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One Way or Another
It has been more than a decade since New York’s Asia Society staged ‘Asia/America: Identities in Contemporary Asian American Art’, 1994, an exhibition sharing the same kind of political and curatorial ambitions as ‘The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980’s’, 1990 (a joint production of the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Studio Museum of Harlem) and the Whitney Museum’s ‘Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art’, 1994, exhibitions that helped define the fractious terms of identity art in the nineties. In ‘One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now’, co-curated by Melissa Chiu, Karin Higa, and Susette S. Min, the Asia Society offers a contemporary reprise of that earlier exercise. This show comprises work by seventeen artists, all of them young—most are under thirty-five—and all with at least one parent of Asian descent. Ranging across media, this exhibition suggests identity to be a much more mutable concept than it was in the art of the nineties.
So mutable in fact that while questions of origin serve as a reasonable point of departure for curatorial consideration of an artist’s practice, it is arguable whether they do so for most of the work in the exhibition. Laurel Nakadate meets strangers, goes home with them and videotapes the proceedings. Backed by Elvis and Neil Young tunes, her ‘I Want to be the One To Walk in the Sun’ 2006 is in turn playful, narcissistic, voyeuristic, silly and wrenching. There is, too, an element of girlishness, shared by Mari Eastman whose gently insouciant paintings combine prettiness and irony with a sprinkling of her signature glitter. A different note is struck in Indigo Som’s photo documentation of roadside Chinese restaurants in the American south. Deadpan and with enough pathos to suggest displacement, they record a further chapter in American homogenisation.
For some artists, national origins are signaled through reference to traditional Asian art forms which are used syncretically in combination with other practices. Painter Jiha Moon, working with acrylics on Korean hanji paper, mixes deliberately ambiguous iconographic elements from the Ming and Choson dynasties seamlessly with Hieronymus Bosch, outsider artist Henry Darger, and pop culture colour codes. Saira Wasim learned miniature painting in her native Pakistan and uses her skill in gently comic commentary on global affairs. A haloed George Bush offers benediction in New World Order 2006, flanked by Tony Blair and Beatrix Potter’s Mr. Fox. Ala Ebtekar tries a similarly combinatory approach in Elemental 2004, a fusion of hiphop and Iranian coffeehouse culture. Here, whitewashed images from coffeehouses, white hookahs and traditional seating combine with embroidered track jackets, silent boom boxes, and embroidered Adidas laced with Iranian ribbon. Little comes of this combination but puzzlement.
Glenn Kaino and Kaz Oshiro both work with notions of identity, but in ways distanced from any sense of the authorial self. Kaino’s Graft (pig) 2006, a pig made of stitched-together cow and pig hide, installed in an illuminated vitrine, nods perhaps to Damien Hurst and might be said to literalise hyphenated identity. Neither pig nor cow, it only ‘passes’ for the former. A similar dismantling doubledness is at work in Oshiro’s remarkable ‘paintings’ that look like other things: fridges, kitchen cupboards, trash cans. Neither true simulations—they are stretched canvas on wood—nor fabrications—they are made by the artist—these paintings resist simple categorisation.
Identity art of previous years aimed to undo national or ethnic stereotypes through a critical interrogation of images. The only work in the show to adopt anything like this approach is Patty Chang’s 20-minute video ‘A Chinoiserie Out of the Old West’, but it does so in a far more oblique fashion. Three linguists—two European, one Asian—are shown translating Walter Benjamin’s essay on Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. They stumble and hesitate, but in their haltingness and occasional fluid sweeps, what becomes clear is Benjamin’s own fantastic fascination with the star. There are, almost by default, a few moments of true cinema, when the male translator, stumped, sits working at the text and the breeze through an opened door ruffles his hair. Wong is never pictured and Chang does not subscribe to the occasionally simplistic representational codes of earlier identity driven art: her interest is less the ‘real’ Anna May Wong than the subject of cinematic and, in this case, multi-lingual textual representation.
Among the tasks that guided the show’s curators two stand out: to evaluate an Asian American sense of self, and to question what Asian American signifies today. Bound up as they are with notions of identity, it is questionable whether these can be answered by the works here, or even whether this is an appropriate way to view the works included. At what point do very different biographies and work practices—the videos of Texan-born, fourth generation American Nakadate, for instance, and the Mughal-style miniatures of traditionally trained and recently arrived (2003) Wasim—cohere into something that can be called Asian American art? Curator Min jokingly imagines ‘One Way or Another’ the last exhibition of specifically Asian American art. It is instead another beginning.