Tales of the Unexpected
Aspects of contemporary Australian art
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The Python appeared. Its head was as large as a rice barrel, its eyes were like mirrors two feet across. Smelling the fragrance of the rice balls, it started to swallow them. Then Li Ji unleashed the dog which bit hard into the python. Li Ji herself came from behind and hacked several times at the python with her sword, wounding it in several places. The wounds hurt so terribly that the python leapt into the courtyard before the temple and died.
Li Ji went into the cave and recovered the skulls of the nine victims. She sighed as she brought them out, saying, ‘For your timidity you were devoured. How pitiful!’ Slowly she made her way homeward.
All writers [creators] must go from now to once upon a time; all must go from here to there; all must descend to where the stories are kept; all must take care not to be captured and held immobile by the past . . . The dead may guard the treasure, but it’s useless treasure unless it can be brought back into the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more – which means to enter the realm of the audience . . . the realm of change.2
Kate Beynon engages with fantastic tales of the unexpected in her art. Since 1996, her work across a wide range of media has been inspired by an ancient Chinese story by Gan Bao, Li Ji: The girl who killed the python, included in the text In Search for Marvels, set in Fujian, China, in the Jin Dynasty (AD 317–420). A historian in the court of the Eastern Jin Emperor Yuan, Gan Bao wrote stories ‘left over from history’, compiling them into a collection that is regarded as an important example of the zhiguai (strange tales) genre, ‘recording’ extraordinary characters in a style that mimicked historical writing.3
For Beynon, who has long been interested in language as a form of mimicry and encoded symbols, the re-telling of the tale of Li Ji, a ‘warrior girl’ who triumphs over evil, presented the opportunity to merge personal and collective stories and histories as a way of reflecting on issues of mixed cultural heritage in contemporary society. Of the original story Beynon writes:
Li Ji: Warrior Girl 2000
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Li Ji lives in a mountain village menaced by a giant python that ritually eats young girls every year. After many deaths, Li Ji pretends to sacrifice herself as the next victim (as an expendable daughter), but instead takes a sword and a snake-hunting dog, and slays the python. As a reward she is made queen of a local kingdom. Interpretations of the meaning of this story are varied – from female bravery and heroism to a conservative fairytale ending in luxury and questionable happiness.4
There are personal associations for the artist with her adaptation of the story of Li Ji. Born in Hong Kong, Beynon has lived in Australia since the age of four, experiencing the hybrid world of two cultures. A number of the books that were left by her grandfather in her family home were bilingual, incorporating Chinese and English text, the punctuation of the latter – question marks and exclamation marks – often surfacing in the Chinese counterparts. As an adult she also became fascinated by the implications of language across cultures.
In numerous inventive ‘wall drawings’ comprised of chenille sticks (pipe cleaners), Beynon created delicate, fuzzy Chinese characters (sometimes decipherable, sometimes incomprehensible) relating to travel guide and textbook phrases such as ‘What is your name?’, ‘Where do you come from?’. When grouped together, they may also sound like the interrogation of a foreign culture. In works such as Excuse Me! 1997, in the National Gallery’s collection, she twists the inquisitive into the exclamatory, reclaiming the power of language. The idea of taking control, of overcoming ritual humiliations incurred in relation to language, corresponds with Li Ji’s triumph over adversity.
In her video animation Li Ji: Warrior Girl 2000, Beynon focuses in part on the action at the heart of the story – the victory against the odds of the young Li Ji over the demonic python (also a metaphor for negative forces in Australian society). This is interwoven with Li Ji, a young Chinese–Australian woman, living in contemporary Melbourne who is the reincarnation of the girl in the tale. As she travels through the metropolis of her current home, past arcades and construction sites sprayed with graffiti, her memory of the past is provoked by the presence of a diasporic Chinese culture (for example, coming across a Chinese barbecue shop in Chinatown) or by signs of racism (a stencilled map of Australia on the city’s walls with the word ‘full’ written across it).5 In the course of these encounters, Li Ji experiences flashbacks to her former life and her courage is reignited.
In the process of merging the past and present lives of Li Ji , Beynon reflects upon racism and the dream of coexistence. Along with a critique of contemporary society, there is a sense of the liberating confidence of youth, of ‘girl power’, towards a more inclusive, compassionate future. As Beynon notes: ‘This work is aimed at asserting a positive view toward a hybrid Australian existence, and a sense of belonging within a mixed and multi-layered identity.’
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In her chenille stick wall drawings, video animation, digital photographic prints and recent paintings, Beynon draws upon a variety of sources: Chinese text and calligraphy, traditional Chinese art, cartoon and comic book graphics (including Japanese manga) and graffiti art. Throughout, there is a strong emphasis on the two dimensional surface that relates to her ongoing interest in drawing.
Beynon’s fascination with the symbolic resonances of dress, with the fabric of cultural expression, so apparent in her earlier installations, resurfaces in her current work – for example, in the Chinese apparel of the woman from the early tale in Li Ji and her Dog at the Longevity Tree 2002 and the informality and directness of the contemporary Li Ji in Welcome 2001.
Across the broad spectrum of her work, Beynon’s interest in time-travel across different locations and cultures reveals her interest in probing the fluid exchanges of cross-cultural experience. In her vibrant, deliberately cartoon-like images she suggests that the recovery of the ghosts of past lives in fantastic tales can perhaps empower us, ignite imagination, illuminate our present consciousness.
1Gan Bao, ‘Li Ji: The girl who killed the python’, quoted in Zhong Qin, Everyday Chinese: Brighter readings in Classical Chinese, New World Press, Beijing, 1987, pp.130–140.
2Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A writer on writing, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2002, pp.178–179.
3Kenneth J. De Woskin and J.I. Crump, In Search of the Supernatural: The written record, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1996.
4Kate Beynon, From the Dreams of Li Ji, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, 2002
5See Stuart Koop, ‘Warrior Girl: Kate Beynon’s tussle with language’, in Art Asia Pacific, issue no.29, 2001, pp.55–61.
Selected further reading
Koop, Stuart Warrior Girl: Kate Beynon's tussle with language Art
Asia Pacific, no.29, Jan, 2001, pp.56–-61
McDonald, Helen Erotic ambiguities: the female nude in art Routledge, London, 2001 (includes Kate Beynon, Lyndell Brown, Charles Green and Sally Smart)
McKenzie, Robyn 'Kate Beynon' 1996 Adelaide Biennale of Australian Art (ex. cat.), Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 1996, pp.50–51
Australian Perspecta 99: Living Here Now, Art & Politics eds. Wayne Tunnicliffe and Hetti Perkins, (ex. cat.), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1999
Williamson, Claire & Snelling, Michael Above and Beyond: Austral/Asian Interactions Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 1996