Owen Leong’s solo exhibition Birthmark recently opened at Anna Pappas Gallery in Prahran, Melbourne. In Birthmark, twelve half-human, half-creature photographic portraits are displayed along the walls of the gallery. Their gazes resist an easy reading, their commonality their shared Asian-Australian identities and the Australian native moths that mark their faces. Whether the moths are masks or part of the skin is a concept that Leong plays with. Situated on a separate wall is a portrait of Tom Cho; unlike his moth-marked companions, he has a nasty cut across his cheekbone with pink liquid oozing upwards into his sideburn. Cho’s image is the cover of his book, Look Who’s Morphing.
Leong’s website posits his interest in “exploring liminality, abjection and transformation”. This is evident in Birthmark as well as the body of his artwork. In the video piece Autoevacuation, sugar antlers evolve from Leong’s head, the aftermath of a horrible fight. In Internal Contradiction, honey oozes from Leong’s body, framed by a cloud of milky whiteness. Leong’s artwork can traverse a fictional other-world reality, while poignantly commenting on social and political everyday contexts. Working across photography, video, sculpture and installation, Leong’s artworks interrogate the intersections of race, gender and sexuality.
With exhibitions held nationally and internationally, Leong is an accomplished artist who is also a recipient of numerous awards and grants. His latest art residency was at Tokyo Wonder Site, Japan in 2009.
Owen Leong is also Peril’s Visual Arts Editor.
Race, gender and sexuality are important concepts in your work. Can you talk about how these concepts inform your art practice?
As a queer person of colour, I am fascinated by how others construct their identities and how it manifests in other people’s bodies. I have a sense of how it manifests in my life and I am interested in exploring that in my work, but I suppose I am fascinated by how other people do that – perform their gender and their race and whether its important to them or not. Gender and sexuality were my first strong interests before realising as each work shed a skin, there were other things that were present in each work. My fascination was with human bodies and peeling away the surface, or puncturing the surface to find out what’s inside.
Over different series of artworks (for example Internal Contradiction, White Noise, Milk Ring and Autoevacuation) you use materials such as milk, honey and prosthetic wounds evocatively in conjunction with the performing body – can you talk about the ideas behind their use?
I suppose it’s a combination of things; there’s poetry in substances like honey and milk, the way that they flow. The texture, the consistency, in particular for me it’s about colour. I’ve always liked the idea that we ingest these things like milk and honey and for me they are indicators, or symbols – milk as whiteness and honey as ‘yellowness’. I’m referring to the “Yellow Peril” or skin colour in the derogatory sense. Using those liquids in correlation to emotions inside someone…emotions constantly in flux, constantly changing and flowing. So as a double metaphor, the liquids might be a symbol of some sort of emotion that lives inside us and the duality of these things inside us – white and yellow – and by puncturing or scratching the surface of the body, these things might flow out of your body and come back inside. Maybe they have a will of their own, you know. A lot of those works are about trying to evacuate the body of these things but also this sensation that there’s this inexorable return of these forces back inside. We are surrounded by these things in a social context, a political context, and so our bodies within society are subject to these forces that flow not only around us, but also that might be absorbed into us, regurgitated out of us, expelled and then reabsorbed whether willingly or unwillingly. So my fascination with these liquids is an attempt to make visible these things which sometimes we maybe conscious of, or sometimes we might not be conscious of.
Can you elaborate on your use of prosthetic wounds?
Everyone has to grapple with a sense of their own body, the limits of their body and the boundaries of their body. Using prosthetic wounds is bringing attention to the surface of the skin, enacting a change. A wound is like a site of disruption, the surface is broken, it’s disrupted. The sense of completeness is broken, but a wound is in a space that’s in between. I love this space that’s in between for bodies. A wound is in the process of healing, but it’s also not quite there. That moment is an in between moment and I’m fascinated by what happens in that space in-between.
Why have you chosen self-portraiture in your early work and why have you moved away from this in your current work?
I have always been fascinated by artists that use their own bodies. I’ve always wanted to use my own body, I still do. And I guess as a tool, it’s the most familiar thing that you have to engage with in the world. You live in your body. A body is lived. It changes and it grows. It is hurt and then it heals. It is constantly changing and there’s something fascinating about investigating that in your work. So I started with self-portraiture in photography and video as a means to examine the ways you could push your body and fictional situations that you could place your body into. Rituals of cleansing or trance-like states of purification or transformation in particular. It’s a funny space to push yourself into. It’s not normally a public thing, it’s a private thing in front of a video camera; or for a photoshoot, a still camera. You try and take yourself to a space in your head and you hope it shows.
