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A Re-imagining

Immigration has long played a significant role in Australia’s development as a nation. Prior to colonisation, possibly as early as the mid-1600s, it is thought the Makassan trepangers from Sulawesi would cross oceans to the coasts of northern Australia to trade and prepare sea cucumbers to sell to China. Regina Ganter, an historian of north Australia, notes that, “They were more than visitors, coming regularly to the same places, staying for several months or sometimes a whole year” . Ganter has commented that, “the cultural imprint on the Yolngu people of this contact is everywhere: in their language, in their art, in their stories, in their cuisine” . This wide reaching “imprint” on Australian society by other cultures is ongoing. However, Australia’s societal and political response to immigration has not always been receptive and is marked by xenophobic acts: commencing with the massacres of Aborigines by the colonisers (and the continuing inequality for Aboriginal people), the racially motivated riots of the goldfields during the 19th century and introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act in 1901 (the year Australia became a Federation) which is recognised as “the commencement of the White Australia Policy as Australian government policy” , to list a few. It has been argued that one underlying motive for these attitudes and resulting actions is the on-going and deeply resounding insecurity of Australia’s own identity as a nation.

In 2012, the Government released the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper. Its primary focus was to position Australia for a positive economic and political future, and can be seen as an acknowledgement of Australia’s place, role and engagement within Asia. However, it is not without its criticisms. Its emphasis on geo-economic partnerships neglects to highlight the current and future cultural and social benefits of these partnerships that already contribute to Australia’s identity. As Jacqueline Lo remarks in her essay, ‘Diaspora, Art and Empathy’ “there is a remarkable absence of discussion about the role of Asian Australians in the document” and the ways in which Australia is already “Asianised” . This is just one recent political example but affirms artist, John Young Zerunge’s recognition of a gap in the formation of contemporary Australian identity and the need for an Asian-Australian voice (amongst others).

It is exactly this area of bi-culturalism, hybridity and pluralism in identity that Young discourses in his practice. Born in Hong Kong and immigrating to Australia in 1967 - avoiding China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution - Young’s own experience has directly informed his own bi-cultural perspectives and spurred his artistic investigation. He spent his high school and university years as a resident of Willoughby. His secondary school in Sydney offered no art course, so on weekends Young took to developing his practice under Russian Impressionist painter, Peter A. Panow (1902 - 1975) – himself an immigrant, who resided in Chatswood. Later, at the University of Sydney, Young read the philosophy of science and aesthetics and then studied sculpture and painting at Sydney College of the Arts. Studying under predominantly European-trained artists and now being taught Euro-American centric views of art theory juxtaposed what Young already understood through his Chinese upbringing. However, it must be noted that by coming to Australia at such a young age, he was both “an insider and an outsider to Chinese culture” . This culturally dislocating experience was pivotal in shaping Young’s art practice. This complexity would inform his practice over the decades manifesting itself through Young challenging ethno-centric theoretical and philosophical approaches to aesthetic frameworks, and also paving the way for his continued socio-cultural investigations.

Young now stands as one of Australia’s preeminent artists having had over 60 solo exhibitions and participating in more than 160 group exhibitions, and “belongs to what might be considered the first wave of Chinese Australian artists that includes Lindy Lee and William Yang” . In 2012, Young was awarded funding through the Australia Council for the Arts’ Fellowship for Senior Artists to research and address the remarkable histories of individuals in the Chinese Diaspora in Australia from 1850 - present. After 24 months of intensive research, Young is presenting the third exhibition of the series at Incinerator Art Space, Willoughby. In a Council that champions itself as the City of Diversity and embraces its vibrant Asian communities, the location for the exhibition is apt.

Titled Modernity’s End : Half the Sky – Two Australians in China, Young relocates the remarkable lives of Alice Lim Kee (1900 - unknown) and Daisy Kwok (1909 - 1998) from the periphery of Australia’s cultural history, where they might otherwise be forgotten with similar non-Anglo histories, to the centre. He pays tribute to the early involvement of the Chinese in Australia, deliberately selecting histories outside of the stereo-types of early Chinese immigrants as either gold miners or market gardeners.

