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Artist Jason Wing on weaving culture, heritage and community into public spaces

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Artist Jason Wing on weaving culture, heritage and community into public spaces

"I wanted to create a environment that resembled another place, another world." Artist Jason Wing in front of his Chinatown mural. Photo: Daniel Boud

"I wanted to create a environment that resembled another place, another world." Artist Jason Wing in front of his Chinatown mural. Photo: Daniel Boud

By Lily Keenan

If you’re wandering through Chinatown in Sydney's centre, you might suddenly find yourself in a particularly unusual laneway. Rolling clouds emblazon the floor and walls, while spirit figures lit up brilliantly in blue hover above. Cast against the backdrop of Chinatown’s industrial underbelly, walking through Kimber Lane feels like a journey to another time, if not another world. It’s a fitting experience for a mural that grapples with exactly this feeling of dissociation, reflecting both the artist’s personal experience and a broader commentary on the collision of cultures that takes place in this iconic precinct.

‘Between Two Worlds’ in Kimber Lane is by Sydney-based artist Jason Wing, a prolific multidisciplinary artist who strongly identifies with, and examines, both his Chinese (Cantonese) and Aboriginal heritage (descendant of the Biripi people). Originally a Sydney street artist, Jason creates challenging works that call into question our understanding of history, identity and socio-political reality. He was commissioned to create ‘Between Two Worlds’ in 2012 by the City of Sydney Council, and it remains one of the most visited and photographed public works in Haymarket. We spoke to Jason about the process of creating this work, the symbolism behind its imagery and his personal connection to Chinatown, the newest addition to our Sydney walking tours. 

Culture Scouts: When you’re in the process of making a public work, how do you engage with that place?

Jason Wing: The first step for me is to always just spend time in the place. I sat in Kimber Lane for about two weeks before I even had an idea, I wanted to see how people flow and move through the streets, how people interact, how much time do they spend there, what kind of person moves through, and just how they move in that space. So my first research was just observing the space. The second step is actually talking to the people, talking to shop owners and asking them how they engage with the space, and asking them what they would like to see. That’s where more of the community consultation happens and there’s no substitute for talking to people on the street. The main brief for the mural was just to divert human traffic off Dixon Street into Kimber lane so I wanted to see how people used it in the first place. Consultation is important from the beginning, that’s key to success for everyone involved.

"Between Two Worlds" by Jason Wing. Photo: Jodie Barker

"Between Two Worlds" by Jason Wing. Photo: Jodie Barker

CS: What did you find were the needs and values of the Chinatown community and how did you incorporate this into the work you made in Kimber Lane?

JW: The main theme I found that people wanted was more parkland. They wanted more areas in the city where they couldn’t see high rise buildings. And they really wanted a different space where they no longer felt like they were in the city. So that was the key thing: How do I take an urban landscape and transform it into something not so much a physical park, but a visual park? Because we don’t have access to land in Chinatown, I wanted to create a environment that resembled another world, another place. I wanted to create visual indicators that said “you’re not in the city any more”.

CS: The mural depicts cherub-like creatures and blue clouds down the laneway. Is there an element of spirituality that you are representing?

JW: The spirit figures are a cross between some universal spirituality or some intangible force but in a manga style. A bit like Astro Boy crossed with Monkey Magic. Essentially the laneway is a journey between heaven and earth. So those spirits represent heaven and you’re walking on the earth. I wanted to find a kind of universal spirit but also with a slight nod to Aboriginal culture and a slight nod to traditional Chinese culture as well. But also I had to cater for an international market, so I came up with that design to evoke that. I didn’t want to isolate any culture but I did want to specifically reference Aboriginal and Chinese culture whilst being inclusive of other cultures. So that’s where the spirituality part comes into it. The spirit creatures are neuter gender and they have the third eye. So that to me references the next generation, this modern spirit person.

CS: Being both Chinese and Aboriginal, and ‘between two worlds’ yourself in that sense, is there a personal element to this mural?

JW: It’s for the community because I feel that all multicultural people feel that disconnect. They feel a bit of diaspora. I wanted to speak to that because I feel that, and it’s a very common feeling. Whilst it did start from my personal experience, I saw it as a larger conversation. What is Chinese? What is Aboriginal? How do you classify an ever evolving culture? How do you represent that visually? How do you cater for old and young? It was a tricky brief when you think about it.

