Yuk King Tan

Australia, b.1971

Untitled (Red Masks)

  • Purchased, 1999
  • Mixed media - red cotton tassels over plastic masks
  • 2455 x 165 x 80mm
  • 99/63.a-b
  • 1999

One of the most critical ways we understand our personal identities is through drawing connections to other people and places. Yuk King Tan began to explore her Chinese heritage while still at art school in Auckland, initially wrapping everyday objects in red tassels, or dipping them in red wax. The masks followed soon afterwards.

The characteristic red of Tan’s works is a powerful colour for Chinese people, symbolising good luck and happiness. The tassels are recognisably Chinese, and part of international popular culture—the kind of thing you might find in an Asian food warehouse in New Zealand, or in a street market further afield. “I’m fascinated,” she says, “by how things of significance get translated to other places through global commerce. People think of them as mementoes or souvenirs, but I put more weight on them. That’s why I change them or mutate them in some way.”

Tan made this pair of works while living in Kassel, Germany, on an artist’s residency. Kassel is the home of the Brothers Grimm, and the plastic masks she bound with blood red tassels are representations of their fairy-tale characters Hansel and Gretel. Masks, of course, conceal personal identity; but in Chinese culture they also allow ritual communication with the spiritual realm. New Zealand, Chinese and German cultures are overlaid and intertwined, establishing a shared point of poetic and ancestral connection that reflects the lived experience of the artist. “Concerning the ideas of identity in my work, the thread that passes through them is that there is nothing sure or easy that can be said. What happens is a multifaceted balancing act of finding associations,” she has said. Untitled (Red Masks) points towards the continuous renegotiation of identity that an evolving globalised society requires of its members.

earlier labels about this work
  • ####Brought to light, February 2010 – February 2011

    Meticulously binding a pair of masks with the silky red tassels that can be found in the Chinese market of almost any major city, Yuk King Tan explores how immigrants to any place, like these imported objects, preserve or camouflage aspects of their own culture. As a Chinese New Zealander born in Australia, Tan has often made work that investigates cultural identity and dislocation, using red to suggest the staying power of ancestral connections. This work, which features Disney-style Hansel and Gretel masks, was made while she was in Kassel, Germany – the home of the Brothers Grimm of fairytale fame.

    I see red, 5 December 2007 - 23 November 2008

    These mysterious mask faces covered with spectacular veils of falling red create a feeling of celebration, comedy and energy. Yuk King Tan is interested in the strong reactions provoked by red , and its different meanings in different cultures. In Chinese and other Asian cultures red means vitality, happiness and luck.

  • Using ready-made materials, this work explores what it means to live in dual cultures. The red silk thread both conceals and reveals in a veil-like manner the caricatured features of the Disney masks, referring to the social masks adopted by overseas Chinese to camouflage difference in a Eurocentric society.

    Yuk King Tan is drawing on her own experience as a Chinese New Zealander. The materials come from the Chinese stores and oriental markets found in major cities through out the western world, making the point that integration is a two way process because the imported objects, like immigrants, bring their own culture with them.

    Tan was born in Australia to parents of Chinese descent but grew up in Auckland. With her parents she has also lived in Malaysia and America. She graduated from the University of Auckland in 1993. She has exhibited widely in New Zealand and Australia and currently lives and works in Auckland. (2004 label)

  • Red tassle mask female character German made Gretel plastic mask, meticulously bound in red brocade evoking the spread of communism, the binding of feet and the spread and dissemenation of culture through trade. Made while Tan was in Kassel, Germany, the home town of the Grimms brothers

    Red tassle mask male character German made Hansel plastic mask, meticulously bound in red brocade evoking the spread of communism, the binding of feet and the spread and dissemenation of culture through trade. Made while Tan was in Kassel, Germany, the home town of the Grimms brothers (pre-2002 label)