One hour on the telephone with the Sydney-based painter and sculptor.Read more
This is the second instalment in a special, four-part interview series featuring contemporary Australian artists selected by Museum, supported by Calvin Klein. Here, we interview the Sulman Prize-winning multidisciplinary artist Jason Phu.
Buzz Aldrin tries to build a rocket ship after having a few beers. Large men in ill-fitting footy shorts collide into one another in lumbering silence. Walls and floors are covered in flowers, expandafoam poetry and plastic masks. Elsewhere, multicoloured string lights run circles around model skeletons and plaster animals. A series of candles arrange themselves in sequence while an angered fish erupts from murky depths. Here is the consumptive folly of human and inhuman life—and death—and the impossible effort of trying to be good.
Jason Phu has an instinctive ability to invoke these everyday crises. His multimedia work, which is often rapidly executed, engages philosophical reflection and self-interrogation on a casual basis. It falls somewhere between the observational and speculative, between sober reverence and piss-taking. It deconstructs as it stands. Phu is a finalist for the 2017 NSW Visual Arts Emerging Fellowship and his recent commission, lesser saints and the demons they carry can be seen at Exchange Square, Barangaroo until late September. To mark the occasion, we met with him to discuss legibility, spontaneity and mud-stained t-shirts.
JOE BRENNAN Your recent output demonstrates a distinct move away from work on paper. The materials used—plastic sheeting, found objects and inflatable toys—are often quite disparate and incidentally accumulated, yet also meticulousness in their arrangement. What role does spontaneity play in your practice?
JASON PHU That’s a long story. I have trouble sitting down and making work. I used to beat myself up a bit for it. People would be like, “I’ve put in 20 hours on this drawing,” and I was like, “Fuck, why can’t I do that?” Later, I worked out somehow that my drawings that looked quite ‘quick’ looked better and I was happier with them. Spontaneity was an easy way out [of frustration] for me. A lot of my works on paper take five minutes, and I could do that quite easily instead of sitting down and working for two hours. When you apply for shows in the Sydney scene, they require a conceptual rationale and want to know exactly what you’re doing, and fair enough. I can’t write very well formally and so I struggled with applications. For the first two shows I did while completing residencies in China, they didn’t want anything from me. They said, “Just come in with the materials and make the works in the space.” They didn’t want a rationale; they didn’t want to know what I was [going to be] making. That experience freed me up … I don’t know which comes first—the chicken and egg thing—but my works definitely incorporate a lot of Daoist philosophy. In a basic sense, Daoism is the idea of ‘going with the flow.’ Not in a hippie way. More so just doing things as they come. So I make the work as it comes. Something breaks, and I’ll work with it. The mark isn’t right, and I’ll work from that. I guess that’s where my spontaneity comes from.
BRENNAN Was it the instinctive qualities of spray-paint that first drew you to the medium?
PHU Yes. The [public] perception of Chinese calligraphy and painting is the Orientalist attitude: very disciplined and exact. Even in China, people say you’ve got to train for 30 years in order to do this. I think I was listening to people I respected in China, like my family or the calligraphy teachers that my mum had introduced me to. That’s how they trained. But then, talking to contemporary artists, they were like “This is great, why the fuck would you need to learn formal calligraphy?” I still think learning can’t hurt. But it clicked in my mind—we don’t expect contemporary landscape artists in Australia to fly over to Europe and learn Old Master painting, even though that’s a well-trodden path. What was the question again? [Laughs] Oh, spray paint.
I first tried stenciling in high school and didn’t really like it. My current use of spray paint began in China too. For very good reason, you generally don’t want to use spray paint indoors and in gallery spaces. In China, things are a little laxer and so I was able to use it how I wanted. Being in a context where I wasn’t scared about what the ‘scene’ might think meant I felt more [liberated]. And now I have an interest in pursuing more off-site projects—trying to work with developers, using sites that are going to be demolished.
BRENNAN On the note of calligraphy, I’d like to talk about language more. You’ve been fairly transparent about your willingness to morph characters, switch them around and even make some up. Legibility doesn’t seem to be your first priority. At the same time, there’s a real generosity to many of the sprawling, conversational titles of your works. Do you find it important to provide some kind of access for your audience?
PHU In terms of legibility, most lay-people or ‘commoners’ wouldn’t be able to read more ancient scripts or more traditional calligraphy, for a variety of reasons. With more free-flowing calligraphy, it’s a bit like extreme cursive. It’s sort of like doctors’ handwriting. Like, sure, that’s English and it should be legible but it’s not. And that’s just tradition. It wasn’t easy or hard for me to break that mold because there wasn’t anything to break. The words are important but the form is just as important. When I was younger I didn’t care as much if people couldn’t read the Chinese. Sometimes I don’t provide the translations, and sometimes my calligraphy is completely nonsensical or Google-translated. But I think accessibility is important. You don’t need to hammer in the concept or fully explain anything but, for instance, if it’s Chinese text then I want my audience to read it. I can sometimes subconsciously leave information inside a work for the viewer …
Diaspora culture is often frozen in a period of time when it migrates to a new country and is influenced by that country. Culture doesn’t sit still. It morphs and changes in terms of what’s happening politically and socially. In a way, I used my parents as a scapegoat, like “This is what they told me,” so it must be true. My memory of what they said and my experience growing up in Australia has changed my understanding of those characters. But, of course, I also do completely make up some of my characters—monsters and things. For me, they were originally made up anyway.
