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Emilia 2012arrow

Emilia 2012
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Filip 2012arrow

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Takeshi 2012arrow

Takeshi 2012
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Oratunga 2012arrow

Oratunga 2012
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Elsie 2012arrow

Elsie 2012
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Elsie 2012
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Irrational and Idiosyncratic:
Khai Liew and Bruce Nuske
3 AUG - 30 SEP 2012
Anne and Gordon Samstag
Museum of Art, Adelaide

Expanding on an idea conceived in 2010, when these two artists first collaborated on a single work, Irrational and Idiosyncratic presents seven works that sing from a score sheet of shared references, interwoven ideas and veneration for the visual history of the Aesthetic Movement.

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Irrational and Idiosyncratic: Khai Liew and Bruce Nuske
3 AUG - 30 SEP 2012
Anne and Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, Adelaide

Expanding on an idea conceived in 2010, when these two artists first collaborated on a single work, Irrational and Idiosyncratic presents seven works that sing from a score sheet of shared references, interwoven ideas and veneration for the visual history of the Aesthetic Movement.

Aestheticism's far eastern influence and emphasis on nature dance across these works, celebrating the 'irrationalism' of valuing art above all else; the two very different mediums forming a contemporary phrasing of the ornamental. These works, however, also remain true to those other possibilities of design – form and function – composed in harmony with decoration as a result of meticulous craftsmanship.



 

Rosina ll 2012arrow

Rosina ll 2012
American black walnut,
stoneware, porcelain slip,
pierced decoration
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Rosina ll 2012
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Charlot 2012arrow

Charlot 2012
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Charlot 2012
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Sophia 2012arrow

Sophia 2012
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moulded stoneware,
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Sophia 2012
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Joanna 2012arrow

Joanna 2012
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Joanna 2012
American black walnut
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Oscar 2012arrow

Oscar 2012
American black walnut,
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Oscar 2012
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Passages: Brian Castro,
Khai Liew, John Young
25 FEB - 27 MAY 2012
Tarrawarra Museum of Art, Victoria

Passages is a collaborative project which presents an enticing combination of thought-provoking literature, design and fine art, bringing together the writings of Brian Castro, furniture of Khai Liew, and paintings of John Young.

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Passages: Brian Castro, Khai Liew, John Young
25 FEB - 27 MAY 2012
Tarrawarra Museum of Art, Victoria

Passages is a collaborative project which presents an enticing combination of thought-provoking literature, design and fine art, bringing together the writings of Brian Castro, furniture of Khai Liew, and paintings of John Young. The three artists in Passages inhabit a similar cultural space shaped by the Asian Diaspora, which emerges in varying degrees through their individual disciplines of literature, design and visual art. Their common Asian reference informs each artist’s engagement with modernism to develop an aesthetic particular to Australia. This wonderful confluence of ideas and experiences enables fresh dialogues and dynamic correspondences to emerge and be exchanged between their different art forms.

 

Passages 2012arrow

Naïve and Sentimental
Painting I Spring 2010
John Young
Oil on linen
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Rem 2009
Khai Liew 
Blackbean
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Naïve and Sentimental
Painting I Spring 2010
John Young
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Khai Liew 
Blackbean
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Passages into the ‘Asian Century’

In September 2011 the Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard announced that she had commissioned Ken Henry to develop a White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century. The economic rise of Asia, and especially of China and India, has resulted in unprecedented changes to both the geo-political and economic landscape and necessitated a ‘national blueprint for a time of national change’ to rethink Australia’s role and engagement with Asia. According to the Prime Minister, ‘Australia has not been here before’.1

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Passages into the ‘Asian Century’

In September 2011 the Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard announced that she had commissioned Ken Henry to develop a White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century. The economic rise of Asia, and especially of China and India, has resulted in unprecedented changes to both the geo-political and economic landscape and necessitated a ‘national blueprint for a time of national change’ to rethink Australia’s role and engagement with Asia. According to the Prime Minister, ‘Australia has not been here before’.1

This declaration invoked a sense of déjà vu for many scholars of Asian and Australian politics and history. The ‘Asian century’ has been both anticipated and dreaded from as early as the 1880s and contributed to the development of the so-called White Australia policy that continues to haunt Australia’s profile in the region.2 The discourses of ‘engagement’ with a rising Asia and its corollary, the fear of Asian invasion, have played a critical role in the national imaginary. As Johnson, Ahluwalia and McCarthy, among others, have argued, the idea of “Asia” has operated ‘as a sign and symbol in Australian domestic politics, helping to define “who we are” as well as the related question of what is Australia’s place in the world. As such, ‘Asia’ has always been an ambivalent sign – one that can be both troubling and exemplify hope’.3

The Ken Henry White Paper on Asia is not the first of its kind of course.4 The ‘Asian Turn’ in Australia’s policy framework occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s and is most often associated with the government of the Prime Minister Paul Keating who advocated the privileging of Australia’s geographic location in the region over our historical connections with Europe. The Keating years have become the yardstick for the promotion of ‘Asia-literacy’ and engagement with some very effective changes introduced not only to foreign policy but also in the domestic education and cultural sectors. Although the succeeding Howard government went on to develop relatively successful diplomatic and trading relations with Asian countries, it did not pursue Asia-literacy to the same degree. Indeed, Howard was of the belief that it was possible to have good foreign relations with Asia without having to engage with it in ways that influenced or changed Australian domestic culture.5 While there was some anticipation of a revival of the so-called ‘Asianisation of Australia’ with the election of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister in 2007, his term of administration was too brief to make an impact. The Gillard government has been slow to develop its regional policy and there will be close scrutiny on how the Henry paper will facilitate the Prime Minister’s wish to maintain ‘an ally in Washington and respect in Beijing’.6

An historical overview of Australia’s relations with Asia reveals that discourses about Asia-Australia relations are based on a bipolar East-West conceptual framework that continues to resonate in the present despite the awareness of the impact of globalisation. More specifically, as Jan Jindy Pettman observes, notions of engagement and regional integration are ‘ideally about Australia in Asia, and not about Asia in Australia’.7 Notwithstanding the significant progress that has been made towards a more culturally inclusive concept of the nation in the area of public education and the growing conviction that Australia’s future lies with the economic ascendancy of its Asian neighbours (demonstrated by the relative stability of our economy and its reliance on Chinese investment in the face of the current global financial crisis), there remains a significant proportion of the Australian population who are uncomfortable with the changes in cultural orientation and population demographics. The populist support for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party in the late 1990s, the Cronulla riots in 2005 and the growing unease about Islam, are indicators of anxieties about the presence of Asia and Asians in Australia, and the assumed incommensurate differences between ‘Asianness’ and ‘Australianness’.

