Creativity, vulnerability and what flowers have to say
Updated: May 19, 2020
– with artist Alina Tang
I have an all-too-common love/hate relationship with social media. But sometimes scrolling inspirational imagery and following hashtags (in my case, generally anything floral or travel related, alongside a bunch of artists, and the occasional organic underwear label) gives way to a wonderful real-life connection. Such is the case with Alina Tang, Amsterdam-based Aussie artist known as Giant Pansy, who reached out to me on Instagram a few weeks ago.
Notified, I was struck by her sweet, bright posts – flat-lays of flowers she’d painted and printed for her latest exhibition ‘Every Flower in the Forest’, amidst a delightful dose of fresh flora. We met the following week prior to her exhibition. In person, Alina was as bright and upbeat as her work, adorned in a pink Gorman number and sparkly pink socks (in contrast to my sparkly green socks). I was pretty sure this wouldn’t be a one-time meeting!
I wasn’t just drawn to Alina’s work and focus on floriography, but of course, her recent move from Perth, Australia, to Amsterdam. So since enjoying ‘Every Flower in the Forest – in that glorious week of April sunshine we had – I caught up with Alina to delve deeper into moving abroad, creativity, and what flowers has to say.
Candid, colourful, feminine
First things first, I wanted to know how Alina would like to be painted in a portrait. Her answer wasn’t surprising.
“I guess you’d use a lot of pink paint. I think more is more. Maybe you’d paint me in my studio with a big cup of tea, with comfy ‘studio clothes’ on – socks and slippers. I think that is my true self. Candid, messy,” she says.
We’re in her studio at the time, and I see how it reflects her – her ideas, doodles and project-portions adorn the walls, mixed with the works of others’ that inspire her. There are floral cut-outs strewn across a nearby table, and rolls of shiny paper stacked for another project she’s working on.
“And I wouldn’t be in an oil painting either. It would be gauche, because that is what I use.”
There is a lot of pink to be seen too – everywhere. Why pink?
“I think...when I was a kid, my favourite colour was green and I was quite aware of the feminine stereotype attached to it. Even as a teenager, I was rejecting this feminine side of myself. I used to wear black, go to Soundwave and listen to System of a Down. I also went to an all girls school, and so I think part of my rejecting what was girly stemmed from that.”
“But I’ve always been really affected by colour, I can’t imagine my life without it. It was only in university that I thought, ‘I’m attracted to vibrant colours and I really like what’s associated with pink - femininity and softness…’ and if that’s the case, I should embrace it not hide it.
“So from then on I started working with pink and flowers in my work a lot.”
So colour is key for Alina. But we also have a mutual love for flowers and nature – which feature heavily in her art.
‘Every Flower in the Forest’ was created during a four-month artist residency in Lapua, Finland.
I was intrigued when I first heard this – having spent a little time in the Norwegian landscape, where I constantly feel I am drawn back to. I also had this idea of a Finnish wintertime being cosy, quiet and well, rather grey and green, unlike Alina’s vibrant work.
What flowers have to say
What was the winter landscape like in Finland, and how did it influence your work?
“We arrived in August, at the end of mushroom picking season – it was super green and lush, moss all over the forest. Australian bush is so different, so dry. It was incredibly beautiful, and a very physical and visual experience to explore,” she says.
“Lapua is a very small town and it snowed most of the time we were there. Bodie and I worked most of the time on our art practice – it was incredible having uninterrupted time.
“I’ve never painted so much in my life as I did in Finland. No distractions, in a wonderful way.”
“The exhibition is a body of work that began as drawings. I tend to be drawn to nature, flowers and leaves. So being in Finland, I was very responsive to the environment, and that’s where this series of gouache paintings and prints stemmed from.”
How does this work compare to other art projects you’ve worked on in the past?
“I have another side of my practice that you don’t really see in this body of work, which includes more performative art. I have separated them a little. Going to fine art school, there is a distinction made between design and fine art. But I find here in The Netherlands, and also in Asia, there’s not such a divide. And that is where I want my work to be.”
She recalls a performance work she did, Tussie Mussies, commissioned by City of Perth’s TransART Experimental program, which explored the language of flowers, and the experience of gift giving.
In Finland, Alina was inspired to create a new iteration of this performance piece, Kukka Buffetti or Flower Buffet.
“This project was very intimate, small scale and focused on gift-giving. I initially had this idea to forage for flowers in the forest and create bouquet gifts. I thought, in Australia in winter we still have plant life. But when I shared my plans with Finnish colleagues, they explained that there’d be nothing in the forest to forage for.”
“So I tackled this by working with fake flowers instead. Everyone was still happy and surprised to receive colourful, blooming flowers in the middle of winter.”
Perhaps one is performance and one is painting, but I explain to Alina that I don’t see so much of a separation.
To me, the constant is flowers.
