Chinese Australian artist Louise Zhang explains the connection between body horror, scholar rocks and Chinese moon gates in her paintings and “blob” sculptures that juxtapose an aesthetic of cuteness and riotous colour with darker imagery alluding to death and decay.
TEXT: Luise Guest
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Artereal Gallery
Multidisciplinary Chinese Australian artist Louise Zhang is known for works that playfully juxtapose disarming cuteness and riotous colour with a subtext of visceral horror. The colour is what you notice first; lolly pink, acidic yellow, lime green and baby blue seem to shimmer on the surface of her paintings—the sugary colours of gelato, fairy floss, and cheap plastic children’s toys. Her “blob” sculptures resemble solidified, fluorescent slime. Zhang says she used to love wandering through K-Mart or Toys”R”Us, delighting in the lurid colours of Troll Dolls and My Little Pony toys, drawn to the child-like innocence of these pleasures. But her saturated palette also recalls artificial food colourings and plastic toxicity. There’s an intentional overload of sweetness, the kind that makes your teeth hurt and gives you a migraine. Zhang says, “It’s so saccharine—it has the power to attract you, and you’re in!” She adds, “Colour has the power to change the narrative. I could draw a severed limb with blood dripping off it, but if I painted it in pink and blue it has a completely different narrative to it.”
Zhang was born in Australia to immigrant parents. As a child, she resented their bi-annual visits to family in southern China, where she felt even more like an outsider than she did at home in Sydney suburbia. She speaks Mandarin, but her proficiency in reading and writing is basic. This experience of being what Zhang calls a “third culture kid”, growing up in a culture and language different to that of her immediate family—and very different to the extended family she visited in China—took a long time to coalesce into pride in her cultural heritage. Zhang is now very specific about her identity as a “Chinese Australian artist” as it encompasses the sense of unease and hybridity that was her constant companion for a long time.
“You don’t feel quite Australian in Australia, and you don’t feel quite Chinese in China—but you are of both. I found this created a third culture which is Chinese/Australian…Diaspora can be quite a large umbrella, and the term ‘third culture kid’ signals a certain western upbringing, but I’m still very attached to my culture, which isn’t western. So, there are a lot of dichotomies there that inform who I am and the work that I make,” says Zhang.
Much of Zhang’s work is a homage to the horror genre that she loves. A recurring reference in her work is to the 1958 Cold War film The Blob, about an amoeba-like life form from outer space that terrorises America. Ascent of the Blob (2016), for example, depicts candy-pink, amorphous, dripping blobs—somewhere between cancerous tumours and liquefying jellyfish—floating in an airy, ambiguous space of purple and green. A black hole in the background evokes a portal to the underworld. It could be a view from a spacecraft entering another universe, or a mutating virus in a laboratory petri dish. The lush colour recalls the imagined landscapes of mid-20th century sci- fi cinema and pulp fiction covers.
Zhang manages this disjunction between attraction and repulsion adroitly; you are seduced by the deliciousness of the colour in her canvases and sculptures before you become aware of their darker undertones. But look a little closer. You might find a severed breast, some bones, internal body parts, a hidden skull, or suggestions of ominous, multiplying cells seen under a microscope. The fluid, writhing line that overlays her imagery seems decorative, perhaps based on floral forms or shan shui landscape references. But no. “It’s guts,” says Zhang, relishing the incongruity.
Recent collaborations with cosmetics company Mecca Cosmetica and ethical fashion enterprise The Social Outfit have brought her work to new audiences. Zhang loves fashion—her parents worked in a textile factory, so she grew up surrounded by fabrics—and is also deeply invested in the idea of taking art out of the often alienating “high art” environment of gallery and museum spaces. She was delighted to discover that people were framing the reproduction of a painting that came with the Mecca packaging she had designed, and posting them on Instagram. Through the collaboration with Mecca, her work was acquired for the collection of Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria. Other recent collaborations and public art projects include a lantern sculpture for Sydney’s 2019 Lunar New Year celebrations—a tower of monkey acrobats installed outside the Sydney Opera House—and designs for the 2020 Lunar New Year Moon Gates featuring motifs for the Year of the Rat in her signature dazzling fluorescents.5
When Zhang was a teenager—an “emo teenager,” she says with a laugh—her devout Christian parents were so worried about her interest in Gothic horror subcultures that they called in a pastor from their church to counsel her. Growing up at a time when fiction aimed at teenage girls was filled with stories of romantic vampires, her interest was far from unusual—but it was not what was expected from good Chinese girls in the suburbs. The intervention didn’t work, Zhang tells me: “It made me want to dig deeper into horror, but I also still had the love of childish things. Horror encompasses anxiety and fear, but in a safe way. It’s kind of cathartic. That ignited my interest in the attractive and repulsive.”
