In conversation with John Young Zerunge

John Young Zerunge is an Australian-Chinese artist and one of the co-founders and founding president of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney. An initiative formed by the Asian Australian Artists’ Association in 1996, 4A has become a leading art institution in Australia, encouraging dialogue on Asian and Australian cultural relations, and producing a number of celebrated curators and artists. Recently, on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary, Twenty Years Symposium reflected on the past two decades of contemporary Asian Australian art, and looked forward to the next chapter in 4A’s history. Amy Weng caught up with John following the symposium to talk about the beginnings of 4A, the responsibility of artists in the wake of the political upheaval, and his opinions on where to next.

Amy Weng: Perhaps we can start with you telling me about the beginnings of 4A and your association with it.

John Young Zerunge: That’s prehistory- that’s like the Jurassic age! It was 1995, and at that stage Australia already had a few institutions and events set up with an interest in Asian art. In 1990, Asialink was established in Melbourne which was based on a then-prime minister Paul Keating initiative in the 1990’s to say: Finally, Australia is part of the Asia Pacific. This was the beginning of that regional dialogue. Then there was the watershed Conference at ANU organised by John Clark, Modernism and Post-Modernism in Asian Art – this opened our eyes to the fact that historically Modernism existed in every single location in Asia, and dispelled the centrality of EurAmerican privileges.

In 1993, there was a watershed show, Mao Goes Pop, which was the first Chinese contemporary art exhibition outside of China in the world. The MCA in Sydney and private galleries in Melbourne took this exhibition – we basically beat the United States to it. In the same year was the beginning of the Asia Pacific Triennial in Queensland. That shifted the perception as well.

We felt, oh my god, Asian Australians are not being represented in any of these initiatives and there were already green shoots – Asian Australian artists were starting to appear on the scene. I helped in organising a symposium at Sydney College of the Arts called Australian Visual Arts in an Asian Context. The symposium basically looked not at the popularity of Asian art coming to Australia, but at Asian Australian artists within Australia including white Australian artists who were interested in Asia.

As a result of that symposium, myself and Vicente Butron, Victoria Lombregat and a few other primarily Chinese and Filipino artists got together. Initially, it was to encourage philanthropy of the arts from the Asian community because I thought too many Hong Kong people were using their money to play golf! I thought, for god’s sake, if they can spare a few dimes as well as playing golf, they could contribute significantly to local contemporary culture. And so we started this thing called 4A – Asian Australian Artists’ Association. But what actually happened over about a year was that we couldn’t find any Asians playing golf who wanted to help local Asian Australian artists!

My hope as the first president of 4A was to produce new career trajectories other than the ones that were already given to artists – meaning we should have art prizes, or give different forms of recognition to young Asian Australian artists as they develop in their own vocation. That was a very important issue for me.

By that stage I was getting quite established in Sydney and Australia and I was representing Australia in many international shows around Asia and the States, like in the Guggenheim. But I really felt that I had hit a glass ceiling and the only way around it was not to grumble about it, but to provide a new path of encouragement, a new vocation. That was the first phase.

We got a first couple of hits. We hired a tiny little room in Chinatown. I think it was $200 a week or so. And we invited a very young curator – 21 years old at the time – called Melissa Chiu, and she sat there together with Vicente to manage the space. We encouraged people to make art for this establishment, and occasionally we got a small amount of money, but it did attract quite a lot of Asian Australian artists to sign up to the association at that stage. Many non-Asian Australian artists also helped.

AW: I was wondering if there was some kind of early political motive for you guys starting up.

JYZ: Yes.

AW: Because being a group that represents Asians and white Australians engaging with Asia, I associate that with a kind of political activism. So I was wondering if it had come about as a reaction to an atmosphere of overt racism in politics. I’m not that familiar with the political climate during that time in Australia but I’m asking because if I look at New Zealand’s history, there haven’t been many instances where Asian New Zealanders have gotten together and said ‘we want to represent ourselves.’ The only times it has happened was when there were instances of racially motivated violence, often reflecting politics. So I wondered if the formation of 4A was similar.

JYZ: There was. You may have anticipated this, but around about 1995 there was the rise of Pauline Hanson, who is this redneck bigot who used to own a fish’n’chip shop in Brisbane. She represented an extreme right position and basically she was saying ‘no Asian migration.’ I saw that as a very sad situation considering that Asian Australians have been here since 1840. That was one of the reasons. We were feeling a bit of pressure from the government. Even though she only represented a small part of Australian politics, there was that faction there that we really had to resist.