The emergence of Asian Australianness as fields of political action, cultural production and academic research emerged in the late 1990s in response to heightened racism against Asian and Aboriginal Australians.8 Asian Australianness as an identity category was deployed in the face of exclusionary racialist politics; drawing on concepts of hybridity and diaspora, the term was used to claim a space for Australians of Asian descent as both Asian and Australian. Asian Australianness as a platform for anti-racist political solidarity was developed to unsettle dominant expectations of an unproblematic homology between cultural, racial and national identity.

More than a decade later, and with new landscapes of racisms emerging, the role of Asian Australians within the national imaginary remains ambivalent. While the spectre of Asian (and especially Chinese) economic dominance invokes older fears of the yellow peril, Asian Australians are also held up as bridge-builders and cultural mediators who can facilitate the country’s engagement with Asia. In visual art and design, the status of Asian Australian artists has arguably risen in both esteem and currency, propelled by the growing international interest in contemporary Asian art. Interest in the so-called World Literature (that is, literature that crosses the traditional cultural and national domain to reach a global audience) and diasporic literature (literature written from/about the Asian diasporas in the West) are also increasing in popularity. Despite the significance of international forces on Australian cultural production, Asian Australian artists continue to be interpreted within a nationalist and specifically multicultural framework. This had led to a tendency to over-emphasise the biographical and cultural/ethnic identification of the artists as the primary means of elucidating the artworks. While some Asian Australian art is based on the concepts of hybridity, migrancy and diaspora, there are other works that have little to do with such matters. The danger with privileging sociological frameworks is that it risks reiterating hegemonic paradigms of racialisation. The instituitionalisation of such practices within academia, as well as in the curatorial and arts marketing sectors has the unfortunate consequence of delimiting Asian Australian artworks as ethnographic testimonials of racial and ethnic difference and thus, reinforces the location of the works at the fringes of mainstream culture.

Thus, in approaching Passages, a multi-art collaboration between Brian Castro, John Young and Khai Liew, three of Australia’s pre-eminent artists in the fields of literature, art and design, I will not be foregrounding their purported affinities through notions of Chineseness and/or Asianness. Such approaches have already been done in individual studies of the artists, some with considerable intellectual rigor and finesse. Instead, I take as my starting point, the title of the exhibition and its philosophical underpinnings in order to reflect on what the works might tell us about passaging to/through the Asian century.

Passages connotes travel and the disruption of regular or familiar time and place. It suggests notions of deterritorialisation whereby orthodox understandings of history, nation, identity and belonging are destabilised and the possibility of alternative epistemologies and subjectivities can be entertained. The trope of travel and mobility is often used in diasporic discourses, most famously by Paul Gilroy who reminds us that ‘it’s not where you’re from’ but ‘where you’re at’ that determines identity and agency.9 The privileging of route rather than roots has particular relevance for Castro, Young and Liew who, despite being often described as Chinese Australians, nonetheless have very different histories and experiences of claiming Chineseness. Castro was born in Hong Kong in 1950 of Portuguese, Chinese and English parentage. He was sent to boarding school in Sydney in 1961; Young was born in Hong Kong of Southern Chinese parentage and was sent to Australia in 1967 to complete his education at the onset of The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China; Liew was born in 1952 in Malaysia and was also sent to Australia to complete his education in 1970 after the race riots in his homeland. Despite different Chinese origins, all three artists have experienced passages as young men to Australia at a time when the White Australia policy was still formally in place and each had to find his own way of assimilating into Anglo-Australian society.

One of the common elements shared by all three is a deep and continuing engagement with European culture and philosophy. Indeed, one could argue that the common thread in the works of Castro, Young and Liew is less about arriving at a fixed notion of Chineseness than the ongoing conversation that they have developed from their particular diasporic location with late Western modernism. As Wendy Walker’s essay elucidates, each artist has developed an oeuvre that draws inspiration from European artists and philosophers as diverse as Charles Baudelaire, Vladimir Nabokov, W.G. Sebald, Morris Louis, Joseph Beuys, Charles Ives, Gerrit Rietveld, Hans Wegner, Finn Juhl, Wolfgang Iser, Paul de Man, Roland Barthes, Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. As this exhibition demonstrates, there is no clear demarcation or privileging between the influences of European modernism and Asian/Chinese references in either the works or the ways in which they speak to each other to form a collage and constellation. Instead the artworks encourage us to focus on the experience of travel itself, and of negotiation of differences that is a necessary part of the making of new meanings and identities as we transit through unfamiliar terrain.

The montage and palimpsestic quality of the exhibition also alludes to the work of Walter Benjamin, an important influence for Castro and Young in particular. Benjamin’s Passagenwerk (Arcades Project) was an unfinished lifelong project that was edited and published posthumously. The publication (which retains the fragmentary nature of his work in progress) uses the trope of the Passages couverts de Paris – the iron and glass-covered arcades – to explore nineteenth-century Parisian city-life as passages into critiquing European history and politics. At the simplest level, the exhibition replicates the experience of the window-shopper who navigates through a heterogeneous collection of goods on display. The arcade is also a site of ambiguity and contradiction: it is a space of material excess and commodification but it also offers opportunities for new and alternative socialities to form and acquire influence. Passagenwerk has also been read as Benjamin’s attempt to reconceive the principles of revolutionary historiography. Benjamin borrows the concept of the montage from the arcade and deploys it as the founding principle for a radical theory of knowledge based not on a theory of correspondence but on disruption and dislocation. Benjamin believed that an examination of fragments of the past in the light of the present would enable society to break away from what we now call “metanarratives” or orthodox epistemologies.10

I started this essay by taking a long view of history and recalled the discourses of engagement with Asia (both positive and negative) that are foundational to the concept of the modern Australian nation state. I even scoffed at Prime Minister Gillard’s insistence that Australia has never been in the face of a rising Asia before. Passages has caused me to rethink the giveness of my assumptions of the telos of history however. So what then if we were to view this moment in time as indeed the first and only moment Australia has ever faced a rising Asia? What are the resources at our disposal when we look to our multicultural community and our natural environment? How can we make history differently? What is at stake in new forms of regionalism? If we are indeed witnessing the historical decentering of Western hegemony, what new ontologies and epistemologies can we conceive?

