Renee So

Renee So doesn’t so much speak truth to power as outsmart it. Recent works shown at the De La Warr Pavilion, the Henry Moore Institute, and Cample Line are drawn together into her current survey exhibition, forming an intricate and idiosyncratic field of signs, symbols, and subversions.

Renee So’s faces don’t often have all their features. Some have noses, but her early busts and knitted paintings often have mouths grown over by facial (or head) hair. Many wear masks, covering almost every detail which would give a hint of their character. “But they always have eyes,” she says.

Like these characters, So’s body of work itself emphasises the eyes – or, at least, the visual. It metabolises an enormous swathe of visible data, drawn largely from museum collections in London, where she has lived since 2005. So’s project is sometimes described as “bringing to light” the stories held within the objects she observes, or else offering a critical perspective on the dominating histories told by the institutions that display them. These are histories of extraction and exploitation in which those institutions frequently continue to participate. However, when observed closely, So’s practice feels both more playful and more powerful – actually powerful – than this picture sets out.

“I didn’t know any artists growing up,” So says. This growing up took place on Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung land in Melbourne’s Ascot Vale, where her family had settled down since moving to Australia from Hong Kong in 1975. She had taken art classes as a teenager at an otherwise “very academic” school and went to RMIT to study a Bachelor of Fine Arts, majoring in painting. “In the nineties,” she says, “a lot of people in painting departments weren’t really ‘painting.’ Everyone was doing expanded practice. People felt that everything was possible.” So took this “everything” more to heart than most.

In her early teens, So had learned to knit at home from her grandmother. After graduating as an art student, she began to make large, freestanding sculptures using needles more the size of oars. One of So’s knitted sculptures was a tender-looking Elephant, 1996: a creature whose character is succinctly expressed in a bashful, bottom-heavy trunk hanging down its tubular torso. The other thing So practised at home during this early period was sketching. “I used to draw characters,” she says, “which I wanted to knit pictorially using the intarsia technique; but to do it by hand with any detail was impossible.” With this material barrier before her, she signed up for a one-year Certificate IV course in textile design at RMIT, knowing that machine knitting was one of the elective options. Soon followed another transfiguration for So’s characters, into ceramics. Since 2018, So has also cast her characters in wall-based tile works and in stained-glass panels made collaboratively with Piotr Frac. They still come from sketches – always on scrap paper, rather than the wide, white page. So has successfully begun again in many media, but for her characters, there is no such thing as a fresh start.

So’s most recent machine-knitted painting is a 2023 reworking of Drunken Bellarmine, 2012, made to be exhibited in her current fourteen-year survey, Provenance, between Melbourne’s MUMA and UNSW Galleries, Sydney. Both Drunken Bellarmine works are elegant keys for many of the rhetorical moves which characterise So’s practice. Spliced across a pinstriped plinth, the central character flickers between activity and abjection. Stitched together though they are in a material sense, they pictorially come unstuck from themselves. And their splitting is also a doubling: their face is a planar Jekyll-and-Hyde situation, mirrored like a figure on a playing card. Their hanging legs read as a pair of wine glasses, and the image spills over with double entendres and floating visual signifiers. So’s changes for the 2023 version of this work include a sicklier Fanta-orange background, on which float an arrow and an umbrella. When I ask So what these shapes are doing in the scene, she reminds me that they come from tape and wood crates used to pack artworks, warning the handlers that they shouldn’t be upturned, are sensitive to water, and are fragile. But how did we get three warnings from only two new symbols? The sign denoting fragility, of course, had been there in the original: it was the wine glasses all along.

The poet Emily Berry responded to the original Drunken Bellarmine in 2015, at an event hosted by the Arts Council England at the Southbank Centre: “I have been theatrical, entropic, / parting with myself for company.” This tactic of entropy that Berry identifies in Drunken Bellarmine echoes throughout So’s work – though only semantically, never in terms of composition. Four booted legs split along the corner of a 2016 knitted painting, Sunset, while two dandies stand locked in eternal awkward eye contact over a glass of wine in Going Out, also 2016. Meanwhile, the balled-up beard of David, 2008 – one of the few early ceramic characters to have a name – appears as smoke at the tip of Cigarette, 2015. As So’s chosen forms proliferate across her works, the power which they have historically conferred leaks (or maybe, rather, sneaks) out of its proper containers.

Sometimes these containers of power are, quite literally, containers. So’s ongoing project – shown last year as Effigies and Elginisms at Cample Line in Scotland and developed further with new work commissioned for MUMA – presents ceramic perfume bottles alongside models of objects which British and French armies looted from Yuanmingyuan during the Opium Wars of the late nineteenth century. Researching the colonial manufacturing of addiction during these wars, So became interested in the design cues that modern perfume bottles take from snuff bottles. “Really, perfumes glorify a lot of colonial, Western supremacy stuff,” So says. “I took the names and fonts of all the perfumes I could find: Opium, Snuff, Poison, Addict, Power, Empire, even Royal Pekingese.” To represent this last scent, So sculpted the figure of a Pekingese dog taken or acquired from Yuanmingyuan during raids ordered by James Bruce, the 8th Lord Elgin, and presented to Queen Victoria. The dog’s name was Looty. For this project, like others, So’s research was aided by proximity to objects held at institutions including the British Museum, which is still “protected” from calls for repatriation by the British Museum Act of 1963. A snuff bottle with an image of Li Hongzhang, 1900–1910, and an oil painting showing Looty the Pekingese, are displayed in the Museum’s current exhibition, China’s hidden century.

So works from a studio in Dalston, where she lives with David Noonan, not far from where this object is held. When I visit, the studio is hidden from the house by a large tent – the survivor of their child’s sleepover held the night before. It’s also full of small sculptures intended as gifts: mainly figures of women, all with three legs, and upper bodies shaped after a model built from Helen O’Connell’s groundbreaking research on the clitoris, which So saw published in the Guardian in 2020. So tells me that she misses working in shared spaces like Acme Studios, where she first worked when she moved to London on an Australia Council residency. It seems to me, then, that So largely stayed in London for what it offered, in the 2000s, in terms of a scene in which to act. “At the time,” she says, “there were lots of artists still living here in East London, and lots of young galleries [in Bethnal Green]. We lived on Old Bethnal Green Road, and it all seemed to be happening on that block. Galleries that have gone on to become established – Hollybush Gardens, Herald St. – were just emerging at the time.” Many of these galleries, like HOTEL, Vilma Gold, and Laura Bartlett Gallery, have since closed, but despite this and other social changes that have taken place across parts of East London in the past decade, being here continues to offer kindling for the kinds of complicated looking and feeling which make So’s work possible.

That a habit of ambivalent looking goes hand-in-hand with feeling – from the fingertips as well as the head and heart – is the power at the centre of So’s work. Rather than “revealing” history, as if its artefacts weren’t displayed in vitrines already, or offering a simple counter-story, So’s work is deftly to conjugate the visual languages of the past and present – with anger and with delight. This practice, though only recently collaborative in a literal sense, has always been social. Information about ourselves – all passed into So’s hands from the hands of other makers, from Byzantine potters to the women of the Bauhaus, her grandmother, and graphic designers at work today ripples beneath her craftsperson’s manipulation. I ask her if she thinks about the people who made and make the objects that inspire her own work. “I guess they were just people who make things, like me,” she says.

This profile was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 64

18 August – 19 November 2023
UNSW Galleries, Sydney 

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