MELBOURNE-BASED performance and multimedia artist Scotty So grew up reading Harper’s BAZAAR magazines in Hong Kong. Early in life the composition, theatricality and “utter glamour” of BAZAAR’s glossy covers and editorial images piqued his interest in fashion as a performance medium to explore personal and cultural identity.
Now based in Melbourne, So’s mixed-media practice combines drag, performance art, and visual art in everything from live operatic performances to self-styled theatrical studio shoots featuring garments of his own creation. His work invites viewers to consider the role of fashion in culture and society, exploring the idea of a high fashion ‘illusion’ through the lens of an artist who does not identify as being part of the fashion industry.
“I didn’t have a fashion background when I started my art practice, I was never part of the fashion world. Even now, I can’t afford to buy into that world of haute couture,” says So.
“But I realised that I enjoy cultural clothing as much as high fashion, and I started exploring the elegance and glamour present in other styles of clothing I could access, garments that were familiar to me like kimonos and the traditional Chinese cheongsam.”
So began to explore the creative possibilities at the intersection of photography, performance and textiles while studying fine art at the Victorian College of the Arts. With no formal sewing or fashion design training, he would sneak into the costume department and ask the staff if he could use the sewing machine to experiment with making kimonos and cheongsam in whatever fabric he could find.
Now represented by leading Australian contemporary art gallery, MARS Gallery, So’s practice has evolved to be highly research-led, drawing from his own Thai and Chinese cultural heritage in conjunction with narratives from fashion, queer culture and popular-culture inspiring his performances as alluring female characters. Be it a Kabuki theatre star, an aria-singing operatic femme, or his personal drag alter-ego, Scarlett So Hung Son, fashion and clothing are the performance guise through which the artist explores culture and identity.
“The more I perform as different characters, the more I explore who I am as an artist and a person. Different silhouettes give you different postures, and a different feeling when you wear them,” So says.
“When I was growing up in Hong Kong I wore suits a lot, and they made me feel sophisticated, and so I carried myself in a certain way. When I moved to Australia, I really developed my drag and performance art, and I carried myself differently when wearing garments like the cheongsam and kimono. With this change of physical movement comes a change of identity,” he adds.
So’s exuberant creative perspective has earned him performance and commission opportunities at some of Australia’s most high-profile art and culture events, including NGV Triennial (2020), Melbourne Art Fair (2022) and PHOTO 2022. Where will the next So-extravaganza pop up? RISING’s Golden Square, an immersive art carpark where you’ll be mesmerised by an iridescent So dressed as the Chinese moon goddess in a holographic organza robe that drifts ethereally through the space, among other guises. He will also show a life-size hologram of himself performing as drag character Scarlett So Hung Son. Sci-fi-seductive, think holographic Kate Moss for Alexander McQueen Fall/Winter 2006.
Like many millennials, So also grew up watching fashion reality TV shows like America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway, where he was first introduced to terms like ‘high fashion’ and ‘haute couture.’ He recalls being captivated by the editorial images he saw on screen, and would try to work out how they were created, or what he liked about their composition. Then one day, he discovered Alexander McQueen.
“I would watch his shows and they blew my mind every time. I was witnessing live art, not fashion. What McQueen put on the runway was, by some standards, considered ‘ugly’, but you absolutely couldn’t stop looking at it, particularly collections like Voss from 2001. That one really hit me hard,” he says.
Artists and designers often favour a recurring stylistic motif, which permeates their work as their practice evolves. For So, it’s the cheongsam. With its elegant standing collar and form-fitting proportions, this traditional Chinese women’s evening dress has been reimagined by the artist in a range of materials including those red, blue and white nylon storage bags and, more recently, a Louis Vuitton-style monogram printed fabric.
“My work is about truths. Originally the Louis Vuitton monogram was inspired by a Japanese family crest. So is the cheongsam I’ve created from this replica fabric inspired by Louis Vuitton, or by Japanese culture and history?” So muses.
“If I’m in drag looking fabulous wearing fake Louis Vuitton, does it matter if what I’m wearing is fake or real? After all, I’m not a real woman either. I think I’m creating an illusion, and that’s what matters. If you look expensive and present yourself in a certain way, people really are captivated by your aura, and suddenly, it’s not about how much you paid for your handbag.”
And a fashionable final word from Scotty So?
“Of course, my advice is to go for the real thing. If you can afford the Hermès Birkin, definitely go for it.”
See Scotty So perform live at RISING Melbourne.