Owen Leong: Original Nature – Interview

Owen Leong’s sculptures and photographs in his exhibition ‘Original Nature’ at Artereal Gallery are striking in their poeticism, lyricism and contemplative nature. The soft and organic forms of the human body are transformed through concrete, crystal and metal as Leong conflates the distinctions between traditional and contemporary, landscape and portrait, body and mind.

Soo-Min Shim talks to Owen Leong about this body of work.

All of the sculptural works in ‘Original Nature’ have been cast from your own body. Paradoxically, this self-portraiture concerns the interior, not the exterior. How would you describe your interrogation of that genre?
My work is a way of exploring the self in the world. My practice has always involved self-portraiture, using photography, performance, video and sculpture to create personal mythologies of selfhood to reflect on universal aspects of human nature. My photographic works often explore the surface construction of the body, to visually play with how identity might be read.

Self-Portrait as Landscape 山水 (centre), 2018,, closeup 1, 34 x 35 x 24cm. Courtesy the artist and Artereal Gallery, Sydney

My latest exhibition takes that idea a step further, breaking open the body through a sculptural process of casting, destroying, assembling and recasting. The self is in a state of perpetual change. There is a cyclical energy in this new exhibition that moves from interior to exterior, and back again. I created life casts of my own body, smashed them into pieces, then reformed them into new compositions.

Some of the larger sculptures conflate vast natural landscape forms with the more intimate scale of the human body; a face, arm, hand or ear. With the smaller sculptures, I was interested in the internal biology of the human body, using metabolism as a symbol to reflect the building up and breaking down of material, of our bodies, in nature.

The exhibition draws upon Taoist philosophies. How heavily is this influence informed by your own Australian-Chinese heritage? Is this a label that essentialises or liberates you as an artist?
Taoist philosophy has certainly been a rich source of knowledge and ideas for my practice. It has deep historical significance, not only within Chinese culture and society, but has more generally shaped different ways of thinking about human existence and the world through principles of nature, balance and flow. This type of philosophy has also influenced traditional medicinal practices, which I am very interested in as a language for understanding the body. I’ve always been intrigued by culture and how it is manifested in our daily lives.

When it comes to labels, I think it’s always important to consider a person’s speaking position and how they might empower or disempower someone with their words. In my artistic practice, I hope to use my speaking position to explore the complexities, nuances and politics of identity.

Metabolic Composition 4, 2018, 11 x 16 x 9cm. Courtesy the artist and Artereal Gallery, Sydney     

Your sculptures are reminiscent of palimpsests, as both creation and destruction are visible in the parts of your face and arm that remain and are assembled in the final product. Is it possible to see the processes of sculpture as being mimetic of the approach to learning and unlearning? Can you tell us a bit more about this practice?
It’s interesting you reference the palimpsest. In many ways, as newborns we all arrive in the world as blank slates. Through our individual life circumstances, we are inscribed by culture, one experience at a time, moment by moment; this process constructs each of us as individuals. We learn to be the person we are today.

The artistic processes I use in the studio to make these sculptures explore the creation and destruction of self. Life casting itself is a process of mimesis, of mirroring, making an exact copy. By physically smashing and destroying that copy, then reassembling the fragments into a new order, this is a physical process that reflects the cyclical making, unmaking and remaking of self.

Resistance Training is quite different from the other works exhibited in the show. Could you expand on your ideas around the body as a site for performance and identity?
Resistance Training fuses an Asian male body with a multi-armed deity lifting weights and ritual objects of transformation. I was interested in the way desire and masculinities are constructed through the physicality of sport. The gym is a space filled with visual codes of strength, power, and dominance. Resistance training, or weight lifting, shapes the body to a paradigm of ideal masculinity. But in this work, resistance can also be seen as the use of force to oppose something. Resistance is the refusal to accept or comply. It disrupts a single coherent vision of the idealised male body.

I’ve always been interested in identities as being fluid and constantly shifting, and the use of my body as a site where this plays out continues to fascinate me. The sculptures in my exhibition are an extension of my photographic practice, but in three-dimensional form. My face and body are still present in the work, but the human figure has begun to fragment and merge with other forms.

Soo-Min Shim is an emerging art writer and curator based in Sydney.

Artereal Gallery
Until 28 July, 2018