WHAT IS PASSED DOWN
TEXT BY LAUREN CARROLL HARRIS
Jason Phu, ‘The fruit was sweeter then. The fish were more plentiful.’ at Alaska Projects, commissioned and curated by Antidote Projects
An energetic amalgam of video, installation and sculpture, Sydney artist Jason Phu’s recent show at Alaska Projects works toward unravelling a single, grand narrative: the resonance of the past in the present. His family’s migration from China to Australia continues to leave a trace on the big long now, but Phu’s approach is livelier and nimbler than a meditation on heritage may sound. Like a browser with dozens of open tabs, personal experiences are connected in collage, migrating across forms:
- Flat screens unspool clips of Phu driving with his mum and prepping hooks and sinkers with his dad in the garden.
- A giant painted fish swims on the gallery wall.
- A small Buddhist shrine motions to the migrated rituals of the diaspora.
- A plastic bag of fishing hooks is nailed to the wall beneath the video.
- Stapled sheets display a text of snippets and memories from Jason’s childhood, fluttering as a fan on the floor turns its head. “My dad and my uncle pull up a string ray,” reads one A4 page, “it fills the whole tinnie with only just enough room for us to stand. They’re laughing to each other at the ridiculous situation, they’re laughing like the two best friends they are. For a moment they are individuals free from their histories.”
Across the gallery space, Phu is tracing a path, searching for clues and presenting material evidence in a similarly peripatetic route as curator Anthony Bond in his 1999 Liverpool Biennale, themed TRACE. But where Bond’s show contemplated the moments when the past finds you, Phu thinks about when you might escape it. No other storytelling looks like this: the combination of visual and verbal elements all amounts to something more like memoir than most contemporary art, and yet more abstract and nonlinear than any prose or podcast could ever accommodate. The associations are intimate, connecting identity with global politics and local geography via an endless pool of memory and familial bonds. Everyone’s family tree is defined at different branches by migration. Not ‘migration’ as a vague concept, but places loved and people changing, how the water felt on that specific day. We don’t choose the foundational details of our lives’ contexts – to whom we were born, where, when, the communities to which we belong – and our predecessors’ actions ripple on, and on, and on. In Phu’s work – folding in the random, pragmatic dimensions of lives lived across generations and continents, and now, across artistic forms – the process of gathering up small moments of his past becomes the new story. After all, we’d all like a present of our own.