Juliet Wong always found it hard to articulate her connection with her heritage. As a Design graduate, Juliet has used her studies to explore her experiences of growing up as a Chinese-Australian.
Through meticulous compositions of “generic made-in-China goods” and objects from her own home, Juliet Wong dissects what it’s like being a second-generation Australian and how she’s come to feel comfortable in her own skin.
Born in Australia to Chinese immigrants, Juliet Wong has always found it hard to articulate her complex connection with her heritage.
She reflects that, “growing up speaking English with my parents means I’ve kind of lost that Chinese side because language is such an important role in understanding all the traditions. A lot of things are lost in translation because of it.”
While this divide had Juliet struggling to put her feelings into words, her studies in photography have provided a unique opportunity for her to explore her individual experiences, as well as broader experiences of what it’s like growing up Chinese-Australian.
In OZZIE DREAM (2018), her photography graduation project, Juliet set out to find out if true belonging is impeded by the fake.
“Growing up with immigrant parents meant that every occasion or achievement was important,” explains Juliet. “Documentation through photography and physical matter was evidence that it happened, that moving countries was worth it. But to this day, stacks of developed film photos in envelopes still sit messily in a cabinet in the hallway, forgotten.
“Photography has a strong link to nostalgia and I was curious to use the medium to only create completely fake narratives. Photographs that aren’t comfortable to look at, may be confronting too. An escape from ordinary life.”
The precision and control afforded by studio photography is key to Juliet’s practice. Brightly-lit candy-coloured backdrops set the scene for a mix of treasures and junk that seem to float in space, which she says creates a blend of “false realities” mirroring her cultural identity.
“It’s not like this genuine connection that I have with my heritage. The objects are a bad attempt at connecting – similar to how tacky and superficial my connection is, I feel.”
Beyond the initial superficiality though, these photographic works tap into rich visual traditions of still life, where the objects – regardless of their mass-production – take on complex symbolic meanings in the context of their arrangement. Centuries of still life painting used motifs like fruit, falling petals and burning candles to represent the passage of time, morality and religion. Juliet subverts and modernises these well-established symbols to make them unique to her experience.
In Dinnertime, tins of pickled leeks and canned ham sit in front of a ceramic black stallion draped in strings of plastic pearls. First impressions of formality and pomp soften to reveal the fake; the papery bouquet of dyed roses and plastic baby’s breath, beige melamine chopsticks and shiny, cheap jewellery.
However, the mass-produced origin of each item is outshone by the care and domesticity of this arrangement, as if each object is a treasure presented with pride. Such placement allows Juliet’s individuality to come to the fore – not only as an artist, but in communicating how being born and raised in Australia has created her own personal identity.
“It was really interesting when I saw my parents’ reaction to it,” she says. “My experience has been hard to explain to them in words, so when they saw the work they did understand. It’s almost like, they can understand why my personality and why my experiences living in Australia and being born and raised here is completely different to how they saw Australia.”
Juliet’s self-portrait, Where Are You From?, further crystallises her experiences growing up. Centred on a lemon-yellow background with tightly wound braids and a flimsy tiger mask obscuring her face, Juliet creates a character with a rich narrative to share.
While the happy colours and frills of silky bows invoke a fun occasion like a birthday party, the eye of the tiger piercing through the mask challenges the viewer to contemplate a deeper meaning. Is this gaze embarrassed? Accusatory? Knowing?
Preliminary shots for OZZIE DREAM, also show Juliet’s experimentation with capturing movement. Pray delivers a scene in which dollar-store plastic candles stand watch over a glossy fake lobster as flimsy gold coins rain from above.
My goal is to make the topic of cultural identity loss more approachable – it doesn’t have to be an awkward conversation that needs to be avoided.
While still life (and indeed early photography) took a long time to produce, Juliet’s photos capture split-second environments which she describes as “temporal and very fast-paced”. These glimpses become another visual element Juliet uses to communicate her feelings on how she contributes to her culture.
Her 2017 series, Good Luck, Bad Luck, which was photographed against a red background, also explores superstitions from her Chinese ethnicity.
The duality of photography as a fast medium, and the methodical and ritualistic collection and composition of the items leaves Juliet’s work to exist in both states.
“It’s alright to not conform to being completely Chinese or completely Australian,” says Juliet. “And I think it’s hard, because a lot of people have different connections to both sides. The dialogue my work has opened is really interesting to listen to.”
“A lot of people who have seen my photos tell me they feel similar. Being able to connect to people through shared experiences really encourages me to keep making work. My goal is to make the topic of cultural identity loss more approachable – it doesn’t have to be an awkward conversation that needs to be avoided.
“We’re comfortable being where we’re at. Chinese or Australian, I’m okay with being in the middle because that’s me!”
Juliet Wong is a Bachelor of Design in Photography and Situated Media student at UTS and a freelance photographer based in Sydney.