The tide is higher or lower, she couldn’t tell you which

Ketty Haolin Zhang

MAY 4 - JUNE 1

Ketty Haolin Zhang (b. Chaoyang) is an emerging artist and a 1.5-generation immigrant settler, having spent half of her life so far in China and half in Canada. Informed by her diasporic experience, her art practice navigates her relationship with placelessness, liminal space and (non)belonging in a hyper-globalized world. She is interested in creating works that embody both closeness and distance – the simultaneous desire to belong and to resist being defined. 

Zhang holds a BA Double Major in Visual Arts and Art History from the University of British Columbia and has shown at Surrey Art Gallery, Art Gallery at Evergreen, The Reach Gallery Museum and Canton-Sardine, among others.

About the exhibition

In The tide is higher or lower, she couldn’t tell you which, Ketty Haolin Zhang brings together video work and a series of velvet paintings and mixed-media sculptures, centered around the fantastical creature Huan 讙 from the ancient Chinese mythological text, The Classic of Mountains and Seas 山海經. Originally sparked by her recent artist residency at Casa Lü in Mexico City, this collection of works reflects upon and interrogates the human desire to make sense of existence through folklore, mythology, spirituality and religion, and considers the relevance and role of these traditions in contemporary society. 

The title of this exhibition is a modified line from the poem “Sandpiper” by the American poet and writer Elizabeth Bishop (1911 – 1979) that follows the bird’s obsessive search for sustenance amidst the rising and falling tides on a shoreline. Paralleling Zhang’s own use of quotidian objects in her works – including ribbons, chandelier parts, reproduced photographs, language-learning worksheets and crocheted crosses from her grandmother – Bishop brings attention to the significance of the seemingly small and mundane amidst larger cultural and historical contexts. It is these considerations that Zhang brings forth in her practice, as the works explore the nuances of immigration and belonging through the fantastical ambiguity and absurdity of life.

Zhang’s experimentation with black velvet paintings, for instance, engages with their unique tactility to push against normative understandings of their place in art history. Here, Zhang recalls the medium’s early ties to religious portraiture in Western Europe and the Caucasus region and how the material gained popularity in rural America in the late 20th century – depicting anything from Elvis and John Wayne, to dogs playing poker – with Ciudad Juaréz, Mexico as the major center of its production in the 1970s. While often considered tacky, the materiality of velvet is used here to push back against normative constrictions of value and understanding. 

Alongside these paintings, a central figure traversing her video and sculptural work is Huan. A one-eyed, three-tailed creature believed to be able to speak the languages of all animals, Huan is seen navigating the urbanized world of Mexico City in Zhang’s video work of the same name. Here, she questions Huan’s fluencies as not just adhering to linguistic conventions or definitions, but also considering languages as cultural modes of being in the world – navigating various careers, norms and expectations. Fittingly, perched atop a stack of carpenter pencils, under a sword reminiscent of a Christian cross, and with the backdrop of her father’s ESL worksheet encased in resin, we find Huan again. Denoting Zhang’s own familial experiences, Ask Politely likewise presents Huan as a means through which to understand nuanced experiences and attitudes towards assimilation, religion, labour, class and capital in a diasporic context. 

The tide is higher or lower, she couldn’t tell you which thus pinpoints a central sentiment in Zhang’s practice: embodying both closeness and distance, a desire for belonging while resisting definition and a yearning for a utopian landscape amidst feelings of placelessness. This perpetual search is reflected in Peach Blossom Spring, which references its namesake (桃花源記), a fable written by Tao Yuanming in 421 CE. The story follows a fisherman whose route through a river lined by a forest of peach trees led him to the chance discovery of an ethereal utopia – a village living in harmony with nature and blissfully ignorant to the political regimes impacting the outside world. After returning home, the fisherman shared news of his journey, yet was never able to locate this utopia again. For Zhang, the story reflects her shared sentiment of longing for an idealistic world that does not exist, and the precarity of the in-between – a central theme permeating the layers of meaning throughout this body of work – swaying between the known and unknown, the real and the mythical. 

Carmen Levy-Milne