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Storytelling with Jason Phu

A visual artist with a knack for words

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Coupled in the hotel room bed—The Alaska Projects suite at Spring 1883 fair last year—were two skeletons, wearing colourful masks and cowboy hats. They lay under a black garbage bag bedspread that was scribbled with Chinese characters. Bullets hung from their boney necks and explosives protruded from their rib cages. This was my first encounter with the work of Sydney based artist Jason Phu: eccentric, text-heavy, and produced in quick succession.

His most recent solo exhibitions include: The fruit was sweeter then. The fish were more plentiful. (at Alaska Projects in Sydney this year), and My parents met at the fish markets (at West Space in Melbourne last year). “Essentially, my practice is drawing based,” explains Jason, “But I love working with other people, whether they are technicians or collaborators, and I have a lot more fun moving around different mediums.”

His work is about storytelling, history, abstraction and, at its base, himself. We sat down to discuss his odyssey as an artist, and how moving home and quitting hospitality has propelled his art.

Your work has taken on many shapes and forms throughout your career, and you’re quite prolific. How do you manage such a huge output?

My aesthetic allows for a sense of quickness, so I work and make decisions very fast. I also stopped working in hospitality, and have been living back at home—so I work about ten hours a day, seven days a week.

Doing just art?

Usually five hours in the office and five in the studio.

Sounds like a lot.

Yeah but sometimes I’ll also just sit and have my coffee and chill out. It is hard to justify the idea of marinating something in your mind, but having things sitting there is work too. Even if you are not consciously thinking about it.

Would you say the concept informs the medium or the other way around?

I almost always start with an image in my mind, then I use that to build outwards. It’s funny. When I discovered that, I used to think it was the wrong way to work— because of how they teach you at university.

Yeah I wouldn’t have thought that.

You know that book ‘The Beautiful Mind?’ It is a great biography by Sylvia Nassar, about this mathematician—he was a complete dickhead, a really shitty person (laughs), but he would come up with

solutions to math problems and everyone was like,‘Where is the working out?’ It was only after he went through a terrible period of mental illness many years later that it clicked and all the working out came through. That made me feel better because I thought: Fuck if he can do that with math, then why can’t I do that with art?

[Laughs] So when did you start exploring identity, through storytelling, in your work?

For me storytelling is the essence of art because we can only draw from the experiences we have lived and known, and we don’t really need more abstract expressionist paintings about how paint drips. I have begun to step away from talking about my work as an exploration of cultural identity. My work is storytelling about my life, and I happen to be Chinese and Vietnamese-Australian.

I read in another interview about your show at West Space, that people often point out errors in the Chinese calligraphy used in some of your works.

Yeah. China, and what we understand as China, is as linguistically and culturally diverse as Europe. You wouldn’t go up to a French person and ask ‘Do you speak European?’ They would say, no it’s very different. China is the same, it is such a complex place geographically. Obviously why that is, is because it is one country and not several. But there are even nuances within that, with Hong Kong and Taiwan. So going back to that idea of authenticity; people saying ‘Oh that is not the right spelling or that is not the right tense to use’, when an artist uses English as a text in slang, or using crass words, or different spelling; no one is pulling them up for it. When something is multicultural, it has to be perfect.

Do you write much outside of the words in your art?

When I was really young I went travelling to Central America and a friend gave me ‘100 Years Of Solitude’ before I left, and then I met a writer when I got there who gave me ‘Living To Tell The Tale’ – that book made me think, ‘fuck I wanna be a writer and not an artist’. Because, for me, no artwork has ever changed my perception or my way of life, but whenever I read a good book it completely changes how I think. After that I decided to include longer bits of writing in my artworks, then longer titles, and then those titles became little stories. I also did some writing recently for the Saturday Paper.

What are you working on now?

I have a show coming up at ACE Open in Adelaide and that is four installation rooms, then Primavera in November at the MCA. I also have a solo of paintings at Alaska Projects in November and then I’m doing a bunch of new paintings for Sydney Contemporary, with Vermillion. I also have a project show curated by Sabrina Baker coming up in Melbourne that will be really interesting.

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