Finding a midpoint between humour and seriousness, artist Jason Phu tackles themes like identity and cultural dislocation. By merging graffiti, traditional Chinese calligraphy, video, performance and installation, his work conveys a sense of connection to today’s world while being timeless as well – perhaps because he talks about old-age, universal issues. After having had a solo show at Melbourne’s Station gallery these last month, we catch up with the artist to discuss spirituality, heritage, the limits of humour and Chan Buddhism.
Your visual aesthetic mixes art brut, street art, and calligraphy through painting, video, installation and performance. When did you realise you wanted to be an artist, and how have you expanded your skills from painting and drawing to other disciplines?
I haven’t had much time to reflect on being an artist since I started; this could be a good thing and a bad thing. I never had a realisation I wanted to be an artist; I wanted to do engineering but didn’t have the marks, and my high school art teacher convinced me to pursue fine arts. I guess I’ve just been doing it ever since. I tailor my medium to whatever project I’m working on, so I learnt or collaborated on different mediums instead of trying to dictate how things were going to play out. Curiosity for new mediums and technologies also plays a part.
Despite being born in Australia, different Asian cultures permeate your overall work. How have your artist residencies in Thailand and China informed your practice?
It’s probably a lot more practical than conceptual. I went and lived in Chongqing (China) to learn calligraphy, but I ended up not making much work and just living there for two years. That influenced me more as a person rather than an artist. My mum’s family lives in Beijing, so my residencies there were more family-orientated – lots of eating, drinking and sitting around chewing the fat. My residencies in Thailand were to make etchings and lithographs. I go there a couple of times a year to make stuff.
Tell me about your first solo exhibition at Station gallery, titled I was born under a stone mountain. How does it explore themes including identity and cultural dislocation?
The title refers to a few different things. Sun Wukong (Monkey King), one of the protagonists of Journey to the West (16th Century), was imprisoned under a stone mountain by Buddha for causing mischief. The characters in that book along with the bestiary Classic of the Mountains and Seas (4th Century) informed a lot of the figures in the paintings. I also drew from the common idiom, ‘Live under a rock’, as a way to reflect the new era of ignorance that I was born into and that I am a part of.
I think my updated versions of these characters help me explain my identity – bringing thousand-year-old beings into the present, you would expect them to be confused. But at the same time, their stories are still relevant. That is the juxtaposition of the diaspora identity: things can feel right in spirit but the words and context don’t match up. Of course, that is a constant as long as there is movement and migration. It is difficult to capture but I guess that’s where art can succeed where other experiences don’t.
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Jason Phu, i am (insert name) the three headed wizard, i will grant you whatever wish i desire 2019, ceiling paint, indian ink, spray paint on linen, 130 x 180 cm. Courtesy the artist and STATION.
Humour is a constant in your work, including your painting’s titles Everything in life is free, you just have to grab it, but all the things have electrocuted bear traps attached to them, and I saw you yesterday, why would I need to see you again today? In what ways do you think humour helps you to convey your message as an artist?
Humour for me is a bit of a cheap trick. It is an effective way for me to communicate because it’s an easy way around other people’s barriers. I was always a bit of a class clown in high school, so it was my immature way of communicating, but now it’s become how I communicate as an adult. On a different note, Chan Buddhism, which influences a lot of my life and art, uses absurdity (and humour) as a way to step into enlightenment. A bit of silliness can go a long way in shifting people’s perspective.
Other works including, I couldn’t find love, so I put on a robe, walked up the mountain, and became a hermit and, I am crying because I am frustrated, how do we solve all the problems? reference sadness, regret, loss or powerlessness. Tell me about these serious and humorous tensions.
Sometimes, I am annoyed by how many songs are about love and those feelings, but they are popular for a reason. We yearn to connect with these emotions but are left unfulfilled by reasoning. I think reasoning is an important one half, but we need that other half, the opposite of reason. I hope that my paintings contribute to that other half in a positive way. I feel like sometimes, my paintings are just pop songs about love, nostalgia, depression, albeit they would be weird love songs. But to be honest, if you actually stopped and listened to song lyrics, they are generally pretty weird. Maybe in actually answering your question, the serious and the humour go hand in hand; serious issues often have a dark comedic element and humour often has serious undertones.
