Jason Phu’s multi-disciplinary practice brings together a wide range of sometimes contradictory references, from traditional ink paintings and calligraphy to mass-produced objects, everyday vernacular to official records, personal narratives to historical events. Working across drawing, installation, painting and performance, the artist frequently uses humour as a device to explore experiences of cultural dislocation. Last year (2018) he showed in the Dobell Drawing Biennale at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, The Burrangong Affray at the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art and Primavera 2018 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.
Phu’s new work Procession in the warming light/Procession in the rising darkness will be performed on Sunday 1 September as part of ANTIDOTE 2019. The piece has been commissioned by the Sydney Opera House with the support of ARROW Collective. Procession in the warming light/Procession in the rising darkness explores climate change and human responsibility through participation, installation and performance.
What lines of thought inspired the making of this piece?
Having seen School Strikes for Climate by kids in Australia and around the world was inspiring. I thought having a platform like the Sydney Opera House and using it for a personal project during ANTIDOTE festival felt a little out of place, so I decided to open up the project to school kids that I’ve been working with.
I have been interested in Chinese lion and dragon dances and processions for a while. For this project I was specifically interested in the intersections between protest, cultural procession, and costuming. For example, the similarities in physicality, colour, mass of people and noise.
I am also interested in where those similarities end, but perhaps complement each other in tandem, as well as principles of yin yang; celebration and protest, mourning and anger, speaking to the past while looking to the future.
“The way I think about my work in this context: it is the illustration at the start of a very important article we should all read on a bus and then go for a walk in a park & think about, and then in the morning we will do what we can.”
Cultural processions inform the shape of this work to a certain extent- whether celebratory, commemorative or as protest as you have described. How does the medium of the procession highlight human responsibility with regard to climate change?
For me the spirits, demons, gods and ghosts in this procession don’t necessarily represent themselves, but more so a blockage in the back of our minds about the urgency of climate change. I think it takes a certain amount of insanity to think that the world is ending, which it is in a way. The spirits in this represent a frustration in our subconscious that has seeped out into the real world and has formed this procession for us to say “even the spirits can’t help us, even the spirits are protesting.” I also guess the procession “hides” the protest, for those in the crowd who would otherwise not attend.
I haven’t made the work under the assumption that people will see it and say “oh shit, now I get it because I saw this work, I need to make changes.” I don’t think that is the role of my practice, I’m not saying that is not the role of art, there are certainly people in the arts that do fulfill that role. In this instance, I think there are people in the festival lineup that perform that role of convincer, not only about the issue of climate change, but of our most pressing issues at the moment and into the future. The way I think about my work is in this context: it is the illustration at the start of a very important article we should all read on a bus and then go for a walk in a park and think about, and then in the morning we will do what we can.
Has collaboration been an important part of making of this piece for you?
I have collaborated before, but this feels less like a collaboration and more like an extended workshop. I am running 5 weeks of workshops with two school groups, with roughly 150 kids- although I’m not sure how many will turn up for the actual performance.
I have tried at as many points to remove myself from the artwork. Sometimes I feel my life has been flawed with climate inaction. This isn’t an excuse to step away and just let the kids handle it, but I felt the work needed to have a vibrancy in its outlook towards the future rather than be tainted with regret.
I provided a framework of the Chinese cultural procession or climate protest to the students, but stressed that they should explore how they wanted to represent these ideas. As adults, we consistently underestimate children. Often the kids were more knowledgeable than me about the facts of climate change and had their own thoughts and concepts about the costumes. I was also very aware that they all came from various religious and cultural backgrounds, so I wanted them to have the freedom to represent that side of themselves. In this way it was a lot harder than when I’ve made my artwork independently. I had to talk a lot less, listen a lot more and let things go even when they began to move away from what I initially imagined the artwork to be.
Non-human agency strikes me as another important element of Procession in the warming light/ Procession in the rising darkness. The non-human protagonists or characters in the work- gods, spirits and demons- represent and speak on behalf of earthly elements affected by climate change. What role does the centering of non-human voices play in this work?
As much as I said above that they don’t actually need to represent real spirits, there is a part of me that hopes this mass representation of ghosts and gods does reach somewhere out there. In fact these lion and dragon dances usually happen when the spirit and human worlds are in closest proximity to each other, or at least attempt to bridge that gap during the ceremonies.
I have never been religious, and I don’t think prayer will necessarily solve things alone. The real solutions are out there, and I think we can make the change for so many problems in the world actually. I guess the work is a prayer to the people, to all of us, from the spirit world, to make this change, it is them begging for us to fix this before it is too late.
I was also acutely aware that I was making a work talking about the spirits from my own heritage, on a land where there already are spirits that have been here since the beginning. As a very small gesture there is a smoking ceremony before the processions, not only to acknowledge the land we are on, to cleanse and to ward off the bad spirits, but also as a recognition that I am bringing in foreign spiritual guests to the land and to make sure they’re welcome for the short time they are visiting.
Noise also plays a big part in the work. The use of noise during Chinese cultural processions often has the dual effect of warding off evil or celebration. Most of the students will have some form of instrument they have made from recycled materials or from Reverse Garbage in Marrickville (actually most of the procession is made from Reverse Garbage material).
“In the Chan teachings, the teachers would often pose a nonsensical or paradoxical statement to students to provoke enlightenment. If you read a lot of these stories and how they are told and retold, you can see they had a lot of humour in them.”
Humour is a recurrent theme in your practice- I’m interested in the ways that humour can be educational. Does Procession draw on humour as a way of talking about climate change? If so, how have you negotiated balancing humour with the grim connotations often associated with climate change– such as despair, devastation, the apocalypse etc?
I guess there can be a place for humour in many grim situations.
For me it is about the way Chan Buddhists use humour (Zen Buddhism in Japan and as it is called in the West). Maybe it is not really just humour, but absurdity as well. In the Chan teachings, the teachers would often pose a nonsensical or paradoxical statement to students to provoke enlightenment. If you read a lot of these stories and how they are told and retold, you can see they had a lot of humour in them. For me, humour isn’t the only way, but it is a way I know and am good at. People who don’t see the urgency of this issue already have all the information in front of them, so if there’s even a small chance that this can provoke that click in someone’s mind to think a little bit differently, to accept the current situations we face, then that will be a good thing.
I guess this work poses an alternative to how people are protesting now. Protest is already such a varied and diverse thing that has shifted throughout history, and I don’t think what I am offering is better, but it is different.