Art Guide Australia | Interview: Eugenia Lim on ethics, absurdity and subverting stereotypes

Eugenia Lim, The Australian Ugliness, 2018, three channel video installation. Production still by Tom Ross. Courtesy of the artist.

With a practice encompassing video, performance and installation, Eugenia Lim is an Australian artist of Chinese-Singaporean descent. Lim’s major exhibition The Ambassador is currently touring Australia, and brings together works featuring her invented persona, also called the ambassador, who she inhabits across multiple videos, performances and sites. Tiarney Miekus spoke to the artist about her ambassador character, subverting cultural stereotypes, the importance of humour in art, and how creating is linked to ethics.

Tiarney Miekus: Can we first talk about your character the ambassador. Who is the ambassador and where did that character evolve from?

Eugenia Lim: The ambassador has been this performance persona that I have inhabited over the last five or six years. The ambassador first emerged when I was researching for Yellow Peril [a 2015 video work] and was exploring the migration stories of Chinese and Asian people to Australia during the gold rush.

At the same time, I’d been heavily influenced by a series of photographs by a Hong Kong artist, who has now passed away, called Tseng Kwong Chi. He had this amazing photographic series called East Meets West. In it he dressed as this Chinese diplomat character in a grey Mao suit and took pictures of himself in front of key monuments of Western architecture and European symbols. He took over 200 photos of himself in these different sites, and I really love the humour and suggestive nature of his character.

A lot of my work is a dialogue looking back at art history and at works that have had an impact on me. I saw his [Tseng Kwong Chi’s] diplomat character as something that I could transport into the Australian context, into the 21st century, as a feminist, as a woman who is second generation Australian.

TM: When you place yourself into your videos, it’s always as an invented character. You show yourself, but then you conceal yourself at the same time, and then further blend fiction with historical events. What compels you to that area between reality and fantasy?

EL: Performing in my own work was quite a challenge. It’s not something that I necessarily wanted to do, but I had access to using myself in a way that made it easier to explore these zones of ambiguity or discomfort, rather than getting a trained actor. It felt right to go into these spaces of uncertainty. I’m not trained as an actor or a dancer, but it allows a space where the ambassador character is an observer, but can also be connected to the history of certain sites and contested areas.

Much of my work is about trying to understand my own complicity. For example, understanding Australia, which is a hugely contested nation built on terra nullius, and understanding this ongoing complexity that we’re trying to navigate. As someone who is neither Indigenous nor Anglo-Australian, it’s an interesting tension. I think my work, as time has gone on, is really trying to unpack this as someone raised in Australia on colonial myths.

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