For the series Birthmark I wanted to expand the range of bodies that I could try and talk about so I felt it was time to diversify and to bring in a range of different bodies beyond my own that would all have conversations with each other. The beauty of each body, the differences, the unique individuality of each body works really well with some of the themes and concepts in Birthmark. In particular the idea of homogeneity, the blackening of the eyes, these group of bodies now become half-human, half-animal or somewhere in between. They are all marked as bodies but they all have their own individuality at the same time. So I thought it was time to move from a single body – my own – and the limits of what that might present, to beyond. Not that I won’t ever go back to that. I am still fascinated by how my body ages and how I might investigate new things with my own body.
Can you talk about your current work and the ideas behind it?
Before we spoke about liquids and emotions, social forces and political forces that might move through our bodies. I’m still fascinated by this idea but I suppose in Birthmark there’s not necessarily any liquids that are apparent, it’s more these mask-like things which materialise on the surface of the skin. I’m fascinated by the idea of home, the sense of home, the sense of belonging and how a land like Australia might leave an imprint on a body. I was fascinated by the idea of something that is endemic to Australia as a place, and so this mysterious moth, these beautiful native Australian moths I wanted to turn into a tattoo. In the end it was a fascination with tattoos and marking faces, something very prominent that you can’t deny, this force which manifests on the surface of the skin.
And the face is a really powerful thing, it’s like a portal into a body. When you look at someone you look at their eyes, everything about their face communicates something to you and you read someone’s identity through a face, among many other things, skin colour, body shape, gender, things like that. In particular the face is a portal into someone else’s soul.
Moths themselves are also creatures that undergo transformation, migration, night time journeys. I’m fascinated by darkness, the sense of hidden happenings at night time.
Are they all Bogong moths?
They are not all Bogong moths – that was something written in the essay – which was commissioned for Birthmark – a fantastic essay, but I guess the conceit of that piece was an anecdote of the migratory Bogong moth as a pest at Parliament house, and only one reading of a Bogong moth because I’m sure it has a special place in the ecology of Australia. They are not all Bogong moths, but they are all native Australian moths. I was amazed by the diversity of colours. I spent two or three days at Museum Victoria accessing the entomology department, assisted by the scientists to help look at the the moth collection. They were very generous in allowing me to photograph and document them with my camera.
There are some recurrent symbols and themes in your artwork – for example the milk and honey and the black eyes. Can you talk about the eyes?
Something important for me in the eyes is that they defy the gaze of the person looking at you. They touch upon an essence of monstrosity. Early on there were themes of something monstrous within that might come to the surface, but gradually over time my understanding of that shifted, my position shifts, but still I am compelled to have the black eyes. I realise now, it’s defiance and it resists someone on the outside looking inwards at the body and reading the body. They resist a reading because the emotion is somehow masked and unintelligible to someone who is not in the know, to someone who is not in that speaking – or seeing – position.
How do you think your work has developed since your first exhibition?
It’s gone in leaps and bounds, I suppose. It’s funny, the works have a life of their own. They come and announce themselves when they are ready to manifest. I think I’m a lot more confident, especially with this most recent show Birthmark.
Your capacity to make work when you’re younger, depending on the person, takes a lot of effort to make a handful of pieces or to create an output. But as you get older your understanding of the capacity to create work increases and so your adventurousness increases, your ability to incorporate more people, more resources, and the ideas; it’s interesting to watch them grow.
What are some of the images or concepts that you wish to explore in your future work?
I feel in this series I focused a lot on the surface of the skin, I’m always going to be fascinated by that, but I think I will return to liquids. There is something very powerful about liquids. The way they flow and can reach dark places that nothing else can reach. The force of a liquid can flow around, within, deep underground, erupt, evaporate and then re-condense into a liquid. So its transformative capacity and potential is quite symbolically powerful, so I think I would like to explore more things like that in tandem to the body. I don’t think I could ever leave the body behind. It’s like an anchor to experience and understanding in our world, for me anyway. Something about the gravity of the body and its place in the world. I love the contradiction of a liquid like air or a fluid that flows around it and within. And all the things that this might conjure up or mean metaphorically.
I also love animals. There is something quite powerful about animals. Throughout history they symbolise things – almost like spirits. The visitations of spirit animals can mean many things as well. So I’m fascinated by that sort of thing. I already have a series that I shot in Tokyo last year on an Asialink visual arts residency which touches on some of these things. That will be coming soon, maybe 2011.
Visit Owen Leong at www.owenleong.com