Art review: Katherine Huang

Published April 2004



‘To name an object is to do away with the three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem that comes from the pleasure of diving little by little; to suggest it, there is to dream.’

Stéphane Mallarmé

Viewing Katherine Huang’s work, a connection can be made between her multi-layered assemblages and the structure or formation of language. The intricate arrangements of personal and found objects on surfaces of plastic, wood and metal suggest clusters of words or phrases, the meaning of which remain lodged on the tip of the tongue. The idea is not to tell a single story but to suggest many. Colours and forms – like words – can have multiple meanings, which shift according to context or emphasis. Huang’s installations are not codes to be cracked, rather visual explorations of the muddled process of perception.

Huang is an artist who draws inspiration directly – and physically – from her surroundings, be they the cluttered laneways of inner-city Melbourne, the makeshift road-side structures of her native Taipei, or the rough-hewn natural beauty of Fraser Island. As well as collecting objects on her way to and from her studio she absorbs the character of the place, the activities that make it hum. As a result, viewing Huang’s installations can be a little like accompanying her on her travels. While appreciating the sweep and scale of the overall view, the eye is drawn to the minutiae dotting the corners – much as Huang’s is while traversing the city streets.

Perspective is a major component of Huang’s work. Usually the viewer assumes – simultaneously – the role of Gulliver in Lilliput and a child at play in her cubby house. We are invited to crouch down and lean in closer to observe details that could easily be overlooked. The cubby house aesthetic lends a playful element to Huang’s work. Think of a child ‘driving’ her shoes; the sneaker becomes a shiny, white convertible, the brown school loafer a battered rust-trap. In the realm of play, objects are not restricted to their usual function – meaning is fluid and associative. For example, in Huang’s Chair with corn yellow sock plus one cloud (2001) a piece of crumpled origami paper, some shells and a plastic palm tree atop a perspex chair are used to represent an island.

Rather than acting as a fixed code or index, Huang’s assembled objects occupy the slippery space between form and function, word and meaning. Materials such as the fluorescent orange mesh used on building sites or a child’s plastic picnic set seem strangely appealing, even exotic, when taken out of their everyday context. They are there to be admired on a purely aesthetic level, as the fruits of an urban archaeological dig. The connection between each item is never made clear, perhaps does not even exist. Instead, viewers are obliged to flesh out the diaphanous narrative with their own memories, experiences and assumptions.

Huang describes her work conversely as ‘messy fairy installations’ and ‘contemporary picture poetry’ – the former expressing the whimsical and seemingly haphazard nature of her assemblages, the latter acknowledging the careful planning and arrangement behind them. Each installation is approached as a 3-D drawing, so that the piece as a whole is equally striking as the myriad stories that unfold within and around its spaces. Above all, objects are presented to us as being precious, in spite – or perhaps because – of their ordinariness. Huang’s assemblages are tributes to everyday items and instances, records of the common, personal and imagined experiences comprising our day-to-day existence.