Asia is a fluid and complex regional space with uncertain and contested boundaries. It no longer conforms to older notions of the East and the Orient, and is powered by alternative modernities that are not merely replications of the West. Passages as a site of transformation and becoming is not a naïve celebration of “happy hybridity”11 but rather a grounded engagement with the ethics and, politics of crossing-cultures. Brian Castro, John Young and Khai Liew are not just cultural mediators but visionaries who offer insights into alternative routes of navigating between Asia and Australia. Passages does not confirm the fixed points in a compass but rather provokes us to think about passages into the Asian century in more profound ways than accorded by the spin-doctors of Parliament.

© Jacqueline Lo, January 2012


Endnotes

1. Julia Gillard, Speech to the Asialink and Asia Society Lunch, Melbourne, 28 September 2011 http://www.pm.gov.au/ press-office/speech-asialink-and-asia-society-lunch-melbourne (downloaded 5/1/12).

2. See David Walker, Anxious Nation, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1999.

3. Carol Johnson, Pal Ahluwalia and Greg McCarthy, “Australia’s Ambivalent Re-imagining of Asia,” Australian Journal of Political Science 45.1 (2010): p. 60.

4. One of the most well-regarded policy forerunners being Ross Garnaut’s ‘Australia and the Northeast Asia Ascendancy’ report for the Hawke government in 1989.

5. Johnson, Ahluwalia and McCarthy, p. 62.

6. http://www.pm.gov.au/press-office/speech-asialink-and-asia-society-lunch-melbourne (downloaded 5/1/12).

7. Jan Jindy Pettman, “A Feminist Perspective on ‘Australia in Asia’” in John Docker and Gerhard Fischer (eds.). Race, Colour and Identity in Australia and New Zealand, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2000, p. 147.

8. For details see Jacqueline Lo, “Disciplining Asian Australian Studies: Projections and Introjections”, Journal of Intercultural Studies, 27.1 & 2 (2006): pp. 11-27.

9. Paul Gilroy, “It Ain’t Where You’re From, It’s Where You’re At... : The Dialectics of Diasporic Identification”, Third Text 13 (Winter 1990/91): pp. 3-16.

10. See Richard Wolin, “Aestheticism and Social Theory: The Case of Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk,” Theory, Culture and Society 10 (1993): pp. 169-180.

11. See Jacqueline Lo, “Beyond Happy Hybridity” in Ien Ang, Sharon Chalmers, Lisa Law, Mandy Thomas (eds.), Alter/Asians: Asian-Australian Identities in Art, Media and Popular Culture, Annandale, NSW, Australia: Pluto Press, 2000, pp. 152-168.

 

Making a case for the interrupted dance

Pithily conveying the state of transition associated with diasporic experience,       
Passages is on a number of levels a most apposite title for an exhibition of works by Brian Castro, Khai Liew and John Young, all of whom (between 1961 and 1971) travelled alone to Australia1 – albeit under significantly differing circumstances – in order to further their secondary (and later tertiary) education at Catholic boarding schools. This rite of passage is evoked by Castro in his ‘Boarding School’ fragment for Passages:

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Making a case for the interrupted dance

Pithily conveying the state of transition associated with diasporic experience, Passages is on a number of levels a most apposite title for an exhibition of works by Brian Castro, Khai Liew and John Young, all of whom (between 1961 and 1971) travelled alone to Australia1 – albeit under significantly differing circumstances – in order to further their secondary (and later tertiary) education at Catholic boarding schools. This rite of passage is evoked by Castro in his ‘Boarding School’ fragment for Passages:

We all went there: bed and board. Sideboards; bed-boards; bread boards; bored... Later there were beards, and then glasses and probably beer-glasses, as we discussed Bonhoeffer and Bauhaus.2

Young, who considers ‘a negotiation with Western modernity and modernism in its different facets (painting, literature, design) as seminal’, offers the insight that ‘all three of us from the Chinese diaspora negotiated and entered into dialogue for decades with late Western modernism. This produces work with a different character to, for example, that of contemporary artists from the Chinese mainland, where for nearly half a century such modernist arteries were not as available (or where there was an incommensurate sense of Western modernism). Chinese artists have necessarily followed a different creative trajectory to Chinese artists from the diaspora.’3

Certainly Castro – a self-proclaimed ‘dyed-in-the-wool modernist’ – believes that ‘High Modernism [in literature] has never ended’4 (although he manifestly plays with postmodern strategies in his fiction). In her close analysis of the author’s published novels, Brian Castro’s Fiction: The Seductive Play of Language (2008), Bernadette Brennan identifies (in an Australian context) an alignment with Patrick White – ‘an intellectual, deeply ironic, modernist writer’5 – but also the ‘richly intertextual conversations’6 that Castro conducts with (largely European) modernist writers. Thus she positions Castro within a broader framework of works by Walter Benjamin, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, W.G. Sebald, Virginia Woolf et al. (it is instructive to note that Castro studied French literature at the University of Sydney and taught and lived in Paris for a year).

