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SCOTTY SO, Wearing a mask during The Third Bubonic Plague, No. 2, 2020, digital print on paper, 76 × 51 cm. All images copyright the artist; courtesy Mars Gallery, Melbourne.

The Drag Personas of Scotty So in “Small room downstairs”

Mars Gallery
Australia Hong Kong

Hidden in Hong Kong’s nightlife district Lan Kwai Fong are speakeasies that foster the local LGBTQ scene. Scotty So’s exhibition “Small room downstairs” brought a kindred atmosphere of dimness and intimacy to Mars Gallery, where the Hong Kong-born, Melbourne-based artist’s drag personas, seen in three poster-sized self-portraits and a hologram video installation staged a careful reconstruction of Asian stereotypes.

During lockdown, So produced a series of photographic self-portraits in which he wears different handmade traditional Chinese women’s outfits with matching facemasks. Posed against a lustrous scarlet background, the portraits recall 20th-century haipai (Shanghai-style) posters of glamorous models. In Wearing a mask was just an Asian hype (all works 2020), So dons a light blue, floral cheongsam with a matching facemask and nurse’s cap, while Wearing a mask during The Third Bubonic Plague has the artist in ornate Qing-dynasty garments, clutching a decorative fan. Prompted by So’s experience of racial harassment in Australia during Covid-19, the three works explore the recent complexities of mask-wearing in the West, which has shifted from being a racialized sign of Asian paranoia to an established international health requirement. Through these staged historical images, So translates the contemporary “Asian hype” of wearing masks to ancestral wisdom.

SCOTTY SO, Wearing a mask was just an Asian hype, No. 1, 2020, digital print on paper, 76 × 51 cm.

SCOTTY SO, As she floats, 2020, wood, velvet, digital video on hologram device: 5 min 59 sec.

The artist’s feminine alter-ego comes alive in As she floats/As she dances/As she smokes, a trio of holographic figures encased in a wooden lattice frame. The work opens with So’s impersonation of the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e (As she floats). This illusion of feminine grace is playfully dismantled with each piece of discarded clothing in the artist’s striptease, As she dances. Inviting the male gaze until the bubble bursts, So addresses the femme Asian caricature of being simultaneously hypersexual and docile. Directly staging gender and racial identifiers as a performance, So switches fluidly between his self-made personas to battle culturally and sexually objectified representations. The final hologram, of So in a pink cheongsam and slowly smoking a cigarette, boldly returns the gaze with an assertive stare.

So’s focused presentation generated a strong synergy between the closely arranged works, intertwining his reflections on race, gender, and sexuality. Stepping out of the basement gallery and into the light, one could not help but feel uplifted by the aesthetically stunning and culturally proud personas at a time of heightened oppression against the Asian community.

Celina Lei is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

Scotty So’s “Small room downstairs” was on view at Mars Gallery, Melbourne, from February 2 to March 7, 2021.

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