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Interview with Cathy Zhang

Cathy Zhang graduated from ANU in 2022 with Honours in Gold and Silversmithing. What am I? No.22? is one component of an installation project – Selfie exhibited in the 2019 ANU School of Art and Design graduating exhibition. It was acquired by the ANU Art Collection under the Emerging Artist’s Support Scheme.

Selfie exhibited in the 2019 ANU School of Art and Design graduating exhibition

In the Selfie installation, viewers were instructed to enter a confined room and take a ‘selfie’ (self-portrait) on a mobile phone. The selfie image was then projected via Wi-Fi onto organically shaped ceramic sculptures such as What am I? No.22? The porcelain forms stretched and distorted the viewer’s photo. Cathy explains, “While selfies are typically orchestrated with a deliberate intention – showcasing subjects in favourable social contexts – this collection delves into the often-overlooked facets of harsh reality, encompassing genuine human emotions and mental states.”

Lucy Chetcuti met with the artist earlier this month to find out more about What am I? No.22?


Lucy Chetcuti: Can you talk about What am I? No.22? as an object in itself, rather than the whole installation?

Cathy Zhang: What am I? No.22? is one half of a pair of sculptures that represent Ying and Yang – this one is feminine, the other, masculine. I view its structure as feminine in relation to the scale and the organic imprint of the material; the accompanying piece has a masculine energy derived from how I manipulated the porcelain section. Ying and Yang are a central concept of Taoism, and these ideas contribute to how I experience my surroundings – through this philosophy that seeks to balance two energies.

What am I? No.22? addresses the desire we have to present the ‘best version’ of ourselves in a selfie. It also acknowledges the reality that human flaws always remain visible in a photograph. I wanted to capture a spontaneous form that could represent the human condition. It’s a very direct translation of what I was thinking because clay is so easily manipulated and responsive to the personal imprint of the maker.

When experimenting with clay extrusions, there’s a lot of failure. Not every experiment can survive. After the first firing the form shrinks and then you need to reassess the result. Clay also has memory. How I wedge the clay will show after the firing. There are cracks, but for me, they are a true representation of the material.

I was working within abstraction rather than presenting a direct message. As a maker you want to give a mysterious kind of…

LC: Subtlety?

CZ: Yeah, maybe that’s the Western view. In an Eastern aesthetic, the aim is to leave a void for people to come up with their own narrative. A void is a kind of open space for the work to breathe in and out and it results in a mysterious quality that you often see in the arts from the East.

LC: So, did you have any formal art training in China?

I had my very first calligraphy exhibition when I was four years old and that has always stuck with me. In China, I had to focus seriously on studies after year 5, so art was partially lost to me until I decided to go back to visual arts and came to ANU. In What am I? No.22? the energy within the whole form and how the line travels, is influenced by my interest in calligraphy.

If I didn’t have the experience of living in Australia, I probably wouldn’t make this type of ceramic work, I would probably be making traditional vases. Being here, I can put aside the long history of Chinese ceramics and appreciate the medium from a different perspective.

LC: You are very sensitive to the material reality of your work; I would refer to you as a materialist.

CZ: Yes. I love the quality of porcelain, but also appreciate stoneware clay – it has that ‘grogginess’ and a completely different texture, which you can see at the bottom of this work. In my Honours year, I was interested in the opposing qualities of metal and clay. When working with clay you can add to or subtract, whereas with metal you can only subtract. Once you have filed metal you can’t actually go back and add to it again.

In Honours, I also experimented with combining 3D printed PLA plastic and fine silver. I am currently exploring how I can bring these materials together in a single work, so wish me luck!


Cathy will be exhibiting a new body of work with Brunswick Street Gallery, Naarm from September 12 to 29 this year.

Image: Cathy Zhang, What am I? No.22? 2019, highfire porcelain, stoneware, 310 x 230mm. Photo Ben Shingles. 

The Drill Hall Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.