• Artist Louise Zhang in her Sydney studio. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Sydney artist Louise Zhang is connecting with her Chinese heritage through her love of horror.
Alyssa Braithwaite

6 Sep 2017 - 1:29 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2017 - 2:55 PM

Louise Zhang grew up watching horror films, with a particular love for body horror and the repulsive, gross and messy.

The Australian-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, Zhang says her conservative Christian parents were concerned by her taste for movies like Roman Polanski's Repulsion and the 1993 Australian film Body Melt.

"When I was a teenager growing up they were very concerned of the negative impacts it would have on me, because I also had social anxiety where I was acting weird, going out freaked me out and I was really sad as well," Zhang tells SBS.

"They would think that horror was causing nightmares, but the reality was, horror was actually a comfort for me. It's not a harmful thing, it's just an interest of mine. I'm not going out killing people or anything. 

"When you're a teenager and you're not allowed to do something you want to do it more, so that kind of fueled my interest in it. So I just kept watching it."

Now Zhang has made a career out of her passion.

As an artist, she works across painting, sculpture and installation, exploring the space between the attractive and repulsive. 

Her work is full of bright, unnatural colours and made with plastics and the sort of materials you find in children's toys and movie props. 

"The concept was to bring all those things that are quite sticky and gooey and slimy and use that visceralness as something symbolic of body horror and all the messy stuff our bodies can do, so a lot of the works are quite drippy and slimy and gross," Zhang explains.

"But to make it approachable I blended it with my other interest which is things that are quite cute, so-called feminine, and glittery, kitschey stuff, that you wouldn't really consider high-brow art, and mixing it together. To get people to try and see your perspective you need to draw them in a little bit, so just give them something enticing, and then when they look at it closely they can slowly unravel something quite disgusting.

"I love watching people's reactions when they see something gross, because as much as they're like 'ew gross', they still turn their heads back and go 'I kind of want to see more'."

Zhang has spent the past seven months doing residencies in China, at the Institute of Provocation in Beijing, and at Organhaus in Chongqing.

For the 26-year-old, it was a chance to learn more about her heritage and their approach to horror.

"I have an interest in horror, but mostly my knowledge is Western horror, so I really wanted to bridge that gap by understanding my culture more," Zhang says.

"My background is Chinese but I don't know that much about being Chinese. I was born in Australia, and my parents immigrated here a long time ago. We never had a chance to really visit China, or speak that much about it." 

Initially she was disappointed to discover that mainland Chinese horror cinema was nothing to write home about, thanks to the country's tough censorship laws.

But she became fascinated in the concept of diyu, or Chinese hell. 

"Chinese hell is like this bureaucratic system where there's 18 levels of hell and there are 10 courts of hell," she says, explaining her interpretation of the complex Chinese underworld concept.

"Each court has like a king, each level of hell is like a different method of torture. My favourite method of torture is where you get thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil, so you get fried.

"In Chinese hell no matter how good or bad you've been, everyone goes through hell, but the amount of time you spend down there is reflected on how good you've been in your mortal, earthly life."

Having been brought up Christian, Zhang always found the concept of hell and its eternal damnation terrifying.

She found the concept of Chinese hell much more appealing.

"The fact that everyone goes through hell was a big thing for me. It made the whole fear of hell less scary for me.

"If you've been an arsehole and you're like a murderer, you're going to be spending a lot of time in Chinese hell and going through the different levels of torture. If you were a total angel you'd just walk through it maybe, have a tour.

"So I think I'd rather go to Chinese hell. Maybe I'll spend a couple of months down there," she says with a laugh.

Zhang, who graduated with a Masters of Fine Arts by Research at UNSW Art & Design in 2016, is speaking TEDxYouth in Sydney today (September 6) about her work and her interest in horror.

She's a rising star in the art world, but doesn't want to go too fast and alienate her parents along the way.

"My parents literally gave up almost everything so I could have a comfortable life, and so that I can chase my dreams. I know this is a very common story for a child from an immigrant family, but just watching my parents work so hard I feel like I do need to honour them," she says.

"There are certain things I would like to do to talk more about what I discovered overseas about Chinese horror and Chinese mythology in my work, but I don't want to do it in a way that can offend my parents and their religious views. So it's like, how can I do this in a slow manner, not rush into it, in a way that communicate what I want to say but can respect my parents and communicate to them why I'm doing it.

"This whole art process is quite important to me because it's not only speaking about myself, but it's also a way for me to speak to my parents as well."

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