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Zoe Wong
Portrait of Zoe Wong
Photo taken by Abby Shen
Interviewed in February 2023

Zoe Wong is proudly half Chinese, half Australian and grew up in Wollongong, NSW. Zoe’s art explores her half Chinese, half Australian heritage as well as her queer identity through photographic appropriation and mixed media installations. Her work illustrates the complexities behind the influence that pop culture has on society’s notions of race and identity and how we perceive ourselves through representation in mass media. She describes her practice as a “De-Orientalising” practice in which she works to break down and critique notions of the East presented in a Western context.
I found Zoe when I was looking through the artists showing in the New Energy Exhibition (July 2022), hosted by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art - an organisation that leads cultural dialogues between Australia and Asia via contemporary art. Her work being shown was Oriental Futures, a photographic series exploring the oriental setting apparent in sci fi cinema. Her series aims to reconcile the use of ‘Asia’ as decoration within predominantly white storylines by highlighting its appearance and making it central to the images. At the time, I had recently just watched Everything Everywhere All At Once - one of the first films that I had ever seen which showed complex, full and multi-dimensional Asian characters. The internal understanding that I had never been exposed to well-thought out Asian representation in mainstream Western media was ticking in my brain, and looking at and reading Zoe’s work truly helped me grapple with this idea in another medium.

I chose to interview Zoe not only because I really resonated with her art, but because I was inspired by what she was trying to achieve through her art. Seeing another queer, Asian woman grappling with aspects of her identity in different mediums, whether it be through screenplays, poetry, abstract sculptures or installations - in such a public way - was so encouraging, and it led me to reaching out and getting to know her story.

I hope Zoe’s story inspires you as much as it did, me.
What led you to becoming an artist, and creating art in so many different mediums?
I actually never had any intention of becoming an artist, I sort of fell into it during uni. I was studying photography at UTS and a lot of my tutors were artists so I became excited about how art could be used to explore different themes and complex ideas whilst also creating visibility for different cultures and identities. My practice is very theme and idea orientated so I often will change the medium to what I think suits the work best.

What are you currently up to?
I have a day job as an assistant registrar at the White Rabbit gallery storage facility 4 days a week. It’s the perfect day job because I'm not stuck behind a desk all day and I get exposed to a lot of Chinese contemporary art which is always very inspiring. I’ve been slowly scaling back my art practice and trying to focus more on screenwriting (which is what I originally wanted to do before uni) so I normally try to get some writing in everyday when I can. I’m currently writing a play that centres on a lesbian couple grappling with the crumbling of their relationship through the lens of a multiverse/time travelling genre.

What do you hope to do in the future?
I’ve been slowly trying to transition into screenwriting, so I hope to eventually have opportunities to explore that path so that I can help create more representation for mixed race identity issues and queerness.

What is your favourite piece of yours and why?
It’s always changing but at the moment my favourite work is Oriental Futures. I think the cinematic aspect of it really excites me but I also love how versatile it’s becoming as a work and I love dreaming up different ways that it may be installed.

What do you hope viewers get out of your artworks?
I’m happy if viewers make any sort of connection with my work, whether that be something significant like a shared personal experience or something as little as just recognising the source material I'm referencing. I see art as a way to tell a story. Maybe it's a story you know very well and strikes a chord in your heart or maybe the story is completely out of your hemisphere but you’re along for the ride anyway. Whenever you put anything out in the world to be seen, you can never control what an audience will respond to, so I’m really genuinely happy when viewers have any connection or reaction to my work at all.

If money and time wasn’t an issue, what would your dream creative project be?
That is a BIG question! Who knows? That's almost too hard to fathom! I’d probably build myself an island and fill it with dogs!  But in all seriousness, it is often the less time and the less money we have that generates the most creative and unique ideas. Restrictions breed ingenuity, they force us to problem solve in a big way and they also force us to make instinctive decisions.

on culture and identity
What has your relationship with your Asian Australian identity been like, and how has it evolved?
I think it’s been constantly changing. As a kid I wasn’t super ingrained in Chinese culture, so a lot of what I learnt was really from movies. I like to say that I fell in love with the “wrong” China, as everything that I consumed was really China as seen by Western society, filled with stereotypes and missteps. Being a teenager was when I really started to turn away from my Asian identity. I really rejected it and even tried to convince myself that I did not even look Asian and that I could pass for white. I think I was struggling to find where I fit. Being half Chinese was challenging to navigate because so much of my identity was what others put on me. I think I was sick of being stuck in between. Now that I’m older I feel very lucky to be part of a culture with so much rich history and tradition, and I’m more comfortable with where I sit with that culture.

What is a significant cultural memory of yours?
I remember one time when I was a kid I went to stay at my uncle's house. I had been watching Hong Kong action movies with my older cousin all night. In the morning my uncle prepared breakfast. He served me steamed buns and warm water from the kettle. I remember being surprised that the water was warm, I thought maybe he had forgotten the tea. It was only as I got older I realised that drinking hot water is very Chinese.
What is your favourite food from your culture?
EVERYTHING! But if i had to pick one I’m a sucker for noodle soup, probably at the moment my fave is Lanzhou beef noodle soup. Yum!
Who is an Asian Australian that inspires you, and why?
My dad. That may be a bit of a hokey answer but it's true. The other day at dinner I asked him how long he had been in Australia for and he said he had been here 50 years. That's more years than he ever spent in China and yet there are probably many people that don't consider him “Australian”. He has been through so much in his life it’s sometimes hard to grasp how much the world has changed in his lifetime. He’s always been so supportive of me even when I was a kid and told him I wanted to be Avril Lavigne, he just said “of course” and then got me a guitar. He used to also say to me “when you grow up and have a boyfriend or a girlfriend” which was such a simple statement and yet made a world of difference knowing that all possibilities were open to me, that I didn't have to prescribe to a particular idea of what my life could be.