Louise Zhang is a Sydney-based multi-disciplinary artist who works across sculpture, painting and installation. She’s fascinated by the thin line that separates the grotesque from the cute, which is pretty evident when you spend any amount of time in front of her work. It’s like being on a foreign planet that’s erupting with sugary, hypercoloured happiness, while simultaneous being in the presence of something much darker. It’s this paradox that gives her work its eternally endearing qualities.
This year alone she’s already held two solo exhibitions, Monstrous Masses and most recently New Year Rot! You can read about these shows here, here and here. In this interview, we wanted to dig a little deeper to unpack some of the mythologies of art making, the fears that come from pursuing a creative life, the joys of real-life gore footage and the local artists she reckons we should take note of. And what better way to have this chat than using our generation’s most prolific catch-up tool: Facebook messenger.
We thank Louise for being so enormously honest and REAL.
Images via @Louise__Zhang
ON BEING AN ARITST: THE BAD BITS
Rachel: People tend to think of being an artist as quite a romantic life choice. What are some of the challenges that ordinary onlookers may not be aware of?
Louise: The instability is the part I hate the most.
I often have people say to me that I seem to be doing well and I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had, but the instability is becoming quite a challenge. Not one thing is consistent and that includes money.
The reality is: you need money to survive and secure a future in this world. That is something I struggle with as I grow older. It worries me. Yet I am still determined to be an artist.
I am constantly thinking and looking – it’s mentally tiring. I’m always doubtful and it’s tough to always be doubtful. Rationally, you know you’re being hard on yourself, but you’re always striving to be a bit better than before, all the time.
I’m in the studio a lot. I really love it and it keeps me going. But as a result, I have RSI in my wrists and lower back. It actually hurts every single day and night. I am 25. The idea that I may need to cut down studio time or stop making work earlier than anticipated is terrifying.
Oh man. That’s awful Louise. My friend had RSI. She’s a writer for a living and had to get someone to type for her for like 3 months.
I just ripped the sports tape off my wrists. Much pain. It’s the worst when you have to stop doing what you really love to do because your body can’t take it. I really feel for your friend.
I don’t think a lot of people realise how much physical labour goes into making an artwork. I don’t think I’ve given it much thought.
Not all art is physically laborious, it sure can be mentally though. Yo, it sucks. But it’s so great too.
ON HER OTHER FAVOURITE THING: FILMS
What is your favourite thing aside from making art?
Films! I love films!!! If I hadn’t become an artist, a maker, I would have loved to work in film.
I wouldn’t really know what to do, but I have so much respect for film. I grew up in, and still am in, a very vanilla religious family. Film was a way for me to rebel by seeking something darker. Nosferatu, Eraserhead, all of the Tim Burtons. Looking online for exploitation films, Dracula (this one really exposed me to horror I think). My parents worked very late and I would watch TV home alone. For a very short time I was obsessed with real-life gore footage. It was literally another world to enter into that was beyond purity.
ON SOCIAL MEDIA AND ONLINE IDENTITY
You share your random thoughts a lot on Facebook. I love that you do it, because it’s a refreshing break from the highly curated, seemingly perfect lives that are mostly presented. Why do you do it?
YOU DO!? Oh my gosh, I get so conscious sometimes because when I see people, they are often like, “So, on your Facebook you said…” Or I’d be like, “Today I went to the shops and this crazy thing happened,” and they would say, “I know, I saw it on your Facebook.” My MFA supervisors actually told me to log off.
I even wrote a thing about it on Tumblr about why I use social media so often.
‘Perfect lives’ on social media is evidently constructed. We all know it, yet we still curate it. I refuse to participate. Especially being an artist, the image of the artist is already glorified. If people don’t like what they see, what I write, that’s cool. If they do, hey, that’s awesome! I also think the less curated it is, the better, especially on Instagram. I want people to like my work not because of the image I create around myself as an artist, but rather [use it to show] whatever’s happening in my studio even if it’s ugly/messy.
