In response to the impacts of the current COVID-19 crisis on our community, KINGS Artist-Run and un Projects are collaborating with Bus Projects, TCB Art Inc. and SEVENTH to profile a range of artistic projects that have been impacted by the temporary closure of their physical spaces. By collaborating with these organisations to publish interviews, artist previews and texts, we seek to maintain the important dialogue generated by their rich programs and projects. Now as much as ever, artistic and cultural discourse is vital in keeping us connected and engaged.
In four different chapters, Ellen Yeong Gyeong Son interviews artist Zara Sully (fka Zara Sullivan) about their art practice, recent exhibition, and their ongoing art projects.
We acknowledge that we work and live on the traditional lands of Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri peoples. We pay our respects to the Elders past, present and emerging, and through them to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Sovereignty was never ceded.
Chapter 1: Denise
In making a series of works, you often do drag. How did you start doing drag as part of your art practice?
As much as I would like to deny it, I am a product of the internet. I grew up in the age of tumblr, a website that allowed you to project whoever you wanted through a series of texts and images. During my time on tumblr, I made a few fake profiles, where I was able to play with gender and representation. It was during this time that I also discovered my own gender (I’m non-binary). Being gender non-conforming has led me to feeling that I am frequently in drag, or at times, I feel unable to be in drag at all. It is in these times, when I have felt unable to deconstruct my own perceived gender that I discovered drag. Drag was uncovered as a way to project internalised feelings. As a quiet and anxious person, drag became an escape from those qualities. When making, I have always subconsciously created artworks that could be considered loud or in your face, and the realisation of the contrast between the artworks I make and the person that I am lead to the understanding of my drag methodology. When making, I am myself, but an extended version, I am less afraid, but perhaps less vulnerable. Drag has created an extension of myself, the person and myself, the artist.
Chapter 2: Birth of Denise & Big Duck Energy
It’s fascinating to see how drag became the most important methodology in your art practice, and I am interested in finding out more about different personas that you have created through drag. What is “#duckdrag”, and who is the new persona, Denise, in Big Duck Energy (2019)?
Well, I wouldn’t say Denise is particularly new, but I definitely think I have brought Denise to the forefront of my practice. Denise was fully established around 2018. Prior to that I had been mildly afraid of expressing Denise in a direct manner. Denise gives me the confidence to say what I have always wanted to say, in a manner that is unswerving from the social factors that I explore throughout my practice. Coming through art school, I felt as though I was taught to avoid or rather 'duck' the political undertones within my practice. Denise has allowed me to reclaim the direct manner in which I address the message I want to share with the audience. Denise is not afraid. Zara is.
In terms of duck drag, it is the true hybrid of Denise and the ducks. Duck drag is the flamboyant representation of the rubber duck. In Big Duck Energy I chose a handful of models to put in duck drag. These models were not just anyone. They are all members of my queer family. The final portraits can be viewed, in a sense, a doving of ducks. Doving is the collective noun for a group of ducks who are collectively diving.
From duck toys, fabric banners with duck images, duck inflatables, to duck drag - I heard you had 'an unhealthy duck sensation' in the year of 2019 as well as your next
project, Big Duck Energy (2019), as part of the 2019 Grad Show at Monash University. Why were you so attracted to ducks?
I’m a little embarrassed of my obsession that overtook an entire year of practice. I was specifically obsessed with these miniature ‘rubber’ (they were totally made of plastic) ducks, standing at only a few centimetres high and wide,they were simply adorable. Alongside this, the rubber duck truly captures an era of unknowing. As I wrote in my exegesis: 'When you are a child, you are naïve and unaware of the gendered expectations you are yet to face, and at this fresh stage in your life, you are often gifted a duck. This yellow duck is non-gendered, a commonality of a toy collectively gifted to all genders. I am reclaiming and redefining the definition of a clichéd object, announcing that the bath toy duck is queer.' You see, despite their sheer cuteness, the rubber duck is truly from a time before you understand gendered expectations and desires. I am fascinated by this mindset, and also by the concept of desire itself. When you are typically playing with a rubber duck, you are yet to
understand taught societal desires. From hetrosexuality to the desire to be rich. Unlearning these desires are difficult, and in an ideal world, I would simply be able to dip back into the mindset of a child, rather than go through the sheer difficulty of unlearning.
