I am a fine artist whose work revolves around dislocated memories, the feeling of dislocation based on cultural heritage and I am exploring these through painting on wood with oil and pyrography.
You have quite a diverse heritage, Australian, Chinese and Mauritian, so is this feeling of dislocation something which has been present in your life?
Yes, although I think I’ve only started to feel it recently. I was born in Australia and I visited Mauritius twice with my parents, but I’ve never been to China. We are not strongly connected with that Chinese heritage. I only left Australia about one and half years ago to come to England and it’s a totally different culture to all of those places, so I think that feeling has grown, I suppose it’s the anxiety of separation.
I had studied Roman and Greek history in high school and university, so when I first came to Europe I really wanted to move here and explore it, but now that I am here, it’s almost like I want to go to China and explore China. In terms of materials I am using Chinese imagery and art principles, and using old family photos, but I am not exploring these ideas about the nostalgia for my own history, it is more directed to a more generalised one if that makes sense.
When did you decide you were going to be an artist?
I grew up in a group with a lot of friends who didn’t study art, so I think I’ve always had one foot set into a really conventional way of living. When I left school in Australia I went straight into studying psychology for two years, but ended up changing course. I liked psychology, but I decided I really liked art and it’s the thing I should do. I did my undergrad and then afterwards I went to Europe for the first time to travel around and then I was like ‘oh my god,’ so I made art for a year and the next year I did my honours and that was it, I was obsessed. I would never go back to studying now because I think it was horrid, but doing that amount of rigorous research helped me to take the leap I suppose.
Having said that, I still have a part-time job as I always need that extra security, especially coming to London without any contacts, and because I haven’t studied here I don’t know any other artists so I need to be realistic about the sustainability of it all.
And London is an expensive city!
Yeah, but being in London the opportunities are coming up everywhere, it is thriving with art opportunities. There are a lot of artists and a lot of competition, but there is enough for everyone.
And there is a big enough audience, the people are receptive here.
We are quite interested by the techniques you use, you use gold leaf, oil, liquid graphite, pyrography, go into that a little bit.
I first started using liquid graphite as a technique separate from my normal painting style, I use it mainly on paper for a body of work that is ongoing where I do tiny drawings and then set them into bottles. I use old family photos and holiday snaps from friends as references, or events that have occurred and memories outside of my centre of knowledge. I capture them as second hand memories on paper and insert them into bottles so the two dimensional drawing becomes an object you can hold and own.
With my more painterly artwork I use oil paints and pyrography on wood. I converted from doing a lot of canvas painting to wood. In my last year of Fine Arts, I created an immersive environment of trees made from acetate and organza, and didn’t use wood at all. But then I reverted back to more traditional painting and wanted to continue my style but on a different support - and having trees as my subject just naturally led to wood. I can’t remember when I started pyrography to be honest it sort of just happened.
What drove you to try to find a new method of communication?
It was more experimentation, I had been doing paintings on canvas for a very long time, and instead of just having drawings on paper I wanted to present them differently. I still feel that I am quite traditional in my method, but I want to explore different techniques and become proficient at them. Even though I have been doing these works on wood for maybe two or three years now, because of time constraints I haven’t been doing that many. I quite like burning into the wood; I like that instead of applying a third medium on top of it. With pyrography you are digging into the surface and as you are burning into it it creates a different texture.
You say your work is about fragmented and fabricated memories. When you say fragmented is this the breaking apart of memories over time, as they fade away or is it also the fabrication of memories that may have previously never existed?
Fragmentation with memory also translates into the fragmentation of my image as it is presented on the canvas or wood, so it’s more the structural aspect that I am interested in.
Like a collage of imagery made in paint?
I think that it echoes the ideas of fabrication, which for me comes from that feeling of dislocation. Whether it is based on my family’s history, or literally where I am in the world.
Never having been to China and only ever having experienced it through photos of the country, which are really idealistic. Also, I think social media and open sourced imagery have shaped my perception of what it is like, so I take all of these little bits of information and create this new space which may or may not represent what it is supposed to.
With a lot of my future work I am trying to find a link between the geographies that I have been talking about. There are these landforms in Mauritius called the Chamarel Coloured Earth, a geographic location where these red earth colours are present in the sand. And it actually happens in China as well which I didn’t realise, the Danxia landform. They have massive protected areas of crazy multi-coloured earth and I think that tied in very well with Australia, with it being the hot country with red deserts.
Is the work nostalgic?
Nostalgic for Australia, and when I look at old family photos I feel a certain nostalgia for this time that I never actually experienced.
How do you hope for your audience to engage with the work?
With the bottle ones the last time I exhibited them I had them on a flat surface, all on mirrors and I invited people to touch them and interact with them. I specifically wanted people to pick them up and to hold this second hand memory of mine and to interact with it in an intimate way. People responded well with that and they understood this idea of exerting some sort of ownership over something which isn’t actually yours, although it’s not actually anyone’s idea or time that is floating around.
My other works take a bit more explaining, they are ideally exhibited in more traditional ways, on the wall, and I hope that as I create different elements, it’s a landscape, a natural landscape and there will be elements of man-made or human touch on the earth. There is the feeling that this is a place which is intangible, which is largely natural, but humans have interacted or interfered with every part of the earth.
So it’s like an amalgamation, it’s a place which has this root that they all connect to.
Yes, I want to be generalised and people to connect to it that way. I am hoping that the feeling of nostalgia for some place, or some time.
There is a lot of nature in it, could it be a nostalgia for a time before cities?
Yeah, I think that is quite a general view of the past, we personally have always lived in cities and our very cultured landscapes.
Michelle Loa Kum Cheung will be exhibiting her fantastic pyrographic and oil paintings on wood in Focus LDN's 2016 Winter Exhibition at the Menier Gallery in London Bridge this December 13th-17th.
To get free tickets to the Private View on Tuesday 13th 6pm - 8:30pm Click Here.