Lunch with Jacqueline Lo

An invaluable benefit of spending time in Canberra is the great minds I get to brain storm my project ideas with.

Professor Jacqueline Lo (ANU) is my dear friend and mentor. She has seen my performance works, listened to my concerns and aspirations during their creative processes, gave me feedback, written papers about some, and has instigated pivotal insights and guideposts for me as an artist and as a human being.

I met her for lunch at the restaurant in Street Theatre.

With Jacqueline Lo at the Street Theatre
With Jacqueline Lo at the Street Theatre

Bursting out of my long silent reading and thinking time at the National Library, I blurted out to her:

I wanted to write a love story that didn’t reinforce tragically inclined storylines, emotions and behaviors. Not that I wanted to necessarily write a Cinderella storyline, but neither did I want to pass on the beautification of the long suffering love of Cho Cho san in Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly.

Yet, post colonial and feminist critiques aside, somehow the glorification of heightened emotions of sorrow caused by unreturned romantic endeavour actually existed within me. Actually, I thought it existed/ exists within all of us, Japanese or otherwise… and that was why I was working towards writing a play that transforms these repetitive karmic forces at play, reinforced by popular stories, not only of those from my own life time, but from many previous life times.

Furthermore, It was up to all of us in the present moment to change not only our future, but also our past; by learning our karmic lessons, it was possible to change the past in the here and now; to heal past wounds through our art making process and in the theatre, just like it was possible in quantum physics that the here and now can change the past.

I told her about the historical alleged rape case of Okin.

There were many unknown factors about what may or may have not happened to Okin; that historical facts cannot be taken at face value; that nothing is ever what it seems; and if we can put aside critical thinking and preconceived judgements which our karma has engendered in us; then those areas we are never to know will give us an opening to change our past and future simply by how we imagine or reimagine them to be.

Does any of this make any sense to you? I’m raving.

But Jacquie, within minutes of me blurting all this out, understood what I was saying.

She said that I am using the term karma, but in her area of trauma and memory studies, this could be called trans generational memory (through a diasporic lens.)

She then discussed the work of an amazing artist, John Young Zerunge, who I had the pleasure of meeting several years ago. John and I (and artists Owen Leong and Savandhary Vongpoothorn) had shared our respective works during roundtable discussions with delegates from New York University’s Global Arts Exchange, hosted by Jacquie at the ANU.

'Bonhoeffer in Harlem', 2011 by John Young 'Bonhoeffer in Harlem', 2009 St Matthauskirche Kulturforum Berlin, installation view
‘Bonhoeffer in Harlem’, 2009 by John Young
St Matthauskirche Kulturforum Berlin, installation view

She later sent me a chapter in the book Empathy and its Limits she had written called, Diaspora, Art and Empathy. It was primarily about John Young’s art over a period of time. Reading this gave me further guideposts to my work in progress.

To me, John’s work goes far beyond racial, diasporic or transcultural concerns (He was born in Hong Kong, studied in Australia, and is part of the first wave of Chinese Australian artists). His work concerns those of humanity as a whole.

In her writing, Jacquie characterises Marianne Hirsch’s concept of postmemory:

the relationship that the generation after those who witnessed cultural or collective trauma bears to the experiences of those who came before, experiences that they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up. But these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and affectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right. Postmemory’s connection to the past is thus not actually mediated by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation.

Yes! This is what I am doing, working on, remembering, imagining, projecting, and creating.

Jacquie then goes on to write that John’s work, although not that of conventional postmemory in a sense that it was bequeathed to him as a member of a particular diasporic or national community, but that of ‘affective communication and imaginative contamination,’ and thus postmemory is ‘less about veracity… but rather about the structures of feeling that the memory-making inspires, and the ways in which this memory-making echoes something of the ethics and history of the memory-maker.’

Suddenly, I felt liberated.

Over the last decade, somehow I have found myself working in what Jacquie describes as ‘conventional diasporic frameworks in our multicultural paradigm.’ This it seems is what John had experienced: an ‘ethnic’ artist charged with the weight of representing a social or cultural group.

So then my concerns about Madama Butterfly need not only be because I am a woman of Japanese heritage. The discourse on diaspora and diasporic art may have made me take notice of this particular story, and kept me awake at night, knowing something had to be done, but now my work no longer need to be just about the Japanese, or more specifically, a Japanese woman who had suffered.

I would so much like think that my concerns to be wider and deeper, and not only within the context of diaspora or perhaps even gender. For the sake of evolution our consciousness, I would like my art to take part in a transmutation of our accepted behaviors and emotional responses, especially of those that are repeated throughout generations, and are often judged, celebrated or criticised, without it ever being questioned.

…. A big task ahead…

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Professor Jacqueline Lo is Associate Dean (International) for the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Executive Director of the Australian National University’s Centre for European Studies and the Chair of Academic Board (2016-2018).  She is also an Adjunct Research Fellow of the Centre for Interweaving Performance Cultures at the Free University of Berlin.

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John Young Zerunge was born in Hong Kong in 1956 and moved to Australia in 1967. He read philosophy of science and aesthetics at the University of Sydney and then studied painting and sculpture at Sydney College of the Arts, specifically with the conceptual artist Imants Tillers and musical prodigy (the late) David Ahern. His investigation of Western late modernism prompted significant phases of work from a bi-cultural viewpoint, including series of paintings in the last four decades – the Silhouette Paintings, The Polychrome Paintings, the Double Ground Paintings and the Abstract Paintings.

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