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A Review: 'Niche Construction' at Vermilion Art


A Review: 'Niche Construction' at Vermilion Art
"Quiet leaves - I" (2017) by Nusra Latif Qureshi. Image courtesy of Vermillion Art.
“In the context of culture and art, niche construction is a process in which individuals, although living in a unique and protected space, connect, collaborate, compete, and have influence on one another.” - Guan Wei

Evolutionary biology describes niche construction as the process whereby organisms, through their activities and choices, modify their own and each other’s environment. Inspired by this concept, Guan Wei (关伟) curates Niche Construction at Vermilion Art in Sydney, where he reinterprets the science idea in the context of art and culture by gathering five diverse artists who share many commonalities – they have all been influenced by eastern culture, experienced extensive periods of foreign living, and currently call Australia their home. They collectively bring with them their differing retained cultural memories and personal histories that inevitably influence their present experience of living in Australia. 

"Lacrimae Rerum - 4505.00 s" (2016) by Cyrus Tang. Image Courtesy of Vermilion Art.

Niche Construction opens with Cyrus Tang’s Lacrimae Rerum – 4505.00 s (2016) which fills the gallery window. Throughout Tang’s art practice, she has been interested in exploring the temporality of time and the transience of memory.  Her monochrome photograph depicts a vertically mirrored image of a group of clay architectural structures, except the forms aren’t exactly symmetrical. Whilst the bottom half of the photograph shows the inverted clay architecture in a still, formal, crisp manner, by contrast, the upper half of the photograph conveys senses of movement through techniques of fading, blurring and overlapping. This visual representation is suggestive of the tension between the present and the past/future, between appearance and disappearance.

"Flower Series 3" (2017) by Chen Yanyin. Courtesy of Vermilion Art.

Stepping inside the gallery, paintings by Nusra Latif Qureshi and Chen Yanyin (陈妍音) adorn the walls adjacent to the gallery entrance. Guan’s curatorial decision to place Qureshi and Chen side-by-side highlight the interesting parallels between the two artists’. Although both artists received their formal art education in very distinct places – Qureshi was trained in Lahore, Pakistan; and Chen in Hangzhou, China; both artists unite in their practices of revisiting and referencing ancient traditional Asian art techniques coupled with themes of female identity. Moreover, their practices are suggestive of their close affinity to their home culture of Pakistan and China.  

Qureshi’s exquisite paintings are created in the fine practice of Mughal miniature paintings which traces its origins back to the 16th century South Asia. Her artworks showcase her detailed rendering of subject matters encircled in oval golden leaf framing. Ovals were one of the most recognizable motifs from the neo-miniature painting movement, a genre which was also known to be heavily male-dominated.

Although already very recognized as a successful sculpture artist, Chen’s picks up her traditional Chinese paper and ink instead of her usual fibreglass. She revisits the ancient Chinese ink medium in her most recent paper works Flower series 1-6 (2017), where she brings to viewers pink-ink illustrations of her Sydney garden flowers which symbolize fragility yet resilience. Like Qureshi, Chen also cleverly employs traditional techniques to respond to contemporary culture. The inscriptions in her paintings are a reflection of Chen’s found peace and purity in her adopted Sydney homeland  – “With just a little ray of sunshine and a little sprinkle of water, they give back splendour (给它一点阳光 给它一点水 它还给我灿烂)”.

"The Great Sydney - Central" (2018) by Liu Xiao Xian. Image courtesy of Vermilion Art. 

At the center of the gallery space, is Liu Xiao Xian’s (刘晓先) collage work The Great Sydney – Central (2018). Liu presents a thought-provoking image that is familiar yet strange. At a glance, most viewers will immediately recognize the archival image of Sydney Central Station that fills the background of the work. Liu montages the earth-toned historical photo with vividly-coloured snips of the ever-day contemporary. This evokes a sense of chaos and is suggestive of the transient nature of time and space. The Great Sydney – Central (2018) is powerfully thought-provoking, for it challenges the preconceptions of Chinese Art – no apparent symbols or motifs of what one would usually consider suggestive of the so-called ‘Chineseness’ are evident in the work; without knowledge of the artist, viewers may consider this work ‘Western’. The work, therefore, prompts viewers to contemplate the constructed binary of ‘Eastern Art’ and ‘Western Art’.

"New Health Plan" (2016) by Tony Scott. Image courtesy of Vermilion Art. 

Placed strategically next to Liu’s, Tony Scott’s New Health Plan (2016) also provokes viewers to reconsider the established divide between Chinese Art and Western Art. Australian born-and-raised, Scott’s artworks have been exhibited widely in China for more than two decades. Here Scott presents works that at a glance scream ‘Chineseness’ – mahogany wood frames, red Simplified Chinese characters, pages of traditional Chinese acupuncture books. Yet any viewer who is literate in the Chinese language will soon realize that the Chinese phrases inscribed on the surface of the glass panels hardly correspond to what is presented underneath the glass. Characters like 囍(xǐ), a character exclusively used as a decorative symbol in traditional Chinese weddings are layered over Chinese acupuncture book pages which consists of traditional terminology even most Chinese speakers today would struggle to interpret. These works are reflections of Scott’s decade-long living experience in China, where language barriers coupled with cultural differences gave rise to feelings of isolation and confusion.

Given Vermilion Art’s positioning as a gallery that focuses on contemporary Chinese art in Australia, Guan’s curatorial decision to include Anglo-Australian Tony Scott who is not of Chinese descent is a bold and applaudable one. In so doing, Guan challenges viewers to rethink the established categorization of ‘Chinese Art’ that is commonly dependent on bloodlines and ancestries and suggests an alternative criterion of valuing lived experiences.  

Regardless of evolutionary biology or Arts and culture, Niche Construction is inseparable from interactions. Each of the five artists come from differing cultural backgrounds and incorporate foreign experiences into their culture. Their artworks, therefore, personal responses of interaction between memories, histories, and culture. When curator Guan Wei brings these artworks together at Vermilion Art, interaction is created between the pieces as they counterbalance, enhance, as well as complement each other. Another layer of interaction is then fostered when viewers enter the exhibition space and engage with the artworks.

“Importantly the viewers and their interactions with the art, and the impact of the art on the society at large are a vital part of niche construction.” - Guan Wei


At once surprising, unique, and thought-provoking, Niche Construction is a true amalgamation of cultural experience, knowledge and appreciation that can only further enhance tolerance and understanding.



Niche Construction curated by Guan Wei, is on view at Vermilion Art in Sydney until 10th November 2018.

Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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