Reviews/Visual Art

A series of uncomfortable events

31 August 2022

‘A Gentle Misinterpretation’ interrogates the problematic history of chinoiserie but Belinda Hermawan still feels uneasy.

“A Gentle Misinterpretation: Australian Artists and Chinoiserie”, Various artists from Australia* and artisans from Jingdezhen, China, and residents of Brighton, UK, curated by Andrew Nicholls ·
Fremantle Arts Centre ·

In “A Gentle Misinterpretation”, curator Andrew Nicholls bravely takes us on an uncomfortable journey back to eighteenth-century Britain.

On display at Fremantle Arts Centre this unique exhibition delves into the problematic history and artistic stylings of chinoiserie, an aesthetic characterised by the imitation of Asian motifs and techniques in Western homewares and architecture, through the works of Australian artists – some of whom have Asian heritage.

Popularised amongst the European aristocracy by George IV, chinoiserie was anything but gentle in its appropriation of Asian iconography. During this period, British companies profited exponentially by mass producing porcelain crockery fashioned with Chinese-inspired willow patterns.

A dinnerplate featuring an image of a Chinese man, dressed in traditional attire, with a Western haircur. The border is trimmed with a willow-ware pattern.
A guilty pleasure: Andrew Nicholls, ‘Gentle Misinterpretation: Japanese Man with Western Haircut’, 2014, Willow-pattern dinnerware with decal, 14 x 14 x 2 cm

It follows that the ceramic works in the exhibition are a highlight, playing on our familiarity with such cobalt motifs. I couldn’t help but marvel at the breathtaking detail of Andrew Nicholls’ Gentle Misinterpretations (2014) dinnerware, despite the imagery featuring both Western portrayals of Qing Dynasty torture and Asian depictions of British atrocities committed during the opium wars, scenes which have been delicately gilded with gold lustre decals. In this sense, the pieces truly embody the concept of a guilty pleasure.

With a topic as fraught as this one, it’s fitting that there’s an interesting tension that arises between works of different media and tone.

For example, Tanija and Graham Carr’s Chinoiserie Group (2016-2022), a series of 17 carefully crafted ornamental objects, is stoic yet beguiling in its stained leather finish, intended to imitate sharkskin. On the other hand, Susan Flavell’s papier-mache sculptures, such as the comically large Stone Water Spout – Teapot (2022), embrace bright blues, irregular patterns and broken fragments in a way that playfully emphasises the garishness of chinoiserie’s decorative elements. The contrast is as jarring as the experience of finding beauty in exploitative acts of mimicry.

Stoic yet beguiling: Tanija and Graham Carr, ‘Chinoiserie Group’, 2017-2022, leather, stained finish, 170 x 60 x 70cm. Photography by Victor France. Photo: courtesy the artists

Arguably, the artworks most successful in evoking the European aristocracy’s indulgent fascination with chinoiserie are those utilising audio-visual elements to recreate its lavishness. The video Gulchenrouz (2015-2022), produced by Andrew Nicholls with HIP Company, features an actor playing George IV and includes footage shot in the luxurious Music Room at Brighton Pavilion, where the monarch had unashamedly embraced the aesthetic in designing and furnishing the space.

Similarly, The Royal Pavilion, Carousel (2015-2022) is a set of photographic prints on sheer fabric onto which footage of artist David Charles Collins horseback riding into the once-designated palace is projected. The visual effect is mesmerising, like an intricate tapestry come to life.

An installation view of A Gentle Misinterpretation: the room is lit with cyan blue and we can see Chinoiserie-style sculptures and homewares on display.
‘A Gentle Misinterpretation: Australian Artists and Chinoiserie’ installation view featuring artists Andrew Nicholls, Tanija and Graham Carr, Susan Flavell and Nathan Beard. Photo: supplied

Although it is apparent that much consideration has gone into providing detailed historical context, with the exhibition split into clear thematic focal points for the audience, in my opinion some of the works lack the complexity needed to be relevant inclusions; either too kitsch or too rudimentary to meaningfully interrogate the extravagance and violence of the cultural theft in question. Since staging this exhibition in itself could be said to be an indulgence, there is an even greater need to ensure ideas are fully realised and executed.

Given the spotlight on cultural erasure, I also felt a searing discomfort where the success of certain artworks arguably hinges on the contributions of commissioned Chinese artisans – for example, the mountain panoramas hand-painted by Yu Xuan in Nathan Beard’s James Henry Green Home Collection (i-iii) (2016-2022) or the flowers and insects sculpted by Jin Jianhua for Andrew Nicholls’ Celadon Infestation #2 and #3 (2018-2022). It is the commissioning artists who own the work and have their names in bold on the plaques and listed in full on marketing copy.

Overall, this educative exhibition not only affords us the glitz of chinoiserie but also shines a light into the dark recesses of British colonialism. If you can bear the unease, these fragments of china and history may be worth piecing together.

A Gentle Misinterpretation is exhibiting at Fremantle Arts Centre until 23 October 2022.

* Artists: Abdul Abdullah, Casey Ayres, Nathan Beard, Sandra Black, Tanija and Graham Carr, David Charles Collins, Theo Costantino, Susan Flavell, Tarryn Gill, Pilar Mata Dupont, Cherish Marrington, Andrew Nicholls

Pictured top: Andrew Nicholls and Jingdezhen artisans, ‘Untitled (Cobalt Skull #1)’, hand-painted cobalt on porcelain, dimensions variable. Cobalt painting by Yu Xuan, 2016. Photo: Bewley Shaylor

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Author —
Belinda Hermawan

Belinda Hermawan is a graduate of UWA Law School (2009) and a fiction writer whose short fiction has been published in Australia and the United States. She is a summer school alum of Parsons, The New School of Design in New York. Favourite piece of playground equipment: playground car on springs!

Past Articles

  • A blaze of glorious people

    Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery blazes a trail with an exhibition of remarkable portraits, writes Belinda Hermawan

  • Bold and striking art from Hatchlings

    From weaponised jewellery to hand-blown glass breaths, cosplay to vibrant projections, top graduates from our nation’s arts schools have created works that are variously immersive, disruptive and discomforting, writes Belinda Hermawan.

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