Interview #115 — John Young Zerunge

by Cher Tan


John Young Zerunge was born in Hong Kong and came to Australia in 1967 during the Cultural Revolution in China. He began his artistic activities in the early 1980s, engaging with notions of pluralism and the post-modernist condition. In the following decades he has represented Australia in significant regional and international exhibitions.

In the last decade and a half, he has developed a series of projects entitled The History Projects, which foreground histories of violence and benevolence alongside a visual history of the Chinese diaspora in Australia since 1840. This conversation was recorded with Cher Tan on the eve of two exhibitions in Melbourne: Silent Transformations and The Lives of Celestials, now showing at Town Hall Gallery 31 Aug – 20 October.

John spoke to Cher about the philosophical questions that drive sustainable art-making, re-imagining the self outside institutional paradigms, and making meaning out of memory and ritual.


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As an established artist with a large body of work, how does it feel to re-visit early pieces? How do they form the tapestry that culminates in the art you produce now? I’m asking because a large part of your oeuvre explores transcultural perceptions through a postmodernist lens, and of course globalisation and the internet now accelerates that.
The works made now could never have been made unless I had gone through the process of making the early pieces. You go through wanting to do something for the world, hoping to develop natural empathy for the other, learning through voices for and of the diasporas, negotiating with neo-liberal consumerism, the rise of institutional art. You want to make some kind of effect.

 Then after that phase, you have to come back to yourself, your dharma, where there is a certitude, and a world-feeling that accompanies the wellspring of art. The works only make sense now if people work hard to look at them. If I have to explain things to them, it means they will never get it. Consumerism has made people lazy and entitled in front of art. Art was never made to entertain or to be a spectacle, and yet people seem to switch off if they feel they are being asked to work beyond that space of laziness and comfort.

I did a work once called Bonhoeffer in Harlem—you know, after the man who wanted to assassinate Hitler, got caught and was hung from piano wires. There is this story that in his early years, Bonhoeffer visited Harlem and saw the plight of Black people there. Then he returned to Berlin and saw what the Nazis were up to with the Jewish citizens, and so he decided to do something about it. In the church where he was ordained (St Matthaus at the Kulturforum in Berlin), I did an installation that negotiated with many cultures in this very monocultural, Lutheran church—trying to shift its frame, so to speak. Within this installation was a tapestry that I, as a Chinese person, designed: with colours from a Black church in Harlem, woven by a Tibetan women on the run in Nepal and her team of weavers. When I received the tapestry back from her, it was nothing like what I expected: all the colours were poor and the forms were not so accurate in comparison to my design. I was so disappointed.

 But I had learnt something. I learnt that I had to accept that my initial intentions and will in the creation of this tapestry had been altered by this translation and by poverty—the dyes they could acquire were poorly coloured, their sense of form and colour relationship was different to mine. It taught me that acceptance was the ethical act.

In the end, the tapestry was placed at the altar of the church. It was a grave responsibility that I was initially unwilling to bear, to do something as serious as an altarpiece. But I felt I could offer this act of giving up at least. I’m mentioning this as an example only because I think making work requires hard work from both ends, from the artist and the viewer. In the best instances, it asks them to change.    

In 1995, you established the Asian Australian Artists’ Association Gallery (now 4A Centre of Contemporary Asian Art) with a group of fellow Asian-Australian artists in Sydney. I’m curious about your views regarding the evolution of Asian-Australian art since then, whether that’s in terms of visibility, power, inter-cultural dialogue, and/or self-determinationespecially as you’ve mentioned in another interview that you think the focus on identity politics remains unchanged, and that the combination of cultural gatekeeping, institutional funding, and some artists’ fear of being confrontational results in work that may not be as boundary-pushing without it. Do you think it’s possible to work within “the system” and still be able to create art that isn’t assimilationist or pandering and yet aims to smash dominant paradigms?

There will always be a system to work within. And this “system” is changing so fast, probably from global circumstances. In Australia, I have absolutely no interest in those who speak and act with, first of all, a 19th century colonial settler’s mentality—it’s neanderthal to think this way still in the 21st century. Then comes the polite bureaucratic cultural-political gatekeepers, who with the mask of subtlety still brutally provide ceilings for symbolic representation (by exclusion, diversion, substitution or distraction). They too will become irrelevant, as the voices that they choose for symbolic representation belong to the old paradigm. Yet we know in the world, and soon in Australia, that we have reached the era of power exercised by oligarchs and oligarch aspirants—and they are just culturally stupid. They will actually leave culturally oriented people lots of room… not in the economic sense, but in terms of psychic health and maturation. And as they devolve full throttle into homo-economicus, we evolve, hybridise and transform as homo-sapiens. There will be ample room for us to develop our psychic consciousness and health, towards a new paradigm, one that these oligarchs are unable to identify. Nor are they able to forfeit their power status for the betterment of their own humanity. We need to look at how Greta Thunberg’s autism and selective mutism turns into a powerful resistant psychic principle. So in a roundabout way, I hope we are already evolving a new paradigm.    

Art is best created when we shift our own paradigmatic interpretations. When we talk about identity as Asian-Australians, are we talking about it in terms defined by the propaganda of nation states? People from the diaspora(s) with differing sets of memories over time? Intersectional ethnic groups, or anyone who identifies as Asian, or always discussing this in terms predicated with inequalities of power? There is so much to learn from other movements such as feminism, and as feminism has shown, the struggle for a voice and for rights is a long road that evolves; sometimes stepping ahead of and sometimes falling behind the dominant social system. I believe the struggle for an Asian-Australian cultural voice has similarities with the struggle for a feminist voice. And some of the ground-shifting discoveries related to the feminist voice—like the defence of the epistemological importance of the body, as opposed to the rational-cognitive, cerebrally obsessed parameters that neo-liberalism and big data works within—are the paradigm changes.