ON FEAR + MAKING
Can you tell me a time you failed the hardest, or most questioned what you were doing with the direction you were taking in life?
There have been so many times. Too often. One I frequently remember is when art made me sick. But, it also made me better.
I have anxiety and depression (who doesn’t, really) and had social and generalised anxiety as a teen. I dropped out of uni for a semester because I couldn’t handle the anxiety of my work being in the public eye in person. I also thought that whatever I did was terrible, like, irrationally terrible. (It probably was, man… undergrad art). I was too conscious, overthought things all the time. I used to cry in high school visual arts class because I hated my work to the point of not being able to handle it. Can you guess I was one of those emo kids?
My whole identity and drive in life has been built around art. If it kept making me stupidly sad and anxious, if I couldn’t interact with the ‘art world’, how was I ever going to become an artist? I based a lot of my self-worth and happiness on it because it was the only thing that drove me forwards.
As I recovered, I started painting with enthusiasm and came back to art school ready to Zhang.
I’m so sorry you went through that. I think creating things and putting them out into the world can be paralysing. Even with writing I experience a crippling fear sharing anything with anyone.
Really? I hadn’t known that.
We’re all way too worried about what other people think of us. How do you overcome it?
Well, I still don’t sleep when I’m anxious. I practice breathing a lot. I spend a lot of time making art. When I can, I force myself to attend things. Medication helps. I have improved through therapy and exposure to uncomfortable situations. I haven’t really changed in the way I manage things, but what’s different now is that I am more determined than ever to be an active artist. So, I force myself to do things. Being candid also helps; if you can be candid about things that make you worry, then you don’t have to worry anymore because it’s out there. Most people are understanding.
Yeah that’s true. I think when you put it out there, you realise how prevalent it is.
Sometimes I think our minds are more powerful than our identities. In the sense that our mind can control us even though we think we’re in control of ourselves. Overthinking and irrational thoughts: It shouldn’t control what we do, but it can.
ON WHY ART IS IMPORTANT
Why do you believe art is important?
The arts shapes culture, history, behaviour. It opens new avenues of thinking and builds more tolerance in people. It may not be as quick in reward or results but it is still an important part of our world, of being human.
I think we are definitely a lot luckier than other countries, despite all of the difficulties arising in our arts industry currently. I personally am terrified about our creative futures in Sydney. But I know so many people have it a lot harder. I always remind myself: this is a privilege.
Neither of my parents were able to pursue their dreams, but worked hard so that I could. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important to nurture it if we indeed have the abilities to do so in Sydney. Give us a chance, guys!
I am terrified for our creative futures but I think artists really do rise in times of conflict. So, maybe they will really see what they are taking away from Sydney soon.
Dammit. Art is important. I wouldn’t even be here now without it. I wish they’d understand.
How do you think we can make them understand?
I really don’t know how to answer that.
Perhaps accessibility. The one thing about art is that it’s not very accessible and therefore not understood.
Last week at Casula Powerhouse Art Centre where I work, my co-workers held an art class for kids from refugee families. They wrote letters and made prints for kids in detention to show their support, their love, that they care, that they are understood. Having a place like CPAC makes it possible to develop these programs. Toni Bailey, a curator at Casula, also curated an amazing show regarding refugees (Entitled Refugees and on now until 11 September). Did you know Frank Auberach was a refugee?
How is that not important???
Art reveals these things. But it can only do so if we make it accessible.
I love all the work going on in Western Sydney that is engaging the community with a social purpose.
Me too. I wish we had that emphasis in the CBD.
Liam Benson is doing great things in Western Sydney too: Creating a community through his practice.
Liam Benson is a gift to the art world. I have a lot of admiration and respect for him.
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF NETFLIX AND GOOD TV
Have you watched Stranger Things yet?
ALL OF IT, SO GREAT.
I’m re-watching all of Fringe now. Oh! You HAVE to watch Pushing Daisies! One of my favourites!!!!
I haven’t seen either!
RACH!!! Pushing Daises will enrich your life, just YouTube a clip and you will know what I mean. Fringe is just so great.
