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Connection and play at Parramatta Artist Run Initiative

Fei Gao talks about his work ‘Is dad still not back?’, currently showing at Parramatta Artist Run Initiative.

Visiting art galleries and attending openings of local artists is often focused within Sydney’s Inner-West and CBD, but with emerging artists all over the map, spaces for Western Sydney creators have been growing.

With the shift in demographics to first and second generation migrants, ethnic clusters, and cultural groups, art in Western Sydney often explores the artist’s culture, family and heritage. 

PARI is a small art space in Western Sydney, where local artists come together to create art, organise workshops, talks, screenings and shows. I spoke to Fei Gao who has volunteered at a number of galleries, but found a strong connection with the community at PARI. “Everyone really puts their work into PARI to make a better space for local artists.” he said. 

Fei is currently completing his Masters in Early Childhood Education, which alongside his childhood memories of an absent father, ignited the idea for an interactive work that uses the Brio Marble Maze with Chinese text reading “is dad still not back?”

“My dad and I were pretty distant growing up and he was always absent and busy with work… So because my dad wasn’t very expressive with his feelings he didn’t play with me as much. But now that I’m older, we’ve connected more. My dad and I email each other.” Fei said.

Fei thinks the difference between emailing, texting and video calling is that the process of creating a message is much more strategic and premeditated. He parallels this in his artwork Is dad still not back?

“When you play the game, you place the ball at the beginning of the sentence and roll it around without the ball falling in the hole. I feel like that’s how I write emails to him – ‘should I delete this, or say something else?’, that was pretty much the inspiration.”

As an only child, Fei kept himself occupied with single player games and toys, like the marble maze. 

“The sentence, ‘Is dad still not back?’ is me saying to my mum, ‘Where is he?’. But it’s also saying ‘hey dad, I want you in my life, I want to connect with you, I want you to play with me.’ It’s making the effort to love and to connect.”

Fei grew up in China and moved to Australia when he was 19 to study at UNSW. He didn’t expect to learn art theory and history at university. He had been trained to focus on the technical skills of his practice and hadn’t yet been exposed to conceptual art making. After coming from Beijing and being rejected by numerous shows, Fei felt humbled. “I then attended shows to see the art there, meet people, and make connections,” he said.

With exposure to more artistic mediums, and art as a form of social commentary, Fei began  creating more conceptual works. He sees gaming as an intrinsic part of our generation’s childhood and subverts the idea that it is an escape from reality, separate from this world.

“I’m trying to take serious issues, like chronic pain and family problems, and put them in a light-hearted gaming style… People go to games to escape an issue, but what if the game is a representation of that issue?”

Moving away from home, Fei had a hard time making connections with people in the arts. He knew one of the directors at PARI and got involved after a working bee call-out for volunteers. “I had a lot of fun with the directors there and started to get to know more people. I really liked the vibe and it felt like a space that I belonged in.”

“This work [‘Is dad still not back?’] was basically made in PARI, using their resources, tools and advice from the people there… Being in the space you see how things work; how the walls are built, how artworks are installed. You just learn so many skills.”

“It’s important to focus on your style of art while also getting inspiration from other artists. I find that it’s most important to have your own practice. I’m really grateful for PARI and the opportunities I’ve gotten. Everyone is so welcoming and I wish to contribute more and get involved more in the future.”

For Fei, having a space where he was able to create, learn and talk about art, was central to connecting with people in the art world; and more importantly, bringing his conceptual works into the world – sharing his experiences and connecting with us.  

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