Diaspora, Psyche | Saturday newspaper

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I visit John Young’s latest exhibition, Diaspora, Psyche, mid-week during school holidays. It’s chaos: families are everywhere. The gallery is located at Bunjil Place, a civic center comprising a library, gallery and performance spaces in the south-eastern suburb of Naarm / Melbourne.

The Town of Casey is Victoria’s fastest growing municipality, with a culturally diverse population and a high number of refugees and asylum seekers. This is an interesting context for Young’s work, given that his four-decade practice has focused, particularly in its second half, on the experience of living between cultural worlds and navigating the weight of culture. memory and history as they traverse time and geography. space.

Born in Hong Kong, Young came to Australia during the Cultural Revolution and has been a practicing artist since 1979, making him one of the oldest Asian-Australian artists in the country. Diaspora, Psyche runs from 2003 to 2019, through two major work cycles in his “The Double Ground Paintings” (1995-ongoing) and “History Projects” (2008). The exhibition is a testament to his transition from postmodern painting, of which he was a leading figure, to research-based installations.

In 1981, Young co-wrote with Terry Blake the first Australian article on Baudrillard and art. Written for the second issue of the seminal journal Art and text, he considered the repercussions of the ideas of the hyper-real. This was at the height 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 of the Anglosphere, postmodern painting was a way to deconstruct imagery used to build a sense of history and nationalism in a remote colonial outpost halfway around the world. of the Euro-American Cultural Center.

The first works in Diaspora, Psyche come at the end of Young’s dedication to postmodernist painting, in the form of “Double Ground” paintings created in 2003-04. Part of the “Persian” series, they were made as the invasion of Iraq began in the early years of a post-September 11 world. Adam and Eve with Granada (2004) is at the entrance to the exhibition. A digital print of an image of an illuminated 12th-century Persian text dominates a monumental canvas that tells the story of Adam and Eve that permeated the Abrahamic religions. Two shirtless figures ride a dragon and a bird, surrounded by winged figures with shiny textile patterns.

Overlap six oil paintings meticulously recreated from everyday photographic images in the style of still lifes, portraits or mundane landscapes. An upside down tarmac, a sun breaking through the clouds, a foot next to a pomegranate. The background and foreground have no concrete connection, but here Young makes a gesture towards the deep story of Persian knowledge that permeates our everyday worldview.

Young’s paintings are alternately described as deeply conceptual, intellectual, and academic. If these descriptions are true, the urgency of the political context in which Young works is highlighted by the proximity of these paintings to Young’s “History Projects”.

The shift from “The Double Ground Paintings” to “History Projects” took place in the context of the first two decades of the 21st century, where there is a sense that Australia’s position on migrants has gradually become more important. sinister. Through his later work, Young raises pressing ethical questions about how we should act and what we should learn from history.

“Safety Zone” (2010) dominates much of the exhibition, both spatially and emotionally. A monumental installation from a bank of 60 works on paper forms a grid, alternating black and white photographs and chalk drawings.

A loose element of storytelling holds them together. During the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, Imperial Japanese troops committed mass murders and rapes of a civilian population over a period of six weeks. China estimates the death toll between 200,000 and 300,000.

The young people learn about the actions of a small group of Westerners – doctors, teachers, missionaries – who set up a safe zone during the attack. The image reappears of Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who protected around 850 refugees at a school where she taught. His name is written and erased in the drawings. Another chalk drawing reads: “INDEPENDENT ACTS OF EVIL BECOMING BANALS”; others relay really frightening events in barely readable chalk. Portraits of Westerners, daily photographs of Chinese civilians and images of violence are interspersed.

The story is only obtained in fragments, as if the gravity of such an apocalyptic event could never be fully taken into account. Yet the structure of the work itself reveals a tenacity in Young’s attempt to make sense of what happened and to better understand the inner worlds of a group of strangers who tried to help. those who needed it in the context of war.

2010 has been a disastrous year for Australian refugee and asylum seekers policy. Then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a freeze on processing asylum applications from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. In July, Prime Minister Julia Gillard implemented regional and offshore processing. “Safe Zone” communicates the overwhelming weight of a traumatic event and how the present is embedded in a complex historical flow.

Other “History Projects” cover the entire exhibition, such as “None Living Knows,” in which Young documents the 1,500 kilometer trek from Darwin to Cairns undertaken by Chinese migrants during explicit migration policies. racists of the late 19th century through photography, reconstruction, drawing and abstract painting.

Young offers no essentialist vision of what constitutes the diasporic psyche, nor clear answers to questions of social justice. This is what looks honest and relevant in the exhibit. The inner life of migrants is complex and layered and our present is always informed by history.

It cuts through the reductionist elements of identity politics in art and political discourse in general, and contrasts with the amnesia of local and global history that defines Australian culture. Where central institutions give us simple, linear explanations of our world, Young insists on constant questioning.

For Young, a pluralistic society contains a multitude of perspectives informed by personal relationships to memory and time, without overriding universal truths. His rigorous artistic impetus in Diaspora, Psyche is a conceptual and emotional process that addresses the ethical question of how a myriad of flows of people with experiences from all over the world might develop empathy for one another, despite our differences and the dark nuances of our common political landscape .

John Young: Diaspora, Psyche is at the Bunjil Place Gallery, Melbourne, until September 12.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 10, 2021 under the title “Myriad lives”.

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