Art is best created when we shift our own paradigmatic interpretations.

What drives you to keep creating? Do you find that your parameters for what success looks like changes the longer you have been making art?
My early periods of making art were based on constant re-invention and re-interpretation of my own life condition. I feel it is wrongheaded, from my own experience, to understand “success” as winning in a sports game. Or at least you only think you were successful in something in retrospect, with a set of causal reasoning. What drove me then was having seen or stumbled into, on occasion, the possibility of making a work that makes everything in your life make sense—something that prompts things to fall into place with immense clarity. This happened for the first time in 1983 when I did a painting called Thirst, and then again at the start of two series of paintings: the Silhouette Paintings and the Double Ground Paintings. There may be a huge amount of anxiety waiting for these moments to pop up. Yet eventually they do. It sort of makes you believe in the world, this clarity. Once you lay things out perspicuously, you find that there is suffering in the world that you cannot control. The only thing that you are able to control is an empathic reaching out to the other, as you find a way to bring the other to a proximity to oneself that makes sense. This was when my History Projects started, in what I hoped to be the conjoining of the head and the heart chakra.

 Now I make art for a different hope, that the works become a sort of feeling, a world-feeling, not an expression by any means—but the closest attitude I can find is an attitude one takes standing in front of a work by Rothko. Maybe one way to begin to describe this attitude is taking a visceral approach. 

As someone who has travelled to and from many parts of the world, be that for refuge, work or leisure, how has movement and migration informed your practice?
 I need to make work from a bit of a distance. I’m not a political activist like Ai Wei Wei, I wouldn’t really know how to account to myself at the end of my days. When I say that I mean questions like “did I evolve and transform sufficiently in my becomings” to have made my life worth living? Yet from movement and migration I have learnt not to fear the new. You see so much fear in people of anything new or foreign today—especially in all the nativism stirred up by evil politicians. But movement and migration also mean that you make meaning out of memory and ritual, as these are both things that you can take with you in diaspora. So I have no problem needing to learn of many modernities from around the world; not just a Euramerican Modernism, but nor do I feel that’s somehow threatening to my own sense of identity or whatever.

 Now I make art for a different hope…

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In your latest work Lives of Celestials, you invoke the hyper-reality that surrounds us even more aggressively in our present time. You also mention elsewhere with regards to similarly-themed work that they are attempts to “reawaken an intrinsic ethical impulse in the present.” Can you speak more to that? Instead of obsessing over what is “lost” through displacement, time and memory, how can cross-cultural artists find that “active principle” that will end up being a more sustaining force for the work?
I don’t really want to go into Baudrillardian hyper-reality now, it was a long time ago. Suffice to say, art critic and curator Thomas Berghuis and I once developed this notion of “Situational Ethics” for the History Projects I was working on, specifically on the project Safety Zone, which deals with the history of violence and benevolence during the Rape of Nanjing. Situational Ethics was meant to rhetorically counter the idea of “Relational Aesthetics”, which has become fashionable in the art world in the last 10 years, having descended into a sort of curatorial tool and socialite functioning for artists, curators and art institutions. Situational Ethics on the other hand, hopefully kick-started a sort of didacticism and auto-didacticism for re-imagined values.

Perhaps these cultural values are more re-imagined than regained. The possible “active principle” has to do, I feel, with the re-imagining of values in “memory”: the notion of memory, or a seeming continuation of memory, is a vital component of anyone who lives in a diaspora, such as the Chinese diaspora, or the Jewish diaspora. When you look at diasporic discourses, the temporal dimension of memory is, to me, far more important than the spatial aspect of say, subscriptions to geography and city states.  

Do you have any advice for emerging visual artists?
Most importantly, find genuine mentors who have vast, meaningful, hopeful and deep cultural vision. Think of the social conditions 20 or 50 years from now, and create works that you feel that time may need, in a society that is hopefully more equatable and sustainable. Don’t waste your time competing in the present with ground rules that have been laid out by dinosaur cultural gatekeepers and institutions. In visual art we are never talking only about financial or professional survival, but really the survival of consciousness, the evolution of consciousness, and the sustainability of a meaningful, wonderful life.

Most importantly, find genuine mentors who have vast, meaningful, hopeful and deep cultural vision.

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Who are you inspired by?
I would like to say Hilma Af Klint, who on her death bed insisted that her works were not to be seen for another 50 years. Western shamans such as Joseph Beuys. The early transcultural Jesuit fathers such as Guiseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining), and for many decades now, the I Ching.

What are you currently listening to?
Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm. But in terms of recurring listening, I can’t get past Miles Davis’ and John Coltrane’s Blue in Green, and Brahms’ Clarinet Sonatas. 

 What are you currently reading?
I am reading whatever I can get my hands on by Han Byung-Chul. Also Brian Castro’s Blindness and Rage: A Phantasmagoria, and always re-reading the geopoetic poems of Kenneth White.

How do you practice self-care?
Long walks in the country weekly looking for the subtle shifts and minute changes in colour and mood of the returned landscape. Giving lengthy quiet time to cooking daily, and inventing or remembering cultural rituals to practice in daily life. Identifying the most generative, creative and concentrated zone in the day and keeping to this every day. And Tai Chi. 

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It is an identifier, but it also allows cultural gatekeepers to slot you into an area to prevent you access to more privileged positions. It is dependent on the use of the term, and by whom, in which context. It is a becoming.

It is a becoming.

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2, InterviewLeah McIntosh