Hu Yun / China/Serbia b.1986 / It is not mine to give, nor yours to take (installation view, detail) 2021 / Mineral-based watercolour and inkjet print on Fabriano 300gsm paper / Two scrolls: 70 x 800cm (each, approx.) / Commissioned for APT10 / Courtesy: The artist / © Hu Yun / Photograph: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA

Hu Yun
It is not mine to give, nor yours to take 2021

Not Currently on Display

It is not mine to give, nor yours to take consists of a pair of eight-metre-long scrolls. One scroll features watercolour drawings of ‘superplants’, nutrient-hungry plant species used to ‘clean’ toxic metals from abandoned mining sites. The drawings are rendered using special pigments based on the minerals they extract, among them zinc, nickel, cadmium, cobalt, selenium and manganese. To create the earthy textures of the scroll, Hu Yun sought out soil, stones, weeds and leaves from a nineteenth-century Chinese dig site in Castlemaine, Victoria. There, he treated the paper with the technique of nature printing — a method of making images through direct impressions of natural materials — by pressing them into the surface of the scroll, rolling and binding it, then finally boiling it in water heated onsite. The second scroll is composed of colourful X-ray images of the plants’ chemical distributions.

Hu Yun’s work reflects on the linguistic and ethnic barriers faced by Chinese labourers on the Victorian goldfields. Through his research, he was struck by the historical irregularities in rendering Chinese names into English. Many variances could be explained by differences in dialect and approaches to transliteration, but other names had no clear Chinese origin, such as apparently adopted European names.

Materially and thematically, Hu Yun brings the historical experience of Chinese workers whose names were recorded so inconsistently together with a technology that promises a possible future, inviting a range of ethical questions. ‘Just so much information and hidden stories’, he reflects. ‘Who are these names? Who were they really? It reminds me of those plants. Who are these plants? Do we really know them? Do we really care?’1


1 Hu Yun, email correspondence with Reuben Keehan, June 2021.

Hu Yun’s works range from finely rendered charcoal drawings to installations based on research into historical moments that resonate with contemporary experience. He is fascinated by personalities who have moved from one place to another, and by the ways in which migration contributes to the shape of particular localities. These dynamics are highly relevant in China, whose modern experience has been marked by encounters with diverse ideas, technologies and styles, and by massive human migrations, both within and outside the country.

Based in Melbourne from the beginning of 2020, Hu Yun was drawn to the study of mining, which has played a significant role in Australia’s engagements with China — from the nineteenth-century migration of Cantonese labourers to Australian goldfields to the current centrality of mineral resources in diplomatic and trade relations between the two countries.