BRENNAN Could you tell me a little about lesser saints and the demons they carry, your recent Sydney Contemporary commission at Barangaroo?
PHU As I progress in my career, I find that larger institutions require promotional information earlier. I had to come up with a really generic title earlier on and work from there. I don’t see demons as a bad thing. Certainly, in Chinese culture they’re not always bad. I was talking to a builder who was walking past [at Barangaroo] and he asked about the work. He said, “Oh, yeah. They’re a necessary part of your life.” I think your vices do define your parameters, if not your essential core. The work is asking if there’s a difference between these lesser saints and their demons. It’s in the format of a kind of shrine—the flags have two sides to them and the saints are quite ugly creatures and the demons are smiling and happy. What does it mean to be saintly? What does it mean to be bad? It’s all the same. We’re made up of the sum of our actions. But there’s a lot of truth that gets lost, and we end up being defined by only a few actions. Like, yeah he saved us from a tsunami, but maybe before that he kicked a bunch of dogs. You know?
BRENNAN In 2013 you performed lots of jasonphus at Archive Space. It was a piece in which “everyone dressed as jasonphu and did jasonphu things and was jasonphu and then drew jasonphus as jasonphu.” If you were to perform that work again today—after exhibiting consistently overseas, after producing multiple solo shows, after your Archibald hangings, after winning the Sulman Prize—it would potentially carry a different meaning. How does public attention or public appreciation make you feel?
PHU I did that as a fun thing, to try something new. It came from the Calvin & Hobbes comic where he makes a duplicator and clones himself so that his clones can do the chores while he plays. The work was about other people performing my chores and taking over my life for a day. I have obvious characteristics like glasses and long hair. Everyone wore a blue top and black bottoms. Everyone was dressed slightly different but all sort of looked like me, like mutations.
BRENNAN I noticed everyone’s wigs were slightly different.
PHU Yeah, there were like witches’ wigs with white streaks in them. [Laughs] What I did wasn’t very “new” but everyone saw something different, which I like. Everyone just got drunk and had a good time. I haven’t really thought about the piece very much.
BRENNAN Silky Sunny Sun-dried Skinny Sexily Sexy Stunning Summer (2015) was among six works that you produced on the floor of a Beijing Airbnb until the pain in your knees became too much to bear. You’ve previously gone a long time without having a studio. How important do you now find the idea of working in a consistent space?
PHU Again, this comes back to spontaneity. I had two studios before, for a month each. I didn’t create a single piece of work in either of them. It felt like a huge waste. I also struggled at the time with the idea of being an artist and I thought it was a stupid thing that was pretty useless. I don’t think the opposite right now, necessarily, but at the start of this year, I decided I should try and do this full-time.
My projects were becoming bigger. I used to only do three weeks of art-making a year. And this year is completely different. Recently I’ve been in the studio for twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week. It feels really good. You need a space to do that kind of thing. It’s been great to have a community of artists here, and to be able to get their opinions and physical help. For the Barangaroo project, I had three of the artists here help me—one to sew, one to do concrete, one to help me source items.
BRENNAN Have your recent residencies in China provided any sense of being inaugurated within the “new ink” movement?
PHU The “new ink” movement is a label that refers to contemporary use of Chinese painting and calligraphy, not bound to ink-on-paper. It includes performances, ceramics and sometimes completely unrecognisable from its original form. They’re very senior artists. When I was in China, I was mostly hanging out with a lot of younger artists. But also I don’t see myself as part of the “new ink” movement. My work is, maybe. But I’m not. And that comes with the fact that I’m not a contemporary Chinese artist. There was a lot of acceptance of my work in China, which I didn’t think I’d find because I’m not a trained calligrapher. Although I was there networking, having exhibitions and residencies, it’s mostly about living there. I’ve spent a couple of weeks there with my mum nearly every year of my life. It’s like when people go up the coast for Christmas. I’d just sit at home, eat and see my relatives. I don’t think I learned anything but it completely shifted my perspective.
BRENNAN You mentioned the blue shirt/black bottoms combination. Are there outfits that make you feel most primed for artmaking?
PHU My artmaking clothes are the same as my normal clothes. I tend to not get too dirty. Just a t-shirt, comfy jeans, and Redbacks in the studio. I find skate shoes and a good hoodie.
BRENNAN What’s your earliest memory of encountering Calvin Klein?
PHU My mum has worked a ton of different jobs. She worked selling clothes at Myer at one point and would sometimes bring home a shirt or something. I had this really comfy white Calvin Klein tee and I took it with me to school camp. We went through the mud pit and it became my very comfy brown Calvin Klein tee. I wore it a lot. You can see it in some of my photos, I think. I remember wearing it until it was in tatters.
But talking about memory and truth, I don’t know how true that story is. It could be the t-shirt was always brown. I don’t know if mud stains that much. I could have had two [Calvin] shirts.
BRENNAN One more thing I must ask—in the past you’ve mentioned a longtime desire to work in a cruise ship kitchen for a few months. Have you been able to realise that escape?
PHU My friends make fun of me for saying this. I’ve always had this romantic notion of working on a cruise ship. I wanted to do it at the start of this year but a lot of things were happening for me and I made a practical decision regarding my art career. I guess I couldn’t take three months off.
I think I’m just not going to advertise it when I do go. I’ll just disappear into the sunset one day. So, if I do disappear, make sure I’m not dead but also—if I’m not dead—just leave me alone.