She muses: “I suppose it all does come from me so is cohesive in that way. My work does share a similarity in terms of it prompting interaction between people. For example, I wanted Tussie Mussies and Kukka Buffetti to be about the art of gift giving and that engagement, not something transactional where people felt they needed to pay.”
“And my art is always about flowers and the way we use them to communicate. Each time I work, it is different - gifting them, making stickers, painting, different formats…”
The language of flowers certainly plays a role in your work. Tell me more about your interest in floriography?
“We often think of flowers in the traditional sense, as something feminine that we give to women. But there’s much more to the language of flowers.”
“Floriography is an old practice, often involving gift-giving, whereby each flower has a meaning, creating a language. Often flowers were given in a romantic sense or to a secret lover. There are Victorian-era dictionaries talking all about flower meanings, and I just find it so interesting.”
And how did it come to be part of your work?
“When I was going through art school I went through a really bad break up. I was heartbroken. My friend got us into a flower course as a way to focus on something new and positive, and while I cried my way through the whole nine weeks, I really fell in love.”
“As a material, flowers are sculptural, diverse objects in themselves. I knew I wanted to work with them physically but also in other ways through my art.”
“An earlier project I worked on called Anthologia was all about deconstructing this language. But we also wanted to build our own language upon it. For example, they didn’t have kangaroo paw or other Aussie flowers in those dictionaries. We thought: what could these flowers mean? What feelings do they evoke?”
“So much of traditional floriography has a male gaze, it’s romantic and about lovers and relationships. And we wanted to bring it back to this more platonic level, where you can give flowers to anyone, celebrating their good traits.”
We agree we could talk about flowers forever, starting to delve into the economy and sustainability of the industry, and earmark a separate meeting for this.
Ever fascinated by creative life, travel, and the challenges and wonders that come about, I turn my attention to the new city we both call home. Alina and I can relate (like many others who’ve moved abroad) to feeling vulnerable, out of place and panicked about work, life and balance.
Art and life abroad
How has moving abroad to Amsterdam impacted your life and career?
“I wish I was one of those people who wakes up at 5am, goes for a run, has a smoothie and then lands in the studio by 9am, refreshed and ready, but most days I wake up at 10am and it’s like ahhhh!”
Alina gestures to a mini creative shrine she’s created in her studio.
“I’ve set up this shrine with my best friend. We both moved abroad at the same time. She’s in Budapest now, and we are both going through the struggle of ‘what are we doing in our lives?’ Worrying that we left ‘great, secure’ jobs, and don’t have ‘proper’ jobs now…”
“You say ‘I’m still in a transition period’ while you’re asking yourself “what if I run out of money?” etcetera.”
We talk about the pursuit of security – a thought process I (and others moving abroad) seem to frequent. Worrying about the ‘proper’ job, timeline, path. Ultimately we both agree that while it’s a struggle at times, moving abroad is wondrous and so worthwhile.
“There’s no assurance and as it isn’t your home country, you don’t have the comfort of familiarity,” Alina says.
“But this is one of the reasons, I think, that I did move, because I wanted to move out of that comfortable place…”
A story I also know all too well. We empathise over the challenge, and discuss how it opens up new doors. For travel and inspiration. But you’re also forced to dive into old tasks differently.
Have you got certain rituals or routines that you’ve used to get through difficult times?
“It’s not always easy. You have to set your own deadlines. You have to kick yourself in the arse as nobody else will.”
“It has been hard to develop a routine in a new city where I don’t know people. Sometimes I’ll be really bogged down and just cry in my studio. But in the end I know it is this difficult period that I have to work through. I have to put myself out there, which I struggle with. Because I don’t want to be self-boasting.”
Alina says going to galleries and networking events has been helpful personally and professionally, and I have to agree. Actively building a network can be scary but it does make a difference to your transition abroad.
“And luckily Amsterdam is one of those places that has heaps of events – as freelancers and artists our personalities are sort of like ‘let’s do this and that’, and the events and art scene, while still fairly small like Perth, fulfil that need for constantly wanting to do and be involved in things.”
“It also does really help having a partner or friend or someone else you meet who is in the same boat. So now I’m not afraid to message someone on Instagram to see if they want to catch up for a cuppa!”
“Other times it just takes stepping outside, having a coffee on the terrace and reminding myself how lucky I am to be able to move to another country – not everyone can do it so easily. We have this freedom of movement that not everyone has. I remind myself of that, the amazing city I’m in, and trust that everything will fall into place.”
I stop recording here, but Alina and I keep talking. We make plans for artistic collaborations in the near future, and I’m filled with fresh inspiration. This experience is an example of the great adventures that come from daring greatly, diving into the unknown. I’m grateful to have met a fellow curious creative, who is also drawn to nature and the canals of Amsterdam.
- thank you for reading