Colourising The Golden Days


Published in Farrago Edition Four (2022)

This all started when I went to an art gallery over the weekend.

Actually, if I'm being truly honest, it started much before that, from the moment I stepped into this country, from the moment I was born--that is to say, from the moment I was othered. But this story begins in the present day, in a quintessential Melbourne environment: an independent artist's premiere of a new work. The artist in question is the phenomenal James J. Robinson, renowned for his photography and filmmaking. He's widely recognised for his famously condemning photo of his St. Kevin's blazer lit on fire in protest, as well as his work with celebrities and publications such as Rihanna, The New York Times, Sydney Sweeney, and Vogue. This premiere, however, focused on other identifiers of the photographer: his background in film and television, and his ethnicity as a Filipino Australian. This new work is named On Golden Days and is a series of photographs and short films reflecting on what Robinson calls "the memory industry" and our societal nostalgia for innocent times past. As Robinson points out, easily forgotten in this lust for simpler times is the erasure of minorities' lived experiences that haunt this naiveté Robinson raises the question: "who benefits when those stories are forgotten?'

And so, the idea is formed. With an entirely Asian cast, Robinson builds an alternate reality in which the Golden Age of cinema was inclusive of, if not entirely run by, Asian minorities. The audience is swept into this world through vignettes of both everyday moments of the period, as well as pointed revivals of retro movie glamour. We see a range of cinematic characters: the lone cowboy facing off in the desert; the glowing diva surrounded by her entourage of male admirers; the performer preparing to enter the stage. Alongside this on-screen representation are the off-screen, intimate scenes, with my personal favourite being an incredibly sweet photo of two older women, smiling at something just beyond the camera, arms entwined. Robinson has a particular brilliance with lighting and tone throughout his works, and this series is no different-each photo beams with warmth, and the soft sensuality of the colour palette lends itself to suggesting a fond memory long forgotten. The make-up and costuming are vibrant and elegant, featuring dramatic swoops of eyeliner, beehive wigs, and chunky accessories to boot.

Robinson powerfully lures his audience to earn for this past, to "anaesthetise our] contemporary anxieties". But it is here that the photographer sets his trap and leaves
his viewer with a vulnerable truth: these photos are the closest they will ever come to experiencing this alternate world. The celebration of Asian Australian bodies, the collective pride in the beauty of the Asian immigrant life, and our stories as being worthy of old Hollywood fame, is a mere dreamscape.

And reality is, unfortunately, much darker.

The reality is that only two Hollywood films in the entire twentieth century featured an Asian majority casting. The reality is that Asian actors cannot and have not
been Hollywood protagonists, not until the past five years and only just barely; one needs only look at Goonies and Indiana Jones actor Ke Huy Quan's twenty-year drought to understand this truth. The reality is that we still haven't had an Academy Award for best actor given to an Asian person in the twenty-first century. Reality is that, even in 2022, Robinson's all-Asian casting is a rare sight to behold on screen.

Being Asian in a Western space is a battle for space, and for visibility. Cathy Park Hong, a Korean-American poet, explains this question of existence in the white landscape as an "ontological" difference: "It's like explaining to a person why you exist, or why you feel pain, or why your reality is distinct from their reality. Except it's even trickier than that. Because that person has all of Western history, politics, literature, and mass culture on their side, proving that you don't exist." Even Mitski, an internationally renowned Japanese-American pop singer, consciously manoeuvres this liminal space in the length of her songs, aiming to be "precise and concise" as 'I'm not a straight white guy. No one's going to listen to me noodle for 45 minutes."

Australia, unsurprisingly, is just as suffocating, if not worse. Author Alice Pung's compelling essay this year in Meanjin's autumn issue reflects upon "whose feelings matter in literature?" with her entire essay dedicated to the (in)visibility of Asian writers in the publishing industry, as well as, more broadly, Asian representation in Australia. She notes that "we don't assume people have read our books and know our characters, or will want to buy our books and know our characters. We have to hustle the shit out of them." She dives into the complex manoeuvres Asian authors face in order for their stories to be palatable to white audiences: Pung recalls her own father asking in regards to her autofiction Her Father's Daughter, "Do you think there's too much suffering in this book? White people don't want to read about too much suffering. You've got to be careful." The onus, she describes, is on the author to be malleable to the white, reader-sometimes so far as to question the mutilated object left in its wake.

This is the setting within which On Golden Days situates itself. Robinson is hardly alone in his questioning of the visibility of the Asian diaspora, and he utilises this
foundation of discussion to build his own reaction against the nostalgia industry of the Golden Age in his work. Robinson himself has commented significantly on
the representation of Asian Australians. In an interview with Liminal Magazine, he notes:

"Any time there's an Asian character, there's this implicit sense of why are they here? Why are they Asian?' And there has to be some reason why this character is Asian; they can't be a regular character who also just happens to be Asian. What I hate is when people say, 'it doesn't really, you know, suit our story! I'm like, 'how does it not suit your story?' But I guess it's a major part of being a person of colour in Australia. As in, I'm here in Australia just like anyone else, you know? I exist."

On Golden Days undoubtedly seems to respond to this critique, depicting Asian characters who suit Australian (and Hollywood) stories perfectly. As much as I wish that a review such as this could be based simply on the ingenuity of Robinson's photography and film-making style artistically, it is impossible to separate this art from the politics that encompass it. Everything from the premise, execution and reception are acts of defiance against the hegemony of the white lens. Through Robinson, the
audience is forced to reckon with not only the mourning of real lived experiences of minorities of the Golden Age, but also the unlived experiences that will never be spoken into existence. The diva born for the limelight, basking in her own glory. The assertive cowboy, guns blazing, ready to ace the stand-off and ride into the sunset. The two comfortable, wealthy ladies, have the luxury of time. The luxury of simply sitting and staring, decorating themselves in detailed makeup with their hair stacked painfully high. Two ladies who need not concern themselves with making a living from minimum wage, with serving their white communities at the nail salon, the laundromat, the restaurant. Who need not be concerned with being another statistic of violence towards Asian women.

I had the opportunity to speak briefly with Robinson on the night of the reception. Incredibly sweet and down-to-earth, he was all bashful smiles as I thanked him for the beauty of the night. For someone who had just about every right to be busily networking and dealing with more important things, his patience and kindness to a complete stranger is something I respect dearly. He remarked upon the attendance of the night, which had spilled out of the gallery and burst onto the street. He seemed surprised by the turnout; he had thought he'd overestimated the number of pies he'd need, and they'd go to waste. Little did he know they would be demolished within the hour, alongside the rest of Robinson's work. Even an Asian man as talented and internationally renowned as Robinson is surprised in the ability to be granted the space he deserves. What kind of art will we discover when we give Asian Australians the space to breathe?

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