Emotional Geometry is a new body of work informed by Chinese philosophy, medicine and healing. In a new series of photographs and sculptures, Owen Leong visualises energy meridians of the body as a form of armour. His new work incorporates crystals and plants for their healing and protective properties, and Buddhist mudras invoking ritual gestures of the body.
Owen Leong is the recent winner of the 2016 MAMA National Photography Prize.
The life force, be it cultural, spiritual, physical or emotional is at the heart of Owen Leong’s art. He co-opts his body as both a vehicle and site for performance that is expressive of the power, anxiety and poetics of identity.
Growing up Asian in Australia, (he is Australian-born of Chinese parents who came to Australia in the 1950s), he mines the complexities and tensions of displacement between cultures for his distinctive photo media self-portraits, and sculptures.
Drawing on the practice and rituals of his Chinese heritage the works in Emotional Geometry have developed from the award to Leong in 2015 of an artist residency at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel in Shanghai, China. It afforded him the opportunity to explore new materials and to immerse fully in the philosophy and systems of knowledge imbedded in his Asian heritage. In particular, as a gesture towards healing, to engage with Chinese medicine and acupuncture, in use for some 5000 years and vested in a complex map of the pathways of energy flow in the body to relieve pain and stimulate wellbeing.
Protective attire, quasi armour and coifs, sheath the artist’s head and upper torso in Leong’s series of half-length self-portraits. The garbs and accessories are outer and visible manifestations symbolic of a force field of energy, yet also protective of an inner sanctuary; of self.
For Mothertongue, his head and chest are veiled in gold chains and tongue-like slivers of the woody root of the astragalus plant used in traditional Chinese medicine as a tonic to fortify the immune system. Since his childhood, the artist’s mother has cooked this herb in healing soups that he associates with the transmission of culture “…through her knowledge of medicine and food – and as a symbol of the ‘mother tongue’ – a person’s first language or arterial language; a language of the blood.”
Sankalpa, drawn from Hindu philosophy, is described by the artist as “an idea formed in the heart or mind, a private meditation, a deep resolve for positive change”. He stands in profile, neck held in a surgical brace with a fine golden metal exo-skeleton or nimbus surrounding his head as manifestation of “energy emanating from the mind, anchored in the body”
Light as a symbol and generator of energy is implicit in Leong’s Invisible Light where a white leather auxiliary skin cut from a Chinese map of the Qi-channeling meridians shrouds the head and upper body. In a complementary work, Crystalskin an assertive beetle-like carapace or armour with epaulettes of protective crystalline shards and face concealing hood are worn: “My head is bound in darkness, looking inwards, but my body is enveloped in light.”
Flowers convey powerful meaning in Chinese lore; chrysanthemums augur long life, the lotus enlightenment. Orchids, flowering in secluded mountainous valleys are a symbol of perfection, elegance and tenacity and attributed beneficial qualities in Chinese medicine. For Leong’s suite of still-life images, Emotional Geometry, with each name extended for the orchid depicted, a delicate golden grid is sculpted by the artist in response to the life force each living bloom exudes; the manufactured metal and organic bloom a balance of yin and yang energies.
A group of casts from life, a torso, bust and five hands also support encasing skeletal golden gridded armatures responding to the ritual coordinates of acupuncture meridians, each structure mapping a putative force field of healing energy. The prone torso arches in extremis, its interior void exposed. Each hand sculpture signals a mudra, a symbolic or ritual restorative gesture in Buddhism with jagged extrusions of crystalline shards thrusting from each wrist.
Owen Leong has exhibited widely in Australia and internationally. Important national photography prizes include his win in 2015 of the prestigious Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Photography Award and his work has just been acquired for the MAMA Foundation National Photography Prize 2016. He has undertaken residencies at Artspace, Sydney; Chinese Arts Centre, Manchester; Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris; and Tokyo Wonder Site, Japan and the Swatch Art Peace Hotel Residency in Shanghai, China in 2015. He is currently in residence at Parramatta Artist Studios, Sydney.