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By Josie• 28 Feb 2019
Return to Skyland is a new immersive installation by Wellington artist Kerry Ann Lee at Te Papa as part of Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality. Lee calls it a “dreamscape transit lounge” and designed it as a place for visitors to take a break during their own imaginative journeys through time and space to China – sit back, relax on a bean bag and enjoy a cuppa and a biscuit (weekends between 12pm-3pm).
The installation is a welcome dreamy interlude from the powerful terracotta warriors exhibition, can you tell me about your process for making this work?
Return to Skyland presents taonga from the Cantonese community and Chinese artefacts from Te Papa’s collection. My Dad recently threw away a lot of books that he’s kept since he was young, so there’s probably an attempt to reconstruct his ‘reading room’, his fortress of solitude and our symbolic connection to Chinese heritage.
The exhibition features incredible custom wallpaper featuring images of Chinese artefacts - where did your inspiration for this derive from?
The inspiration came from wallpaper from my family home, unchanged since the 1970s. People see nostalgia in my work, but it’s still current. It’s particular to Cantonese Chinese who’ve stuck around for many generations, with grandparents hoarding random old items as evidence of hard work and settlement here.
It also features a video work, Distant Resonance, which combines images of Chinese artefacts from Te Papa’s collection with words from a poem by Rewi Alley – what’s the significance of the poem?
Rewi Alley’s poem, Night in Sian, featured in a book of poems that was a gifted to me while developing the work. It describes what Xi’an was like around the time my dad was growing up in New Zealand and seemed like a perfect fit.
What or where is “Skyland”?
My father once had a dream that he was flying over Xi'an, the northern Chinese city famous for its terracotta warriors. Though he had never been there, his subconscious pieced together the landscape from pictures he had seen. So for my Dad, Skyland is Xi’an; for overseas Chinese, it’s a prosperous land faraway; for Emperor Qin Shi Huang and his warriors, it’s somewhere in the afterlife.
As a Wellingtonian of Cantonese Chinese heritage, what does it mean for you to have the terracotta warriors journeying to your hometown?
It’s pretty special having the terracotta warriors in our city. There’s a buzz about what the show represents politically and culturally, but personally, it’s an honour to be the feature artist. I know little about my ancestry in China, so the space between my own artwork and the artefacts on display is rich uncharted terrain as far as I’m concerned.
We still have a long way to go in not viewing Chinese as ‘Asian others’ who don’t belong. At the opening of the terracotta warriors exhibition, Gisborne Mayor, Meng Foon responded on behalf of the manuhiri [visitors] eloquently in Cantonese, Mandarin and te reo Māori. He had everyone on the edge of their seats.
How does being from Wellington inform your work?
I’m open about my love-hate for my hometown: getting regularly punished by the wind, boredom and claustrophobia – it upsets my mum, but these feelings are necessary to make me value the city. The scale, the sometimes not-nice weather, proximity to government and high caffeination enables a sense of social awareness in Wellington. It’s the same impetus that my friends and I had to organise all-ages punk shows back in the day. DIY activity enriches this place at all levels and is encouraged.
Finally, what would you like visitors to take away from their experience of Return to Skyland?
Stillness, wonder and appreciation.
I visited the main exhibition with a friend from London recently, and was overwhelmed that these treasures were buried under dirt for 2.5 millennia. I hope people can visit Skyland for some time out, get their eyeballs massaged by my wallpaper, read Rewi Alley’s words and possibly doze off. Come and visit because there’s nothing else like it on in New Zealand right now.
You can see Return to Skyland alongside Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality at Te Papa from now until 22 April; plan your visit for a weekend to able to attend the Return to Skyland tea ceremony held on Saturday and Sundays between 12 - 3pm.
Kerry Ann Lee will also be one of the 'guest thinkers' at the next City Gallery Wellington Tuatara Open Late on 7 March.
Artist Kerry Ann Lee invites you to enter a dreamscape transit lounge.
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