Written by Zena Khan
Chinese culture, with its artifacts and superstitions, has acted as a source of inspiration for emerging female artist Louise Low time and again. Louise narrates her experiences growing up in a Malaysian Hokkien family with a great reverence for the traditions of their ancestors by picking up on icons that society immediately associates as typically Chinese. This has been evident in earlier works, such as Joy Stick, in which the artist horizontally arranged joss sticks across an entire canvas. Achieving a graphic linear composition with a highly traditional artifact such as the joss stick immediately engaged audiences in a discourse on modernity versus tradition while remaining rooted in the specificity of Chinese Malaysian identity. Her latest work, Huat dao!, reinforces this with its discernable mahjong theme. Constructed from a mix of metal, wood and found objects, this wall installation narrates Chinese culture in an informative manner while attempting to reconcile the disparate identities of culture, religion and self that the artist continuously reflects on.
A six by six feet kite shaped wall hanging, the main body of Huat dao! is a custom-built mahjong table; complete with four drawers, one on each side. Initially the work strikes viewers with the central Chinese calligraphy of Huat dao!, which translates from Hokkien as ‘fortune’. The character is built up from several individual mahjong pieces strung together on slim steel rods, producing an effect similar to an abacus. Each piece is inscribed with a letter or symbol in shades of green, red and blue. These charming pieces act as the main source of colour for the work. Extracting her colour field from found objects is something Louise experiments with regularly; indeed, earlier works such as Joy Stick or Fatal Attraction derive their vibrant tones solely from the composition of existing objects. Interestingly even though assembled the right way up, the individual game pieces have been flipped upside down – mirroring the macro character that is presented upside down. Chinese tradition dictates this reverse position symbolizes the arrival of prosperity, a crucial element in a gambler’s success. Perhaps most interesting of all in Louise’s new wall installation is the calligraphic element of the word Huat. Historically, calligraphy is widely practiced and revered in the Chinese cultural sphere. In its traditional format, there are several rules that the calligrapher is expected to strictly adhere to order to categorise the calligraphy as ‘good’. Louise’s found object medium and play on perspective stray from aspects of the guidelines. In this way, Huat dao! marks an interesting beginning for the artist to start explorations on calligraphy in a current contemporary Chinese cultural context.
Mahjong may be a game of skill, strategy and calculation, but there is an undeniable quality of chance affecting all players. Louise comments on the fondness within her community for gambling and the importance therein on money and prosperity. Mahjong games are a weekly occurrence at the Low family residence. Prior to commencing the gambling session, there is a ceremony, praying for luck and fortune, as referenced by the word Huat, which means fortune in Hokkien. Whenever something good happens, “Huat!” is exclaimed in celebration; conversely at unfortunate events “Huat!” is exclaimed to exorcise the bad luck and usher in good fortune. A born again Christian, Louise stands at a cross road between the staunchness of her cultural upbringing and depth of her spiritual beliefs. Huat dao! can be seen as an attempt by the artist to resolve the conflicts she observes between faith and superstition, and the link between money and culture.
Title: Huat dao!
Artist: Louise Low
Size: 190 cm x 190 cm
Medium: Stainless Steel and Wood Wall Installation