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BODY IMAGE SCREEN


The mining of image & metaphor

Urszula Dawkins: Eugenia Lim, Yellow Peril


Eugenia Lim, Yellow Peril, 2015, single channel HD video Eugenia Lim, Yellow Peril, 2015, single channel HD video
photo courtesy Bus Projects
Melbourne’s infamous public sculpture, Ron Robertson-Swann’s abstract, minimalist Vault (1980), evokes hoards of hidden riches with its official title and bears the racist slur of its nickname garnered when its sun-bright planes were first unveiled: ‘the Yellow Peril.’ Eugenia Lim cleverly and playfully incorporates Robertson-Swann’s prefabricated steel icon into her own Yellow Peril in which sculpture, photography and video interplay to explore ideas around mining and immigration, and concomitant themes of hope, desire and the quest for prosperity.

Yellow Peril encompasses five components: an eponymously named video work, two small sculptures and two shimmering photographic works printed on gold Mylar emergency blankets. In the video, Lim poses as a mysterious ‘Ambassador’ in a gold Mao-suit, walking the faux streets of Sovereign Hill, Victoria’s open-air Gold Rush museum-cum-time-warp theme park. Think baskets, bonnets, blacksmiths and buggies, plus tourists with selfie-sticks traipsing along dusty thoroughfares. Shot by Tim Hillier, the video looks all the more surreal for its CGI-like angles and colours. Watching it feels like stepping into both 1850s Ballarat and a digital animation, as Lim’s unassuming character wanders, largely ignored, through the town.

Making cameo appearances in the video are both Robertson-Swann’s icon and what was once the biggest gold nugget ever found: the Welcome Stranger. Lim’s own replica of Vault, just 10cm long and crafted in cardboard and gold leaf, occasionally appears in the Ambassador’s palm, while a large model of the Welcome Stranger accompanies her to a photographer’s studio where she poses with it in an ironic rewriting of history. On a shelf at Bus Projects gallery, the little Vault model and a miniature Welcome Stranger shimmer across from two leaf-thin Mylar blankets hung side by side. On their myriad gold rectangular panels—reminiscent of ingots—is a pair of black and white photographs. One features the Ambassador posed formally with the giant nugget in front of draped curtains and painted backdrop. On the other, Lim’s parents are seen standing in fuzzy black-and-white in front of the real Vault sculpture in the centre of Melbourne, shortly after their migration from Singapore to Australia.

Eugenia Lim, Yellow Peril, 2015, single channel video Eugenia Lim, Yellow Peril, 2015, single channel video
image courtesy Bus Projects
Eugenia Lim has worked frequently with invented characters and deliberate anachronisms, and often with personas that feed into explorations of Asian identities in different cultural contexts. In her artist talk for Yellow Peril she explained that the archival photo of her parents directly inspired this work, making it more personal than previous projects. She decided to explore the motif of the Yellow Peril “and also in a broader context the relationship between China and Australia, socially and politically.” Seeking a location that would allow her to employ both “humour and deadpanness,” in a manner both “potent and fun,” she settled on Sovereign Hill. “It struck me how performative it already was, with people from different eras, bakers and diggers, Chinese mainland tourists, other tourists—so if you go there you feel like you’re in Disneyland or somewhere […] There are also ghost towns around that area that died after the boom—we’re in a different boom now, of course.”

Indeed, Lim’s Ambassador wanders around the fake boom-town like a ghost, largely unnoticed by the tourists, or assumed to be part of the scene. The character, Lim said, was informed in part by Chinese-born artist Tseng Kwong Chi, who used a Mao suit in his work in the 1980s to explore different locations; he had once worn one in New York because he couldn’t yet afford a Western suit and found he was treated like some high-level Chinese delegate. “The suit made people treat him like an esteemed ‘other’ when he’d been in New York for years and was fluent in English,” said Lim.

The Welcome Stranger nugget no longer exists, having been melted down shortly after its discovery. Its various gleaming replicas, the Vault sculpture and the fuzzy image of Lim’s parents at the start of their life in Australia, suggest intertwined and very different searches for wealth across eras and political spaces, while the juxtaposition of Lim’s ghostly Ambassador with Sovereign Hill’s Gold-Rush characters and bemused tourists suggests a mesh of desires and histories not easily teased out and resolved. Our hunger to mine the earth is in there, certainly; so too, hinted at by the floating Mylar emergency blankets, is the fragility of human life and the journeys taken by so many in search of ‘promised lands.’ Yellow Peril resists a clear narrative, though, content to let ghosts and echoes drift alongside the wooden façades, the flat steel panels and the pitted surfaces of what lies hidden below ground.


Eugenia Lim, Yellow Peril; Bus Projects, Melbourne, 8–25 April

RealTime issue #127 June-July 2015 pg. 15

© Urszula Dawkins; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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