Andrew Nicholls’ latest collaborative project, entitled ‘A Gentle Misinterpretation’, brings together a group of Australian artists for two separate exhibitions at the Brighton Royal Pavilion inspired by the cultural effect and meaning behind the ‘Chinoiserie ‘ tradition from the 17th century, up until the 1920s in the Western world. The first residency took place in July and now, busy in preparations for the second residency taking place during August and plans for an exhibition in Perth next year, Andrew Nicholls answers my questions regarding the issues surrounding the ‘Chinoiserie’ culture.
How did your personal interest in a project revolving around the topic of ‘Chinoiserie’ begin to form?
This project has been in the making for 11 years, since I first visited the Royal Pavilion and fell in love with it. It’s my favourite building in the entire world, and I spent a decade waiting to find the right group of artists to take there. Last year I approached the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery with a request to undertake a group residency there, and thankfully they agreed.
However, my art practice has always been concerned by histories of decoration, and how they reflect their social context – the way that seemingly-innocuous aesthetic traditions actually grew out of quite nasty historical circumstances. British ceramics have been a major influence throughout my career – in fact, the first time I visited the Pavilion was when I was in the UK undertaking a residency at the Spode china factory in Stoke-on-Trent - and yet that entire industry was formed by appropriating techniques from Asia during the 18th century in quite an aggressive way, so the idea of cultural theft has been a major interest for a long time.
The Pavilion is the perfect symbol of all this, because it is so seductive. It is spectacular, and opulent and beautiful, and yet so many of the cultural references are so clumsy…and then at the same time it comes with all of the glamour of George IV who is remembered as one of England’s most self-indulgent, decadent, scandalous monarchs. So it is the ideal location to talk about the decadence of imperialism, and how this fed colonial expansion.
As a curator for this project, how did you go about finding or choosing appropriate artists for this residency? What qualities did you look for in the work of these artists?
I have a core group of artists I like to draw from in my freelance projects, all of whom enjoy taking inspiration from historical research, or in response to heritage sites. For this particular project I selected a number of artists from this group whose recent work has focused either on the relationship between Asia and 'the West', and the cultural and aesthetic legacies that this has inspired, or more broadly on tensions surrounding colonialism, nationalism and the crossing of national borders. The residency artists, Abdul Abdullah, Casey Ayres, Nathan Beard, David Collins, Thea Costantino, Travis Kelleher and Pilar Mata Dupont, have variously explored Eurasian identity, the experience of migrant communities in modern Australia, the marginalisation of minority groups within nationalism/colonialism, the plight of the refugee, and the legacy of colonial pillage.
Along with the eight residency artists, there are also four amazing senior Western Australian craft makers involved in the project, Sandra Black, Tanija and Graham Carr, and Marianne Penberthy, who will create works to complement the residency outcomes (in ceramics, leather and textiles, respectively). Each of these craft makers has drawn upon Asian tradition in one way or another in their works, and the objects they create will provide added opulence to the final exhibition. Given the George IV was such a significant patron of the arts, it feels appropriate to be commissioning new works by master craft-makers for this project.
You describe how ‘the sentimental’ is a ‘force driving mainstream culture’, which I find interesting. The concept of ‘Chinoiserie’ is almost the sentimentality of ‘Westerners’ between the 17th century and early 20th century for an ‘Asian’ aesthetic and culture. How do you feel this translates to artistry in our 21st century and why do you feel it is important to address this concept of ‘Chinoiserie’ now?
Chinoiserie was incredibly sentimental. It grew from an age when any international travel was difficult and dangerous, so the majority of designers, artists and writers who produced it had never been to Asia and probably had little desire to do so. Hence it was largely based on often-fanciful, second-hand accounts, and it often ended up being culturally insensitive or portraying Asian culture as primitive or brutal. But at the same time it was escapist, particularly for women who were largely tied to the domestic realm during that era. There is a lot of writing about the way that Chinoiserie provided escapism for women who would most likely never be able to travel the world themselves. From that sense it wasn’t ever really meant to be authentic in its portrayal of foreign cultures…not that that makes it alright!
In the 21st century I guess there’s a lot more movement between cultures, particularly in relation to materials and techniques, but I tend to be of the opinion that a lot of cultural content isn’t appropriate to reference. Non-Indigenous Australian artists are maybe more aware of this than most, because we sit alongside an incredibly rich legacy of Aboriginal art, that is absolutely not something we can appropriate or borrow from…but it will be a challenge with this project to walk that line between cultures.
One of the residency artists, Casey Ayres (who is of Chinese-Malay descent) compared the Pavilion to Disneyland, as he had expected the cultural references to be a little bit ‘off’, but wasn’t prepared for life-sized iridescent dragons and pillars in the form of palm trees. I think he felt there was an affinity there to his own cultural identity, but I’m not sure yet exactly what it was. He spent a lot of time filming himself in various parts of the building, so I’m excited to see what he comes up with over the next few months.
As well as being curator for this project, you yourself are a multi-disciplined artist who will exhibit work in this residency. The aesthetics of your work with paper and ceramics display an Asian influence most immediately to me, but I wonder how you feel the Asian culture or aesthetic influences your installation and photography - if at all?
In terms of my broader work, I think the Chinoiserie influence will be realized more in relation to decadence and luxury the movement represented, rather than a specific Asian influence. During the first residency in early July I filmed a model in the Pavilion who was meant to represent a sort of spectre of Regency decadence, mixed with a character from William Beckford’s Vathek, (an incredibly lurid Orientalist-Gothic novel set in a mythical version of Saudi Arabia). I’ve challenged a composer I work with, Ewan Jansen, to write some Regency-inspired music for it that somehow points to a kitschy ‘Orientalist’ influence. I’m not sure how that will work out, or if it’s even possible to make it clear that the cultural appropriation is ironic. Probably it’s not, and we’ll have to abandon the idea, but that failure in itself may trigger something interesting.
A Gentle Misinterpretation. Australian Artists and Chinoiserie - Opening in 2017