From the printed seat of Ducking Around With a Chair (2019) and the outer layer of Sandbag (2019), you have repeatedly used 'dick' and 'duck' together in a phrase, for instance 'Ducking Dick Fuck Fucking Dicking Duck'. How is duck similar and/or different from dick? And what does it mean by 'dicking' and 'ducking'?
It’s a pretty loaded word, duck. Duck can mean so many things, and in exploring the etymology of the word itself, I discovered several of its meanings. Firstly, the animal, the ducks you see in the pond. Did you know that the duck has a corkscrew shaped dick? Despite this link, this is not where I made the connection between duck and dick. The relationship between the two of them stemmed from my lack of typing skills, and my old friend, autocorrect. When typing dick or fuck, my phone would always autocorrect to duck. I still think this is funny, and I don’t ever bother correcting it. Perhaps this is my inner comedian: I’ve always struggled to be performatively funny in a physical sense, so a subtle humour can often be found throughout my practice. Secondly, the word duck can also be used when avoiding a situation. For a period of time, particularly around the time when making the chair, I was exhausted by meaning, attempting to find symbology within every detail. 'Duck' became a way to avoid this, a refusal to assign meaning to something that evidently meant a lot (see above, my unhealthy attachment). In ducking symbology, I was then viewed as a bit of a dick (in the colloquial sense). Therefore we come to ducking and dicking, two words that I began to use interchangeably. Ducking and dicking simply became a way to have fun, to put less thought into assigned meaning prior to creating. Having the freedom to merely create, without having to back myself up, ducking the task of the 'artist'.
Has there been a relationship between Denise and the ducks? If yes, what is their relationship like?
Denise and the ducks undoubtedly share a relationship. I view Denise as the parental figure, teaching the ducks how to be overtly queer and comfortable with this position. There is also a bit of a power play, with Denise in control, they distinctly choose how the ducks will be presented.
I assume that you could have felt sad after working with ducks for the whole of 2019. From my knowledge, you are currently working on different projects - did you overcome the 'unhealthy duck sensation'? Will you revisit working on Big Duck Energy in the future?
I have this pattern where I choose an item, or a word, to become obsessed with. I focus on it for so long that I almost dissolve the initial interpretation of the word (or object) itself. Duck has now become so much more than a loaded word or an object, it became my entire life. I now have a collection of rubber ducks, some gifted to me by friends who saw my fascination grow. It’s now 2020, and in all honesty, the thought of revisiting 'duck' at all fills me with dread. I think the idea has been exhausted, or rather, I am exhausted. Placing such an intense amount of energy into a single concept has landed me in burn out. After the presentation of my final work at the graduate exhibition, and a series of rejections to exhibit the work any further, I have accepted the signs and right now the ducks are in semi-retirement. Perhaps one day I will revisit it, but right now, not only do I need a break, but so do my beloved ducks.
I really love the printed fabric works, especially the Duck Drag series in Big Duck Energy (2019), and how you continue making more large printed fabric works. Why did you start printing images and texts on fabrics? And how do you find using fabrics in your practice so far?
Large scale fabric prints! One of my favourite parts about my practice. Despite the fact that fabrics have been embedded into my practice for far longer than the ducks ever were, it is still something I continue to do. I first printed on fabric in 2017, when I recreated the imagery of 'the last supper'. In all truthfulness, fabric was never initially about the textural nor aesthetic qualities. I’ve always held the desire of creating works that are 'larger than life'. But being a student on a tight budget, with solid knowledge about the ins and outs of printing on paper, I knew large-scale paper prints have always been out of the question.
It is cheaper to print on fabric than paper. In a critique, it was once said I was 'disrespecting' the fabric itself. It’s fair to say this comment frustrated me, and will not be forgotten. If anything, I am incredibly grateful for the chance to print at my desired scale, and within budget. Once I knew that printing was possible at such a scale (on fabric), I have been able to interrogate the conceptual qualities of fabric. Fabric is often associated with 'womanhood' and 'craft', two powerful things, albeit two things that my practice does not align with. Through my use of fabric I aim to challenge these perceptions of fabric, placing an emphasis on queering the experience of fabric. It’s not about fashion, but it’s about dismantling the expectations of the qualities that fabric holds. Fabric is accessible from a monetary standpoint, and also a conceptual one. Everyone wears fabric in one way or another, perhaps not nudists, but I am yet to meet a nudist who can be in the nude 24/7, 365 days of the year. (If you know someone, please introduce us!)
