Smell the roses, get your bearings.
Who, what and where am I?
Who, what and where are we?
Contemporary art holds a mirror up to the prevailing preoccupations of its time, reflecting its zeitgeist. But how true is that mirror? What does it filter? And what is the value of that truth?
The mirror may appear to reflect the world on a macrocosmic level, yet the way it filters through the microcosmic realities of its creator—contextualised in a myriad of ways—makes it one more suitable, perhaps, to a fairground funhouse. A slippery reflection, its shifting perspectives also depend on where and how the art is seen, and who witnesses it. This warping of the mirror’s reflection, this contextualisation that emerges from an analysis of the gaze—often in tandem with the artist’s intention—has long been a topic of theoretical discussion, but it seems that now, more than ever, the existence of the infinite, conflicting perspectives of humanity is one that can no longer be ignored if it is to survive. We are, somehow, lost without a map to guide us through this new territory we find ourselves in.
Contemporary art in this post-Covid world seems increasingly to explore this blurring of boundaries, this coexisting multitude of conflicting realities, and often demonstrates an almost weary acceptance that there is no singular truth or perspective; there is no obvious solution, even if art can emerge from seeking one. This may at once be a liberating surrender as well as an anxiety-inducing quandary. Either way, it no longer tries to make singular sense of an increasingly senseless world. It can certainly no longer rely upon the Eurocentric cultural hegemony, although much of it quite rightly addresses the aftermath; it can no longer present the world as binary, and now there is no going back. But how, as a young contemporary artist creating work today, especially in this nation that is both ancient and new, diverse yet still dominated by a Eurocentric hegemony that drowns out the voices of its traditional owners, move forwards without a map? How can one’s life—whether in Australia or elsewhere, be made sense of in a way that presents both the macrocosmic and microcosmic experience of being alive, regardless of who, what and where one is?
Jazmine Deng’s video collage Jiu Tong Deng, is named for her ‘true’ father, as opposed to the ‘Father’ —as is pointed out later in her work—who is to be obeyed and intimately known through Christian prayer. One of many rich nuggets and treasures of contrast and tension buried in the work for the gazer to find, Deng’s father’s name is written in a way that adheres to the Eurocentric ordering of first and family names. Deng’s work is also inspired in part by the early 20th century French philosopher and Marxist intellectual Henri Lefebre (1901–1991) expanding upon his examination of the transformative potential of new social spaces created through a gathering of everyday experience of historic materialism; an archive of sorts. Deng’s interweaving of multiple layers of video footage and sound —the video-recorded ‘found’ materials of Deng’s own life, a 21stcentury version of the found, everyday objects of the Surrealists—creates a visual palimpsest, a richly layered space that holds conflicting perspectives in a way that is in turn playful and funny, melancholic and anxious, peaceful and frenzied, resigned and bewildered. There are soft, slow, dreamlike moments that send the gazer up to the clouds as if they were some kind of godlike observer; others invite the gazer into the intimate spaces of Deng’s home and family, with close observations of meals eaten, of after-school piano practice, of post-restaurant-meal conversations between Deng’s father, his father in law and his friend, of living-room karaoke sessions where he sings nostalgic, romantic love songs made famous by Taiwanese balladeers.
The overarching rhythm and pace of Jiu Tong Deng, together with the ebb and flow of contrasting images, sounds and on-screen text, feels like an accurate reflection of the mind’s enquiry as it moves from the macrocosmic realm to the microcosmic. Yes, Deng is a young contemporary Australian artist of Asian heritage, but her work has the broader mission of self-examination and self-demystification within the context of the wider world, where such denominators seem secondary to the concept of a greater, universally connected humanity.
Lefebre moved in the same circles as the Surrealists, each in their own way focused on the mundane, yet transformative spaces of everyday life where people orbit in and out of the intimate realms of family, circles of friends, workplaces, schools, universities, and local communities. At the same time, these intimate orbits were, and still are, beholden – certainly across much of the world—to the capitalist machinations of unseen powers. Like Lefebre, Deng explores the tension between power and powerlessness, of illusion and reality, of the mundane and the thrilling through the ebb and flow of her video footage, reflecting the different rhythms of what it is to be alive, with all its mundane moments of boredom, its bewildering brevity and its absurdities that play out against the eternal push and pull of the waves over the deep collective unconsciousness of the ocean.
Lefebre held that true revolution could only take place through the inherent conflicts and tensions within the transformative spaces of everyday life. Some scholars have drawn upon Lefebre’s work to examine the way technology, and particularly web-based technology, has become the new coloniser of everyday lives. Jiu Tong Deng is saturated with its ubiquitous presence; typefaces echo early gaming and screen technology with multi-coloured, multi-fonted words and sentences that bounce back and forth across the screen, the word image scudding, broken and warped with its garishly diverse fonts and colours across the screen, as does the nostalgic acronym DVD.
It is the in-between spaces of this tension, between potential revolution and a kind of weary resignation where a liminal threshold might be found, where transformation on a microcosmic level—for Deng, as creator, and the macrocosmic—for the viewer, as a representative of the wider humanity—has the potential take place. A precursor, perhaps, for a much-needed revolution and a signaling post that suggests that, while you may not know your precise destination or where exactly you are currently located, this questioning, this gathering of everyday experiences, might at least point to the first step on a path of some kind.
Things cannot be forced, Jiu Tong Deng seems to signal. Let us just sit and surrender, as a Buddhist or Daoist meditator might, and let life flow past and around us in all its mundane glory, its unsettling conflicts and dissonances. By letting go of any expected outcome or solution, we may yet find the path ahead unfold.