Speaking with Luise Guest, Chinese Australian artist Tianli Zu shares her fascination with folklore and the papercut and explains how her multimedia installations of hand-cut Xuan paper represent the reciprocal forces of yin and yang.
TEXT: Luise Guest
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist
At the centre of Chinese Australian artist Tianli Zu’s multidisciplinary practice are her memories of fantastical folk tales told to her by her grandparents during the artist’s childhood years in Beijing. In Zu’s intricate papercut installations, mythical beasts and powerful gods are entwined amongst a wild profusion of foliage, blossoms, clouds, mountains and water. Strategically lit, the cast shadows in her site-specific works serve a role as important as the forms cut from Xuan paper. They create an evocative, mysterious interplay of light and dark—a reference, says the artist, to the push and pull of yin and yang in Daoist cosmology. For the Sydney-based artist, who consults the hexagrams of the Yijing, or Book of Changes, before making important life decisions, the shadow is a metaphor for universal duality, a reminder of the transience of human experience.
Zu’s practice spans painting, sculpture, multimedia installations and video. She has made public sculptures for Sydney’s Lunar New Year celebrations, designed projections for the façade of the National Library, and painted accomplished portraits of iconic local characters for the Archibald Prize.[i] But at the heart of her work are techniques of papercutting and Chinese folklore.
When she was born in Beijing in 1963, Zu’s mother cried—another daughter. From earliest babyhood she was brought up by her grandparents, living always with a sense of being not quite good enough. “This kind of traumatic memory becomes a shadow—it’s always there,” the artist says.[ii] Her grandmother taught her simple paper cutting techniques, and her grandfather taught her calligraphy. Every afternoon he read aloud stories such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a 14th century novel set in the Han dynasty, filled with intrigue, plots and military struggles for power. The novel’s opening lines seem emblematic of Zu’s lifetime of cutting paper, expertly navigating tensions between shape and void, light and dark, shadow and substance: “It is a general truism of this world that anything long divided will surely unite and anything long united will surely divide.” Zu’s childhood has become the source of her art practice today, in the very different culture of 21st century Australia.
With her parents exiled to the countryside and a child’s imperfect understanding of the political traumas and rigid rules of the times, those peaceful afternoons when Zu’s scissors sliced into sheets of paper allowed her imagination to take flight. “[…] just being offered a pair of scissors, it gave me the freedom that anything you can hold on to, you can just add a couple of holes, make it pretty,” she says. “I don’t need too many difficult techniques, I mean, that’s what I learned later on when I went to Shaanxi Province in the 1980s, I learned the technique. But my grandmother kind of opened my horizons. When many people taught me, ‘No, no, no, no’, she said, ‘Here’s a pair of scissors, yes, yes, yes, yes.’”[iii]
During a morning with Zu in her home and studio in Sydney’s leafy north, surrounded by papercuts—she has been working prolifically throughout the pandemic—the artist tells me her daily practice is a cathartic process in this time of global anxiety. During the last 12 months of isolation and fear, worrying about her children who are both in the UK, Zu has been adding colour (auspicious red, applied in multiple layers) to papercuts of fruits and flowers that symbolise abundance and good fortune.
For Eight Treasure Mask (2020)[iv]—now in the collection of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences—Zu combined traditional folding techniques with freehand cutting to create an object that recalled a favourite childhood dish—Eight Treasures Congee. Believed to strengthen the immune system and heal the airways, it is a traditional congee dish containing longan fruit, walnuts, lotus seed, jujube, dried lily bulb, almonds, raisins and chestnuts. In Zu’s artwork, each of the eight layers of rice paper in the mask is hand-cut with one of these ingredients; the outer layer is painted a propitious peony red. Zu shared photographs of the finished mask with her family and friends throughout the pandemic as a symbol of her hopes for them; each thin layer of rice paper represents life’s fragility, yet together they are strong.
