Words: Andrew Nicholls
In a practice characterised by humour and charm, Perth-based Nathan Beard references his dual Australian Thai heritage to interrogate the complexities of diasporic identity. Employing photography, video, sculpture and installation, Beard frequently draws upon his maternal family archive, alongside broader cultural signifiers such as Buddhist shrines, orchids, and the demure Thai gesture of wai to deconstruct notions of cultural authenticity and understandings of Thainess.
Beard first came to national attention in 2012, via the brilliant Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere collaboration with Abdul Abdullah and Casey Ayres, an expansive performative work that saw the trio of Eurasian artists establish a pan-Asian embassy at Melbourne’s NGV Studio for Next Wave festival. Beard’s contribution was particularly noticeable in references to the excessive ornamentation common to Thai devotional culture.
This continues to inform his fondness for aesthetics that may be considered kitschily exotic from one perspective, and mundane from another, resulting for example in the Swarovski-encrusted family photographs that have become a mainstay of his practice, and which featured prominently in his solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth in 2017.
Also central to Beard’s early practice was his relationship with his mother, who immigrated to Australia from Nakhon Nayok, and with whom he collaborated extensively on a series of touching photographic works over several years. Describing their relationship as a “fertile and generative force” in his work, Beard states that it “owes a lot to the specific notion of bhunkun… a sense of indebtedness and obligation owed to one’s parents.” His mother’s sudden and unexpected death in 2019 was therefore devastating on a creative, as well as personal level, Beard noting “…a new sense of urgency, wherein I am processing the upheaval of suddenly feeling like I have become culturally orphaned”.
Perhaps buoyed by this urgency, his national profile has expanded dramatically since then, via participation in exhibitions at FUTURES gallery and Bus Projects in Melbourne, Firstdraft in Sydney, and numerous exhibitions and residencies across the region, as well as being shortlisted for the 2021 Ramsay Art Prize at the Art Gallery of South Australia, and the churchie national emerging art prize at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.
2022 promises to be equally fruitful for Beard, as he undertakes an Australia Council residency at London’s ACME studio, and significant solo exhibitions at Perth’s newest commercial gallery Sweet Pea, and the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA), among others. Entitled A Puzzlement after Yul Brynner’s catchphrase from The King and I, his PICA project will be informed by his research into Thai artefacts, imagery and orchids from archives of The British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Film Institute and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to be undertaken while in the UK. “I’m using the show as a chance to mull on influences I’ve been sitting on for a while, and applying these to the access the ACME residency affords” he says.
These influences include the hybrid aesthetic sensibilities of Bangkok’s Wat Pariwat, known colloquially as the David Beckham temple, which famously features ornate gilded and mosaiced sculptures of Marvel and Disney characters, political and sporting figures alongside its depictions of Buddhist deities in an effort to capture the imagination of Gen-Z worshippers. Beard’s work will similarly mix myriad cultural influences in exploring how institutional archives have helped shape Western understandings of Thainess, with his characteristic flair. “The overall plan for the show is to try and carry the overwhelming potential and possibility of an archive through to an outcome which has a sort of nervous cartoon energy or excitement,” he states, promising an installation evocative of “tumbleweeds whirling through these storage spaces.”
A Puzzlement runs at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts from October 2022 to January, 2023. Low Yield Fruit, Beard’s solo exhibition at Sweet Pea, Perth opens in March 2022 while his solo exhibitions with FUTURES gallery Melbourne and Aster + Asha are scheduled for late 2022.
Featured image: Artist Nathan Beard. Portrait by Bianca Woolhouse.
This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 99, January-March 2022.