The 2015 Sulman Prize, presented by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, was awarded to Australian-born Chinese-Vietnamese artist Jason Phu last summer. His award-winning work I was at yum cha when in rolled the three severed heads of Buddha: Fear, Malice and Death (2015) is a watercolor and ink work on rice paper. Spanning just over one meter wide, the composition features three haphazardly rendered Buddha heads flanked with Chinese and English texts. In awkward translations, they tell of a nonsensical story about the three religious icons making an uninvited appearance at yum cha (Cantonese dim-sum lunch)—in tandem with the work’s title—and the absurdities they go on to utter. Such straddling, or clashing, of cultural identities lies at the core of Phu’s cheeky corpus of paper drawings, ceramics and installations.
A child of immigrant parents, the 27-year-old credits oral traditions as one of the most important channels through which he learned about his cultural lineage while growing up in Australia. Words, as a result, have become a central element in his drawings—as seen in artwork titles or part of the imagery—and these scribbles complement the illustrations that are executed in an off-the-cuff style. Amused at how the length of his whimsical titles has become problematic for curators, the artist admits that the habit will only intensify given that the act of storytelling is inextricably linked to his practice.
Phu has recently set up a studio in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing, where he hopes to deepen his skills in Chinese calligraphy. A recent work Silky Sunny Sun-dried Skinny Sexily Sexy Stunning Summer (2015) is a large ink-on-rice-paper piece that incorporates illustrations of mundane wash products with random Chinese excerpts of descriptions, instructions and marketing jargon found on the bottles. Some of the words are translated and form the title’s childish alliteration. Even adding a cluster of red seal marks to the periphery of the composition as if this were a classical Chinese painting, Phu proposes his humorous take on the quotidian.