Figure 1: No Up, No Down, I Am the 10,000 Things (1995), Lindy Lee, Mixed Media, Installation view, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney .

Figure 2: The Comprador’s Mirror #3 (1998), John Young Zerunge, Digital print and oil on canvas, 183.0 x 223.5 cm, (John Young Studio, 1998).

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Asian-Australian Diaspora and Transnationalism in Arts

Written by Josephine Purtill

This discussion paper will provide an in-depth analysis of diaspora and subsequently transnationalism, specifically relating to the Asian-Australian relationship, through the lens of two practising contemporary Asian Australian artists. Both Lindy Lee and John Young Zerunge have contributed greatly to the contemporary Australian art and cultural landscape. Although engaging in vastly differing artistic practices, their respective works collectively build a dialogue around diaspora, transnationalism, Asian migration to Australia and cross-cultural identities. Historical prejudices and policies such as the White Australia Policy, had led to a tough social terrain that lacked acknowledgment of identities other than Anglo-Saxon. Addressing artists with mixed cultural heritage, the notion of 'missing culture' fostered by the disregard of the validity of past as well as present cultural ancestry will be explored.

The implementation of the White Australia Policy, a legislation formalised in 1901, effectively banned all non-European immigration into Australia to develop an almost entirely white society significantly affecting the cultural context of Australia during this period (McDonald, 2019). The policy was initially directed specifically at Chinese immigrants but later expanded by popular societal demand to include migrants from all Asian heritage. The existence of the White Australia Policy innately affects the culture of white Australians’ view of Asian immigrants throughout history and created an iindisputable divide. However, following the legislation’s easement following 1950 and eventually its abolition, the number of persons in Australia of non-European descent more than doubled.

The 1970s saw a shift in Australian sentiment towards Asia. Gough Whitlam, then Labor Party opposition leader, lead a historic Parliamentary entourage to visit China. At the time this was heavily criticised by other Western powers, who had no diplomatic ties with the Communist regime. As quoted by The Whitlam Institute:

Gough Whitlam had breadth of vision on international geopolitics unmatched by an Australian leader. He also understood it was critical to any new direction in foreign policy to have widespread public understanding and support (Whitlam Institute, 2021).

With the arrival of the Whitlam Government in 1972, Whitlam's China visit took on new meaning. His administration set up the removal of the White Australia Policy in 1973. The introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 gave legislative force to the abolition policy (Whitlam Institute, 2021).

Leadership from the very top is a prerequisite for major change, such as that introduced by Whitlam. However, such change does not mean that cultural norms and prejudices change as quickly. In fact, even the legislation itself was vigorously contested, being rejected by Parliament on two occasions, only passing after a third attempt. However, by the early 21st century about two-fifths of Australian immigrants were Asian (McDonald, 2019). The immigration policies up until the 1990s centred around the homogenisation and retention of Anglo-Australian standards for society and citizenship. This cultivated a bias around multiculturalism and established with it a generation of artists who have sovereign Anglo-Australian cultural foundations yet have glimpsed a more auxiliary culture of their origin. The secondary culture most often carried components of fragmented custom, either displayed by relatives or surrounding communities, with more fortified cultural traditions. In specific relation to Young and Lee, both artists began their professional careers at the time the policy was still in place, resulting in little to no cultural space for discussions surrounding diasporic or hybrid identities.

Although both Lee and Young began reconstructing their cultural identity within their artistic practise; through the inclusions of cultural ancestry and traditions from non-western cultures, as a result of the political climate of Australia in which they grew up, this wasn’t their reality for the early years of their careers. Their respective early works are heavily influenced by modernist and post-modernist Euro-centric ideas (Lo, 2016). This ultimately speaks to the progression of dialogue surrounding Asian-Australian identity in the past decades.

Lindy Lee was born in Australia in 1954, to Chinese migrant parents, although was raised with prominent Australian-European values. The artist defined her relationship with both Chinese and Australian Cultures, following a personal investigation into her ‘missing’ Asian culture, ultimately labelling herself a first-generation Chinese-Australian (van Esp, 2010).  She began integrating Chinese culture into her artistic practice, creating a dialogue from her unique cultural perspective. ‘The primary experience that has formed my life is that of difference’ (Lee in Voight, 1996: 151) the artist comments. Cultural dichotomy created by the artist’s lack of knowledge regarding her 'missing' Asian culture disorientated Lee's sense of individual and artistic identity. She concluded that she was unable to deny or circumvent her Chinese heritage and her artistic practice became a vehicle for her investigation into a genetically inherited culture of which she has no memory.

Lee established her artistic reputation in the 1980s, and in 1994 following travel across Europe, China and Hong Kong, she embraced traditional Zen Buddhism and eventually underwent Jukai, a public ordination ceremony in which she received Buddhist precepts.  With Lee's work mirroring her concentration on her own individuality, each step the artist took in her personal life becomes apparent in her work (van Esp, 2010).