The other reason is that it is very difficult in the art world to survive by stamping your foot all the time. The problem was that by the mid 90s, steeped in post-colonial discourse, a lot of the Chinese and Asian Australian artists were talking about identity politics. Everybody was working with identity and some were working in a seductive way – exoticising themselves as Chinese or whatever, and other people were working in a more confrontational way. I felt by then that both had been exhausted as rhetoric and I didn’t know what there was to replace this. So we decided to start a small association to help each other.

4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Courtesy of 4A

4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Courtesy of 4A

JYZ: Even now, artists are still talking about identity but the problem is there is a subtle way in which Australian cultural gate-keepers and institutions deflect recognition in the most profound sense of Asian Australian artists – they only accept you as an Asian artist- you are othered and not necessarily a fully fledged contemporary Australian artist who has legitimate Asian origins and values to contribute to this cultural context. It’s not necessarily based on cultural merit or equity in cultural representation, you just can’t go any further as an artist if your difference does not fall in line with the current paradigm. It’s ironic, since the so-called avant-garde is meant to usher in new paradigms. I don’t necessarily see this as racism or bigotry on the part of cultural gatekeepers in Australia, just a lack of courage, and a desperate provincial desire to fall in line with current EurAmerican discourse. There is no room as an Asian Australian artist at that point to be recognised as a fully-fledged human being capable of having some kind of philosophical reflection. Maybe up to 1990s, if you felt you had a capacity to contribute intellectually, you had to feign that your attitude was a completely white intellectual and just work in the overall EurAmerican culture or that you were just a craftsman incapable of any philosophical reflection. That was my own issue, that was why we set this up.

AW: What would you say was the general perspective from Asian Australian artists at the time? Because I know that a number of artists here would say ‘I don’t want to be a part of that because I don’t want to be labeled an Asian artist, I just want to be an artist.’ Was there any of that, either then or now?

JYZ: Yes, including myself. At the very beginning I didn’t want to be included as an Asian artist precisely because of that reason. If you start to define yourself as an Asian artist first and foremost, institutions tend to label you as an Asian and that’s the end of the story. To this point, I’ve had 62 solo exhibitions and hundreds of group shows, so I suppose you can call me an established artist. I have works collected by many national galleries, in Australia and around the region. But to this day I only have one work in the National Gallery of Victoria (my hometown) and my work is not in the contemporary section of the gallery, I’m in the Asian section. Cultural gatekeepers do it in very subtle ways – whether you are allowed into the annals of Modernist or Post-Modernist New Zealand or Australian art history.

Generally, I think artists are very hungry people and they don’t want to be confrontational in order to be accepted by the institutions. On reflection and through experience, this attitude is even more detrimental than if you did challenge institutions, unless you are immensely conservative. But what I’ve learnt is that after about 35 odd years of working with institutions in Australia is I don’t see much change. There are many individual curators and enlightened individuals who are intelligent, empathic and forward looking and I’m grateful for their perspective. I’m really talking about a general discourse that is the closure. I really think that the cultural gatekeeping, like sexism, is so locked down in a very covert way.

(Voice from background: Don’t scare her away…)

JYZ: Don’t scare her away, she said!

AW: It comes down to cultural tick-boxing. It does get disheartening.

JYZ: It does because equity is not equality. Equality just means giving everybody the same opportunity. Equity means there are people out there that need more help in order to become equal and I think they need to practice equity rather than equality.

AW: Do you think that demand for equity has to come from artists?

JYZ: Yes, I do. After saying that, maybe I’ve been too westernised in the way that I see things. We are, the both of us, first generation Asian contemporary artists in these new lands of ours. There is an absolute necessity to concentrate on the merit of our work. It has to deserve the position that we think it deserves, in the widest transcultural sense. In that sense, I’m not saying we are going to allow the art critics and the art historians who are already there to legitimise it, they won’t- because they cannot imagine our realities. What I am saying is that we need to develop wider and more enlightened institutions for art criticism as well, allowing people to understand our own cultural viewpoint to have a discourse in relation to the arts.

But perhaps I can tell you a little bit about what happened to 4A after 1998 because – as I was saying – it was a tiny little association with artists getting together, and we invited this curator Melissa Chiu, who was a very young curator, very ambitious. She was extremely effective and methodical. She started to curate very interesting shows and she had parties to get people to start funding the association. Melissa slowly built 4A up to the degree that we finally, with the help of some senior Asian figures, got a place in the city, a small building given to us by the City of Sydney. It was a big turning point.