The artwork The truth is, I am really just a big fat baby, waah wah wah, particularly speaks to an exploration of personal and traditional histories in varying contexts. Tell me how you bridge your diverse cultural and contemporary heritage.
In the same way everyday people caught in this divide get on with life,  I do it in my art. That’s a bit of an easy answer, but I try to keep it at the core of my work. Partly, it is the nostalgia of a culture I will never fully understand, but it is realising that no one really understands it wherever the roots lie. And that as a living person, I grow my own culture within myself. Of course, I am influenced by my histories, context and upbringing, but I am relevant as long as I keep reflecting and learning. My inspiration is my parents, who came to Australia with not much and have never complained a day in their life. They have weathered everything that has been thrown at them, things that would have broken me a thousand times over.
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Jason Phu, the truth is, i am really just a big fat baby, waaah wah wah 2019, viponds acrylic, Matisse acrylic on linen, 130 x 180 cm. Courtesy the artist and STATION.
What is your current view on Australian society in regards to race? Do these views have any bearing on the works that you make?
I think there are huge problems in Australia in regards to race. There is a casualisation of racism and racist policy that has not allowed us as a country to face the problems. In 2018, I was commissioned by the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art to do a show, The Burrangong Affray, exploring the Lambing Flat Riots – anti-Chinese race riots that occurred in New South Wales in 1860-1861. It is considered to be the precursor to the White Australia policy and still has repercussions in our society. Sometimes, people want to make a distinction between political art and non-political art as if political art is a gimmick. Whereas I think most art is inherently political for existing right now. That isn’t to say, I think most of it is overtly political or a political statement, I just think that whether we like it or not, the lives we live are shaped by politics and our art is inevitably a reflection of that. 
It seems to me in your work, that you explore metaphorical themes such as reincarnation and self-exploration. Would you describe yourself as a spiritual person? If so, does this inform your practice?
I don’t consider myself to be particularly spiritual; I like to think I’m a very practical person. But also, I think good religion is practical. I am more interested in the poetics of spirituality, the beauty that informs the movements in our daily life rather than literal godly activities. Although I don’t mind the mischiefs of weird dragon demi-gods or lost demons.
After your solo exhibition at Station, what other plans do you have for the upcoming months?
I am currently working on a furniture commission for a university and a book of poetry due for release 2020. And then, I will be doing a residency at Animal Logic, the animation studio. After that, I will be working with some classical string musicians on a video work for a show early next year.
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Jason Phu, I have a hunger you wouldn’t believe, i will devour you and everything you love 2019, (translation: cook for me), golden acrylics on linen, 90 x 120 cm. Photo: Zan Wimberly. Courtesy the artist and STATION.
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Jason Phu, I saw you yesterday, why would I need to see you again today? 2019, golden acrylics on linen, 90 x 120 cm. Photo: Zan Wimberly. Courtesy the artist and STATION.
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Jason Phu, i grew up in a very loving family, and now as an adult, i have a lot of wonderful friends 2019, ceiling paint, viponds acrylic, golden acrylic on linen, 130 x 180 cm. Courtesy the artist and STATION.
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Jason Phu, the fur clouds your eyes, it causes an itch, it clogs the drains, and in the end everything is obscured 2019, (translation: i woke up and i was suddenly hairy, you should shave every day), indian ink, golden acrylics, 90 x 120 cm. Photo: Zan Wimberly. Courtesy the artist and STATION.
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Jason Phu, when our tongues touch the juice comes out of the gourd 2019, ceiling paint, house paint on linen, 90 x 120 cm. Photo: Zan Wimberly. Courtesy the artist and STATION.
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Jason Phu, i never had a family until the townspeople feared me 2019, viponds acrylic on linen, 130 x 180 cm. Courtesy the artist and STATION.
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Jason Phu, i dont love you anymore, and i never did, i only pretended to, because we caught the same bus 2019, spray paint on linen, 90 x 120 cm. Photo: Zan Wimberly. Courtesy the artist and STATION.
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Jason Phu, i am crying, because i am frustrated, how do we solve all the problems? 2019, (translation: who said life is easy, there are 8 solutions to your problems. ere are no answers, there are only more problems), viponds acrylics, golden acrylics on linen ,90 x 120 cm. Photo: Zan Wimberly. Courtesy the artist and STATION.
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