Chinese-born artist Tianli Zu pays homage to her grandparents for introducing her to the artistic traditions that form the basis of her zodiac lantern creation that is part of this year’s Sydney’s Chinese New Year Festival.
The value of family and Tianli’s own history are fondly reflected in her art installation, which is on display in the heart of Chinatown until 12 February as part of the City of Sydney’s Lunar Lanterns exhibition.
Her five brightly coloured rooster sculptures – constructed with traditional Chinese instruments and ranging in height from 1.7 to 3.9 metres – were inspired by the artist’s daughter Alice, who was born in the Year of the Rooster.
The installation, in Dixon Street, Chinatown, incorporates an instrumental soundtrack composed by Tianli’s 19-year-old son Andrew, an involvement that Tianli describes as more a “sharing” of experiences than a “passing down” of traditions.
Raised by her grandparents, Tianli grew up in a creative and culturally-rich environment. Her grandmother taught her traditional paper cutting, and her grandfather taught her calligraphy. He also read her stories of Chinese folklore, including books that were forbidden during China’s period of Cultural Revolution.
“Despite the hardship of the Cultural Revolution, I looked inward to a world that was very real to me. I became absorbed in art. For me, the art making process has always been a very powerful way of healing,” Tianli said.
“Roosters are bright, they’re confident, optimistic. They can be loud, and they are happy when there is a crowd of them. They work very, very hard, but they are happy.
“Being a rooster is great. I wish I could have been born in the Year of the Rooster. I’m a rabbit, which is known for its loving and fertile characteristics. That’s probably why I make art, to give birth, metaphorically.”
Lord Mayor Clover Moore said the first Lunar Lanterns display was a huge hit last year, attracting more than 750,000 visitors and making it the City of Sydney’s most successful Lunar New Year event to date.
“Roosters are said to be confident, amusing and popular, and they enjoy being the centre of attention – so this pack of musical, bright roosters are right at home in the festival’s cultural heart in Chinatown,” the Lord Mayor said.
“It’s exciting to see Tianli’s work in our fabulous Chinatown, as well as the other zodiac lanterns that are on show around Sydney Harbour throughout our Chinese New Year celebrations.”
At the age of 15, Tianli was selected to study classical art at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing. After eight years of classical art training, Tianli graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and won a national art prize.
In 1988, she moved to Sydney to pursue postgraduate study and her artistic career, but being a Chinese artist in a foreign country wasn’t easy.
“At the time there were very few Chinese artists here and the Chinese culture was not as widespread as it is now,” she said.
After her two children were born, Tianli made family her priority. It wasn’t until much later in life that she reconnected with the art world.
She went to Sydney College of the Arts and finally did her Masters and PhD. It helped her finally clear her thoughts and revisit her past.
Tianli has since exhibited her work in both Australia and overseas. She was a finalist in the 2015 Archibald Prize for her portrait of former Art Gallery of NSW Director Edmund Capon, and won the Holding Redlich People’s Choice Award in the 2016 Salon des Refusés for her portrait of Senator Penny Wong.
The largest of the five roosters in Tianli’s Chinese New Year installation, is the red rooster, which features a wishbone symbolic of the good fortune she wishes for her children.
“Alice has a little pin of a wishbone. When she goes away I ask her if she’s got the pin in her pocket. It’s a little sweet memory that I wanted to share with the public.
“The rooster uses traditional Chinese instruments, but I made it very contemporary. It’s not isolating the past from the present – rather, it’s bridging them in a very harmonic way.
“By incorporating the sound elements into the light, I’m extending the work so the tradition does not stand still. The tradition can be radiant and pass through from generation to generation.
“The thing I like most about my roosters is that they are bigger than their creator and they sing beautifully.”
“I hope everyone enjoys them, hits the gong, dances to the music and makes a wish.”
Featuring Lunar Lanterns, community performances, Lunar Eats, the Dragon Boat Races and 80 traditional and contemporary events, the 2017 Sydney Chinese New Year Festival offers a uniquely Sydney way to welcome the Year of the Rooster.
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