Interview with Nikki Lam. Falling Leaf Returns to its Roots / 落葉歸根


Falling Leaf Returns to its Roots / 落葉歸根

On the glimpse of this land they seek,
its purpose, its stories,
its authenticity.
The past is corroding; the future is unknown.
The present lingers
questions of belong.

Here they found
Spirits running through rivers and sounds
Into the currents,
where none stayed calm.
The land of luck
does not have a name
Be anonymous they can
in this imaginary land.

– Nikki Lam

Nikki Lam is a young and emerging Melbourne-based artist, curator and self-described “curious other”.  Working across photomedia, video and installation, her practice deftly negotiates the unstable terrain of identity, migration, and belonging. Her performance video Falling Leaf Returns to its Roots (2013) is a response to Max Dupain’s silver gelatin photograph Sunbaker (1937). One of the most iconic photographs of the body in sport and nature, Dupain’s Sunbaker is loaded with the symbolism of an archetypal (read: White + male) Australian identity.

In counterpoint to the monumentality of Dupain’s still image, Lam has created a quietly subversive moving image work which, with tongue-in-cheek, points to the tenuous and absurdist nature of a singular nationalistic identity. While Lam’s video reflects that single still image in the past, it also ricochets into the present and future, frame-by-frame, to highlight the ongoing, contested and shifting nature of plural Australian identities, and to create a complex and nuanced post-colonial reading of history, gender, and race. Peril spoke with Nikki recently to discuss her work, being an outsider, feminism and Australian identity.

PERIL: What motivated you to create ‘Falling Leaf Returns to its Roots’ (2013) in response to Max Dupain’s ‘Sunbaker’ (1937)?

NIKKI: The concept of Australian identities fascinates as much as it troubles me. Being an outsider, or the Other, has always been a bit of an unsettling position to be in. But I found it really interesting, that through chats with most 20-something Australians, whenever the topic of identity came up, nobody could quite pin-point what the ‘Australian way of life’ really was. Its troubling colonial past, the genocide, White Australia Policy, refugee problems and the list goes on — together paint a not-so-appealing picture of what it means to be Australian. Long story short, after a few years of exploring several aspects of the underlying emotions and objectives of being an outsider, I decided to create something with direct references to Australia.

I wonder what makes us who we are. With digital technologies I suppose we live in an age that allows us to curate the way we want to be seen. As our identities are increasingly complex and mobile (or even ubiquitous if you think about virtual identity), it is also important for us to trace back to our origin, our roots. To make our locationless identities grounded, to some extent.

By comparing myself to an iconic Australian image, I am claiming that the idea of citizenship or belonging – realised through acceptance – can also take a fluid, progressive, unexpected turn and foster something completely different, something hybrid and continuous.

I suppose I am the falling leaf.

PERIL: Identity and belonging are key themes in your work. How do you explore these ideas in your art practice?

NIKKI: I have been exploring these ideas in the past four to five years. But it still feels like there’s so much about identity, belonging and place that remains foreign to me. Probably because the concept of identity keeps transforming. I have explored a few dimensions of this theme — language, the idea of home, nostalgia, sense of place and more recently the relationship between the self and space. I do believe that the complexity of identity politics today is best explored or challenged through art: writing, visual arts, performance — so that these issues can be explored or experienced via artists’ personal perspectives. Understanding visual art’s limitations, I also explore these themes in my other projects. Apart from making art, I am also writing a master thesis on contemporary art and Australian identities, as well as curating a hybrid online project called The Curious Other. It is amazing how much these other art-related activities inform my research, which is constantly evolving.

Image: Nikki Lam. 'Two-Minute Affair(s)', 2011-present, Multi-channel video installation.
Image: Nikki Lam. ‘Two-Minute Affair(s)’, 2011-present, Multi-channel video installation.

PERIL: In what way does this work speak about Asian identities within contemporary Australian culture?