Informed at a fundamental level by classical influences (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Chinese), the rigorous and elegant designs of Khai Liew are also predicated (although by no means exclusively) on both Scandinavian late modernism and an earlier historical avant-garde, in particular the de Stijl movement. Entirely less expected is the incorporation – into his sophisticated, ever-evolving design vocabulary – of elements associated with the Australian vernacular. This potent and possibly unique amalgamation, in which precisely resolved, globally divergent influences remain discernible, has been succinctly described by Robert Cook as ‘Euro mod/trad-Asian meets Aus-pioneer.’7

John Young

What strange distance – we paint these abstracts – composing on the screen I am connected to a semblance of the human – a Rothko’s blood here, a Louis’ objectivity there, the avant-faith of Charles Ives songs – and maybe even the pre-human, like the ink to silk union of Song Dynasty Landscapes. Hopefully even one day, a semblance of Barnett Newman’s Now, the zip on his twelve stations. Zim-zoom. (In Hong Kong, nobody has cared for a long time – the firing of the noon day gun – yet in this Melbourne’s dawn, I can still hear it).8

John Young, 2012

As Carolyn Barnes has noted, there are ‘complex cultural politics’9 at play in John Young’s work, which is distinguished by a richness of shifting iconography, underpinned by a network of multi-layered and interwoven (as well as discrete) allusions and themes. In the period since 2005, Young has focused on the development of three major cycles of work, which further divide into multiple sub-groups; the Abstract Paintings series, including for example Naïve and Sentimental Paintings and the Northern Song works and the figurative Cardinal Paintings series, in which the Double Ground Paintings are emblematic of ‘a visual grammatical and syntactical investigation of representational imagery, of experimental mindscapes that draw heavily on pre-modern Chinese and Western archaic sentiments.’10 Finally there are the Transcultural Humanitarian Projects, such as Bonhoeffer in Harlem and the three series of Safety Zone, which acknowledged acts of resistance by individuals to protect others against atrocities perpetrated by autocratic regimes.

Ongoing investigations into Chinese and Western pictorial traditions – considered within a framework of a digital age of mass visual reproduction – also encompass socio-political (including Australian) narrative strands. Of great personal significance for Young (as well as Castro), the handing back of Hong Kong to China in 1997 provided the impetus for one of his most overtly political paintings Hong Kong Burns (2000), in which the ground of multiple, translucent butterflies signified the potential fragility of national boundaries. With their seductive, richly patterned and coloured grounds, the Persian Paintings (2004-) represent a valorisation of Persian culture – historically associated with poetry, exquisite carpets and gardens, art and pottery, attar of roses, exotic fruits and spices and so on – at a time of the region’s demonisation by Howard and Bush.

Young’s works for Passages – smaller paintings from the 2010 Empathy group, in addition to a selection of more recent and larger works – collectively form a subset of the extensive Abstract Paintings project (2006-). Utilising an approach that might be considered a twenty-first century version of automatism, Young downloads – at times randomly – a thousand digital images per day. Transformed overnight through a system of filters, a selection of the altered and now abstracted images is then scaled up and fastidiously realised in oil on linen. Song Dynasty silk paintings furnished the specific generative images for the Empathy body of work, whereas the second group of paintings constitutes an amalgam of a variety of imagery (ranging from clichéd travel photographs to generic soft pornography); the resultant works reveal an undeniable resonance with 1950s high-modernist abstraction. Providing a counterpoint to the melancholic, Rothko-like works, the airier, more ephemeral Northern Song and Naïve and Sentimental paintings are suggestive of landscapes. The title of the latter is derived from American minimalist composer John Adams' Naive and Sentimental Music (1997-98), which in turn is based on Friedrich Schiller's 1795 essay, 'Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung' ('On naïve and sentimental poetry').11 It is also the title of one of Brian Castro's memorable fragments for Passages.

Drawn from the outset of his practice to the notion of chance as a means of generating an artwork, Young continues to practise a number of distancing strategies – most overtly through the employment of studio assistants to paint his canvases (thereby dispensing, as he expresses it, 'with the myth of the great gestural hero').12 However, a degree of aesthetic intention persists, both in the selection of specific images that are fed into the computer and in the identification of those to be replicated in paint. Stating that he is interested in preserving Jurassic technologies, Young has perversely – given that he was in the forefront of the espousal of digital technologies as a means of creating a new kind of hybrid painting – chosen the medium of oil paint (believing it confers a corporeality, antithetical to the characteristic flatness/rubberiness of works of the post-painterly period). 'It is my attempt', Young says, 'to conserve some humanist values in a post-human, corporate environment of “new media”.13 It represents therefore a reversal of the preferences of late modernists like Morris Louis, for whom the particular qualities offered by new acrylic paints were integral to the evolution of unprecedented techniques and whose work the paintings for Passages evoke.

Louis's Veils series of 1954 and 1958-59 – characterised by undulating layers of transparent colour stained into (and poured onto) the canvases – were the result of an epiphanic private viewing in 1953 (together with Kenneth Noland and Clement Greenberg) of Helen Frankenthaler's vast painting Mountains and Sea. Galvanised by this episode, Louis and Noland worked together for several weeks in an intensive and ultimately fruitful exploration of technique, structure and materiality that profoundly altered their subsequent output. Conversely, Young's paintings are the outcome of an intense conceptual engagement that disavows the physical process – at least of the 'gestural hero' kind – thereby introducing not only shared authorship, but also shared referents; an alternating inversion and assumption (such as serialisation) of modernist tropes.

