I visit John Young’s latest exhibition, Diaspora, Psyche, midweek during the school holidays. It’s mayhem: families are everywhere. The gallery is in Bunjil Place, a civic centre encompassing a library, gallery and performance spaces in the outer south-eastern suburbs of Naarm/Melbourne.
The City of Casey is the fastest-growing municipality in Victoria, with a culturally diverse population and a high number of refugees and asylum seekers. It’s an interesting context for Young’s work, given that his four-decades-long practice has been concerned, especially in its latter half, with the experience of living between cultural worlds and navigating the weight of memory and history as they flow across time and geographic space.
Hong Kong-born Young arrived in Australia during the Cultural Revolution and has been a practising artist since 1979, making him one of the country’s most senior Asian–Australian artists. Diaspora, Psyche spans 2003 to 2019, across two major cycles of work in his ongoing “The Double Ground Paintings” (1995-ongoing) and “History Projects” (2008). The exhibition demonstrates his transition from postmodern painting, of which he was a leading figure, towards research-based installations.
In 1981, Young co-authored with Terry Blake the first Australian paper on Baudrillard and art. Written for the second issue of seminal journal Art & Text, it considered the repercussions of ideas of the hyper-real. This was in the heyday of Imants Tillers’ conceptual painting and several years before Gordon Bennett’s still influential contribution to the appropriation art movement.
For Australian artists who existed outside the Anglosphere, postmodernist painting was a way to deconstruct the imagery used to build a sense of history and nationalism in a far-flung colonial outpost on the other side of the world from the Euro–American cultural centre.
The earliest works in Diaspora, Psyche come at the tail end of Young’s dedication to postmodernist painting, in the form of “Double Ground” paintings created in 2003-04. As part of the “Persian” series, they were made as the invasion of Iraq began in the early years of a post-9/11 world. Adam and Eve with Pomegranate (2004) is at the entrance to the exhibition. A digital print of an image of a 12th-century illuminated Persian text dominates a monumental canvas that narrates the Adam and Eve story that permeates Abrahamic religions. Two shirtless figures ride a dragon and a bird, surrounded by winged figures in bright textile patterns.
Overlaid are six meticulously re-created oil paintings of everyday photographic imagery in the style of banal still lifes, portraits or landscapes. An upside-down tarmac, a sun poking through the clouds, a foot next to a pomegranate. The background and foreground have no concrete connection but here Young is gesturing towards the deep history of Persian knowledge that permeates our everyday world view.
Young’s paintings are alternatively described as deeply conceptual, intellectually driven and academic. While these descriptions are true, the urgency of the political context within which Young works is brought out by the proximity of these paintings to Young’s “History Projects”.
The shift from “The Double Ground Paintings” to “History Projects” happened against the backdrop of the first two decades of the 21st century, where it feels that Australia’s stance on migrants has become progressively more sinister. Through his later work, Young brings in pressing ethical questions on how we ought to act and what we should learn from history.
“Safety Zone” (2010) dominates much of the exhibition, both spatially and emotionally. A monumental installation of a bank of 60 works on paper form a grid, alternating between black-and-white photographs and chalk drawings.
A loose element of storytelling holds them together. In the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, imperial Japanese troops enacted mass murder and rape on a civilian population during a period of six weeks. China puts the death toll at between 200,000 and 300,000.
Young homes in on the actions of a small group of Westerners – doctors, teachers, missionaries – who set up a safety zone during the attack. The image reappears of Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who protected an estimated 850 refugees in a school where she taught. Her name is written and erased in drawings. Another chalk drawing reads “UNSPEAKABLE ACTS OF EVIL BECOMING BANAL”; others relay truly chilling events in barely legible chalk. Interspersed are portraits of the Westerners, everyday photographs of Chinese civilians and images of violence.
One only gets the story in fragments, as if the gravity of such an apocalyptic event can never be fully reckoned with. Yet the structure of the work itself reveals a tenacity in Young’s attempt to make sense of what happened and to gain insights into the inner worlds of a group of foreigners who tried to assist those in need against the backdrop of war.
The year 2010 was dire for Australia’s refugee and asylum-seeker policy. Then prime minister Kevin Rudd announced a freeze in processing asylum-seeker claims from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. In July, prime minister Julia Gillard set up regional and offshore processing. “Safety Zone” communicates the overwhelming weight of a traumatic event and how the present is embedded in a complex flow of history.
Other “History Projects” span across the exhibition, such as “None Living Knows”, in which Young documents the 1500-kilometre Darwin-to-Cairns walk undertaken by Chinese migrants during the explicitly racist migration policies of the late 19th century through photography, re-enactment, drawing and abstract painting.
Young offers no essentialist view on what constitutes the diasporic psyche, nor clear answers to questions of social justice. This is what feels honest and pertinent about the exhibition. The inner lives of migrants are complex and layered and our present is always informed by history.
This cuts through the reductionist elements of identity politics in art and political discourse at large, and pushes against the amnesia of local and global history that defines Australian culture. Where central institutions give us easy and linear explanations of our world, Young insists on a constant questioning.
For Young, a pluralist society contains a multitude of perspectives informed by personal relationships to memory and time, without overarching universal truths. His rigorous artistic drive in Diaspora, Psyche is a conceptual and emotional process that unpacks the ethical question of how myriad flows of people with experiences from all over the world might develop empathy towards each other, despite our differences and the dark undertones of our shared political landscape.
John Young: Diaspora, Psyche is at Bunjil Place Gallery, Melbourne, until September 12.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 10, 2021 as "Myriad lives".
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