Taking inspiration from Walter Benjamin's thesis 'The Age of Mechanical Reproduction', Lee began to use photocopy as an essential device in her artworks (van Esp, 2010). She utilises this medium to remark on personal, hybridised and civil distortions of cultural identity. For instance, she began to use washes of colour layered over grids of reproductions of European portraits in an emblematic fashion that made connection with Asian custom. Lee acknowledged her frame of reference was drastically different from that of Asians raised in Asia or raised in Australia with strong connection to Chinese culture (van Esp, 2010). Since the early 1980s, the strain of diaspora is apparent in her purposefully constructed oppositions; presence versus absence, abstract versus figurative. Some works presented a sense of 'cultural vacuum' and an absence of proximity to her cultural identity.

Lee's 1995 works shown at multiple exhibitions in Sydney are particularly representational of her personal journey with hybridization where her 'missing' culture is overtly introduced into her work and the public arena. Through symbolic statements which effortlessly conveyed Lee's newfound allegiance with Chinese culture, her series of monochromatic paintings exhibited at Artspace are one example of her recently evolved cultural identity and her artwork. She referenced Chinese philosophy as a personal encounter and experience, as seen in a bright orange painting displaying photocopied annotations of the artists Buddhist robes, a stylized acknowledgment of her ceremonial acceptance of the Zen Buddhist precepts (Jukai) (Chiu, 2001:19). Following the exhibition Melissa Chiu, reflected on Lee's purposeful use of orange and its connection with the practice of Buddhism. The artist creates a personal expression of culture through colour, which is seen once again at her exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Her work entitled No Up, No Down, I am the 10,000 Things (1995) consisted of a collection of compositions of paintings, photocopied images and abstract works spread out and arranged across the gallery's walls, floors and even ceiling. Each individual image conveyed a sense of process, each work suggesting a fleeting thought or action.  In a third exhibition in 1995, Lee presented a similar work in the Regent's Court Hotel in Sydney's Kings Cross. Paper works were scattered across the floor and attached to the walls (van Esp 2010). Where this exhibition differs, was Lee introduced a performative element. The artist meditated within the room and subsequently within the artwork, for the length of the exhibition. These series of exhibitions throughout 1995 represent he initial stages of Lee course of contextualising her Chinese culture, both within her identity an artistic practice. This kind of social interaction between the public crowd and the artist herself allowed a cultural shift to occur within her practice.

A fellow Asian-Australian identifying artist John Young Zerunge explored notions of diaspora and transnationalism. Born in Hong Kong in 1956, the artist left his country of origin to attend boarding school in Sydney in 1967. A direct action taken by his parents to remove him from the effects and consequences of China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Following this, the artist made Australia his permanent home, aside from annual trips back to Hong Kong. Young belongs to the first wave of Chinese-Australian artists similar to Lindy Lee, meaning he too commenced his professional career at the time the White Australia Policy was still in place resulting in little to no cultural space for discussion surrounding diasporic and hybrid identities.

Young's scholarly and artistic education were solely Western, studying with European-trained artists and the Sydney College of Arts. His formative artistic training was in in European and American modernism, and the artist still maintains a strong interest in European philosophy and art (Lo, 2016). Despite this, the artist’s work has been viewed through the lens of conventional diasporic foundations, specifically in the 1990s when contemporary Asian art acquired increased dissemination in the global art market. While the prevailing multicultural paradigm working at the time made new spaces for non-Anglo artists to present their work, the interpretation tended to be preponderated under oversimplified discourses of hybridity.  Young's work is often deciphered as a signifier of his Chinese-Australian identity. The artist’s 1995 Doubled Ground series fostered his method of painting over layered digital photography on canvas to create a solitary plane of vision that is palimpsest (Lo, 2016).

The Comprador’s Mirror #3 (1998) is a large work consisting of juxtaposed images of reimagined reproductions of traditional western scenes, such as ancient Roman landscapes and a traditional female nude and depictions of traditional Eastern imagery. According to Carolyn Barnes, by contrasting these disparate images on the same plane, the artist opposes shaping a singular narrative or core focus. Young avoided the perception of the audience as simply an 'ethnic' artist charged with addressing an entire social or cultural group. ‘Rather, he saw the primary value of being positioned both within and outside the structures of western thought and culture as enabling him to meet the idea of difference head on’ (Barnes). As a creative act Young's works bridge personal and collective memories, delivering new stories of social and cultural belonging and effectively introducing new capacities to approach diasporas, challenging the viewer to rethink collective responsibility. In Benzi Zhang's words, Young's work ‘examines the complexity and ambivalence associated with defining and articulating identity in diaspora’ (Zhang, 2000).

Both Lindy Lee and John Young Zerunge's works evolve in a way which defines individual 'difference' that arises from the blurred lines of growing up 'torn between cultures'.  Ultimately arising from Australian cultural prejudices, their practice is one that ‘moves beyond appropriation to “reappropriation”’, to create a controlled hybridisation. This hybridisation is a necessary concept to attain as it ‘foregrounds complicated entanglement rather than identity, togetherness-in-difference' (Ang, 2003). This concept prevents the integration of all differences into a hegemonic plane of sameness. Transformed social and cultural point of view within all sectors of the Australian public environment reinforces and defines a position of hybridity whilst holding vital versatility for Asian-Australian artists in the ongoing Australian cultural climate.