Although Young frequently alludes to the anachronistic condition of painting – in the context of Passages it is interesting that it was Baudelaire, who in denouncing the advent of photography, heralded the death of painting14 – it has in recent times undeniably undergone a revival. It is Young's view that contemporaneous digitally-generated imagery might be considered analogous to early photography, where 'the photographer emulated a vision of an earlier visual paradigm.' He believes that no-one has yet uncovered a 'genuinely new visual paradigm of digital imagery, much like someone had to stumble onto the image of a bullet in flight (Walter Benjamin) or aerial flatness (Dziga Vertov).'15

Khai Liew

At home I was raised under strict Confucian instruction combined with Buddhist ideals, but at school it was Catholic doctrine and Christian values. We as children accepted these vast cultural and religious differences as a normal part of life... So, essentially, I grew up with temple joss sticks in one hand and rosary beads in the other.16

Khai Liew, 2004

The dichotomous nature of modernism's legacy – especially in architecture, where it simultaneously generated oppressive tower blocks and housing estates (the incubator of urban anomie) alongside fine exemplars of International Style, such as Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye – cannot be overlooked. But as Adrian Searle noted in his review of the 2006 Modernism 1914-39: Designing a New World exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum: 'Decrying modernism is a bit like asking what the Romans ever did for us.'17  

In embracing the best aspects of modernism – truth to materials, a restricted, mostly natural palette, the pursuit of formal elegance, functionality and clarity – Khai Liew nevertheless engages with an ever-expanding sphere of reference that encompasses the Aesthetic Movement, Arts and Crafts, Viennese Secession and Scandinavian modernism and more specifically, E.W. Godwin, Josef Hoffmann, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Gerrit Rietveld, C.F.A. Voysey, Hans Wegner et al.  

In a 2004 lecture at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Liew emphasised the critical importance of honesty, integrity and clarity of intention in design, as well as the need to look beyond the purely physical to the spirit of a piece of furniture. It was this capacity to 'perceive without prejudice'18 that led Liew to an appreciation of rustic, nineteenth-century Australian vernacular furniture, at that time (in the early 1970s) considered insignificant, but to later become highly collectable. Liew's most opulent piece of furniture, the ostensibly oriental, red-lacquered (Tasmanian oak) Jian cabinet (2000), elevated by means of a silver-gilt, gridded structure – is a revisualisation of a red, nineteenth-century Barossan storage trunk on a makeshift Eucalypt sapling 'stand'.19

Liew has frequently expressed his view that the cabinet on a stand presents an accurate barometer of a society’s cultural evolution. Reflecting 'an entirely different set of aspirations, values and conditions', with its symbolic use of exalted materials, the Jian (2000) cabinet (like its Remi counterpart), therefore stands apart within his oeuvre as a metaphor for Australia's evolution from a rural frontier settlement to a sophisticated multicultural community – a sentiment echoed in the title of his 2007 exhibition Tiersmen to Linenfold.

Conceived as a sumptuous piece of furniture and designed without constraints of any kind, the limewood creaminess and red-stained handles of the Remi (2000) cabinet directly reference a 1960s photograph of his father Wan Thye Liew in the lavish costume of the Chinese opera.20 Importantly, the cabinet is also a memorial to ostracised nineteenth-century Chinese immigrant cabinetmakers, who produced inexpensive furniture for the Australian market.21 It is this shameful episode in Australian history that is referenced in Brian Castro's 'Naïve & Sentimental' fragment for Passages, in which the narrator becomes aware that the table he has purchased is stamped ‘WHITE LABOUR’ on its underside.

Whereas the applied, pleated panels of the more recent Kokoso (2009) cabinet reiterate the decorative fan-pleated panels of a rose mahogany suite of furniture created in 2008 for Admiralty House, the unexpected, skewed quirkiness of the legs that form the base of the cabinet mimics the supporting structure of the Portia (2007) chest of drawers (which features three-dimensional, triangular handles wrought from a single piece of timber – a motif derived from the chance discovery of a carved, early eighteenth-century chest in the Marché aux Puces in Paris).

Representing an unprecedented foray into asymmetry, it was part of the watershed 2007 Tiersmen to Linenfold exhibition, which introduced not only a new expressiveness to Liew’s austere, reductive forms (and a shift beyond the integration of decoration with function), but also a softening of the de Stijl-like angularity of earlier works, as surfaces and components became discreetly altered, tapered, chamfered. Liew is a consummate orchestrator of shadows and the foregrounding of traditional decorative linenfold22 techniques also facilitated an enhanced and rhythmical flow of light and shade.

Invoking the soft rippling of waves, the curved and tapering, clamshell-like applied panels of the Julian (2011) chest of drawers and Paterson (2011) sideboard constitute a variation on the design strategies – realised through his signature origami-like/folded paper maquettes – developed for the Tiersmen to Linenfold exhibition. Like the Brancusi-inspired ‘bow-tie’ form, Liew’s repertoire of shapes and motifs has the capacity to migrate (albeit often differently scaled) across a variety of media and forms, in a referencing and fertile exchange between elements of his existing archive.

Congruent with a modernist incorporation of the vernacular, one of Liew’s earliest chair designs, the award-winning Deloraine (1998) chair was a contemporary reworking of the structurally-ingenious, nineteenth-century Jimmy Possum chair. In Liew’s interpretation, which also alludes to the European spindle-back Windsor chair, it was given an altogether more squared-off, severely geometric form – the manifestation of a Rietveldian influence, which continues to resonate (notably in the Jeannie (2000) bench and Kirsten (2010) chair). Subsequent chairs have clearly borne the trace of late Scandinavian modernism, although the most recent Stephanie (2011) chair exhibits a discernibly Viennese disposition.

Captivated by ‘the spare aesthetic and exquisitely-resolved economy of construction’ of mid-twentieth century Danish furniture, in the early 1990s, Liew was surprised to discover that classical – and in particular, Chinese and Japanese techniques – were frequently integral to their construction. Elegant, sculptural, impeccably resolved, the Spoehr (2007) chair (with its finely attenuated splat) can be located within a lineage that includes Hans Wegner’s succession of reinterpretations and refinements (such as the 1949-50 Y and Round chairs) of sixteenth and seventeenth-century (Ming Dynasty) Chinese chairs.23 In Liew’s body of work, where the appearance of simplicity belies the conundrum of construction,24 the Chinese strand of influence remains subtle, but nonetheless pervasive.

Envisaged as an abstraction of a swan – thereby providing another link with Castro’s ‘Bench Press’ – the Kirsten (2010) chair is conceptually a variation of the earlier Jeannie (2000) bench,25 conceived to emulate a line of birds in flight and to enfold the occupant with its ‘wings’. A generous, capacious chair – revealing parallels with the chairs of American architect/designer Gustav Stickley – it was (in its original incarnation) one of the works for Liew’s Aesthetic Movement-inspired collaborative exhibition Collec+ors (2010)26 presented (from February to August 2011) at the London Design Museum.

