Gareth Stevens reviews ‘Parroting’, a multi-media exhibition by Josie Rae Turnbull and Kate Tipler currently at Zuzushi Art Laboratory.

The significance of this exhibition is multi-layered and complex. A subtle symphony of different themes and ideas, it left me intellectually stimulated and reflecting on just how nuanced the best visual art can be. There is a sense that these ideas could not be reduced down to merely words. Sometimes artists find it difficult to articulate the deeper themes that preoccupy them in words. Occasionally they can be so adept at doing so, it makes you wonder why they didn’t just write about their work, rather than produce visual art outcomes. Such exact definitions of underlying ideas can remove the need for the work itself to be made.

Despite the prominence of photography, the exhibition itself is complemented by found objects, hung printed textiles and other quirky additions that add humour, informality and move the show beyond the ordinary.

CREDIT: Josie Rae Turnbull & Kate Tipler

Whilst there is no deliberate separation between the two contributors’ work it is relatively easy to discern how both Josie’s and Kate’s work has different yet similar concerns.

Josie’s work has the subheading ‘Cauliflory’ and was created as a response to the month she spent in one of the most densely populated areas on the planet – Mong Kok in Hong Kong. She says that “The series juxtaposes conscious representations of nationhood – visible in the carefully curated spaces such as expos and theme parks – with everyday objects that reflect both the scaling up, and resultant remnants of various local industries.”

Kate explains that her work errs more towards the autobiographical. She tells me of her long aimless walks where she would collect images with her camera. Whilst there are no people in her shots, human presence is implied by the objects and scenes depicted. The hung tapestries were made earlier this year during the latter part of her seven-year stay in Vietnam. They were printed on silk organza. 

It was fascinating talking with Josie and Kate, because they were both so articulate and probing yet only hinted, albeit from many conceptual angles, at what lies at the core of their work. They never definitively explained the exhibition, only the work itself can do that. Our conversation convinced me that both artists had been on a genuine intellectual and artistic journey. They both spoke passionately about culture, modes of representation and the similarity between corporate and retail spaces and contemporary art galleries. These two photographers know precisely what they are trying to achieve and yet their work still has an intensely exploratory and experimental edge. 

“The exhibition title ‘Parroting’ very much seemed to encapsulate a lot of what we were trying to say in our work” says Kate. “The mirroring between culture and nature, the paralleling between human activity and the natural world.” She further explains that when parrots mimic human language the ‘words’ they copy are empty of any meaning. These utterances are just empty echoes that amuse us from time to time. In many ways photographs do the same, they mimic or represent reality in a dispassionate and clinical way that can only hint at the complexities and multi sensory experience we have when we are behind the lens and in the situation being depicted. When we look at a photograph we look through the picture plane – we see through the points of coloured ink on paper and forget that we are just looking at pixels and wallow in that which is being depicted. This show is a deadpan serious, yet playful, inquiry into the illusion of both the practice of photography and human ‘civilization’ itself. This is the nub of the show.

“We are both interested in deliberately curated spaces that represent certain ideals.” Josie explains. By photographing these events and spaces “you can explore the visual mispronunciation that occurs through multiple translations”. Both artists recently lived and worked in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and Josie for some time in Hong Kong. We all experience a heightened awareness of our own cultural peculiarities when we visit countries whose history has thrown up such different customs, cuisines and traditions. We are more likely to scrutinize what we think is the natural order of things in our place of birth, once we see that other cultures do things in such different ways. And so the idea of mimicry that has so inspired and focussed this work has come out of both artists’ experiences in South East Asia. Although acutely aware of their status as ‘outsiders’, both artists understand that even when you use source materials from other countries to make work, despite endeavouring to do so respectfully, there is always going to be something lost in translation. Again, their interpretation of this unfamiliar culture inevitably adds yet another layer of miscommunication or ‘slippage’ as Josie likes to call it.

Josie tells me that the term ‘Parroting’ became “a bit of an ‘in joke’ between us because both Kate and I are extremely chatty and squawky and so the exhibition’s title also became an allusion on a secondary level to our friendship”. Despite the complexity of thought that has fuelled this exhibition, the warmth of the artists’ relationship shines through. It is clear that both of their working processes have been enriched by the reciprocal peer mentorship and mutual support they enjoy.

For more information please visit
The exhibition is on until 14 November

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