Living with the unassimilable : a creative arts thesis, supported by a written component, in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Creative Arts, Whiti o Rehua School of Art, College of Creative Arts, Massey University, Wellington

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Living with the Unassimilable is a creative practice PhD research project initiated in response to a haptic experience – a violent encounter with the surface of a framed canvas – which triggered a repressed trauma within me. I interpreted the trauma as a consequence of my mother’s transmission to me of her experience of the Chinese government’s gender policies in her youth during the Cultural Revolution. The purpose of this research was to realise a new art language to express and release the repressed trauma in order to achieve catharsis. Despite the challenging cultural and psychological distancing of being voluntarily ‘displaced’ in New Zealand from China (the land of my birth and upbringing), a sense of freedom gradually developed without the previous constraints experienced in my homeland. A series of explorations engaging with diverse materials and modes of display was conducted to arrive at an appropriate and original art expression to reflect upon the significance of past memories, relevant historical and cultural backgrounds, and to communicate the traumatic and cathartic experiences. The creative investigation was undertaken in parallel to pertinent theoretical analysis. From Sigmund Freud theories, I interpreted the experience with my mother as a trauma and Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection contributed to deciphering the sensations experienced in the traumatic event and haptic experience, and confirmed my related artistic articulation. Representing something far wider than a personal experience, a reflection on China’s patriarchal system led to Michel Foucault’s theory of power in order to unpack the government’s regulation of people’s sexuality, and to Judith Butler in relation to the performance of gender and identity. ‘Touch’ and ‘surface’ were rendered significant by the haptic encounter and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s body schema and Erin Manning’s politics of touch offered theoretical perspectives that advanced my creative practice. Jill Bennett’s notion that trauma-related art directly engages with viewers by embodied sensations to register the repressed memory, coincided with establishing the appropriate means of artistic expression for this research: a hybrid sculpture/video installation. Through the orchestration of elements, in particular, the combination of static sculpture and moving imagery, and diverse material qualities and media, the final installation ‘transformed’ an inner, individual, and psychological experience into a visual and material art language. In the embodied sensations, it uttered the otherwise unspeakable trauma, thus becoming an expression of living with the unassimilable. The hybrid practice is not the only contribution the research makes to the field of trauma/catharsis-related installation art and to contemporary Chinese art. Situated in a globalised world and positioned in relation to relevant contemporary Chinese and Western art and theory, this creative practice assimilates my heritage – including Chinese language and philosophy in relation to gender power politics – thus presenting hitherto unexplored perspectives.
Figures are re-used either with permission, or under the "fair use" principle which allows for re-use for purposes of criticism or review.
Installations (Art), New Zealand, 21st century, Sculpture, New Zealand, Video art, 21st century, Psychic trauma in art, Women, Government policy, China