There were some huge ups and downs because the funding was very irregular. I don’t think the Australia Council was so understanding of what we were doing. There were moments when it was actually at a point of collapse after about ten years. There was no regular money coming in. It was based on projects and whether we could apply for funding or not. There was a lot of local support, but the local support of memberships, parties and things like that just weren’t enough to keep two or three people on full paid wages.

So after 6 or 8 years, Melissa left and went to Asia Society as a cadet and she became this star curator. She is one of the best success stories in the art world- an Asian Australian woman getting to the centre and now she is at the Hirshhorn. She has done extremely well.

Then it passed onto several curators and directors, including Gia Nghi Phung, Linda Goodman and Binghui Huangfu – several ups and downs. Finally, we got Aaron Seeto as director, who worked with Melissa initially. Thankfully, Danielle Earp, Caroline Choy, Brook Aitken and others put a very good board together, headed by Daniel Droga – they basically worked on a financial safety net, so that we had a working budget. Now the nature of 4A changed. It changed from an artist association to an association that brought Asian artists from Asian to Australia to show.

The Australian Arts Council and State Departments saw a real sense in that and started giving us more substantial funding. It had to have a wider social purpose, like bringing the popularity of Asian contemporary culture to Australia, before they really started funding. As a result 4A is now more – of course it is helping Asian Australian artists, but it’s also actively producing curators and training arts management in this context for the future. I’m hoping that now we have very strong funding that we are getting a balance between creating advanced exhibitions, curators and arts management as well as helping artist locally.

AW: So it started off being an organisation that supported Asian Australian artists and then became more of an organisation that created awareness of Asian art in Australia. Were you ever frustrated by that shift?

JYZ: Well, at times extremely, but now I see we had to go this long way to survive. Supporting, by the process of equity, Asian Australian artists was just too abstract and altruistic a purpose for people who want to help.

AW: It seems that in some ways it might have undermined the initial impetus of the space.

JYZ: I was frustrated and disappointed but I am only one person and if other people want to take it in their own direction then that is their prerogative. I wasn’t president for long, and then I moved down to Melbourne, and I didn’t have much to do with it until Aaron Seeto invited me back on the board. And now I feel that we have very steady experience and footing, especially with our Chair, Edmund Capon, who was the director for the Art Gallery of NSW for many years and a great Asia advocate – we can do more.

You asked me this question about the 20th anniversary. It’s taken us 20 years to get to this point and my feeling of what we need to do more of is this: other than doing interesting curatorial work by 4A Centre of Contemporary Art, is to really develop a sense of marriage between our body of Asian Australian artists. They’ve started a blog of online art criticism. There needs to be other backup institutions like writing to look at the work that is being produced by Asian Australian artists.

By sheer coincidence while 4A was being developed, 10 years ago there was another group started in Canberra called Asian Australian Studies Research Network and they were basically a group of academics who where interested in Asian Australian studies or literature. Not visual arts people, but they were involved in Asian Australian culture. We suddenly discovered, oh, these people are talking about some Asian Australian artworks, and in this twentieth symposium we sort of merged the two. We really wanted to help each other in terms of art criticism.

We know there were so many Modernisms that existed in the world and this insight will continue to influence the nature of our contemporaneousness, it’s in our landscape already. – John Young Zerunge

AW: That’s something that’s been happening here. I think people of my generation, and predominantly Pacific artists, are trying to take ownership of art criticism and not having to use a European framework in order to evaluate Pacific art. That’s something I would like to see happen more within the Asian New Zealand community. What other responsibilities have the Asian arts community taken on?

JYZ: I guess there is still this responsibility with new curator and director, Mikala Tai- to look at bringing shows from different parts of Asia to Australia but they are now widening the foot print to Muslim artists and much wider to Pakistan and places beyond. We are having link ups to other institutions regionally like the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong. So 4A are really seeing themselves as a regional institutions rather than just a national one- that’s another big thing.

And, as I was telling you, one of the reasons 4A was started was because of Pauline Hanson. She has actually come back into parliament last year with six seats, so she has actually increased her numbers in Australian politics. Now, instead of saying Asians should be kicked out she is saying Muslims should be kicked out. Of course, we also see the shift of far right discourse creeping toward the centre, or maybe the centre is disappearing, leaving us with only the far right and a depleted left. I think that we have certain experiences in how to deal with this situation and I think that it is our responsibility to try to help Muslim artists, in ways we know, in Australia, to get through this bigotry.

