Liyen Chong, Houston, Texas
I learnt a while ago that, at any one time, as many as one in five New Zealanders are overseas – that’s one million of us trying to navigate work and life while holding familial and cultural bonds to this island nation. I’ve been living here in Houston, Texas for the last six months; it will be home for the foreseeable future and, almost inadvertently, I’ve joined the ranks of New Zealand artists who, after establishing themselves in their home country, have moved overseas, if only for a time.
Since 2012 less than half my time has been spent living in New Zealand. The rest has been taken up by residencies in South Korea and Indonesia, combined with travel in Asia, then onwards to Europe and now the United States. Whether encountering a Félix González-Torres in a subway station in Seoul, unpacking the complex politics behind the contemporary art being produced in Indonesia, or stumbling across a Michael Stevenson in an ethnological museum in the suburbs of Berlin, I realise I’m constantly trying to contextualise art from a New Zealand point of view.
Back when I was a painting student at Ilam, I recall hearing the late Ted Bracey, then head of the art school, mention there was a particularity of being taught art through reproductions in New Zealand. Indeed, the concepts I held in my mind of seminal artworks made elsewhere were so strong that even when I stood squarely in front of a Turner painting at the National Gallery in London years later, it was impossible for me to really be present with the work.
Since being overseas, I’ve been increasingly aware of my own reaction to the physical experience of colour. Whether it’s the intensity of a pure pigment sculpture by Yves Klein at the Menil Collection, or the ephemerality of atmospheric light in James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany at Rice University (both easily accessible to the public here in Houston), I have been amazed at how little I have understood in the past of how colour, a key component in art, impacts us. In downtown Houston just the other day, I drove past what appeared to be a mass of bright red, blue and white flags held by a small group of demonstrators. What at first seemed to me to be a celebration of some sort, turned into a proclamation denying the legitimacy of grievances that the Black Lives Matter movement has sought to address. The bright colours that had caught my attention adorned Confederate flags, a symbol to many of slavery and white supremacy. In a flash, my emotions ran the gamut from curiosity into anger and then fear for my differently coloured body.
Perhaps it’s the strong UV light in New Zealand that washes and wears colours out, or the persistent trendiness of a palette of muted greys and blacks in New Zealand fashion, but I hadn’t reflected much on the importance of colour before. Or maybe I just needed to be challenged to experience life as an outsider to re-focus and explore what it is in art that is most important to me.