mandy ridley

chinatown souvenirs (on not knowing)
Gallery 4A, Sydney; Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery; Institute of Modem Art, Brisbane

Mandy Ridley's recent exhibition, Chinatown souvenirs (on not knowing) shown by the Institute of Modern Art (IMA), was an extension of an ongoing project for the artist. In an inspired move, Ridley chose to hold this Brisbane exhibition at an 'offsite' venue located a short walk from the IMA in Chinatown proper; the space was a vacant shop in an arcade next door to stores selling Chinese silk and cooking ingredients, amongst other things. Showing the work away from the culturally charged context of the IMA proved to be successful on many levels: in terms of the challenge it issued to the gallery goer to wander outside the safety of the white cube, and importantly for the opportunity it allowed Ridley's unique work to more readily and honestly engage at a grass roots level with the aspects of Chinese culture she seeks to investigate. The painting/sculptures that make up Chinatown souvenirs explore familiar territory, insofar as they examine the cliched accidental fascination for the East, the romanticized and theorised exotic 'other', while at the same time extending the dialogue beyond being mere confessions of a Sinophile with a postmodern conscience. lt would be easy to read this work as ironically kitsch, yet this would be to seriously undermine the intent of the artist. As the exhibition title intimates, Ridley sourced the subject matter of these recent works in souvenir stores in Chinatown. The first pieces, which lead to the conception of (on not knowing) as an exhibition, emerged after a visit to Chinatown in Sydney where the artist purchased a tiny pair of children's silk Chinese slippers. The work that grew from this seemingly innocuous purchase stemmed from the artist's desire to address the very origin of the slippers themselves. For a Chinese child these dainty shoes with their tiger embellishments which are added to help cast off bad spirits, form part of everyday life and have an inherent culturally specific heritage.

In contrast, for an adult Western consumer these uncannily small slippers function as objects of desire, covetable items that serve no practical purpose other than to describe a decorative notion of the exotic. Ridley's selection of these consummately crafted wee shoes begs the question, who was the creator, and further to this, what might it mean for the artist to participate as the buyer of these objects, a white western woman in downtown Sydney, Australia, so far removed from the meaning, and the creative act?

With our close proximity to Asia, the politically incorrect exoticism of the Far East has all but dissipated, indeed vanished, and been replaced by cheap holidays to Bali and shopping weekends in Singapore. Our urban metropolises and suburbs alike are filled with sushi restaurants, Chinese markets and supermarkets selling Asian vegetables, in response to popular demand. As a multicultural nation we are constantly attempting to better articulate our relationship to Asia through our political and economic dealings as well as culturally through events such as the Asia-Pacific Triennial, to name but one, with its blockbuster proportions.

lt could be argued that to a contemporary Australian audience, Asia has become curiously familiar, part of the immediate cultural landscape. We recognise a sameness in the face of the very diversity we celebrate. Chinatown souvenirs is successful in large part because it plays on the audience's assumption that what we are seeing we have seen before, that we already know what it is we are looking at. Ridley's sensitive reconstructions are less evidence of a collective mainstream's embrace of a certain kitsch aesthetic of Chinese culture, and more a concerted effort to engage with the original creators of these curios and knick-knacks that we understand to be 'Chinese'. Ridley's strategy is to make large these small objects of her affection. Taking the slippers as a departure point, she cast them into life-size, women's 8-9 size shoes (the artist's size), constructed from painted carpet tile and rendered rendered with painstaking attention to detail with fake fur, ribbons and bells. In Chinatown souvenirs they were accompanied by a beautifully stiff pair of children 's pyjamas, an embroidered floral doily blown out of proportion, and four panels drawn from small paper Chinese horoscopes depicting the rat, tiger, monkey and snake zodiac, all constructed out of painted, carpet tile with ornamentation. The spareness of the exhibition offered the perfect foil to excessive decoration of these trompe-l'oeil objects themselves.

Showing the work in the context of Chinatown challenged our attempts to categorise these treasures as tacky knick-knacks. Hapless souvenir hunters might have found themselves pondering the intrinsic value of these curious curios displayed on plinths, masquerading as museum relics worthy of homage and study. Indeed , Ridley 's choice of these objects specifically, perhaps unwittingly revered the ordinary as extraordinary.

Ridley's meticulously rendered objects, so vastly removed from their original context in this blown up, hyper real state, are an articulation of the artist's own frustration of 'not knowing', a tacit acknowledgement of the inevitability of always misunderstanding. Her careful interpretation invests the original beautifully crafted anonymous objects with a new mythic power. Reworked as paintings in a gallery these humble trinkets become props for a fable to be enacted, the literal embodiment of an ancient story, creating an air of magic realism which is heightened by the catalogue that accompanied the show. 

In a departure from straight art writing, Ridley instead invited five writers-Christine Morrow, Paul Bai, Linda Carroli, Michael Eather and David Broker-to contribute a story, or to tell a tale that related to each of the objects in the exhibition. Christine Morrow's 'Bedtime story' cast Ridley's pyjamas at the centre of a tale which weaves the exotic with the ordinary so charmingly that the viewer is compelled to read the catalogue as though it were a book of short stories, greatly adding to the inherent mystery of these intriguing objects.

Determined to set up a further dialogue with her environs the artist placed an advertisement in the local Chinese newspaper, The Queensland Asian Business Weekly, to encourage regular Chinatown patrons to visit her show. The (on not knowing) of the exhibition title proved difficult to translate accurately, and after much discussion the advertisement ran with a Chinese saying that roughly translates as 'a sea of knowledge so vast that you can't cross to the other side'.

This anecdote brings to mind a childhood memory. I remember travelling to Asia as a young girl, to Hong Kong and China, with my parents who bought me a Happy Coat with the Chinese characters for 'Good Luck' embroidered on the front. I loved that powder blue coat with fierce childhood innocence, wearing it as a badge signifying my status as an international traveller, a worldly person. I can't think where that coat is now, but with hindsight after contemplating Ridley's beautifully realised objects, I ponder how it made its way to me.


Chinatown souvenirs (on not knowing) was made possible by an Arts Queensland Arts and Museum Development grant and was shown in a variety of city and regional venues prior to the IMA. lt will be featured in the 2001/2002 Ontour program presented by the Queensland Arts Council.