Calligraphy - still from 'Jason Phu Analects of Kung Phu Book 1, The 69 Dialogues between the Lamp and the Shadow' (2021)
Jason Phu, Analects of Kung Phu – Book 1, The 69 Dialogues between the Lamp and the Shadow, 2022
Stories & Ideas

Thu 02 Dec 2021

Remixing philosophy in Analects of Kung Phu

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Chelsey O'Brien

ACMI Curator

Curator Chelsey O'Brien explores how Jason Phu's martial arts mashup connects to a long artistic tradition of appropriation and contemporary internet aesthetics.

What appearance should wisdom take?
In a person, should it be a wise old man with a white beard?
From the gods should it be the great dragon?
In our dreams should it be a shining light?
” [1]

For Jason Phu, wisdom appears in Kung Fu and Wuxia epics, ranging from the films and television shows of his childhood to more recent Hollywood blockbusters, YouTube clips, videogames and interviews with the genre’s superstars. Influenced by Chinese philosophy, specifically Lao Zi’s Dao De Jing and the writing of Confucius, Phu has created his own contemporary guide to life in the form of a moving image compendium or video mashup, Analects of Kung Phu – Book 1, The 69 Dialogues between the Lamp and the Shadow [2]. Though compiled mostly from Chinese films, the work remixes footage from over 80 titles, including Japanese and Western content that have been heavily influenced by Kung Fu and Wuxia such as Drunken Master (1978), Havoc in Heaven (1964), Red Heroine (1929) and Kung Fu Panda (2004). The medley of iconic and obscure scenes seeks to convey wisdom and offer instructions whilst also exposing what Phu describes as “representational fallacies” inherent in Kung Fu narratives. Paired with insightful subtitling, Phu reclaims the often mistranslated, misinterpreted and overused sagely phrases of Kung Fu, creating a thoroughly hypnotic, witty and perceptive work.

While the mashup, remix or video montage has become ubiquitous with internet culture through the rise of social media and digital modes of production, the appropriation technique has a long artistic tradition rooted in the early 20th century with the rise of collage and assemblage artworks. Inspired by the earlier work of Picasso and Braque, it was the Dadaists in the 1920s who began to experiment with a variety of materials for their assemblages, often incorporating overlooked everyday ephemera such as magazine clippings and food wrappers into their work. Such inclusions challenged traditional perceptions of art and emphasised that meaning is never permanently fixed but is rather open to re-appropriation and re-interpretation.

Jason Phu, Analects of Kung Phu (film still), 2021, still 3

Within screen culture artists have long cut together found footage to create experimental new works known as collage films. Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart from 1936 is one of the earliest examples and combines sequences from the 1931 B-movie, East of Borneo with documentary footage of an eclipse. Bruce Connor’s A Movie (1958) similarly uses collage to juxtapose found footage to forge new meanings and connections with appropriated material. Taking footage from a wide selection of sources such as newsreels, Hollywood films, B-movies and soft-core pornography, all set to a score featuring Ottorino Respighi's Pines of Rome, Connor expanded the foundation and breadth of what montage could be. Dara Birnbaum’s Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978-79) appropriated footage from popular TV series Wonder Woman (1979) to critique mass media’s stereotypical depictions of women. By re-editing sequences from the series, specifically repeated imagery of Diana Prince transforming from a secretary into a superhero, Birnbaum fashions her own feminist narrative and shows how the mashup can be used for powerful social commentary.

In creating his work, Phu has trawled through hundreds of titles to curate a philosophy but he has not invented one. These wise phrases already existed, and he is not claiming to be making something new or entirely unique. While integral to the nature of video montage, the idea of appropriating or copying the conceptual and creative processes behind existing works is central to traditional Chinese art practices. To learn artistic skills like Chinese ink drawing and calligraphy, traditionally students would copy the work of old masters to develop their own skills. For Phu, uniqueness comes from tradition. He emphasises this concept by his continued return to different screen iterations of traditional narratives such as The Journey to the West or its English translation, Monkey, a novel first published in 16th century during the Ming dynasty. The classic folktale follows the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang on a pilgrimage to gain wisdom by finding sacred Buddhist texts. Phu includes footage from the popular TV series Monkey (also commonly known as ‘Monkey Magic’, 1978-80) throughout his work but also incorporates YouTube videos of live performances of the story as well as animated versions from various decades. Furthermore, Phu has used footage of the same actors in different guises and scenes, with many actors aging and de-aging across the work. Again, this repetition relies on appropriation to suggest a new journey for these characters, with significance transported between interpretations to create new meanings in the viewer.

ACMI Jason Phu 5_WEB_PhoebePowell copy - homepage still

When watching foreign language films, we rely on subtitles and dubbing to understand dialogue and follow the story, but language translations are often imperfect. Dialogue has been paraphrased to fit scenes, there might be certain words and concepts that do not have direct translations or the translations have been done cheaply and quickly. Genre films, which are often made on tight budgets, are notorious for incorrect subtitle translation but even larger productions are less than perfect.

“As a fluent Mandarin and English speaker, I know there are just some words that would take a whole essay to translate because they contain untranslatable emotions and cultural nuances. Language is so contextual as well. Inevitably there are always going to be mistranslations, but then sometimes it's just really bad.”[3]

Certainly, the direst of translation sins is when the subtitles are so wrong that they convey the opposite of what is being said, changing the meaning of the scenes entirely. Phu has used this language flaw to his advantage by editing the subtitles within appropriated footage to insightful and comedic effect. Some of the sequences he has correctly retranslated from original mistranslation whilst others he has completely altered. Similar to books of wisdom, it is unclear if the subtitles represent a conversation between a master and a student, if they are one person’s ruminations or if, perhaps, they have been compiled and edited by multiple authors. For English-only speakers, most notably in the English-language scenes, Jason interprets spoken dialogue for the viewer – he is paraphrasing or reworking what is actually being said, alluding to what occurs in subtitles more generally – while the point might be maintained, some of the direct meaning is lost for the sake of delivery.

The simple trick of juxtaposition – the backbone of video montage – is a powerful tool. It has immediacy. It is not surprising then, that appropriation and assemblage practices have become ever-present through online culture and whilst simplified, can be recognised in shareable online content like memes and GIFs. YouTube, TikTok and Instagram, paired with the rapid development of editing software and the abundance of streaming and video-sharing platforms, have fundamentally democratised the video mashup, yet it’s still regularly used by contemporary artists such as Christian Marclay, Soda Jerk and Jason Phu to masterful effect. The kinds of wise phrases Phu has incorporated similarly exist between high and low culture, and can be easily found online, whether in Instagram caption aphorisms or meme templates, reappropriated again and again over borrowed images and videos. The internet allows us to share, amongst other things, wisdom – or its mistranslation. By drawing from online culture and the aesthetics of the mashup, Phu's guide for modern life reflects the democratisation of wisdom, translated from dusty tomes with a little help from pop culture, made accessible to all.

– Chelsey O'Brien

[i] Jason Phu, Analects of Kung Phu – Book 1, The 69 Dialogues between the Lamp and the Shadow, 2022

[ii] From here on will be referred to as Analects of Kung Phu

[iii] to Be Magazine, “Jason Phu on Exhibition 'Analects of Kung Phu' at ACMI”, To Be Magazine, 4 January 2022

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