In contrast to the intimacy of Eight Treasure Mask (2020), Zu’s site-specific multimedia installations take the papercut beyond its history as a domestic folk art. i dance with you (2018), for example, features pairs of wings from the mythical qilin (a beast composed of a dragon and a phoenix). The wings are adorned with imagery of gods and ghosts, mountains and water, inspired by a famous Han dynasty text, Classic of Mountains and Seas (the Shan Hai Jing). Zu says it “combines papercut with shadow images—an interplay of yin and yang, the light and dark, the organic and technological.” [v] In 2019, for Vivid Sydney—the city’s annual festival of lights, music and ideas—Zu installed giant pairs of wings that appeared to soar effortlessly above a suburban shopping street, lit with flickering, moving lights activated by the movement of people below. An original score by the artist’s composer son enhanced the immersive experience.[vi]
When Zu was a student at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, the curriculum emphasised the cultural significance of traditional crafts, including papercutting, and the students made field trips to remote villages. Her interest deepened during a final-year residency in the countryside. Seated in tiny rural homes she learned from women who knew the traditional methods, listening to stories about the sources of imagery and symbolism. “It’s told through the story, the folklore, it’s lots of things that’s forbidden, and there are lots of things that are so wild,” she says. “That’s what I loved about it, because it’s so close to life.” Zu found it more engaging than her studies of Western art history. “You can actually feel it, you’re next to it; with the western things, it’s wonderful, but we only just got second-hand reproductions.”
Zu’s ability to transform the stories and images from their traditional sources into powerful contemporary works is seen in Shen Long (2019–20), a site-specific installation of cut-outs and animated projections accompanied by music composed by her son. According to folklore, the spiritual dragon Shenlong possesses powerful magic that controls wind, rain and clouds; dragons helped the Emperor to combat disasters such as storms, floods and famine. Zu’s work recreates this mythical beast to draw attention to the climate emergency, an increasingly prevalent theme in her work. Suspended from the ceiling, the dragon is surrounded by papercuts symbolising the movement of the ocean. The work represents connections between the spiritual and physical worlds, the urgency of repairing the damage humans have wrought upon nature.
A deep knowledge of her materials guides Zu’s intuitive process. She explains, “Because when you look at the work, when I make the work, it’s almost like there is a dance, that you go into it, […] if the qi is not right, and you don’t channel it correctly, it won’t stay. So that’s why I never sketch, because how can I sketch? I’m just starting from one point, and one leads to another.” The idea of the artist’s breath, body and mind, their qi, operating in unison references Zu’s understanding of Daoist and Confucian ideas about aesthetics. “I’m taking an equal amount of time just looking at it, to resonate, to channel with the work, to see where it flows. And then of course with years of training I know where it goes. But the whole idea is that it’s about this play, the interplay of the yin and yang. The cut-out parts and the solids are equally important.”
So, I ask, is she making Chinese work or Australian work? She takes a moment to think. “I mean, I think I’m creating Australian stories now, because this is the place I live,” says Zu. “I’m telling the stories, recreating, making Australian art, but of course I can never separate my experiences. So, the narrative is hybrid, it’s inbuilt with a mixture of the things. But what is Australia? Australia is also a hybrid place!” She wonders aloud what it would mean to be identified as either an Australian artist or a Chinese one. Finally, Zu says, “But what mostly interests me is the timelessness. I want to create work that’s beyond time and space, that can be talking to more people.”
[i] The Archibald Prize is an (sometimes contentious) annual portraiture competition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, awarded for portraiture. Tianli Zu painted environmental activist and scientist Tim Flanner for the competition in 2020. https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/prizes/archibald/2020/30257/ [accessed 4.2.21]
[ii] In a previous interview on the occasion of her exhibition at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, published in The Art Life in April 2013 http://theartlife.com.au/2013/tianli-zu-the-power-of-the-shadow/ [accessed 3.2.21]
[iii] Unless otherwise acknowledged, all quotes from the artist are from an interview with the author, recorded in Sydney on 21 January 2021.
[iv] For the artist’s statement about this work see https://tianlizu.com/eight-treasures-mask/ [accessed 4.2.21]
[v] For the artist’s statement about this work see http://tianlizu.com/works/installation/i-dance-with-you/ [accessed 4.2.21]
[vi] Video of I Dance with You may be seen on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/333054123 [accessed 4.2.21]