NIKKI: On the surface it seems to be a statement to the Australia-Asia relationship, whether that be political or cultural. And it is. But for me personally that is only the premise of this work, the contemporary condition so to speak. That relationship is the tree, the framework, and I’m the leaf, the one who is moving, falling, returning and back again. It is that circulation of mobilisation that enables me to be in between the two poles of cultural expectations.

Bringing it back to contemporary Australian culture, at the moment there is much hype around the Asian Century. But we often look past the rooted Asian culture in Australia. We blend in. We have been blending in since the gold rush. I’m interested in exploring how we continuously transform and mobilise our knowledge, tradition and philosophy to further inform or construct the Asian-Australian identity.

PERIL: In your performance video, a female body occupies and disrupts the position of the male body. Can you discuss the importance of gender in this work?

NIKKI: Australian photomedia artist Anne Zahalka in 1989 re-created Max Dupain’s image in Sunbather #2, with a red-haired, presumably Australian, woman. I think given contemporary art is always responsive towards culture, 24 years ago the artist felt the need to challenge the iconic image with a female image. For me personally I didn’t think about gender in this context too much until the day of filming. I was at the beach in my bathers with my photographer on a weekday. It was quiet but there were a few families around. During filming a group of kids walked past and a young girl, I guessed who would be about 10 years old, sarcastically said to her mother, “A beach babe! Are you serious?’ That was probably when I realised that, sadly, in our society gender stereotype is still very much an issue. But I mean, I should have known, right? (Thinking about our last PM)

I was using my own identity (and my gender, my body to an extent) to explore the Australian image and I suppose the subtext was that it really didn’t matter who I was — gender or race — if identity was about the becoming and not the being. Therefore to answer your question, ‘gender’ somehow, unintentionally became a huge part of this work. It is important particularly because I am a woman. I am a feminist, but I am not a ‘Feminist‘.

PERIL: You have chosen to respond to the original still image (a silver gelatin photograph) by creating a moving image (HD video). Can you speak a bit about the importance of this decision conceptually?

NIKKI: I do believe that identity, by nature, can never be stagnant. It keeps evolving. Therefore an identity really should be continuous, multi-directional and constantly in flux. It is not so much about ‘being’ someone/something but more about the process of becoming. That idea plays a huge part in my decision of using video. The way that the shadow shifted in the video and my movement is essential in exploring the iconic Australian image in a fluid form, a form that liquidises that moment when we identified ourselves (or not) looking at Dupain’s original. As the still video lingers, you start to expect something to change. But it doesn’t. Or does it? That anticipation is not only a reaction to the increasingly common digital format (video), but to the meaning of the image itself. Video is only an extension of a still image. When it loops you notice the subtle changes – that it was never the same image – which is when the narrative of an identity completes a full cycle. Falling leaf returning to its roots. The ecology of life.

PERIL: What are you working on in the future?

NIKKI: I am currently working on a couple of ideas in relation to the duality of self — another dimension on the theme of identity. Looking into making projections and sculptures. I am also in the process of preparing the second chapter for The Curious Other, focusing on narratives and space in relation to the sense of belonging.

I am also preparing for SafARI in March 2014 where Falling Leaf Returns to Its Roots will be shown. SafARI is the unofficial fringe event for the Biennale of Sydney and it focuses on unrepresented artists in Australia. It’s my first time to be included in such an amazing show and I’m very honoured to be working with the talented team at SafARI.

Owen Leong

Author: Owen Leong

Owen Leong, Peril Visual Arts Editor, is a contemporary artist and curator. He is currently undertaking his PhD at Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney. Owen uses the human body as a medium to interrogate social, cultural and political forces. He has exhibited widely in Australia and internationally including Chicago, Beijing, Berlin, Hong Kong, London, Shanghai and Singapore. Owen has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants from the Australia Council for the Arts, Ian Potter Cultural Trust, Art Gallery of NSW and Asialink. He has held residencies at Artspace, Sydney; Chinese Arts Centre, Manchester; Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris; and Tokyo Wonder Site, Japan. Leong’s work is held in the Bendigo Art Gallery collection and private collections across Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. Visit him at