but there is this constant fear that everything I am doing may break laws of censorship and free speech," Tso explains, "I muffle myself as a means of self-censorship and protection, but there arises a conflict because at the same time I refuse to accept the erasure." In this, the artist questions, deconstructs and reshapes these intimate yet political relationships by mediating her internalised pain and struggles into a public space.
I Have Arrived at Yellow, the artist states - perhaps in lament; or maybe it is relief. To associate colour with symbolism is one of the first lessons in childhood art theory - we are taught that yellow means happiness and hope; that it is the colour of sunshine. Tso draws upon the foundational construct of colour theory, suggesting that beautiful things can also be vessels of pain. Yellow for the artist is the colour of her skin, the resistance of her people, the hope to progress beyond trauma, and a destination. This exhibition follows her personal, physical and political journey to epiphany, laying out the raw and deeply felt emotions and challenges in all of its intimate, unglamorous glory. This is a love letter to the vast spectrum of pain, and finds Tso, weary yet energised, declaring to her audience: I am here at last; I have arrived.
- I Have Arrived at Yellow, by Natalie Quan Yau Tso, is at Tuggeranong Arts Centre until until May 21.