Despite socio-political circumstances in Australia that in many ways may have forced the two women (and many others of Chinese heritage) to China, Alice still continued to contribute to shape a better social and cultural fabric of Australia. By lecturing around the country, working as a journalist and broadcaster and sitting on boards, Alice sought to alter Australian attitudes towards the Chinese at the time. As a result of Daisy’s father’s lucrative business interests in the Wing On department store, she found herself living a glamourous and privileged life in Shanghai and later opening a fashion boutique. As two Australian women of Chinese ancestry growing up during the White Australia Policy and prior to the women’s liberation movement, their individual strength, bravery and resilience under various political, social and cultural circumstances as they conducted their lives across two countries is a noteworthy celebration. In many ways, although not without its struggles, their movement between cultures and their ability to persevere and forge influential personal identities despite significant external socio-political forces, denotes one less of cultural displacement but rather one of a fluid trans culturalism, ultimately contributing to the benefit of both nations. Their pioneering ability to thrive in cross-cultural situations is reflective of many in contemporary Australian society; either being born in Australia of multi-cultural backgrounds like Alice and Daisy or as newer immigrants to Australia. It is a continuing evolution of Australia’s identity in an ever globalised world; as Young’s title details, Alice and Daisy were “Two Australians in China”.

Young includes part of Mao Zedong’s proclamation, “women hold up half the sky” in the exhibition title. Chairman Mao meant this to indicate women would be empowered to play an equal part in China’s Cultural Revolution. But the reality was that in addition to engaging in fatiguing labour alongside men, women still had to carry out traditional duties such as raise children, prepare every meal and conduct household chores often working long into the night. Young’s title also signals the abrupt halt of modernity in China. Both Alice and Daisy played a part in and benefited from the cosmopolitan vibrancy of Shanghai and its economic rigour but with the introduction of the Cultural Revolution, this same gain led to extreme hardship and persecution – their own end of modernity and China’s.

Although, this narrative of personal resilience is the catalyst for Young’s investigation, his artistic investigation is the axis. Young’s practice does not attempt simply to re-tell extraordinary historic stories. It must be acknowledged the artist’s own ethics, imaginative investment and creativity “bridge personal and collective memories, producing new narratives of social belonging, new affective capacities across diasporas and challenge us to rethink collective responsibilities”. He is positioned as what Lo refers to as a “memory-maker”. Salman Rushdie in Imaginary Homelands writes of a similar approach as himself a British Indian novelist:

It may be that when the Indian writer who writes from outside India tries to reflect that world, he is obliged to deal in broken mirrors, some of whose fragments have been irretrievably lost…. But there is a paradox here. The broken mirror may actually be as valuable as the one which is supposedly unflawed.

He continues:
…it was precisely the partial nature of these memories, their fragmentation, that made them so evocative for me. The shards of memory acquired greater status, greater resonance, because they were remains; fragmentation made trivial things seem like symbols, and the mundane acquired numinous qualities.

Taking these “shards” in the form of digital images is best illustrated in Young’s chalkboard series in the exhibition. He uses individual photographs and graphics to create a multi-layered composition. Each work is placed one after the other in linear formations to create their own possibilities of narrative interpretation; one story being read left to right and the other from right to left. Each composition itself holds intelligent juxtapositions informed by subject and bi-cultural perspectives. Young’s intention is to deliberately disrupt a single cultural reading of his work, challenging audiences to find and experience alternate frameworks for understanding his work and also to offer threads to resonate across audiences.

In one composition, a portrait of Daisy appears upside-down transitioned with images of the smelting down of mixed metal. It is common for Young to layer portrait with object or landscape or industry to create a single digital collage. Here the context of the Cultural Revolution and the effect it had on turning Daisy’s life - from a Shanghai socialite to suffering reform labour, poverty and her husband’s death while incarcerated – creates an insightful personal and emotive narrative while also providing a window to the turmoil of a broader society.

In another composition, Young overlays the text of a conservative and incorrect news article over a press clipping photo of Mrs Fabian Chow (Alice’s married name) capturing a visit to Newcastle to speak at the International Day celebration – the inescapable racial suspicion always leans in on Alice’s life despite her goodwill. Young’s collages of pre-existing images to highlight contradictions in historic narrative and create new artworks are indicative of his post-modern approach. Like the layers of cultural understanding, subject and arrangement in his work, he engages digital media to challenge pre-conceptions of high and low art; in particular, the notion that the reproduction capabilities of digital art lower its cultural and monetary value.

Further highlighting Young’s post-modern approach and ongoing interest in language, he incorporates his chalkboard drawings comprising of dusty chalk quotes, scrawled maps and smudged text against the pitch black symbol of education. Scribing quotes from Daisy, we learn of a young girl’s naivety and life peppered with fantasy. We then see this mature to a humble acceptance of hardship that enabled her to persevere during the Cultural Revolution. The quote “Dad is taking the whole family to a restaurant called Shanghai” appears faintly imprinted and almost fading from view in the bottom corner of the composition below a list of luxuries her childhood life offered: “2 gardeners, 2 ponies, hop-scotch and butter making...” Here, a picture of a privileged life is asserted. This progresses to her young adult life, Daisy referring to her marriage as “A Dazzling Blue Sea”. The blue chalk still reading boldly through the attempted streaking of stoic letters – a sign of Daisy’s endurance. Then her final panel with a quote selected by the artist surmising her unwavering belief how through her suffering she gained a greater insight to the human spirit. Written in Chinese and English by Young, she poetically recalled, “88 years old – the soul and spirit emitted a fragrance that normal life had concealed”.