Jason's mural transforms into a light installation at night. 

Jason's mural transforms into a light installation at night. 

CS: The lighting element wasn’t in the original plan for the mural, but it’s now a really effective tool for transforming Kimber Lane into a safe and inviting space at night. How did you use light in “Between Two Worlds”?

The lighting component was a creative solution to safety lighting. I found out that there were standard red and yellow lanterns going in and I saw an opportunity to repurpose that budget for the lanterns and offer a design solution instead. I was actually only commissioned to do the pavement as a visual indicator that Kimber Lane is a shared space between cars and pedestrians. I created the spirit figure lanterns as a solution that then opened up the possibility for the mural to take up the entire laneway.

I didn’t want the lighting red or yellow because I needed a point of difference so the mural didn’t get visually drowned out with other red and yellow colours. The elders of the Chinatown community didn’t want blue - red and yellow colours are preferred because they symbolise prosperity. But I convinced them by saying that the colour blue is consistent through all the elements (earth, wind, fire, water) which are very important in traditional Chinese culture. When you multiply clouds quite significantly that also symbolises a never ending form of prosperity, so they really liked that part of the mural. Generally, immortal Gods rode on clouds, if that’s replicated 200 meters long, that’s a very prosperous image despite it not being red and yellow. So the mural didn’t totally conform, but that goes back to the modern Chinese person: We’re a bit different.

CS: How did you develop your passion for art and were there any significant influence(s) that pushed you down this path?

JW: I think I knew as a child that my brain was always geared towards the arts. It was just hard wired that way. I remember my grandma buying me a crayola crayon castle, she could spot that I had talent so she really supported that. Same as my mum who was a primary school teacher and could always see that I liked drawing. In highschool I had a strong connection with my art teacher who was very supportive. Art school just confirmed all of that and then from there it was just obvious that I should be an artist. But actually I left art school and I didn’t make an artwork for 13 years. I worked in bars, did some teaching and then I made my first artwork in 2006. That’s when I knew that I needed to pursue this career because I could see that I could create social change through art.

The spirit lanterns hover on the edges of the lane, inviting onlookers to walk in.

The spirit lanterns hover on the edges of the lane, inviting onlookers to walk in.

CS: What is your personal connection to Haymarket and Chinatown?

JW: Both my Aboriginal and Chinese families used to meet at the Hingara Chinese Restaurant on Dixon Street in Haymarket for a really long time. I first picked up a pea with chopsticks when I was little and the whole table celebrated because I became a man that day. It’s like an initiation of sorts. My Australian-Scottish grandmother met my Cantonese grandfather at a restaurant in Hay street. My grandfather worked at his uncle's restaurant there and my grandma was employed as an Aussie waitress to double their client base. And she just saw my grandfather and said to her other waitress friend, “I’m going to make that man my husband.” And she did. Mind you, this was during the White Australia Policy and mixed marriage wasn’t really that visually present. And so if it wasn’t for that chance encounter on Hay Street I wouldn’t be here.

And also just being raised in a house that has traditional paper cuts and scrolls and swords. So for me, and I think for a lot of Asian people, they feel very familiar. Chinatowns are all over the world. So when you go there, it’s like your little safe place. And it’s nice that you have that option in lots of countries. So it’s a real honour and a privilege to contribute to that cultural fabric in Chinatown.

CS: What’s your favourite spot in Haymarket and Ultimo?

JW: My favourite dumpling place is actually behind the famous Chinese Noodle House in the same complex. I don’t know what it’s called because it doesn’t seem to clearly have a name. The guy who owns it actually owns five restaurants in the same block, including the Chinese Noodle House that Culture Scouts visit in their tour. He’s the guy who plays violin to people as they eat their dumplings. I actually once tried to give him money because I thought he was busking but he refused and then eventually admitted that he owned the restaurant we were sitting in. He’s the boss man! I’ve wanted to approach them to decorate their place but then I thought… it’s so authentic maybe I’d ruin it. I recommend trying the braised eggplant dish and the cucumber salad. And you can’t go past pan fried pork and chive dumplings.

Another great hidden spot is a strange photo sticker arcade room opposite the 4A gallery. You go up these escalators and there’s all these sticker machines, over fifty of them. And they’re like proper make-up labs with soft lighting and special effects. They’re photoshop booths. It’s really interesting and so much fun to create.