Chapter 3: Icons
Your other fabric printed works that I really love are the series of self-portraits as Christian figures from Icons. Why did you specifically choose Christian figures for this project?
Without delving into too much trauma, as a queer person who grew up Catholic, I have a very complex relationship with Christianity, but I am also inspired by my past. My first work in the series, Sheezus features myself in the iconic Jesus pose. Icons began in 2017, the year in which I was filled with rage; I was coming to the end of a toxic relationship, with a man who was in denial of patriarchal structures. Sheezus aims to challenge these structures. The Catholic church is synonymous with patriarchy, and through repositioning myself as the main character of the religious narrative, I encourage the audience to question their own positionality within the patriarchy.
Is it Denise posing as Christian figures in these series of self-portraits?
I am confident that in Sheezus, it is me, not Denise. Alas, in my 2019 addition to the series, When I grow up (The Pussycat Dolls) (2005), Denise is present. In When I grow up (The Pussycat Dolls) (2005), there are two figures. It is a recreation of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, but with my face (and body). Growing up queer has given me a complex relationship with parenthood. I am incredibly grateful for my mother (and father), but being raised in the ideals of heteronormativity, whilst being queer, has led me to fearing the future. No one tells you how to be queer — you must unlearn socially taught desires, and find your true desires. I am still unsure whether I want children. With this being said, if I ever do decide to have children, I will undoubtedly face a variety of complex issues. This is why Denise is present in the portrait, Denise is the Virgin Mary, and I am the child. Denise symbolises my experience as a queer person, my experiences that teach me as I go. Experiences that cannot be taught by my biological mother. These internalised understandings and lessons are learnt in my everyday life. I view Denise as the holder of these experiences. Denise is the queerness within, and Zara is the perceived body. I am more than my queerness, and Denise is merely a representation of my queerness.
I recall at the beginning of this project, the portraits were printed on a smaller scale before entering the finalists’ exhibition of the Blake Art Prize in 2019. What was your decision about printing the self-portraits on a larger scale?
When entering the Blake Prize, I had a frame sitting next to me. It was gold and flamboyant. Kitsch, tacky, but also echoed the era in which the original Christian paintings were made. This frame was huge (and also broken), but upon inspection, I came to the conclusion that this frame would be the ideal size. Icons are large, physical scale aside, due to their wide understanding. I wanted my portrait to have a similar overwhelming effect. Scale is a simple way to do this, it’s hard not to look at something when it’s big, it’s harder to ignore, demanding attention. Scale is how I demand attention. I want my art to be active, not passive. I want the conceptual groundwork of my art to be understood, purely through looking. There is something I find so incredibly frustrating about work that requires reading to understand what the artist is saying, I want my work to talk to people. When making, I think of my sister, she is seventeen. I want to make work that she can gain perspective out of. Using such iconic imagery, and a scale that demands attention, is my way of doing this. I also deem the scale of my work part of the 'drag' approach. When I Grow Up, in its final form was printed at 14000 x 2000 mm. This outlandish size imitates the colour and flamboyancy associated with so-called 'queer art'.
Are you interested in taking a different approach to this project, like printing these series of works on wearable fabrics?
I don’t think so, I’m not sure I can picture people wandering around with Sheezus tote bags or t-shirts, maybe one day, if I’m famous, and people want it.
I heard Icons is an ongoing project so far, since there are many Christian figures that need to be explored. When do you plan to finish making this project?
Icons is a life-long project. It has no cut-off time, and I’m not sure it will ever be a project that reaches completion.
If you do finish working on Icons, would you be interested in presenting all the works together? What do you think the exhibition would look like?
It’s incredibly difficult to envision the end of the project, the final exhibition. What I can see through, is that I will be old and decrepit. This project will probably last so long that the way we present art in institutions will be so incredibly different it’s not even possible to imagine. Maybe they can all be exhibited together once I die, then I don’t have to worry about the presentation, and for now, I can just continue making.