I’ll add them to my Watch List. After watching Stranger Things, I want to watch more 80s Sci-Fi.
Hit up the legends Carpenter and Cronenberg
I’ll be following up! I really want you to watch it. Get past the first episode and everything else is magic.
Have you seen Body Melt? It’s got Harold from Neighbours in it. So great.
John Carpenter did The Thing and David Cronenberg did The Fly. 80’s sci-fi legends.
Oh excellent! I will watch them.
Pushing daisies first.
If you checked your bank tomorrow morning and found an extra $1000 in there, what would you do with it?
Pay next month’s studio rent. Yeah, I’m boring. But without a studio, I can’t make things happen! I was going to say give it to my dad to help pay back all the financial help he has given me. But realistically, I’d pay my studio rent.
Both still very sensible answers.
Money’s not easy to come by in our industry!
Artists aren’t often afforded many opportunities to make more money from their work without it sacrificing a level of artistic integrity. If a company wanted to pay you a large sum to make something that’s not part of your practice, there is the opinion that it would tarnish your reputation as an artist. Is that a thing?
I agree with you. I was in a very insular artist environment for a long time and that’s something that was often brought up. Everyone gave shit to the artist that ‘sold out’. Since moving out of that environment I’ve met artists who choose either paths. In the end, they’re all artists – just different kinds.
Personally, I wouldn’t do it if it would tarnish my reputation. It’s a privilege to be able to be an artist. Let’s use it for something more meaningful. And that may well take a much longer time to reach ‘success’ than an artist that is more inclined to take commercial opportunities.
And yes, that means bills are tough. But integrity is something that can’t be traded for anything.
I think there are other creative avenues that are possible to help pay the bills. An artist learns a lot of skills. Why not use one of those skills to make money and keep your art sacred?
Having said that, I am very privileged. I do not have a family to take care of. I can choose to not ‘sell out’.
You work closely with Luke [Letourneau] as a curator, and Rhianna [Walcott] as Artereal Gallery’s Manager. How important is collaborating with other people to you?
I work very closely with Luke and Rhianna on different things. I work closely with Luke and Terrence [Combos] on a casual conversational level. We speak via messenger almost everyday. Our chatbox is like a (really messy) whiteboard where we write our thoughts, post up a picture of work in progress and ask everyone in the room what they think. We’re all quite into what we do and we do it on a daily basis. This has been going on for years and it’s really great. I love those guys and would work with them forever.
Working with Rhianna has really helped me personally and professionally. I have learnt so much from her and have only trust in her decisions. (Sometimes I feel bad for Rhianna because I often call her up just so she can give me a pep talk. She’s really good at those!) I will follow her professionally wherever she goes.
Artists work alone a lot. I sure do and that means becoming lost in what you are doing, what you are seeing and why you are doing it. Bouncing ideas and offering constructive criticism to each other offers new and different perspectives you might not have thought of if you were working by yourself. The great thing about being an artist is that you can grow. And these are collaborative efforts to help each other grow.
ON INSPIRING PEOPLE
Do you have a mentor, or person you admire?
I don’t have a mentor but rather someone I sympathise with and think about for determination: Poet and writer, Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet made me realise, hey, I feel you deeply. When he passed away from illness, they found a trunk filled with so much work he had written. A lot of it was turned into The Book Of Disquiet. Please read it if you get the chance.
LOUISE’S TOP FIVE… FILMS
“There are so many! But here are my top five films off the top of my head. I just realised there’s a running theme of Victimised-Girl-Rising-Up-To-Kick-Butt.”
1. Repulsion (1965)
2. Girl Interrupted (2000)
3. Matilda (2005)
4. Resident Evil (all of them no matter how shitty they are)
5. Tideland (2005)
LOUISE’S TOP FIVE… EMERGING ARTISTS TO WATCH
“THERE’S SO MUCH GREATNESS!!!”
3. Kazu Quill: “As much as he denies it, he makes fucking good art.”
4. Lachlan Herd: “Alchemy babe.”