With narrow horizontal penetrations into dense mass that allude to North African architecture, the Love Cube (2004) is Liew’s most solid, anchored and contained design – a counterpoint in Passages to the lightness and sheer playfulness of the Double Dutch (2009) stool and table. Frequently demonstrating inventive solutions to the dissolution of mass – such as the strategic use of timber battens – a highly considered interplay of light and shade, of void and mass has from the outset informed Liew’s design philosophy, to which classical precepts of harmonious proportions are also critical.

The boundless potential for the kind of creative tension afforded by such oppositional (yet ultimately resolved) elements27 was given eloquent expression by Bauhaus architect/designer Marcel Breuer in his reflections on the philosophy of classical Greek architecture:

...[W]ith all their love for precision in buildings, the Greeks walked to their temples on the rough granite rock. It was not polished granite. They did not make it square or architectural. They left it just as it was and then set the crystallic, precision-work of their buildings on top of that rough rock. That is the kind of tension in concepts – that is the sun and shadow that makes Greek architecture great.28

Growing up in vibrant Kuala Lumpur, exposure to the joss sticks and rosary beads of multiple cross-cultural influences was simply a way of life (as it was for Young and Castro). Although the Liew family lived in a Japanese-style house with shoji screens and indoor courtyards (designed by his father), Liew greatly preferred the simplicity of the minimally-furnished Malay stilt houses with plaited coconut leaf roofs. Alternately rice-powdery pale, or dark and richly-grained,29 the selection of works for Passages – representative of the last twelve years of practice – signifies a distillation, a rare refinement of exceptionally diverse and multi-layered contemporary and historical references – a weighty legacy that is worn lightly.

Brian Castro

Writing knows no boundaries. Its metaphors, its translations, are part of a migratory process, birds of passage, which wing from the subliminal to the page, leaving their signs for the reader. Meanwhile the writer stands a little to the side, shooting arrows into the wind, with an expression of alarmed uncertainty as the traces disappear into the eternal roar of society’s unconscious.30

Brian Castro, 1988

In Looking for Estrellita (1999) – an illuminating collection of essays written over a twenty-year period – there is a description of Brian Castro as a young boy, vainly attempting to smile for the camera at Hong Kong’s Star Ferry terminal, as he leaves (with utmost reluctance) the vibrancy of Hong Kong; ‘the rhythm of its nights, the glow of its tiny apartments, the parties, smells, noises, cosmopolitanism and turmoil of [his] family life.’31

Like D.H. Lawrence, who had found the continent ‘void of speech’,32 for the youthful Castro, Australia appeared a vast and oppressively silent place, where the light dazzled, space appeared untrammelled and only the raucous birds ruptured the silence (like Patrick White’s ‘mobs of cockatoos which exploded into flashes of clattering shrieking white and sulphur light’).33

‘Hybridity,’ observes Bernadette Brennan, ‘operates in Castro’s writing as a powerfully subversive force, which disrupts the supposedly established binaries of self/other, Australian/Chinese, fact/fiction.’34 Born between states, Castro was raised in Hong Kong in a household that was a confluence of six different nationalities and three religions and where Chinese, English, French and Portuguese were spoken.

In ‘Writing Asia’ (1996), Castro offered his perception of the benefits of speaking another language: ‘Language marks the spot where the self loses its prison bars – where the border crossing takes place... The polyglot is a freer person, a person capable of living in words and worlds other than the narrow and the confined one of unimagined reality.’35

In his extraordinarily complex, labyrinthine novels, in which nothing is certain and ambiguity prevails, time periods, perspectives (first, second and third person narrators), places/continents etc. are enduringly fluid – a mutability, which reflects the diasporic experience. ‘[H]ybridity,’ says Castro, ‘a mixture of forms, a mixture of character types and ethnicities, is what I bring to writing.’36 In constructing a resonant web of narrative interconnection and disruption, this hybrid-state is transferred to the structure of the novel itself.

Castro has incorporated Australian narratives into several of his works of fiction including the fate of Indigenous Tasmanians in the 1994 Drift – ‘casting a dead author in my voice in order to lament the literal death of a culture, the Tasmanian Aborigines’37 – and (also pertinent to Liew’s project) the execrable treatment of nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants at the Australian goldfields in Birds of Passage (1983). In the novel’s frontispiece, Castro cites Geoffrey Blainey’s statement that, ‘[the British] complained that the Chinese were birds of passage who were eager to leave Australia, taking away the gold at the earliest possible moment.’38 The state of flux, intrinsic to the content and form of Drift, is anticipated by the reproduction on the book’s cover of a 1938 M.C. Escher Day and Night woodcut (in which white and black geese seemingly merge and mutate).39

If as Castro has often stated his prevailing subjects are sex and death – ‘the same old things really, which Freud pointed to almost a century ago as the great primal drives’,40 the mood of his novels is enduringly melancholic. These weighty concerns are however, often tempered (or rendered ambiguous) with humour – his only means of surviving the isolation and depression of his exile to Australia. The richness of his language is punctuated with puns (‘Clancy overflowed onto’ etc.) and a dizzying display of elaborate word association and other (including etymological) linguistic games (Passages’ ‘Love Cubed’ is a case in point). Like ‘Leap-Frogging’, the ‘Boarding School’ fragment is indicative of his predilection for alliterative (and homophonic) word play. In no way diminishing the appreciation of his agile, endlessly inventive prose, some amusing references are available only to the informed reader. In Birds of Passage, for example, the protagonist Seamus O’Young encounters the theorist Roland Barthes; elsewhere a character muses on an anagram for canal and so on.