Chapter 4: Angel Exchange + COVID-19
How have you been managing with your art practice during home isolation in this time of COVID-19?
COVID-19 truly threw a spanner in the works for me (and you, and everyone else). The virus came along at the same time that I had finally begun settling into a new lifestyle. I had finally finished uni, had a solid break, and was ready to get a studio and a job. Alas, I am now unemployed and making art out of my bedroom, preparing for a new artistic lifestyle in curating (I’ll be starting my Masters in Art Curatorship in August). There is a part of me that is grateful for isolation, it gave me time to process and reflect on who I am both as an artist and as a person.
It’s amazing that you are currently working on a new exchange program called Angel Exchange through Bus Projects. What is this exchange program, and how did you come up with this idea?
Angel Exchange is by far the most fun I have ever had making art. It is an exchange in which artists send me an email with their postal address, I then send them a resin cast angel, and in return, they send me an artwork via the post. The idea stemmed from a lack of physical intimacy. I wanted Angel Exchange to create a physical connection between myself and other artists, something that I can’t personally achieve purely in the digital. This exchange has connected me to so many artists, both emerging, and established. I feel like I’ve created this bizarre network, solely based on a give and take relationship.
Especially in this time of the pandemic, with the digital platform becoming more popular, how did you choose to proceed with the manual delivery system via post for this exchange program?
In all honesty, I’m just not very good with technology. Alongside this, I think if it were to take place purely on a digital platform, it would remove the intimacy I have been able to experience with each artwork, and I hope this goes the same for the artists receiving the angels. There is such a distance when viewing artwork online, between artist and viewer. I personally view artworks as an exchange and the embodiment of the self. Also, I think if the only way to view another exhibition is online, I might cry. COVID-19 has had me spending a ridiculous amount of time on either my phone or my laptop, and Angel Exchange gave me a chance to have a break from the digital realm.
What are the difficulties of proceeding with the project through more manual and physically hands-on experience during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Undoubtedly, it is the extensive time it takes to send and receive. With social distancing in place, many people started using the post to receive goods. I was lucky enough to have a few artists from overseas take part in the project, and their angels took weeks to arrive (fairly sure some of them still have not.) Also, no matter how many pairs of gloves, or how careful I am, I always manage to get resin in unwanted places. Ensuring the safety of recipients, I also clean the angels before sending them off. I was a tad concerned the alcohol could damage the angels, but so far so good!
Looking back onto how the scale of the physical work is really important in your art practice, it is interesting to see how the angels that you have been delivering to other artists are tiny. How did the scale translate into this exchange program?
This is such an excellent question, it’s stumped me a bit to be honest. I believe the physical scale of the artwork has been translated into the distances that each artwork experiences from one house to another, travelling as far as Canada, or as close as the same suburb. The scale has also been expanded through the wide range of artists (and non-artists) participating. Having anyone able to take part means there are so many different people participating and allows a great 'scale' of artists, people I know, people I don’t, and people who I will meet (hopefully) one day.
What will the end product of this exchange program look like?
Currently, the artworks I received will be presented on Bus Project’s digital content site Island Island. I’ll send you the link. Perhaps I’ll be able to exhibit them in a physical space one day, but I haven’t quite decided yet. Having the final product in a digital form is pretty ironic, but for now, I’m a sucker for a bit of irony.
Would you be interested in doing another exchange program?
Definitely! Angel Exchange has been a fantastic experience, and I’m so grateful for each and every person who participated. It’s been a great way to connect in such trying times, perhaps I’ll do one every year!
Zara Sully is a multidisciplinary artist who engages with intersectional feminist theory and explores the concept of decentralising queerness through a performative practice. Works include installation, photography, audiovisual media, self-portraiture and sculpture. In 2018, Zara was shortlisted for both the Blake Prize and the Majlis travelling scholarship. Recent shows include I Want to Believe at Trocadero Art Space, Duck Duck Duck at Schoolhouse Studios and Mother at Bus Projects. Zara is currently studying their Masters of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.
Having lived in Korea, Singapore and Australia, Ellen Yeong Gyeong Son is a multidisciplinary artist researching different cultural identities and diasporic experience. Son has previously volunteered at Trocadero Art Space as a Public Programs Coordinator, and she is currently studying Master of Urban and Cultural Heritage at The University of Melbourne.