Jason Phu

Sometimes I get asked how I make my work. I’m not so sure, but I think the past is somehow important. Not only how you lived it, but how you remember it.

How I come up with ideas
I grew up in Croydon Park, a nice and safe and boring suburb, a place to raise a family of kids with scabby knees that could endlessly mow your weedy front lawn. When I was a kid, I used to get up very early in the morning on the weekends, just as the sun was stepping onto the far corner of our garden. Our garden was a slab of concrete filled with ants’ nests and a single steel Hills Hoist. I would drag a chair to the corner and sit there in my underwear for a few hours, soaking up the sun; I did this even during the winter.

Eventually my mum would wake up and yell out the window ‘Gan ma ne?’ (what are you doing?), and walk away shaking her head. When it was the school holidays I’d do this every day. Some days she’d yell ‘Xiang she me ne?’ (What thoughts are in your head?). She would never wait for an answer and I would never give one. I wasn’t doing anything, I was just sitting in the sun, and I wasn’t thinking about anything, you don’t think about much in your underwear.

How I come up with ideas
I grew up in Croydon Park, a nice and safe and boring suburb, a place to raise a family of kids with scabby knees that could endlessly mow your weedy front lawn. When I was a kid, I used to get up very early in the morning on the weekends, just as the sun was stepping onto the far corner of our garden. Our garden was a slab of concrete filled with ants’ nests and a single steel Hills Hoist. I would drag a chair to the corner and sit there in my underwear for a few hours, soaking up the sun; I did this even during the winter.

Eventually my mum would wake up and yell out the window ‘Gan ma ne?’ (what are you doing?), and walk away shaking her head. When it was the school holidays I’d do this every day. Some days she’d yell ‘Xiang she me ne?’ (What thoughts are in your head?). She would never wait for an answer and I would never give one. I wasn’t doing anything, I was just sitting in the sun, and I wasn’t thinking about anything, you don’t think about much in your underwear.

How I develop the ideas:
I had a grandma that lived close by – my dad’s mum – about 10 minutes’ walk away from our house. Sometimes my parents would leave me with her during the holidays. I never talked to her, she spoke three of the languages I didn’t and I spoke two of the ones she didn’t. She would cook me rice, vermicelli and cabbage in watery soup every day and then go and watch The Days of Our Lives on TV. I don’t know what she thought was happening on that show, as she didn’t speak English. I would sit in the backyard for the rest of the day and poke ants with sticks or chuck rocks at cars.

Dad’s mum died a while ago. I wasn’t very close to her, but my ba (my father) was sad. He came to breakfast one morning with tears in his eyes and told us Grandma had died. I asked him why he didn’t take the day off. He said, ‘because people are depending on me’. I was never sure if he meant me and mum or the people he worked with or his eleven brothers and sisters. Anyway, he told me later, you love people when they are alive, when they are dead they are dead.

In the studio:
My other grandma, my mum’s mum, Laolao, lived in Beijing. We loved each other very much, even though we only saw each other every couple of years. As a kid I would sit in the lounge next to her while she chain-smoked cigarettes. Gravity works differently in Beijing than in Sydney. The smoke would sit in the room like a thick fog for the rest of the day. Sometimes my uncles would come around and we would all watch the soccer together.

Laolao died not long ago. I woke up one morning and on the dining room table there was a slip of paper that just said ‘Grandma died’. I was very sad and angry and all the other emotions that cause you to pace around a room. Mum was with Laolao in Beijing at the time. I wanted to go over for the funeral, but she said there was no need, and anyway, ‘You’d just get in the way of the mess of the funeral preparations’. No one was sure which of the old rituals to follow and which of the new forms to fill out. You love people when they are alive, when they are dead they are dead.

Planning my career long term:
I remember when I won the Sulman Prize in 2015. I called my ba up in the office, and he said, ‘Congratulations son, but don’t forget tomorrow is a new day.’ I called my ma up at work, and she said ‘We’re proud of you, don’t drink too much tonight, and don’t spend all the money.’

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 47, 2019

EXHIBITION
Jason Phu: I was born under a stone mountain
19 Oct – 16 Nov 2019
STATION Gallery, Melbourne

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