For emerging Brisbane printmaker Ruth Cho, art cuts both ways: it helps us reframe the past and understand who we are – and who we want to be – today. Cho’s prints are striking hybrids of iconic Australian and East-Asian imagery, often featuring wildlife that holds particular cultural significance. In her 2018 series Year of the Pest, she combines Western engraving and Chinese papercutting to depict iconic native animals; in her 2021 series Australian Knockoffs, she recasts classic Australian paintings to challenge outdated, Eurocentric ideas of national identity. Cho talked to Griffith Review about pests, postcolonialism and the art of printmaking.
CARODY CULVER: Tell us about your art practice – what drew you to linocut printing?
RUTH CHO: My practice explores cultural identity and postcolonialism – I use printmaking to investigate how images shape our identity and to reinterpret those images to question their validity. My practice is still subject to change, as I’m eager to continue experimenting with different print techniques and mediums.
There are a number of reasons why I gravitate towards relief printing in particular. Its unique characteristics – including bold contrast, sharpness and flatness – effectively create visually striking and graphic images. Its engaging and physical process allows me to regulate each variable and its effects on the finished print. Moreover, it’s a rewarding and ecstatic feeling to follow each of the many steps and then finally be able to pull a successful print. The lino plate can be incorporated into other printmaking techniques, such as etching, and its variety and potential combinations allow for so many different outcomes.
CC: What are the driving ideas and stylistic influences that underpin your work?
RC: The ambivalence of cultural identity and its subversion through the deconstruction of popular images are ideas that drive my practice. Specifically, I’m interested in exploring the relationship and cultural exchange between the West and East Asia through the printed image.
My work is heavily influenced by the aesthetics and philosophies of the 1930s Chinese Woodcut Movement. This stemmed from Chinese intellectuals encouraging artists to study and experiment with foreign cultures, literature and art to navigate modernity. Subsequently, relief printing became the ideal medium to artistically convey the social and political issues affecting an increasingly industrialised China. The movement appeals to me because its prints are technically brilliant yet also have an underlying desire to represent and champion the masses. I tend to engage more with works that are both visually compelling and have a strong political concept or message.
Other notable influences include traditional European engravings and the works of European printmakers such as Francisco Goya, Käthe Kollwitz and Otto Dix, who used printmaking to criticise the injustices happening in their lifetimes.
CC: What inspired your two series Australian Knockoffs and Year of the Pest, and what do you hope that audiences will take away from them?
RC: The Year of the Pest series was inspired by traditional Chinese papercuts and explores their potential as lino prints because of their graphic imagery. Combining this distinct traditional style with the detailed nature of European carving allows the audience to see the complexity of having a dual identity. These two disparate parts of oneself are viewed differently even when they are meant to constitute a whole. The idea of using Australian pests came from reading contemporary articles describing them as ‘foreign’, ‘exotic’, ‘alien’ and ‘non-native’: eerily similar to how foreigners and immigrants are often referred to. As a result, viewers are able to draw a parallel and realise how these negative attitudes can be damaging to those who have diverse backgrounds.
Feelings of inauthenticity and persistent images of a ‘white Australia’ reinforced in art and their recurring influence in Australian culture encouraged me to develop Australian Knockoffs. I decided to rework a series of iconic Australian paintings – ‘authentic’ representations of Australia – by incorporating East-Asian images and visual styles. In this way, I reference the rich history of East-Asian immigration in Australia and emphasise the cultural exchange between the West and East Asia through print. I hope audiences can question the validity of the original artworks, which overlook the contributions and presence of other cultural influences. This series also allows viewers to realise that this exclusivity has impeded Australia from acknowledging and embracing its multiculturalism.
CC: How do you think art can help us question or reinterpret the past, and do you see these acts of questioning or reinterpreting as part of your role as an artist?
RC: Questioning the past is a vital part of my role as an artist. Art has the influence to shape the way we think and perceive the world, as it has throughout history. I’m motivated by the desire to improve and do better, and the same goes for how I want my art career to proceed. The need to do better in the future is predicated on the fact that to do so, we need to revisit and interrogate the past. This is especially important in a country such as Australia, founded on colonial violence and with a legacy of racism that persists today. Some of the images propagated from classic Australian art are outdated and need to be reworked to generate new meanings or be removed from display in order for us to make progress. My role is to counter the contentious attitudes and values of the past by creating art that exposes their limitations and reflects Australian society today. Most of all, I want my practice to encourage the audience to question, deconstruct and reflect on their own identities.
CC: Animals are a significant feature of your work, particularly animals that hold cultural significance, such as the ox. What do these animals symbolise to you?
RC: To me, animals symbolise people above all else. The personification of animals and their symbolism are instrumental parts of culture and identity for many countries. I’m interested in exploring the juxtaposing roles of animals in West and East-Asian cultures and how we use animals to construct our own stories and identities. I use Australia’s introduced species to highlight how immigrants and foreigners are seen as unwanted and damaging pests, threatening the Australian way of life. By contrast, animals serve a more positive and revered role in East Asia, as they are imbued with human characteristics and symbolism. I use animals such as the ox, rabbit and tiger because they have personal value and are recurring subjects in East-Asian art, each with their own unique cultural significance.