- Purchased, 1999
- Mixed media - red cotton tassels over plastic masks
- 2455 x 165 x 80mm
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.