Chinese Whispers

Siamese Twins, (detail) 1996
oil on canvas boards

Chinese Whispers was a collaborative group project, using drawings, paintings, computer generated images and installation works by three artists: Andrew Seward, Darrelle Chng and Penelope Aitken. Seward and Aitken are Australian and Chng is Chinese Singaporean and all three participants are both artists and practising curators/arts administrators.

The exhibition itself focused in different ways on cultures which are not the artists' own but hold some fascination for each because of circumstances in which they have become exposed to them. The title, Chinese Whispers, comes from the game in which a message is passed around a circle from one ear to the next and reinterpreted along the way until it reaches its ultimate form at the end. The potential permutations are as many as there are people playing and in many ways resembles the infinite re-interpretation of culture from one country or particular era, to the next.


The Personal is Professional, a catalogue essay for Chinese Whispers, by Andrew Seward

Penelope tells me that in certain of Jane Austen's novels, the precious young women whose lives are chronicled in the pages, regard the soldiers marching off to the Napoleonic Wars, handsomely dressed in dashing uniforms, as mere eye candy. The protagonists of Austen's novels apparently have no desire to comprehend any political environment outside their own milieu. However rather than criticising Austen for celebrating the self-assured apathy of nineteenth century middle-class English village life, literary commentators more recently argue that she describes the abiding political framework of personal interrelationships crucial to feminist appraisals of culture.

To illustrate the significance of this idea for her, Penelope describes to me the 'cultural briefings' which Australian business people and politicians now attend before they leave on missions to Asian countries. How strange it seems that in order to clinch financial deals or make diplomatic progress in foreign countries, Australian business men are now paying close attention to the minutiae of social etiquette as presented by professional consultants in the field.

In this relativised, post-colonial environment, nothing can be taken for granted: overseas now we deliberate about whether to sniff or to blow our nose. Indeed, it is now possible for most people to understand that the things we take for granted in culture, such as manners and conventions, are the arena in which ideology and the social construction of reality is manufactured.

Penelope's paintings are emblems of contemporary cultural interactions. By concentrating on the small details in her paintings, or pirouetting cocktail umbrellas and cute koala's as souvenirs, she reminds us of the use we commonly make of these trinkets to abstractly represent entire cultures.

In professional life, faux pas and misunderstandings are often made and insults traded. The paintings represent the cultural abstractions which are the cause of many misunderstandings between different people. Such misunderstandings, though, are also capable of providing the greatest illumination of ourselves and our relations with others in genuine attempts to negotiate difficult and intensely personal interactions.

Andrew Seward, 1996


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