Review: John Young Zerunge’s The Lives of Celestials

Written by Samantha Wheeler

John Young Zerunge’s The Lives of Celestials brings to light an important missing narrative that has shaped Australian history. Young is an Asian-Australian artist who is originally from Hong Kong and moved to Australia in 1967.  Spending ten years dedicated to research-led investigations into Chinese-Australian diaspora, his exhibition holds bi-cultural perspectives of Chinese migration within Australia, highlighting stories of success, misfortune, trauma, and humanitarianism from 1840 to 1966.

When I entered into The Lives of Celestials exhibition at the Hawthorn Town Hall Gallery, I was surprised to be facing works of contemporary modern art instead of a collection of bland historical photos. Walking through the brightly lit exhibition, I was full of delight. It was fascinating to see a range of chalk drawings, photographs, video works, and oil paintings. While observing John Young Zerunge’s works, I found that he captured his selected historical figures in a fiercely emotional way that didn’t tarnish their lives but eloquently displayed their hardship through his art.

Chinese people were considered outsiders for much of Australia’s history, and during most of the 18th century would be referred to as Celestials, which is the origin of the exhibition’s name. Even today, Asian-Australians have their own difficulties with their identity and fitting into Australian society. As someone who has an Asian-Australian background, I was astonished to be surrounded by a visual representation of a part of Asian-Australian history that I’ve never heard of or experienced, as Australian High School history books seem to cover only the Western side of history.

I found the exhibition itself was quaint and an easy walk-through. At first, I thought the layout of the pieces was random, but I later realised each room displayed a historical time-period or theme selected from Chinese-Australian history. When you first walk into the exhibition, you’ll be confronted with black and white chalk drawings, historical photos, and a poster of the largest racially motivated riot in Australia’s history, The Lambing Flat Riots (1860-61), in which over 2000 Chinese miners were chased out of their minefields. You’ll see names sketched, such as James Roberts (the man that gave these struggling miners shelter), images of Chinese miners, Chinese characters, and English words. I found this piece beautiful, and one particular image from the piece spoke to me the most—an image of the night sky in a grass field. This gave me the impression of hope, freedom, and wonder—an almost freeing feeling like anything could be attainable.

The next room had a video installation. The focus was on a western woman with freckles having her hair pulled by an unseen person. Unfortunately, I found the video hard to understand, as it lacked context and was vague. This area was personally my least favourite of the exhibition as the video left me confused as I couldn’t interpret the message it was trying to communicate.

Lastly, there was a long room displaying two main historical projects showcasing the lives of two individuals, The Worlds of Lowe Kong Meng and Jong Ah Suig. This displayed two unique narratives of different Chinese migrants that arrived in Victoria in the mid-1800s, seeking fortune in the gold rush.

Opposite, The Modernity’s End: Half the Sky demonstrated the lives of two Chinese-Australians bi-cultural figures. Alice Lim Kee and Daisy Kowk both migrated to Shanghai from Australia and rose to prominent positions before the Japanese invasion. Throughout both historical pieces, Young used monumental grids created from archival prints and photographs that together display a broken narrative, as opposed to detailing a complete narrative of their lives. This enables the audience greater inclusion in the story, allowing freedom of imagination to promote audiences to come away with a sense of empathy for the people presented.

The two rooms that displayed Young’s main historical projects were accompanied by abstract oil paintings. These paintings were created by an algorithm that produced many abstract colour fields from stock image collections that were layered on top of each other in a digital editing program. The artist selected the patterns and colour fields based on the emotions they evoked within him. I personally enjoyed this the most as I found the aesthetic colours of the beiges and greys calming, and it gave us a break from the heavy content of the Chinese-Australian struggle.

I would recommend The Lives of Celestials: John Young Zerunge for anyone who’s interested in Asian-Australian political art history. As this exhibition is very small, I would also recommend the other exhibitions that Hawthorn Town Hall Gallery features, especially if you’re travelling from somewhere far away. If you are travelling here on public transport, the closest station is Glenferrie. Nearby, you can treat yourself to bubble tea at Chatime or the many other bubble tea joints within the area.  

You can find out more information about the exhibition here: https://www.boroondara.vic.gov.au/events/lives-celestials-john-young-zerunge

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