Zhang’s interest in the supernatural continued throughout her studies at the University of New South Wales Art & Design (at that time known as College of Fine Arts, or COFA), morphing into more sophisticated tropes of body horror and the grotesque, juxtaposed with a formalist language of abstraction. But throughout that time, she was still in a state of denial about her Chinese identity. In high school, like many other children of immigrant parents, she had desperately wanted to be like everyone else.
“I grew up very much ashamed. It took me a while to be able to use that word, but I was ashamed … I tried really, really hard to be what I thought of as Australian – which was white Australian – just to really fit in. I thought if I could remove myself from my culture, then I could be Australian,” says Zhang.
During residencies in Beijing and Chongqing in 2016, Zhang’s Chinese heritage began to enrich her work in unexpected ways. In Beijing, so different from the southern Chinese city of Wenzhou where her relatives live, Zhang was excited by the preservation—and gaudy replication—of ancient buildings, temples and monuments, and by the artificially constructed world of Chinese gardens. In particular, she became fascinated by the tradition of gongshi, “scholar’s rocks”. Their weathered, often fantastical forms symbolised the transformational processes of nature, echoing Daoist philosophy, and evoking the mountainous landscapes inhabited by the Immortals. Zhang says, “The first thing I thought of when I saw the scholar’s rocks was their likeness to a mutating body and my interest in body horror, and I wanted to find a connection there.”
Before leaving Sydney for residencies in Beijing and Chongqing, Zhang had become interested in nianhua, the brightly coloured New Year paintings that often depict chubby babies surrounded by symbols of good fortune such as peach blossom, lotus flowers or peonies. In Beijing she explored ways to combine this imagery with architectural motifs and the shapes of scholar rocks. Later, in Chongqing, she developed connections between her previous interest in blob-like forms inspired by horror movies with the twisted forms of scholar’s rocks, merging her longstanding interest in body horror with her new awareness of her relationship to Chinese culture and history. “I’m using these pop colours to talk about something Chinese. But I’m not using calligraphy, I’m not using ink. But I think it encompasses a lot of ‘now’, of the third culture kids,” she explains.
Zhang was especially keen to visit Fengdu (Ghost City), a complex of shrines and temples outside Chongqing dedicated to the afterlife. It was designed as a model of Youdu, the capital of Diyu, the Chinese version of hell—a mashup of Daoist, Buddhist and Confucian beliefs. She was interested in the difference between this concept of hell and the Christian beliefs that had dominated her early life. The sculptural relief work We’re All Gonna Burn in Hell for a Little Bit (2016) represents her struggle to reconcile these apparently opposing belief systems. With its candy-coloured palette, the shapes of holy mountains or scholar rocks, and other motifs inspired by Buddhist iconography, the work seems incongruously peaceful. Even the pink flames are gentle.
Zhang explains, “In Chinese hell, everyone goes through it. So, you could have a sweet little stroll through hell and go, ‘Cool, see you in heaven’ or you could have to stay there for 60 years…whereas in Anglican hell, if you turn away from God, if you sin, you are going to hell and that’s it. That’s what I grew up with, that’s what I believed for a really long time, but I thought, well, my culture says otherwise. This gave me lots of comfort.”
To Reach a Point of Meditation (2020) and The Pure Land (2018)—a reference to the heaven of Amitabha Buddhism—reveal the continuing significance of religion in Zhang’s work. From a childhood immersed in Christian theology she now explores imagery associated with Buddhist and Daoist belief systems. It’s been difficult to find the courage to travel this path, and Zhang is anxious not to hurt the family she loves deeply. “Family is everything,” she says. “I want to live in a way that honours them.” Gradually, though, she has been incorporating elements of this Chinese spiritual tradition into her vocabulary of luminous colour and biomorphic floating forms.
Zhang’s recent works include motifs recalling heavenly clouds in Buddhist frescoes, and hidden landscape references that hint at Chinese painting traditions. Circular canvases represent the moon gates and windows that frame vistas in a Chinese garden. “I’ve always loved the idea of cropping the landscape, but also the idea of being transported to another place,” Zhang told me. “The moon gate as a portal is so cool, it’s kind of sci-fi.” Navigating her persistent sense of otherness, bridging two worlds and two spiritual traditions, Zhang has developed her own “floating world” of hybrid imagery and glorious colour.
 All quotes from Louise Zhang are excerpted from an interview with the artist that took place in her Sydney studio on 6 April 2021. They have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.