Chinese Indigenous artist Jason Wing. Photo: Daniel Boud

Chinese Indigenous artist Jason Wing. Photo: Daniel Boud

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Culture Scouts top picks for Sydney Art Month

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Culture Scouts top picks for Sydney Art Month

Just when you think you have Sydney all figured out, Art Month kicks off to reveal the well loved and often little-known creative underbellies of our city. This four-week festival celebrates new and existing art initiatives scattered across Sydney, offering a diverse program of exhibitions, art galleries, workshops, panel discussions, Sydney tours by locals, precinct nights, parties and more unusual things to do in Sydney.

We’ve teamed up with Art Month again this year with our tailored Sydney walking tours, picking our own path through the best creative spaces in Sydney. But that’s just the start, with the whole art community throwing open their doors, there’s so much to see, hear, explore and collect this month.

You can get your hands dirty with a range of creative workshops or up your conversational game with artist talks, panels and creative exchanges. Have a busy schedule? Get out and about after hours with Art Month’s Art After Dark, where galleries open late for weekly precinct nights.

Overwhelmed? To get you started, Culture Scouts have put together a list of some of the Sydney events and activities we’re particularly excited about.

The Kingdom of God

Chris Leaver,  Kingdom of God  for Sydney Art Month

Chris Leaver, Kingdom of God for Sydney Art Month

Hosted by our good friends over Art Pharmacy and Vandal, Chris Leaver’s The Kingdom of God explores the relationship between a historical and changing culture via intergalactic imagery, light sculptures and a Chewbacca with human legs. The exhibition opens to celebrate the beginning of Art Month, and is part of  the Redfern precinct of Art After Dark.  

1 March - 25 March, 10am - 5pm
VANDAL Galley, 16-30 Vine Street, Redfern

The Open Body

The Open Body, Credit: Art Month

The Open Body, Credit: Art Month

Our mysterious bodies, and the relationship we have with the bodies of others, is the focal point of this all-day performance event at Scratch Art Space -  one of our favourite stops on our Marrickville Studio Tour. Works by Kate Brown, Stella Chen, Danica Knezevic, Robbie Carmel and more explore ideas of ideas of body visibility and representation. The performance is curated by Tom Isaacs with the support of an Inner West Art & Culture Grant.

18 March, 11 - 5pm
Scratch Art Space, 67 Sydenham Road, Marrickville

Night Visit to the Elliot Eyes Collection

Elliot Eyes Collection, Credit: Art Month

Elliot Eyes Collection, Credit: Art Month

Ever wondered what goes on behind the closed doors of a private art collection? Your wonderings will be answered by the exclusive guided tour of over 300 artworks. Find out the stories behind the works from the collection owners themselves, drink bubbles and nibbles and immerse yourself a world of big names and expensive taste.

7 March, 6:15pm
7 Bridge Street, Erskineville  

Artist Talk with Lara Merrett

Lara Merrett, Credit: Hugh Stewart

Lara Merrett, Credit: Hugh Stewart

Meet Melbourne Artist Lara Merrett, whose works are vibrant and dreamlike. Her moody style draws on an appreciation for abstraction and the interchangeability of control and chaos in the painting process. In this talk, Merrett discusses High-Rise, her upcoming solo show at COMO Gallery, as well as the important creative influences and past events in her career that have informed her work. The conversation will be moderated by Alexie Glass-Kantor from Artspace, Sydney.

17 March, 11:30am

137 Bayswater Road, Rushcutters Bay

Sculpture in a Day: Soapstone Carving with Karen Alexander

Sculpture in a Day, Credit: Art Month

Sculpture in a Day, Credit: Art Month

Are you handy with a knife? This workshop is for you. Soapstone is a soft easily carved stone with beautiful patterns and a variety of colours. Meet artist Karen Alexander who will show you how to use rasps and files to reveal the hidden organic shapes and forms within this malleable stone. Your next masterpiece (or paperweight) is just one sandstone away!

25 March, 9:30am - 4:30am

2018 Tom Bass Prize Exhibition
Juniper Hall, 250 Oxford St, Paddington

For those who say there isn’t things to do in Sydney - eat your words! Art Month officially starts today, so get hold of a program and get exploring!

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