Exhibition review: Objects In-between, Bic Tieu

A visual language that uses objects to explore cultural hybridity.

The gallery spaces at UNSW lead to a final cave-like room. Dark walls add to the subterranean experience, and the lighting directs the gaze to a single table supporting four enigmatic cubic forms. 

My encounter, as I comprehended them alone in that space, was to think they were giant pieces of Turkish delight – soft forms exuding a golden light. As I approached the work, it was directional light casting shadows through the beautiful, seemingly jelly-like, translucent objects. But these artworks are hard! Each side reads as a screen, and is made of metal and constructed from hundreds of small shapes making them transparent. 

These superficially simple box-like objects embody complex ideas about containment – belonging, safety and home.

Artists like Yuka Oyama (Japan/Germany) have used portability and scale to capture a concept of ‘home’. Their work defies an interpretation of home as stable, permanent, bricks and mortar dwellings by constructing cardboard moveable homes that can be swapped out like hermit crabs find new shell ‘homes’ for a better fit. 

In her solo exhibition at UNSW Galleries, Bic Tieu’s work, in contrast, balances a pared back idea of home in her choice of a box-like form, with the complicated layering and joining of shapes alluding to her own sense of home-making. They are tea leaves; they appear to be decorative elements from partitioning devices inside a home or a shrine; they are floral decorations – peony and magnolia. However, each motif has been graphically disassembled and rearranged ad infinitum, obscuring the direct reference to any one thing.

Bic Tieu’s journey has brought her from a Chinese-Vietnamese world into the Australian milieu of Western Sydney. She has studied in Australia and in Japan and these influences are evident. She has been trained as a graphic designer, metalsmith and has undertaken her own investigations into traditional materials – Vietnamese and Chinese lacquerware and Japanese alloys.

Graphic design, metalsmithing and lacquerware are all processes requiring repetitive actions with great attention to detail. They mimic the activities of everyday life, where the simple preparation of sustenance involves repetitive and time-consuming actions that are absorbed into the experience of life. They become invisible. 

In Tieu’s earlier work these connections between form and culture are more obvious. The artist’s hand-sized objects are of a particular beauty and delicacy that invite the viewer into a lacquered world of contemplation. The current work is an extension and the result of extended research. Arriving at sculptural objects that are not small, she talks about big ideas needing bigger forms. Home is a complicated thing.

The works are accompanied by sound.  This ambience is also part of the research process and, in the gallery, underlines a sense of mystery.  It is also impossible to ignore the lighting here. It is a strong element that highlights the transcendent, quasi-religious, experience of encountering the objects and draws the audience to the work. And, the shadows formed emphasise the metal patterning.

UNSW Galleries has done a great job in curating these objects in a spellbinding presentation. The metal itself is neither gold, copper or silver but combinations of all three. Together they form variations of grey – not black; not white; not precious; not base metal.

While Tieu has trained as a designer, what we are seeing here is an art practice that has evolved intuitively, and where beauty emerges from the work.

Read: Theatre review: The Amateurs, Red Stitch

The title Objects in-between implies many questions: Between what? Why objects? Why in between. The works offer clues of ‘betweeness’ worthy of reflection. This experience of living between and among cultures is something shared by so many Australians. 

Objects in-between, Bic Tieu
UNSW Galleries

Paddington, NSW
Objects in-between will be exhibited until 14 August 2022

Helen Wyatt is a practising visual artist, writer and curator living in Sydney, NSW. She has a Bachelor of Art History (Sydney University) and Masters of Visual Arts (Griffith University). She has previously written for ArtsHub across a range of visual arts forms. In her own practice she produces small, often wearable, objects. Helen shows small object work in her window gallery space in Rozelle.