09
May
10

Review: ‘Safety Zone’ by John Young at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 15th April – 22nd May, 2010

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What can one say about work that is so confronting, poignant and beautiful – except to say that it is almost unbearable to look at this work without being emotionally charged, to wonder at the vicissitudes of human life, of events beyond one’s control.

Simply, this is the best exhibition that I have seen in Melbourne so far this year.

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The exhibition tells the story of the massacre of 300,000 people in the city of Nanjing in Jiangsu, China by Japanese troops in December, 1937 in what was to become known as the Nanjing Massacre. It also tells the story of a group of foreigners led by German businessman John Rabe and American missionary Minnie Vautrin who set up a “safety zone” to protect the lives of at least 250,000 Chinese citizens. The work is conceptually and aesthetically well resolved, the layering within the work creating a holistic narrative that engulfs and enfolds the viewer – holding them in the shock of brutality, the poignancy of poetry and the (non)sublimation of the human spirit to the will of others.

On the left wall of the gallery are three large mixed-media paintings of screen printed photographs of the Nanjing Flower Market taken the year before the massacre (see three images directly below). The printing of the press photographs at such a scale (a la Marco Fusinato) emphasises the dot structure of the photograph, the intensity of a newspaper reality ‘blown up’ to a huge scale. Unfortunately, you cannot see this deconstruction of the image very well in the examples below (clicking on the lower two images to get a larger version will give you a better idea), but believe me it most effective in creating a spatio-temporal distance between the viewer and the image. The dissolution of the image into dots is surmounted by painted cherry blossoms, bleached corals and piles of logs that overlay the photographic text. The reason-ances are sublime. The mind tries to process the distance between the death of the people and the photograph, the knowledge of what is about to happen to them, and the sensuality of the buds and flowers: new life!
To my friend and I the coral in the last painting reminded us both of the emanations of psychic phenomena at a seance, a series of radiations originating in the godhead.

On the right wall of the gallery is a grid of three rows of twenty images that make up the work ‘Safety Zone’ (2010, see bottom image). Made up of chalk drawings on black paper (a la Rudolf Steiner), writings by the Europeans including Vautrin and Rabe, statistics, gruesome photographs of the massacre and observations by the artist, this is in part both a confronting and benevolent work.
Archival photographs are printed digitally (the dot structure working to less affect here); some vertical photographs are shown horizontally. Text written in chalk is erased with a sweep of the hand. Thoughts of the Buddha, the infinity symbol linked to the Buddha’s Ray and the Buddha’s Heart are a physical presence. Two blue chalk lines intersect and cross over, so poignant and sublime amongst the destruction that surrounds. Golf clubs, beer bottles, bayonets.

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‘THERE IS NOTHING LEFT’ 13.12.37 (Robert Wilson)

‘HOME SICKNESS’

‘Simulacrum > Heart’

A simply drawn coffin shape on black ground

‘I began to roam around the city preventing further atrocities myself’

‘They will not do so, if it is in my power to prevent it’ (Minnie Vautrin)

UNSPEAKABLE ACTS OF EVIL … BECOMING BANAL

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At both ends of the gallery is the last element in this play of hope, mutability and madness. Two large oil-on-linen paintings, titled ‘The Crippled Tree #1 & #2’ (see images below) “provide another register to the memory of the event. According to Young, the battered and split logs, painted in the negative, resonate and recollect the violence done to the victims of the massacre.” Unfortunately the two small images below cannot really give you an idea of the metaphorical power of these paintings. Like twisted and broken bodies larger than life size they become the glue that holds the other elements of the exhibition together. Without them there would be no transition from one side of the gallery, one element of the work to another. In their solarisation they emote an energy that flows down the length of the gallery = is this possible? Yes it is!
You feel the cracking of their branches, the amputation of their limbs but their spirit, their efflorescence (which, most appropriately considering the use of the Flower Market photographs, means “to flower out” in French) shines on. Such is the nature of the human spirit. Take the time and see this work. It is well worth the journey.

Marcus Bunyan

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Many thankx to the artist, Serena Bentley and Anna Schwartz Gallery for allowing me to reproduce the images in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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John Young
Flower Market (Nanjing 1936) #3
2010
digital print and oil on Belgian linen
240 x 331 cm
image courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery

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John Young
Flower Market (Nanjing 1936) #2
2010
digital print and oil on Belgian linen
240 x 331 cm
image courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery

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John Young
Flower Market (Nanjing 1936) #1
2010
digital print and oil on Belgian linen
240 x 331 cm
image courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery

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“Safety Zone, John Young’s latest project presents a series of intricate paintings that reassemble historical reminiscences of human survival by linking experimental contemporary art with investigative visual reports, in historical photographs and documents.

This body of work draws attention to incidents across the city of Nanjing in Jiangsu, China, just moments before the onset of the Nanjing Massacre, which followed the capture of the city by Japanese Imperial Forces on 13 December 1937. In the six weeks following the invasion, a quarter of a million Chinese citizens were killed in what the American historian Iris Chang described as the ‘forgotten holocaust of World War II’.

Through Chang’s book, The Rape of Nanking, the world was introduced to the personal memoirs of foreigners living in Nanjing who had been working on creating a ‘safety zone’ that would protect 250,000 Chinese citizens from the invading Japanese troops. Two of the twenty-one foreigners who stayed in the city to help set up the Nanjing Safety Zone were the American missionary Minnie Vautrin and the German businessman John Rabe. Their experiences have been noted by Young, who travelled to Nanjing, Berlin and Heidelberg, conducting first hand interviews and research for this compelling multi-layered project which exemplifies the transformative function of art.

The installation Safety Zone consists of three series of works which reference acts of resistance by individuals to protect fellow human beings against these atrocities that were underpinned by autocratic regimes and nationalist ideologies.

In the Flower Market (Nanjing 1936) series, carefully painted spring flowers and bleached corals are superimposed over historical photographs taken in Nanjing a year prior to the massacre. The meticulously rendered impressions of logs in The Crippled Tree #1 & #2 provide another register to the memory of the event. According to Young, the battered and split logs, painted in the negative, resonate and recollect the violence done to the victims of the massacre.

The carefully assembled bank of 60 chalk drawings and digital prints that make up the centerpiece of Safety Zone provides an intricate understanding of the humanity that lies beneath this tragic event through the revelation of extraordinary acts of self-sacrifice.”

Dr.Thomas J. Berghuis
Department of Art History and Film, The University of Sydney

Text from the Anna Schwartz Gallery website

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John Young
The Crippled Tree #1
2010
oil on linen
274 x 183 cm
image courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery

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John Young
The Crippled Tree #2
2010
oil on linen
274 x 183 cm
image courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery

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John Young
Safety Zone
2010
60 works, digital prints on photographic paper and chalk on blackboard-painted archival cotton paper
Installation shot, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne
image courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery

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Anna Schwartz Gallery
185 Flinders Lane
Melbourne, Victoria 3000

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Friday 12 – 6pm, Saturday 1 – 5pm

Anna Schwartz Gallery website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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