Mahjong Arch: Transition and Identity – Clare Fealy and Anton Poon

Anton Poon, Mahjong Arch, 2014, bronze (Photo: David Paterson)

Transition, it is both change and progression and something which we undertake in order to further evolve and adapt as people. I myself being born and raised in Canberra have little idea about what type of journey it is to move away from home indefinitely, but in conversation with Anton about moving from his home in Hong Kong to Canberra, his transition was as emotional as it was physical. Anton’s Mahjong Arch is in essence a physical representation of his own transition and reflects his strong connection to his heritage. The Arch is the first of a series of four sculptures which make up a coherent timeline describing, in a visual sense, Anton’s preconceptions of moving to and living in Australia. The work was originally displayed atop two separate plinths, as it connected the two plinths physically it represented the connection between the two cultures, Chinese and Australian, in a hypothetical reality.

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Anton Poon, Mahjong Arch (detail) 2014, bronze (photo: David Paterson)

The cultural connections are much deeper than its physical presence as a ‘bridge’ between two countries, the use of mahjong tiles, 228 to be exact, cast in bronze are inherently Chinese. A game of strategy and a national pastime its origin, though convoluted, is attributed to the infamous Chinese philosopher Confucius (551 – 479 BC.). For Anton however, mahjong is not just a game. With work being such a larger reality and in some cases taking more precedence over family life in Hong Kong mahjong is a device to bring family together where the young people watch as the elders, especially his grandmother, dominate. However, the use of mahjong reflects not only this tradition within his family and in Chinese culture in general, but also is a means to connect with his identity and heritage especially now that he lives in Australia. The Mahjong Arch is constructed entirely of these thick bronze pieces into a perfect golden archway and uses singular tiles like those found in the Arch as support elements between the cement pylons and steel frames of the three remaining sculptures. Not only do they provide a practical solution to the sculptures stability but also reflect the support of his own culture and family for when he first moved and now whilst he is still studying in Australia.

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Anton Poon, Building in Process, 2014, steel, cement, and bronze (photo: David Paterson)

The use of bronze in Mahjong Arch was a deliberate and practical decision, originally Anton used plaster but found that bronze was more appropriate as it is a stronger material, especially to achieve his perfect arch design. Bronze is an acceptable art material in both East and Western cultures as can be seen in the bronze sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome and the bronze Dong Son drums of Northern Vietnam for example. Bronze metallurgy also has a very long history and intrinsic value in Chinese art, it was developed and exploited during the early Bronze Age in the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1050 BC.) on Taotie masks and was seen to be a great source of power. The arch is also a strong self-supporting form which is present in traditional Chinese architecture but has evolved into the modern industrial bridge.

Grace Cossington Smith, The Bridge in Curve, 1930, tempera on cardboard, 83.6 x 111.8cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

When I look at the Mahjong Arch, and the following works in the series which all too resemble ‘bridges’, I immediately draw a connection with the works of two Australian artists of the, Grace Cossington Smith and Dorrit Black. Both women captured, in the height of modernity the construction and almost completed Sydney Harbour Bridge. Both were created in the interwar period and idealise the journey that Australia as a nation took to come to terms with modernity but also to find their own identity after the First World War. Anton imparted to me that in the process of creating his Honours, and even now in his Masters, he is trying to find a more solid connection between his Australian and Chinese identity. If mahjong is recognisable as typically Chinese and something he strongly identifies with, what is typical of Australia? I couldn’t answer that question for him, but that is a learning curve he will have to face further on in his artistic career. If there were to be a bridge between China in Australia, I hope that it would resemble the Mahjong Arch.

Clare Fealy



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