The struggle is real: artists highlight the power of words

Kate Just: Signs of protest
Min Wong: purple mist
Hugo Michell Gallery

Simultaneous exhibition at the Hugo Michell Gallery is Kate Just’s Signs of protest and that of Min Wong purple mist. While both artists explore the use of text as a form of power and influence, and the idea that a mantra is repeated for support and recognition, they do so in very different ways. Just’s approach is political, and Wong’s is more a reflection of popular culture and behavior.

Drawn from images on social media, news media and actual protests, Just’s work consists of hand-knitted images of protest signs mounted on canvas and wooden planks as placards.

These signs are leaning against the gallery wall as if a protest has just happened and these are the signs left behind. The pieces are wonderfully crafted and, using the medium of knitting, Just brings to the public the love, commitment and work that went into making them.

While Just originally studied painting at the Victorian College of the Arts, in 2000 a personal tragedy led her to the United States, where her mother taught her to knit. She was deeply moved by the potential of knitting and its ability to weave stories of love, loss and family, especially the tale of mothers and daughters passing knowledge and information to each other.

Knitting has become Just’s primary medium through which she explores issues around feminism and the historical or fictional representation of women.

Kate Just, Another world is possible2021, knitted wool, 77 x 92cm.

This exhibition continues Just’s commitment to the importance of social change and the idea that everyone can effect change. Protest signs are usually made quickly, viewed briefly, then often thrown away after a protest and never seen again. By recreating them in knitted form and presenting them in the gallery, she expresses the importance of recording these “signs of our time” as historical archives and recognizing them as works of art. She selected key points and created a more immersive, tactile space for viewers to reflect on the emotional and physical investment people have in social change.

Although Signs of protest deals with some difficult issues – such as violence against women, sexual harassment and racism – Just managed to create a sense of hope and the potential for change. Strong subjects are softened by the use of knitting and the emotional connection the audience has with it – it often makes people think of their grandmother or mother.

“I hope people can see knitting and the time and labor put into it as a form of love. Like a love letter to the world that suggests that through this action it is possible to imagine a different world,” she explains.

Min Wong, The fight is real, 2021, neon, 20 x 200cm, edition of 5 + EA. Photo: Sam Roberts

Like Just, Wong is also interested in ideas around collective consciousness and, in particular, how it can change the way we live our lives by being more aware of how we connect to ourselves, to the collective and to nature in a more altruistic way.

Drawing on experience and a genuine interest in an alternative way of interpreting life, Wong’s practice examines the metaphysical and cultural esotericism of 1970s countercultures, New Age spirituality, and a recent renewed interest in mutual aid and therapeutic culture. She is interested in the corporatization of the personal care industry marketed to the individual rather than the collective, which taps into a pursuit of perfection.

Wong often takes texts from gurus, New Age spirituality books and music, and recontextualizes them. In purple mist it includes the phrase, The fight is real and presents it as a neon sculpture in brilliant purple, the color of awareness, wealth and devotion.

Min Wong, Workout Woo Woo, 2021, steel, paint, brass, hinges, pyrite, hematite and smoky quartz, 160 x 160 x 70cm. Photo: Sam Roberts

The fight is real features next to the sculptural work Workout Woo Woo, which the artist describes as “spiritual decor”. The sculpture becomes functional and domesticated because the viewer can use it at home as a space to meditate, contemplate and house ritual objects. Also featured is the digital print My body is a templewhich refers to the branding and marketing of the wellness industry.

In the practices of both artists, the power of words and how they can influence and change lives is evident. Wong’s claims in the neon lights and Just’s protest signs are both statements that reflect society and the current world we live in.

Protest Signs by Kate Just and Purple Haze by Min Wong are at the Hugo Michell Gallery until May 7. Min Wong’s work is also currently on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia as part of the Adelaide 2022 Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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