Given the intensely deliberated nature of Castro’s texts, is the dancing girl in Passages’ ‘Cabinet’, who ‘return[s] to retrieve her secrets from a cabinet’, a subtle allusion to Liew’s Dancing Girls (2007) cabinet, in which the applied decoration is intended to mimic (in profile) the abstracted high-kicking legs of a chorus line. Associated with life, death, danger, seduction, dancing itself is both a recurring and chameleon leitmotif – most compellingly deployed in Shanghai Dancing (2003) – wherein (according to Castro) ‘dancing’ in the novel ‘is a play on the frenzy in pre-war Shanghai... a kind of celebration before the storm.’41

Unusually depicted as ‘heaving’, the swans of Castro’s ‘Bench Press’ fragment conjure Baudelaire’s tragic and bedraggled, allegorical swan in ‘Le Cygne’ from Les Fleurs du Mal (1857). As an indication of the spiralling, expansive scope of Castro’s literary citations and language games, a woman named Swan also appears as a character in Castro’s The Garden Book (2005), which contains multiple punning references to Proust’s novel Swann’s Way (1913). Indeed Baudelaire – similarly preoccupied with sex and death and whose genius, according to Walter Benjamin was ‘nourished on melancholy’42 – is one of the literary figures including W.G. Sebald, Kafka and Benjamin (author of the sprawling Das Passagenwerk on the Passages couverts of Paris), who hovers over Castro’s work.

Writing at the time of Hong Kong’s powerfully symbolic return to China in 1997 – a climactic passage in the 1997 novel Shanghai Dancing and the subject too of Young’s evocative painting Hong Kong Burns – Castro recognises retrospectively that its richness ‘had always verged on the trauma of business collapses, infidelities, plate-smashing, intrigues, assignations, lies, loud bars and lunatic improvisations of life’s grand plan. These were symptoms of a family disintegration. It was the reason why they were sending me away, so I would learn to become innocent.’43 Thus the dark passages of Castro’s ‘In the city of darkness’ – ‘a maze of opium dens, cat’s cradles of electric wires pirating light for desperate psychedelia’ – are supplanted, dissolved by the ‘Eucalyptus light of Australia’.

In Castro’s extensive ruminations on the art of writing, the conviction (constantly reiterated) is of a capacity for reinvention through a paradoxical (Oedipal-like) annihilation. Thus, although writing is ‘imaginative muscle [that] pushes against the totality of a mythical but powerful orthodoxy’,44 it is also erasure – variously unsettling, melancholic, frightening. ‘In memorializing this voice-from-beyond-the-grave, you also demolish it through invention. You, I, scrawling an apostrophe for what is missing. There is nothing sturdier.’

Injecting a rare note of hopefulness that hints at the possibility of renewal, as Hong Kong is returned to China, Castro makes the observation that it has now become ‘an impossible place, a place in the imagination, a text lost in time. Fittingly, such a legacy opens other doors.’45

[I]t is only now that I am learning to write again, without the ever-present anxiety over artificiality and expectation; learning to ‘follow the brush’ as a means of calibrating both the ruminations of the heart and the rhythmic heart of the language.46

© Wendy Walker, January 2012


Endnotes

1. Castro, Liew and Young were aged (respectively) ten, eighteen and eleven, when they were obliged to leave behind their families. Both Castro and Young came from cosmopolitan Hong Kong and Liew from Kuala Lumpur (via Hong Kong).

2. A reference to Young’s tributes to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, including Bonhoeffer in Harlem, which was installed at Berlin’s St. Matthaus Church, Kulturforum in 2009 and to Liew’s modernist (including Bauhausian Gesamtkunstwerk) preoccupations.

3. John Young, email communication with the author, 29-11-2011.

4. Brian Castro, email communication with the author, 19-12-2011. Castro continues: ‘No matter how clever the claims of post-modernism are, this rush to futurity is premature. It is seeing off the end of humanism. Of course many in Australia like to rush onto the latest fad, but given the history of Modernism here, it was as if people kept their heads down it would pass, or be revealed as a hoax. This wilful mis-recognition is an excuse for not acknowledging how difficult Modernism is, since in literature at least, the artist knows what the misreadings are, working together with readerly interpretation. One cannot simply ignore history by playing games of one-upmanship. In China particularly, history can sometimes be a kind of architecture with missing windows or floors. It is convenient, but it is not produced from history. It is important to recognize primary sources and ingest them. Modernism didn’t do away with sources. It was a movement concerned with knowledge. Artists need to recover this authority.’

5. Bernadette Brennan, Brian Castro’s Fiction: The Seductive Play of Language, Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2008, p. 2.

6. ibid.

7. Robert Cook, email communication with the author, 07-05-2007.

8. Young, email communication with the author, 02-01-2012.

9. Carolyn Barnes uses this expression in her comprehensive essay that accompanies the monograph John Young, Fishermans Bend, Victoria: Craftsman House (Thames & Hudson), 2005, p. 26.

10. Young, email communication with the author, 02-01-2012.

11. Schiller identified dual forms of creativity – the unconscious (naive) and conscious (sentimental) – a binary that Adams prefers to more hackneyed polarities/dichotomies, such as Apollonian/Dionysian, classical/romantic, modern/postmodern etc. (Young considers that his process of selecting images is sentimental in relation to ‘all the images perceived and felt in the past.’) John Adams in Naïve and Sentimental Music (1997-98): www.earbox.com/W-naive.html

12. Young, email communication with the author, 12-12-2011.

13. Email communication with the author, 12-12-2011.

14. Charles Baudelaire, cited in Victor Burgin (ed), Thinking Photography, London: MacMillan Press, 1982, p. 96. ‘From that moment our squalid society rushed Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal... Some democratic writer ought to have seen here a cheap method of disseminating a loathing for history and for painting among the people.’ Damien Hirst’s 2009 exhibition of paintings within the august surrounds of the Wallace Collection (to cite one example) surely attests to a contemporary reappraisal of painting.

15. Young, email communication with the author, 02-01-2012.

16. Khai Liew, ‘Pride without Prejudice’, Spring Lecture Series at the Art Gallery of South Australia, October 2004. In this lecture Liew spoke publicly for the first time about the May 1969 anti-Chinese race riots, in which his family’s house was burned to the ground.

