John Young Zerunge: The Lives of Celestials

The past is what happened, history is what is remembered.

Recognising this dichotomy, the practice of John Young Zerunge reconstructs dominant historical narratives into more accurate and diverse records of the past. Following years of robust research, his artistic reimagining of historical data brings invisible stories into public consciousness. ‘The Lives of Celestials: John Young Zerunge’ at Town Hall Gallery, supports his aims to unearth, ‘empathy and cultural sensitivity’ for non-western stories by exhibiting what he has discovered about Australia’s Chinese communities from the 1840s onwards.

‘The Lives of Celestials’ is a continuation of the intellectual depth and compassion of Young’s oeuvre. Since moving to Australia from Hong Kong in 1967, Young has maintained a bi-cultural perspective throughout his practice, which is especially notable in his ‘History Projects’. Over the last decade, these projects have prompted him to scour community archives and collect oral histories, seeking to identify histories of Australia’s Chinese diaspora. ‘The Lives of Celestials’ is the largest presentation of this research, representing the Lambing Flat riots (1860-1), Australia’s largest racially motivated riots to date, and portraying the lives of four Chinese-Australians.

John Young Zerunge, The Bridge to Innocence and Safety III, 2018, digital print and oil on linen, 190 x 150cm. Courtesy the artist, ARC ONE Gallery, Melbourne and Town Hall Gallery, Melbourne

Young’s presentation of his historical research is flavoured by its reimagining through contemporary mediums and methods. He resonates with different cultures and times in bold chalk drawings, photographs, video works and paintings, relying on archival, traditional and technological materials. Yet, Young doesn’t rest on his artistic capabilities, allowing detailed labels to contextualise historical information and complement intuitive readings of the artworks.

The exhibition’s first space shows abstract paintings created from stock images processed by an algorithm of colour fields and hand-painted onto linen, as well as an introductory wall text, a poster calling for a monument to the riots and Marienbad (2012), a digital print and oil on canvas. Lambing Flat (2018), covering an entire wall, reveals Young’s most idiosyncratic medium: large black and white archival prints and chalk inscriptions on paper. In these, Young’s perceptive integration of multilingual quotes and archival images evoke the riot’s moments, landscape and feeling, which in turn, explicitly anchors the presented history in one’s mind.

We then move into a darkly lit room with a triangular installation of works containing reenactions of the riots, exploring tensions and solidarity between racial groups. Video work, The Field (2019) inverts the ethnicities of the oppressed: a white woman’s hair is pulled, evocative of the scalping of the miners. The Bridge to Innocence and Safety III (2018) illustrates a young Chinese girl in a blanket juxtaposed against someone concealed in a space foil blanket, referencing modern humanitarian aid. The third work, Action: Covering 1, 2 & 3 (2018), shows Young as an injured miner rescued by the Robert family (a European family who offered shelter to the miners) with a pull to the present by the rescuer’s Nikes.

John Young Zerunge, Modernity’s End: Half The Sky (detail), 2016, digital print on photographic paper, 100 x 70cm. Courtesy the artist, ARC ONE Gallery, Melbourne and Town Hall Gallery, Melbourne

Young reverently surveys the personal histories of four Chinese-Australians. Two small embroidery works, Cochran Town (2015) and The Meeting (2015), delicately link to the characters of 1866: The Worlds of Lowe Kong Men and Jong Ah Siug (2015). Running along one wall, Young’s black and white reworked photographs including images of ships and bedrooms and chalk text referencing asylums and empires are redolent of Men and Siug’s lives: two Chinese men who came to the goldfields but had diverting fates in their new homeland. Modernity’s End: Half the Sky (2016), on the opposite wall using the same processes, affords the exhibition a nourishing shift. The works detail Alice Lim Kee and Daisy Kwok’s bi-cultural lives in Australia – prior to the Women’s Liberation Movement and during the White Australia policy – and Shanghai – where they rose to prominence. Their historical significance is honoured, especially, by Young’s inclusion of Mao Zedong’s quote, ‘Women hold up half
the sky.’

‘The Lives of Celestials’ breaks the bad habits of historical practice by disfiguring and reconfiguring understandings of the past. Of course, Young’s ‘History Projects’ can’t reveal all missing Chinese-Australian stories from the last 200 years, nor scratch the surface of other marginalised peoples’ erased chapters. Nor does Young present a political agenda of shaming audience’s ignorance of the past. Instead, he diminishes apathy using a humanitarian lens and rigorous study to reveal select unspoken histories for public connection and a more egalitarian record.

Young’s demonstrative reclamations retune public memory; accomplishing the imperative notion Young proposes of, ‘paying homage to the events and stories that have gone before us; through their re-imagining, they become part of us.’

Tahney Fosdike is an arts writer and curator interested in threads of advocacy and anthropology in the arts.

Town Hall Gallery
Until 20 October 2019