In a chalk drawing referring to both Alice and Daisy, Young scribes the words, “disappear into freedom”, a lyrical summary by the artist of their early lives, and below this he writes, “appear out of duty” referring to the significant changes both the women experienced. The two phrases are bound together by a looped line-drawing challenging cultural reference points with its dual reading – either as an infinity symbol or the fortuitous Chinese number eight. There being no single reading is characteristic of Young’s work.

Further exploring mediums, Young has incorporated his only coloured artwork, a single thread hand-sewn embroidery on screen print. Small in size but visually bold, it depicts a collage of the portraits of the two women; Alice in her youth in a traditional cheongsam and an aging Daisy in conservative revolution attire. They appear on a design echoing the popular magazine graphic and typography typical of Shanghai in its 1930s boom period. The Chinese text translates to “Issue One of Essays” and “Women’s Times”. By featuring a magazine cover mock-up in his exhibition (and one partially screen-printed), Young again treads without boundaries between pre-conceived notions of high and low art. Posthumously placing the two women’s portraits on a design resembling a magazine (Women’s Times) could be read as a tongue-in-cheek remark on celebrity; either cheekily commenting on celebrity in contemporary society or most likely, giving Alice and Daisy their deserved front cover. After all, Alice and Daisy were both of socialite and celebrity status in their lifetimes.

In respectful consideration of the female histories at the centre of Young’s exhibition, Young invited artists Pei Pei He and Cyrus Tang to respond with their own female viewpoints. Theodore Wohng was also invited to create a musical composition; all invited artists having emigrated from China to Australia. This unguarded approach by Young to open the conversation to multiple perspectives (and artistic media) on the subjects of his exhibition is testament to his philosophical investment in and practice of pluralism.

In celebration of Alice and Daisy’s lives, Pei Pei He’s two paintings are a warm upholding of the quotidian. Both depict the bustle of Shanghai public life in two different but significant eras. One spectacles the towering majestic architectural presence of the Kwok family’s Wing On department store in the 1920s – 1940s (directly referenced from an archival photo). The other, a pulsating 1970s street scene from the time He began to learn painting, after enduring the Cultural Revolution in an isolated rural village. A technical painter successfully drawing from both Eastern and Western methodologies, He communicates a muted nostalgic intimacy that maintains her own philosophical outlook of commemorating the everyday and commonplace; an approach with Maoist origins.

Multi-disciplinary artist, Cyrus Tang delicately forms the striking but haunting portraits of Alice and Daisy from incense ash floating tentatively on milky water. A video artwork, their portraits gaze at us and waver in the tempo of the current created by the artist’s own breath. The ash symbolises a trace of what once was, and the incense a signifier of Buddhist ritual. On top of the clouded water, a face begins to move and twist. Daisy’s contorts and we see an eye here and a pair of lips there. The fragmentation continues. Just when she is beyond recognition she fleetingly disappears into whiteness then gradually, the ash begins to re-cluster. Still bobbing in the flux of external forces, the ash resists complete disintegration and reforms to create Alice’s youthful portrait. An endless recreation from one to the other. Although the title of Tang’s video is The Final Cast Off, referring to the marginalisation suffered by the women throughout their lives, the ethereal projection is in infinite loop – a slow and graceful coming apart to coming together.

Bridging the arts, Young has invited composer, Theodore Wohng to musically encapsulate the enduring spirits of Alice and Daisy. Young also worked with Wohng on his first exhibition in this series, 1866: The Worlds of Lowe Kong Meng and Jong Ah Siug at Arc One Gallery, Melbourne. Continuing this creative partnership, Wohng has written a composition incorporating a female choir that now breathes within the walls of the art space. Constant like the magnetic ebb and flow of the ocean and rhythmic like a pulse, the music suggests a synchronicity of two lives connected metaphysically through experience and feeling. Having never met, their insistence on life against all external forces is the thread that binds them.

At the core of Young’s exhibition is the resilience of humanity; a determination against conflicting external forces to contribute to create better behaviours, ideas and societies. Despite a historic discourse of discrimination, there are numerous stories like those of Alice and Daisy who through their own paths walked helped etch a way to persevere and prosper. But what Young, He, Tang and Wohng demonstrate through their creativity, is that each must be allowed to have their own voice, their own unique perspective. History has proven that by marginalising other cultures and a nation seeing itself as an ‘island’ in isolation from its neighbours is set for failure. The value of reimagining these histories and placing them centre stage is to rebalance our past and to acknowledge a more open future.

Venita Poblocki

A Reimagining