Josette Chiang is not your average artist. Sure, there are more than one research-based multimedia artists with works ranging from drawing, sound, text, performance, video, installation, and sculpture. What makes Chiang special is her consistency in referencing geology, mythology, Chinese cosmology, and systems of measurement to her works. By doing so, she’s able to create narratives that communicate the interplay between culture, science, and landscape.
But like many artists before her, Chiang’s interest towards art started from early childhood. She always loves to draw. “My mother and grandfather were also amateur artists, so I think they inspired me subconsciously,” she stated on an interview with British Council.
Chiang was born in Hong Kong, then moved to the UK when she was 13 years old to attend a boarding school in Yorkshire. She remembered, “It was a culture shock to be in a provincial town in the countryside, but it opened my eyes to traditional British culture, which was something distant but familiar to me growing up in Hong Kong at the tail end of the colonial era.”
Chiang decided to be an artist since she was 17 years old, but admit that she initially had no idea what kind. She enjoyeddrawing and painting, but was not so sure about her skills as a painter. She was able to create realistic images, but then gravitated towards performance art and installation when she attended Central Saint Martens College in London.
“I always found myself incorporating different mediums into my school projects, so I was already using this approach back then. I think this was driven by a sense of being transparent with my audience about my uncertainties of what I was doing, and wanting to have a shared experience with people seeing my work,” she explained. “Today, my practice is about sharing what I learn from collective, social experiences in different geographies around the world. I find that I have an impulsive need to communicate the physicality of the world – it’s a constant challenge for me, and I am always pushing myself to find new ways to do this with whatever medium I feel makes the most sense realistically.”
In Chiang’s understanding, the physical world is understood through collective experiences but it’s also about a basic need for sociality and human connectivity. “I often work in response to places I visit that are new to me, so I need to work with other people from the very beginning. I look for ways to stay connected to other people to motivate others and myself to be aware of the specificities that make up the history and identity of the places I am working in. People and places are inseparable, they don’t make sense in isolation,” she said.
Chiang started implementing geology, mythology, and Chinese cosmology two years ago when she made work aboutthe feng shui of the sea goddess temple in Sai Kung, a remote region in Hong Kong where Chiang grew up. She remembered, “I didn’t know what I would focus on but I knew it was time to do something about this place that was so personally significant to me. Then I discovered with subsequent opportunities that this approach to studying places was productive for me.”
Chiang is one of eight UK creatives who had been chosen by the British Council to spend a month residency in Indonesia. She was placed in Bandung, with the initiative space PLATFORM3 as her host. And for this opportunity, she wanted to investigate Bandung’s volcanic geography in connection to its cultural identity and colonial history.
“I looked online to find out more about the city and learned about geo-mythological narratives relating to Sangkuriang. I knew right away that this was going to be the subject I would focus on. I then continued a dialogue about this with my host organisation PLATFORM3 during the six months leading up to the residency,” she stated.
Chiang continued, “I am interested in sharing under acknowledged knowledge systems that are valuable to cultural and practical aspects of contemporary life. Urban development and infrastructure is normally centered on corporate power and individual gain. In order to contest this position, I think it's really important to talk about the idea of progress in different ways and as a collective voice.”