There’s lockdown. Then there’s lockdown while living alone. And then there’s lockdown living alone with no friends inside your 5km and no family within 7,400km. Despite all of that, Melbourne-based artist Scotty So has used the time more productively than most, learning a new skill and securing a coveted spot in the second ever NGV Triennial. Not too bad for someone who only finished his bachelor’s degree in 2018. “It’s amazing that I get to show at the Triennial,” says So.
Unlike many Melburnians, this isn’t So’s first experience with a life-altering pandemic. As a child in Hong Kong, So lived through the 2003 SARS pandemic. “I was also in lockdown then, not going to school, so this could be fine for me,” he says. But locked down in Melbourne southeastern suburbs, living alone and beyond his friends’ 5km bubbles, So admits: “It’s pretty sad, to be honest.” In true 2020 fashion, So turned to the internet and YouTube to pass the time, eventually getting hooked on The Great Pottery Throw Down (“If you get the chance you should watch it!”) and despite having no formal training in the discipline, decided to give pottery a crack. “It [the show] got me really into ceramics,” he says. “So I just ordered the materials.”
For the NGV Triennial So will present a series of eight porcelain face masks alongside six photographic prints. The masks are accurate representations of the real PPE the world has become intimately acquainted with, such as the KN95, N95 and respirator masks (even if you don’t recognise those names, you’ll definitely recognise the masks). The first mask So made for the series was the Qihua glazed respirator mask, which also doubles as an incense burner. “I wanted to play with the idea that this is something that is supposed to protect me but has become this beautiful, fragile ceramic piece,” he says.
“I wanted to play with the idea that this is something that is supposed to protect me but has become this beautiful, fragile ceramic piece.”
So’s works really give an air of levity to an item that has become a grim mascot for 2020. He concedes humour plays a starring role in his art, which is no more apparent than in his meticulously ornate masks, which are wonderfully useless as PPE. “I often find its very funny when I as an artist put in so much hard work on something that is just literally stupid,” So says. “And I find beauty in that. It’s always been the goal in my work – that there’s always something fun for me to do.”
That cheeky undercurrent persists in the series of six photographic prints that So is presenting alongside his porcelain masks. All the photos So is presenting feature him dressed in drag, in photographs that incorporate masks into fake vintage images – an ongoing project that he’s been working on since his honours degree at VCA last year. The first in the series shows So dressed as a Manchurian noblewoman. “I uploaded it to Wikipedia and people actually believed that it was real,” he says. Then, a scholar in Hong Kong took another of So’s photographs and used it as a representation of the historic practice of breast binding. And then there was the time he photoshopped himself as Carrie Lam. “I put it on Wikipedia and an Italian newspaper thought I was actually her and used the picture,” he laughs.
“The first ceramic I made was a ceramic butt plug.”
It is a recurring motif in his Triennial works, but So’s range isn’t limited to mask-based art (“The first ceramic I made was a ceramic butt plug”). Still, the common item leads into a broader conversation about how Australia’s artistic set – as well as Australian society in general – needs to be more hospitable to artists from other countries and diverse backgrounds. Since the start of the pandemic in March, there have been countless incidents of racial discrimination and harassment targeted towards those in Australia’s Asian communities – something So has personally experienced, having been racially assaulted while wearing a mask at the beginning of the lockdowns.
For So, getting the opportunity to participate in the NGV Triennial is more than just getting a feather in a cap. It’s about being a role model for other students like him and showing them that these opportunities exist. “Often international students who come through [Australia’s universities] don’t know about the art scene. Our schools often don’t know how to help these students,” So says. “Being more accepting of artists like us, artists who come from another background; I think that’s the main way to help.”