John Young

Safety Zone
University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane
11 June - 7 August 2011

John Young explores cross-cultural humanitarianism in his exhibition ‘Safety Zone’, held at the University of Queensland Art Museum. ‘Safety Zone’ revisits the Nan­jing Massacre in Jiangsu, China, in which the city was seized by Japanese Imperial forces on the 13 December 1937. The exhibition engages incidents that occurred moments prior to the massacre. Young’s exhibition retells the story of the creation of a safety zone, by the twenty-one foreigners living in Nanjing at the time, to protect some 250,000 Chinese citizens from invading Japanese forces. Led by German businessman John Rabe and American missionary Minnie Vautrin, the creation of the safety zone was a courageous act of resistance that saved many lives. Humanity in the face of tragedy is sensitively portrayed by Young in an explo­ration of acts of courage and self-sacrifice. Young’s ‘Safety Zone’ re-assembles this little known humanitar­ian event.

In the first exhibition space, a storyboard of sombre memories and unimaginably horrific accounts, high­lights the considerable ability of art to educate us and to confront, alter and transform our perspective. The sixty chalk drawings and digital prints include photographs, documents and firsthand accounts that reflect the humanity existing beneath such tragedy. Young’s atten­tion to the forgotten humanitarian aspect of the Nanjing Massacre creates a compelling new perspective on the typical historical account. This perspective is interlaced with the victim’s memories, told via statistics, stories and photographic evidence displayed on each of the prints that are created to look like school blackboards. The contrast between the confronting real-life descrip­tions of victims and the resilience of the human spirit is overwhelming. Forgotten stories of the two leaders of the safety zone, John Rabe and Minnie Vautrin, are intricately woven into the exhibition.

The multi-layered project is installed as a story­board, the prints displayed in even rows with exact spacing separating each memory fragment. The use of the blackboard effectively connects lost memories with the notion of re-visiting forgotten histories. The incor­poration of blackboard and chalk also emphasises the interconnected concepts of creation and destruction or erasure. The ability to easily erase or rewrite history from alternative perspectives highlights Young’s inten­tions to raise awareness of cross-cultural humanitarian­ism. The blackboard provides a forum for recording, a surface to retrace and retell lost stories. Young effec­tively draws the viewer into the world of the past. Each print speaks of lost memories with texts in Chinese, German and English. ‘Safety Zone’ utilises the black­board as a simple communication tool, one void of the technologies that are so easily accessible today.

The second exhibition space explores memo­ries and historical remnants of the Nanjing massacre through two series of works, ‘Flower Market (Nanjing 1936)’ and ‘The Crippled Tree’. In the series ‘Flower Market (Nanjing 1936)’, intricate painting is superim­posed over historical photographs of Nanjing taken a year prior to the massacre. The delicate overlay of spring flowers and bleached corals is a haunting reminder of the Nanjing that existed before the massa­cre. Young’s exploration of loss and disappearance is sensitively portrayed in this series through the connec­tions drawn between history, the environment and the people. The incorporation of photographic documenta­tion of an earlier Nanjing re-educates the present about the lost and forgotten stories of the past.

The Crippled Tree #1 and #2 represent the acts of violence that took place against the victims of the mas­sacre, in delicately painted works of broken and split tree trunks and logs. Intersecting branches are broken at harsh angles as parallels are drawn between the destroyed people and the destroyed environment in a creation of a new displaced Nanjing history. The Crip­pled Tree #1 and #are painted in the negative, which further connects this series to the recreation of memory.

Young situates the past in the present by actively re-examining history via cross-cultural exchange. The transformative power of art lies in its inherent ability to reassemble and rewrite memories and forgotten histo­ries. Young effectively utilises his materials to introduce audiences to lesser known acts of cross-cultural human­itarianism, and to the ethical importance of cross-cul­tural exchange. ‘Safety Zone’ highlights the educative ability of visual art to challenge audiences’ historical and cultural preconceptions. 

John Young, Flower Market (Nanjing 1936) #3, 2010. Digital print and oil on Belgian linen, 240 x 240cm. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne. Photography John Young.

Safety Zone, 2010. Installation view. Digital photographic prints, chalk and blackboard paint on paper, 60 parts, overall 320 x 1590cm. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne. Photography John Young.

The Crippled Tree #1, 2010. Oil on Belgian linen, 274 x 183cm. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne. Photography John Young.