17. Adrian Searle, ‘New Order’, The Guardian, 11 April 2006.

18. Liew stated that he was (and remains) greatly influenced by John T Kirk’s book, The Impecunious Collector’s Guide to American Antiques (1975): ‘It taught me a most important lesson, and that is to perceive without prejudice. That a piece deserving of appreciation and praise need not be elaborate expensive and high-style.’

19. Having been acquired by Lord Alistair McAlpine, the storage trunk featured in the 1990 survey exhibition of McAlpine’s early Australian furniture collection. The Jian cabinet is in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia.

20. In my catalogue essay for the 2000 Long Weekend exhibition, I wrote that the limewood creaminess and red-stained handles of the Remi cabinet evoked: ‘The slash of crimson lips... A rice powdery-white visage above the splendour of a silver-embroidered robe.’ In one of many parallels between the participants in Passages, Young’s mother was a performer in the Chinese opera in Hong Kong.

21. In the wake of the nineteenth-century influx of Chinese to the Victorian goldfields, large numbers of immigrants worked long hours for little pay in inner-city sweatshops, producing inexpensive furniture for British tastes. The xenophobia aroused by these artisans resulted in the passing of anti-Chinese legislation and the stamping of furniture from non-Chinese manufacturers with the legend ‘European Labour Only.’ In his 2004 lecture, Liew cited the comment of an Adelaide cabinet maker, who when asked about competition from Chinese furniture makers, replied: ‘We do not want to exclude their competition, but we object to their goods being sold as those of white men.'

22. Linenfold is a form of carving in low relief that imitates a folded piece of linen cloth. Used to decorate furniture and wall panelling (frequently in an ecclesiastical context), it was prevalent in Europe from the 14th-16th centuries and persisted in Britain for at least another century. Liew’s works used applied rather than carved decoration.

23. Although the modernist movement professed to eschew historicism, in effect it absorbed many references to historical styles; Danish architect/designer Finn Juhl (1912-1989) stated that he derived inspiration from the ‘simple and elegant furniture from Egypt,’ more than any other furniture of the past. Although the design vocabulary of modernism continues to resonate, it has of course become shorn of its original crusading (socio-political) imperatives.

24. I first used this expressio in my catalogue essay for Liew’s 2000 Long Weekend exhibition. ‘Materials are emphatically natural and the ostensible simplicity of Liew’s designs is achieved through a deft concealment of the conundra of construction.’

25. Seven tiled Jeannie benches are arrayed along the prominent riverbank promenade adjacent to Adelaide’s Festival Centre and in an interplay of angles and planes another is located in symbiotic proximity to Donald Judd’s modernist outdoor sculpture in the courtyard at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

26. First presented in Adelaide 29 July – 29 August 2010, the Collec+ors exhibition travelled to London’s Design Museum from 16 – 7 August 2011, as the Australia/Asia-Pacific representative at the Designs of the Year Awards.

27. Exploiting this creative tension, the Finnish architect Alvar Alto (1898-1976) developed a dynamic new form of biomorphic modernism that merged technology with nature.

28. Marcel Breuer in Marcel Breuer: Sun and Shadow, The Philosophy of an Architect, Peter Blake (ed), NY: Dodd, Mead & Co, 1955, p 33. The beginning of the quote is: 'The Greeks built their temples of smooth marble on top of the Acropolis with columns 5 to 6 feet in diameter. Some of the convex joints of these columns are invisible after 2000 years! Even today it would be extremely difficult to follow measurements and to fit the joints with such precision.'

29. Liew has used English limewood, American white oak and American black walnut (where the grain becomes a subtle form of surface decoration) in the pieces for Passages. The title of the 2009 Rem cabinet – featuring an inverted form of the linenfold decoration – is a contraction of the Remi cabinet, named for Liew’s son.

30. Brian Castro, ‘Necessary idiocy’ (1988), in Looking for Estrellita. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1999, p. 35.

31. Castro, ‘Arrivals’, op. cit., p. 15.

32. D.H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, 1960, p. 379. Lawrence also offered the insight that Europeans were unequipped (simply did not possess the language) to describe the landscape.

33. Patrick White, Voss, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, 1957, p. 172.

34. Bernadette Brennan, Brian Castro’s Fiction: The Seductive Play of Language, Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2008, p. 4.

35. Castro, ‘Writing Asia’, op. cit., pp. 152-53.

36. Castro, ‘Auto/biography’, opcit., p. 115. ‘I am not only Portuguese, English, Chinese and French,’Castro states, ‘but I am writing myself out of crippling essentialist categorisations, out of the control exerted over multiplicities.’

37. Castro, ‘Auto/biography’, op. cit., p. 118.

38. Geoffrey Blainey, The Blainey View, cited in frontispiece, Birds of Passage, Sydney, NSW: Allen & Unwin Aust Pty Ltd, 1983. Blainey notes that 'in 1859 one in every nine men in Australia was Chinese.'

39. Given (as already noted) Castro’s voice, in a characteristic ‘blurring’ the white-skinned (albino) writer Thomas McGann is part-Indigenous Tasmanian; the character Bryan Stanley – whose name involves a complicated melding of fact and fiction linked to several other characters, both real and fictional – achieves (through self-administered injections) the blackening of his skin.

40. Castro, ‘Lesions’, op. cit., p. 183. Freud was the subject of Castro’s third novel Double-Wolf (1991).

41. Castro, email communication with the author, 29-12-2011. The essay ‘Dangerous Dancing’ – about dancing, writing and disinheritance – is included in Looking for Estrellita. ‘...if you alter the steps... if you insert the transformative language of writing into the grammar of culture, into the law of the prescribed dance, well...’ (op. cit. p. 224).

42. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Rolf Tiedemann (ed.), trans. by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 895. In the interweaving of elaborate narratives and the use of uncaptioned photographic images, there are parallels too with the novels (and life) of W. G. Sebald – for whom Castro composed the tribute Blue Max, following the émigré author’s untimely death in 2003.

43. Castro, ‘Arrivals’, op. cit., p. 16.

44. Castro, ‘Lesions’, op. cit., p. 187.

45. ibid.

46. ibid. p. 17.