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