Eugenia Lim: The Ambassador

With every leap, stride or saunter the Ambassador moves with a gait that is equal parts routine yet distinct. She inserts herself into the banal with strange conviction, and whether poised between concrete doorways or at rest stops beside a highway, we find ourselves watching eagerly to see what becomes of her journey. Australia’s built environment is a conduit for Eugenia Lim to interrogate our society, one which sits on fault lines that quake when multiculturalism is embraced.

Eugenia Lim, The People’s Currency, 2017, performance, dimensions variable. This project was commissioned by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, supported by the City of Melbourne and part of the inaugural Asia TOPA Triennial of Performing Arts. Photograph: Zan Wimberley. Courtesy the artist and Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, Melbourne

Clad in a gold Mao suit and performed by Lim herself, the Ambassador is a persona that brings to light Australia’s fraught relationship with migrant bodies and the baggage of settler colonialism. When Lim performs as an unescorted, female, Asian-Australian Ambassador she becomes an uncanny sight: a spectacle of Otherness that invokes within us both distrust and familiarity. Indeed, she becomes a poignant allegory of Australian identity and its constant state of flux between self-assuredness and anxiety.

Staged as part of the Adelaide//International 2019 at the Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, ‘The Ambassador’ is a body of work that investigates the politics of space, habitation and Australian history. Alongside artists Brook Andrew, Lisa Reihana and Ming Wong, Lim forms the fourth pillar in a series of solo exhibitions concerned with representation and cultural exchange. While ‘The Ambassador’ directly references the experience of East Asian-Australians, Lim’s work is more than an exploration of race: notably, ‘The Ambassador’ probes how architecture contributes to and produces our amorphous cultural understanding of ‘Australianness.’

Eugenia Lim, The Australian Ugliness, 2018, three channel video installation. This project was commissioned by Open House Melbourne and Melbourne School of Design, supported by Australia Council for the Arts, Creative Victoria, City of Melbourne and the Australian Cultural Fund, Gertrude Contemporary studio program, The Robin Boyd Foundation, The Post Lounge and Kane Constructions. Photograph: Tom Ross. Courtesy the artist and Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, Melbourne

As part of ‘The Ambassador’, Lim’s work includes a collection of mediums: photography, performance, video and installation. Yet her decision to do so has led to neither clutter nor curatorial chaos. Instead, audiences are transfixed by the way she has managed to centre the poetics of the built environment in relation to the bodies within, and allow a dialogue between discrete artworks to extend and enrich the next. From a video of the Ambassador quietly watching tradesman at a sprawling city worksite to photographs of her awkward, angular physique in the lines of the Sydney Opera House, Lim’s body is a mediator between the monumental and the things they signify. Lim is asking us why we are drawn to certain buildings, objects and aesthetics – is it because we understand their language or because we can’t shake the Eurocentric status quo?

These concerns are pronounced in Lim’s three-channel video work The Australian Ugliness (2018) where the Ambassador is set in motion (working with choreographer Nat Cursio) against the architecture of urban and rural Australia. The work presents a melange of different environments, anchored only by the Ambassador’s diplomatic mission into what many would consider ordinary moments in modern Australia. In one scene, she lays on Bondi Beach, an absurd echo of Max Dupain’s Sunbaker (1937). Later she observes an aspirational video in a real estate showroom. One is struck by Lim’s ongoing punctuation of the work through the colour yellow: from amber lights radiating out into the night sky in city towers to the hard edge geometry of canary yellow structures, yellow is more than just an aesthetic device; it is the colour of contrast and civil disobedience.

Eugenia Lim, The Australian Ugliness, 2018, three channel video installation. Production still: Tom Ross. Courtesy the artist and Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art

When I speak with Lim, she tells me that her research into Australia’s architectural history shows that yellow has always been present, as if written into the DNA of urban design. Indeed, yellow too is a motif for Lim’s exploration of the Asian body – as witnessed in the video work Yellow Peril (2015) also included in ‘The Ambassador’. Yellow is weaponised by Lim as a loaded colour; in The Australian Ugliness we see yellow as a kind of urban jaundice visible on the surface of our cities though deeply unnoticed despite its rich history. On a symbolic level, the continuing presence of yellow in architectural history allows Lim to disprove the myth and image of Australia as a predominately white nation. Thus, Lim implores us to rethink the social and physical parameters of Australian society, embracing a broader canon of non-European perspectives.

‘In the end, to me, art is a way of imagining something different.’

‘The Ambassador’ is an appeal for us to reimagine. Lim’s contribution to the Adelaide//International is an intensive study into the omnipresent yet undetected experience of Asian-Australian bodies in Australia. Lim unsettles pre-existing myths of Australian life, and the interlocking social and physical structures which deify whiteness. The Ambassador inserts space for strangeness and otherness into the architecture of our daily lives.

Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung is an art critic based in Sydney.

Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art
28 February to 5 April, 2019
South Australia

The Ambassador is a 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art and Museums & Galleries of NSW touring exhibition. This project has been assisted by the Australian Government’s Visions of Australia program.