Paul Bai

Satelite Space, Brisbane

In design magazines of the last year or so 'Asian' has been hot. It was the primary fashion trend of 1998 and now even the cheaper chain stores offer a range of Asian homewares. Some of these items are Chinese in origin, some Thai, some completely unlocatable––in spirit, closely related to the Chinoiserie of the Nineteenth Century. In this context, an event such as the Asia-Pacific Triennial (APT) can be in real danger of being viewed as a pan-Asian visual supermarket, regardless of intentions.

With this in mind, Paul Bai's show at the new Satellite Space in Fortitude Valley is an entirely appropriate annotation to the spectacle of the concurrent APT. Bai was born and raised in Northern China. His own migration to this country coincided with the pro-democracy events of the late eighties. As a consequence, his art training was in Australia rather than China. The artist's exposure to and combination of traditional Chinese values and Western art theory has led him to analyse the effect of Chinese culture on Australian society and vice versa over the past six years. The series of four ink drawings in the current exhibition, an extension of the concepts in a group of paintings shown recently in Sydney, continues to question the relationship between cultural exchange and cultural tokenism.

Bai previously has referred to the Chinese artistic tradition of stating true meaning obliquely, or as Trinh Minhha has described it, the choice to 'suggest always more than what they represent'.[1] This tradition of classical Chinese culture, born of historical necessity, neatly dovetails with a post-Derridian fascination with the ambiguity of language. In this show the simplified designs, nominally representing a Chinese style roof-line, a window shadow, a rock from the Chinatown Mall and a generic 'Asian' cartoon figure, act as ciphers, and their titles as decoding keys.

Attachment (the Chinese roof) refers to both the physical attachment of cultural markers (you want to change a Pizza Hut into a Chinese Restaurant––just swap the roof) and a psychological attachment to cultural generalisations. Window/Pattern presents a visual pun: if this flat picture plane is a window, are we inside looking out or outside looking in? Both, presumably, because this is a pattern of cultural observance, a view of Chinese culture that we are all, Chinese and non-Chinese, trapped in. All of these graphic works are a kind of visual shorthand in much the same style as public signage. While the elegance of line and sheer tactile pleasure of heavy ink on brown paper speaks to us of the rich tradition of ink drawing it is impossible to ignore the iconic metaphors contained within.

The most direct statement in the show is left for the work, The Anger of the Unidentified Person. Featuring a manga-style cartoon figure with an expression of rage on his face, the work refers to the all too prevalent phenomenon of generalising Asian culture-any Asian culture, whether Khmer, Japanese or Vietnamese, becomes homogenised in a blanket representation. Similarly, this cartoon character of Bai's has no discernible identity, either cultural or individual. His non-determinant nature represents the general unwillingness within Australian society to acknowledge cultural difference or become educated about the specifics of an individual's cultural traditions.

In the enthusiastic nineties rush to embrace hybridity, we may be in danger of losing sight of what is lost in cultural meldings and by whom. Bai's poetic signage warns us to proceed with caution.


[1] Trinh T. Minh-ha, When the Moon Waxes Red, Routledge, New York, 1991. p. 165