University Gallery, Launceston 5 - 27 August 1999 Craft Victoria 30 Sept - 30 Oct Burnie Regional Art Gallery 13 Dec - 1 Jan
What happens when secrets remain unspoken, when pain is too acute to scream, when shame too overwhelming to tell and more significantly when to voice such feelings would fall on deaf ears anyway, consumed in Lacan's "voice of the dead", that voice of denial to which there is no response. But the silence of not being heard does not rest easy, neither does it dissolve with the victim's passing. Rather it remains manifest in the children and the children's children and beyond like a perverse manifestation of "life after death", festering away until it is dragged from its hiding place and exposed to the harsh light of day.
For Gregory Kwok-Keung Leong the "voice of the dead" was manifested in his mother's pain at being disconnected from both her birthplace and from her cultural roots through the silence in which both Australian and Chinese cultures enveloped her as she moved from Australia, to Hong Kong and back to Australia. In the demand for some abstracted idea of purity, both cultures invent themselves against difference in order to shore up their tenuous sense of superior identity.
For a number of years now Leong's textile practice has referenced the silence Australian society imposes upon the gay male. Through playful and witty commentary his work has exposed and challenged the marginalising practices of those who live in fear of difference. Recently however, the gay man has been identified more specifically as a Chinese gay man and in this work the Chinese Australian gay man emerges.
In this configuration Leong takes on the pain of the mother and her years of invisibility. The work, consisting of five camisoles, three formal suits and six pairs of shoes is at first glance stereotypically Chinese with each item being read as a symbol of power relationships within that cultural context. However this overt display of heritage is overlaid with subtle texts pertaining to Pauline Hanson's racist ideology, snippets of family portraiture, and a colour coding which interacts between the Chinese readings of green, gold and red and the Australian national colours of green and gold.
The exhibition is accompanied by detailed texts which catalogue the symbolism used in the works - the cultural use of the particular garments, the meaning of the colours, the translation of the Chinese characters. In an art appreciation climate which still expects art work to 'speak for itself' despite the endeavours of more discursive theories to sift the aesthetic moment and to engage everything as text, I wish to consider the works separate from the catalogue information at least in the first instance.
For the Euro-Australian audience Leong's work appears as absolutely exotic. There seems little evidence of any slippages into 'Australian' culture - some appliqued lace insets, some computer imaged motifs, some European family portraits. And yet something cries out through the gold-embroidered characters emblazoned on the camisoles. I cannot read it. I am Australian. This work is in my gallery and I cannot understand what he is getting at because I can't read Chinese.
The work doesn't deliver up a comfortable assimilationist resolution neatly decoded to include me in the game. The effrontery of not being given access to all the detail other than through reading of the copious notes, exposes the limits of my experience, the edge of my prejudice. Leong generously endeavours to fill the void with information. However in doing so the Anglo-Australian audience is faced with not only a new language but a language of a fellow citizen. Thus the breadth of the text becomes evidence of Euro-Australian's duplicity in silencing difference.
When we finally find out that the characters say "I am Australian", they shout into a void. In the gap of dislocation the audience hears their own silence and their own collusion in the construction of the voice of the dead. Leong's 'act of reclamation' of his Chineseness and affirmation of his Australianess give voice to that 'double happiness/double sorrow' which could not be spoken. Perhaps in that moment a transformation becomes possible. Perhaps also in that moment some of the pain is released.