Elsewhere and nowhere else
Vera Mey

Within the “Book of the Beginning” of the 4th-century epic known as the Mahabharata, there is a captivating and peculiar aphorism:

What is here is elsewhere. What is not here is nowhere else.

Scholars have interpreted this expression as a rumination on the contradictions inherent in the singularity and multiplicity of human existence. Despite the differences in our cultural locales, political contexts and environments, there are aspects of the human experience we can connect to regardless of our subjectivities.

This exhibition looks at three artists, Kah Bee Chow, Li-Ming Hu and Yuk King Tan, who are umbilically connected to Aotearoa but, for different reasons, live elsewhere. Through their perspectives, we are reminded of how multifarious our connections to the world are. In this moment of Aotearoa New Zealand opening back up to an outside, this exhibition seeks to agitate notions that separate the local from the international through the lens of artists who occupy both spheres.

The closed borders during the global pandemic asserted the geographic distance and isolation of New Zealand. While the strategy of restricting who could come on and off the islands was hailed as a success in containing a public health crisis, it was conversely accompanied by heated conversations around those who chose to stay and those who left.[1] Headlines in local newspapers reverted to disturbing dichotomies between being local or international as if they were different sides of different coins.[2] Despite this simplistic binary in positioning, our entanglement with an ‘out there’ is much more complicated.

Conversations that centre on migration focus on those coming in and how this might affect a change in national demographics. Recently, attention has shifted to a projected ‘brain drain’ outward and those choosing to leave. How do we consider this exodus for artists? Traditionally, the artist’s role is as someone who brings perspectives of seeing and representing the world to a different light. There is a long lineage of artists from Aotearoa who have sought out cultural expansion through moving to larger cities. The critical distance and exposure to different art scenes often proves fruitful in expanding perspectives and artistic practices. Even the challenge of moving to a more onerous political context can be seen as generative fuel for engaging with different artistic knowledges.

Through this exposure, we are inevitably more connected and “contaminated”[3] by an expansively growing context to an outside which connects us to others. This desire for something more is part of an expression of longing for a “perfect and beautiful world”[4] that is elsewhere, even if it is a figment of our imagination and beyond what we know. No matter where we are, the mechanisms for connection can surprisingly transcend the grip of cultural and country boundaries.

What binds the artists in this exhibition together is everything and nothing. Sure, there are cultural specificities and incredible differences between Hong Kong, Sweden and the United States. Holding these contradictions, or even dualities as we might regard them, is the experience and messiness of chasing something perpetually out there, elsewhere, and nowhere else.

The idea of the Mahabharata quote comes from questioning sameness and difference in context. While there are differences between us all, there is still something fundamentally accessible we can all tap into that elides specificity. The impossibility of translation and difference often obscures our capacity for compassion and curiosity. Despite our contextual baggage, we still manage to connect and move across cultures in often unpredictable ways. Elsewhere and nowhere else is an exploration of our ever-expansive multiplicity of selves that continually accumulate knowledge and experiences, no matter where we are.

Kah Bee Chow’s installation is made up of materials ubiquitous in every metropolis: vinyl, wrought steel, latex, off-cuts and bit and pieces you might find in a household. These are also a visual accumulation of sources from Penang, Malaysia, to which the artist continually returns. The metal forms cite the eclectic and vernacular architecture of cityscapes – an amalgamation of styles from colonial Britain, Portugal, China and local Malay cultures creating what is known as ‘Strait’s architecture’. These welded ornamental pieces of metal often serve as both security measures and beautifying objects adorning houses. Chow’s hanging devices would not look out of place lined with laundry out of a shop house in the tropics, an environment which demands durable, practical items that can withstand humidity. There is a nod to local, provisional ingenuity in making these forms which have imprinted onto the artist’s visual vocabulary. On this gesture of transformation and translation, the artist says, “it’s not another geographical location as much as it is a parallel universe and an encounter with a different self – it’s not as though she doesn’t exist while I am in Sweden, but it’s almost entirely surprising to me that I can speak the local dialect, that it comes tumbling out of my mouth when I arrive. As though I expected to have lost it, like a misplaced pocketbook.”

Li-Ming Hu presents the video Boney (Phoney?) M (2020) and a new performance and video installation Where is the art? (2022) which comprises a scale replica of Hu’s New York studio. Persistent in her practice is an energetic exuberance and mimesis of found, still and moving image material, which Hu ‘dubs’ over in drag and masquerade. Through employing a carnivalesque sensibility, Hu’s practice alerts us to an inherent duality of absurdity and melancholy in culture – in both its creation and consumption. Carnival as a ritualised spectacle of chaos has been theorised as a space which is a “culturally hybridised, inter-ethnic festival of popular artistic creativity and social critique”.[5] The revelry of carnival serves multiple functions, including the invoking of spirits and characters, catharsis from social rank and destabilisation of hierarchies, and as a radical form of biting critique as resistance.[6]

In Boney (Phoney?) M, Hu has re-enacted performances and interviews with the popular band, which details their rise to fame, success and disputes. Popular during the height of disco fever, Boney M. was made up of diasporic Afro-Caribbean British members, led by a German producer, and whose songs were inspired by Ska music. In one of the clips, the artist re-enacts a speech by group member Marcia Barrett at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy in which she details how their song ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’ saved a dying mountaineer’s life, highlighting the unpredictable ways popular cultures infiltrate our consciousness. Despite this punch line showing the transcendent power of song, it is clear within the clips that dissent and ego dissolve the group; that the members were worlds apart.