AW: Someone recently explained to me the difference in how multiculturalism is thought of in both Australia and New Zealand. In Australia, when you talk about multiculturalism, you are really talking about white Australians and people from overseas, whereas in New Zealand, when you talk about multiculturalism, you are talking about tangata whenua – that is Māori- and European New Zealanders, and people from elsewhere. I was wondering if that was something you have thought about. How do Asian Australian artists deal with multiculturalism, but also how do they deal with an indigenous population?

JYZ: Thank you for asking me this. I think I can sort of answer it historically in that you guys actually have a treaty with Māori. At least it was a handshake at one point between the colonialist and the Māori so the concept of others is very different, it’s closer to ‘and’. Whereas in Australia there was never a treaty. It was considered terra nullus here by white settlers. So the aboriginals are considered first and foremost ‘the othered’ probably with no imaginary room for other ethnic groups. They were never really recognised – to this day even in a legal sense. As a result there is a certain sort of difficulty in acknowledging any new ethnic culture in Australia. It’s still very much a white settler mentality and I can guarantee you even in the years to come in Australian contemporary art history, books will be written- no matter how sophisticated philosophically these books are- based on this white settler mentality – because the founding framework was never resolved.

Whereas in New Zealand, the very beginning had somehow included an other which were the Māori which is a very important civilisation or historical point of difference between the two countries. And somehow, as you said, Asian are implicated so differently within these two understandings.

My own feeling is that this is a very important issue for Asian Australian artists. Yes, with new technology there is the means to look at the present, but let’s not just look at this flat present and about our identity, but let’s look at the vertical axis of identity and look at one’s history and how Asian Australians and Asian New Zealanders have always been within that history. That’s my own view, not 4A’s view. This is my own view as an artist. I feel we really need to re-imagine and make that history understood by the overall nation.

AW: I wonder if it is useful in colonial nations to think of Asian art history as oppositional, because as you mentioned, it comes from a position of resistance or deviation. Maybe because I’m not a first generation Chinese migrant, I have some kind of existential angst about our belonging in this world. But I refuse to believe that our world can only be defined in terms of diasporic narratives. Is a marginal position really empowering? But perhaps it is as you suggest, there isn’t yet the means, or the language to adequately define our experience. For example, the Black American language of resistance comes from a history of civil rights movement. But that vernacular doesn’t exist for us yet. As an artist, do you see a political potential in Asian Australian art practice?

JYZ: We live in an exciting time and I feel things are shifting. First of all, the exclusiveness of EurAmerican Modernist discourse is only now upheld by the uninformed. We know there were so many Modernisms that existed in the world and this insight will continue to influence the nature of our contemporaneousness, it’s in our landscape already. To clearly articulate and describe our experiences is the very nature of art making, and I don’t mean just socially, but also, cognitively – that we all have to do as artists. You are right, our world is not only defined by diasporic narratives, but at this point, civilizationally speaking, it is a good counter-space to the power networks historically established by nationalist and settler discourses. Or maybe at least by adding diasporic discourses and methods, not necessarily in an oppositional way, the conditions of where we live, creating with courage, and endure in will change. Maybe our motto to establishments need to be- “Look how different these differences are!”

John Young Zerunge is a co-founder and founding president of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. He read philosophy of science and aesthetics at the University of Sydney and then studied and taught at Sydney College of the Arts of the University of Sydney, specifically with the conceptual artist Imants Tillers and musical prodigy (the late) David Ahern.

His investigation of Western late modernism prompted significant phases of work from a bi-cultural viewpoint with a focus on the regional development in the Asia-Pacific, including series of paintings in the last four decades – the Silhouette Paintings, The Polychrome Paintings, the Double Ground Paintings and the Abstract Paintings. In 2005-06, a survey exhibition covering 27 years of works was held at the TarraWarra Museum of Art, Victoria. In 2013, a second survey exhibition was held in Canberra at the Australian National University.

Recently, John has presented the History Projects, creating projects in relation to the history of the Chinese Diaspora in Australia. These projects include the design and construction of Open Monument, a permanent monument in Ballarat and recent exhibitions, 1866: The Worlds of Lowe Kong Meng and Jong Ah Siug as well as Modernity’s End: Two Australians in China. His most recent solo exhibition, Storm Resurrection was held in Pearl Lam Galleries, Shanghai.