The Elegant Nature of Fluid States by Dr Rod Pattenden, May 2011

One of the more interesting outcomes of living in a culturally diverse Australia is the emergence of new hybrid forms of expression and ways of seeing. While we might enjoy the expanded range of choices and tastes that come with an increasingly variant culture, what is of more interest is when the new thing appears. This is the potential of a new and hybrid form that represents the best creative mix of present traditions and ideas. Rather than cultural difference only being a source of conflict, the tensions in this case give rise to new solutions that are a resource for a culture undergoing change. The role of artists in this process is crucial, for they contribute to the creative fund of possibilities that gives rise to the hybrid imagination. Artists do not usually offer convergence or a bland sameness, but allow spaces to be held open to create, experiment and play that inventively negotiate social tensions.

The art of Fan Dongwang is located within this difficult territory between cultures. Having undergone a rigorous education in Shanghai, in both Western and Chinese visual traditions, his work has continued to stand at the forefront of artists in Australia dealing with this space of the in-between. He is an artist who has been a key part of the Chinese Diaspora. Many of these artists have already made significant contributions to our changing sense of Australian art and identity. Fan Dongwang is a meticulous technician whose works usually offer an alluring surface filled with complex signs and meanings. These forms derive from Chinese cultural symbols that are undergoing change and transformation; that are shifting off their axis, anxiously facing new potentials 

His work is always beautifully rendered with an exquisite attention to detail within compelling and complex designs. They appear like lacquer surfaces carved miraculously into beautifully sinuous forms. Having mastered this unique and distinctive oeuvre, it is quite a surprise then to greet a body of work that offers a refreshing and newly dynamic visual response. In these recent works the artist turns to the simpler processes of drawing, the often hidden discipline that underlines his evident skill. The colour relationships of these new works pop and fizzle in the eye. They spin within a choreographed space that balances an emphasis between abstraction and decoration. This change of pace across the surface of each work offers gestures that require the eye to leap in and around the active figure of the dragon, so iconically expressive of Chinese culture.

These are skilled and dynamic drawings of great visual presence that gives the work the quality of a skin. The pencil records the gestures that lead the eye through decorative structures, through open abstracted forms and, in turn, catapult colour through space. These drawings invite a more immediate response, offering a playful and intimate approach to familiar themes in his work. It’s as if these new works peel back the technical issues of mark-making and composition and allow the viewer to get a privileged and intimate access to the underlying dynamism of a work still under construction. It is this partial, and at times fragmented, view that gives the work its expressiveness. They pare back the surface like a torn, embroidered fabric to see the threads coming together in the new possibilities of the hybrid. The symbol of this new hybrid subject appearing in this fluid world is the form of the Chinese dragon.

These are not the fearful fire-breathing gothic monsters of the West. The Chinese dragon represents an elemental form of wisdom and natural power. They are hybrid creatures by nature, made from the forms of up to 9 familiar animals. These attributes are then amalgamated into a figure of respect and divine presence. While dragons are often associated with imperial power, they are more correctly embedded in the relationships they have with their habitat of water, whether it is in the rain of the heavens or in rivers, lakes or the ocean. This is the world of the environment for which a largely agricultural society like China needs to pay respect. The dragon rules over the cycles of nature that replenish productive natural life and the order of social existence. But the dragon in these new works is undergoing transformation. It is situated in a state of fluidity rather than occupying a set position in hierarchical space. This clearly reflects the state of China now, as it undergoes rapid change within its own exploding economy and its emergence as a world power.

But the dragon does not simply represent China. The dragons that swirl out of these dynamic drawings emphasise the quality and experience of a fluid and hybrid identity. At home in the water, it is ever changing, able to respond to shifting circumstances and modes of being and representation. It reflects both the dynamism and stress of those caught between cultures and that live in the fluid dance of potential. This is the space under construction that mirrors the experience of life where hybrid identity thrives. While we respond to pressures such as the environmental crisis, or the tensions of racial difference, the dragon appears as a symbol of natural wisdom. Its enigmatic form poses the question of where we might find these hybrid spaces that offer dynamic potential as a cultural resource for change and hope. Things are changing, shifting, transforming and artists like Fan Dongwang, who inhabit these difficult spaces of in-between, offer us an imaginative option for navigating the terrain of ongoing change.

Dr Rod Pattenden is an art historian and curator. He is Chair of the Blake Prize and has written widely on aspects of contemporary Australian art.