Within Hu’s installation Where is the art? (2022), humour can be seen as a mechanism of critique, exposure and melancholy. In this studio environment we are alerted to a heightened sense of fabrication, with artistic equipment appearing as props made of fur or in blatant replication. A monitor with a video partly shot in the fabricated studio itself details the duality of the artistic process: it is riddled with sincere self-doubt in terms of creating, but also includes a re-enactment of an artist networking education programme that Hu enrolled in – a business course on how to communicate and market yourself as an artist. The interchangeability of signifiers within the installation is furthered through a Miss Saigon-style image which has been altered and contains the faces of the artists in the exhibition and the curator. Though Hu’s processes of re-enactment are often odd and awkward, the act of masquerade is also one of respectful homage towards these figures, a kind of embodiment through charismatic persona. There is a layering of masquerade on the screen, on the walls, through a face filter and the performing body of the artist herself.

Yuk King Tan’s Eternity Screen (2019) is a delicate arrangement of cable ties, fashioned as a kind of curtain made up of configurations that bear a faint resemblance to the infinity symbol. In 2019–20 the Hong Kong protests brought issues of security, privacy and democracy to the forefront, as a greater, more powerful neighbour threatened to exert its influence over law and policy in the historical trading port city-state. Tan has drawn on the collected detritus of protests (including loudspeakers and cones) for other artworks, but in this particular piece she has fashioned cable ties – an affordable and practical instrument of arrest and control – into an eerie and intricate object. Despite its seemingly banal and familiar material, the work also acts as a sculptural obstruction within the exhibition.

Alongside this sculpture is Yuk King Tan’s Nine mountains (2019). The mountain is present in Chinese iconography as a bastion of permanence, territory, awe, restraint, respect and control. While many traditional ink paintings have depicted mountains through studiously applied singular ink strokes, white is used in Chinese ink painting not simply as negative space but rather ground. Here, Tan cleverly builds mountains up sculpturally through streams of thread, denying the colour white its connotation as negative space and instead of breathing dimension and volume into these milky forms. Nine mountains also references the story of the nine-year-old emperor who was the last ruler of the Song Dynasty, which was a particularly fruitful cultural period. Artists and the literati flourished alongside technological advancements such as gunpowder and economic growth. The mountains also look like they could melt off the wall, which has synergies with our current climate emergency.

[1] See Claudia McHardy and Juliette McHardy, ‘The Membership Lottery: New Zealand’s COVID-19 Quarantine and the Convergence of Border and Infectious Disease Control’, Oxford Law Faculty, 29 November 2021, https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/11/membership., a more indepth conversation that outlines the issue of the “the membership lottery” in regards to the Covid-19 Quarantine and Managed Isolation system in New Zealand.

[2] There are numerous reporting and opinion pieces from the pandemic around this idea of being shut out. Of particular resonance are: Elle Hunt, ‘Coronavirus Has Forced New Zealanders Abroad to Choose: Do I Stay or Do I Go?’, The Guardian, 30 March 2020, sec. World news, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/30/coronavirus-has-forced-new-zealanders-abroad-to-choose-do-i-stay-or-do-i-go; Nadine Porter and Siobhan Downes, ‘Covid-19: “We Matter Too” - Devastated Kiwis React to Delay in Border Opening’, Stuff, 21 December 2021, https://www.stuff.co.nz/travel/travel-troubles/127349413/covid19-we-matter-too--devastated-kiwis-react-to-delay-in-border-opening.

[3] In Kwame Anthony Appiah, ‘The Case for Contamination’, The New York Times, 1 January 2006, sec. Magazine, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/01/magazine/the-case-for-contamination.html., he discusses the idea of contamination as an extension of his theory of cosmopolitanism which loosely has been described as the idea of respect for each others’ cultures beyond the confines of the citizenry and a sort of "universality plus difference.”

[4] Susan Cain, Bittersweet : How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole (London: Viking, 2022).

[5] Emily Zobel Marshall, Max Farrar, and Guy Farrar, ‘Popular Political Cultures and the Caribbean Carnival’, Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture, no. 67 (Winter 2018): 34–49., p. 34

[6] See reflections on the work of Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bhaktin who theorised ideas of the carnivalesque as discussed in  Andrew Robinson, ‘In Theory Bakhtin: Carnival against Capital, Carnival against Power’, 9 September 2011, https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-bakhtin-2/.

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