By Janette Chien
At Asian Arts Initiative
Through May 23rd
PARTICIPATE celebrates the Asian Arts Initiative’s (AAI) 20th anniversary in the Philadelphia community. This eclectic exhibition emerges threefold. The first part invites artists to explore what defines the contemporary Asian American experience through multimedia works. The second displays a visual timeline of the history of the Asian Arts Initiative, and invites viewers to participate by adding their own photographs, stories and memories to the piece. The final part centers around curated public programming, with activities such as a seed germination workshop and a crocheting circle that explore the day-to-day experiences of the AAI community.
The exhibition narrative carries us through five distinct moments: Welcome, Chinatown Lives, Living Room, Timeline, and Meditations. The works in PARTICIPATE are the beginnings of stories. Mou Zhu’s Gui (Tortoise), with its spiraling shells, projects the idea of a journey to and from a central emanating point. The installation is accompanied by a framed letter from Zhu’s grandfather, describing a story of their pet turtle that was lost and then returned home. The melancholic piece embodies the idea that everything that is meant to return will return, and that ultimately death and life emerge from the same center in the earth. Zhu’s use of real hollowed tortoise shell provokes a visceral reaction in the viewer. With its organic, yet inanimate nature, we are looking at both a skeleton and the remnants of an empty home. This is further removed from life as Zhu creates white fiberglass casts of the shell and places them alongside the organic material. The white casts suggest a ghost of a home—home as an intangible ethereal space.
In his letter, Zhu’s grandfather describes how turtles can live up to 100 years, but in this story, the turtle returns to another world in which the family cannot take part. Zhu reflects upon the Asian American experience as one of isolation but also one linked to an inner peace and understanding that a creature ultimately returns to where it belongs. Seeing the hollow shells of many disappeared tortoises also reminds us, in a sense, of our own mortality. As I gazed upon the tortoise shells, I recalled writer Sage Francis’s words, “I am nothing but a shell of the man I once was.”
Opposite Zhu’s piece, is Yvonne Lung’s Chinese -out, a pile of spilled fortune cookies custom printed by the artist. The work is reminiscent of Félix González-Torres’s Untitled spilled candy pieces, which are also quite narrative in nature. I took a fortune cookie of them (as we were invited to) and broke it open. My fortune read: “if you want to speak your language, go back to your own country.” These words were originally spoken by a good friend of Lung’s. They reflect a hostility and resistance to cultures other than the “western” norm, and are commonly used to marginalize or to make “other” an entire group of people. Fortune cookies themselves are kitsch orientalized objects. I use the term “oriental” to appropriately highlight a certain attitude towards Chinese culture. America turns Chinese culture into a novelty, a commodity, something we can package and sell–something that is easily digestible, because that is what Chinese culture is to most Americans: food and entertainment. Lung’s work pulls together these two attitudes towards Chinese culture, one of hostility to the “other”and another of profit from kitsch cultural stereotypes.
I had a discussion with a Chinese American colleague, Kenny Luu, an Oxford University scholar, who noted that what makes the whole fortune cookie industry even more interesting is how many Chinese folks have actually embraced it. Countless Chinese families operate Chinese restaurants, serving cartons with pagodas and handing out hundreds of fortune cookies a day. Chinese people often tend to slide into roles that society has carved out for them, whether it is at Laundromats, corner stores, or restaurants. Kenny remarked, “I don’t think it’s a conscious choice. It’s most like subjugation. Hollywood, the media, food industry—all these things are the invisible police that makes us nothing more than a novelty in a lot of people’s eyes. We will never be the protagonist or a lead role, just the buffoon who jumps out of a trunk nude, or the Kung Fu instructor. It’s because these things alter people’s perceptions about us, and these perceptions are constantly reinforced.” This is the end of our Welcome.
As we round the corner, we enter a space called Living Room, featuring red couches, a television and various items collected on the tables and shelves. On one hand, this area functions as a gathering space for curated public programming. In April during the Youth Arts Workshop, AAI staff Melody Wong led a knitting and crochet circle with her mother, from whom she had inherited this tradition. These intimate activities of intergenerational learning lent themselves to the space, creating a community through medium. At the same time, this traditional living room is rife with Asian American cultural and historical references. The baseball bat painted red references Vincent Chin–a man who was brutally beaten in Detroit in 1982 in a racially-motivated crime that garnered the attention of the media and propelled activism and Asian American studies in academia. The opposite wall features photographic portraits of Chinatown Live(s) by Rodney Atienza. This part of the exhibition feels political, and documentary-like in its execution. It brings the viewer into an historical space, inviting us to see the stories that emerge from candid portraits and common household objects.
In Meditations, we see Mei-Ling Hom’s Cloud Hug, a wood sculpture whittled from found tree stumps in Philadelphia. Interestingly, this piece felt most incongruous to me in the space. During the open call, curator Katherine Shozawa invited artists to examine their Asian American identity in relation to their work. Shozawa noted that Hom spoke the least about the influence of her ethnic heritage in her work. Shozawa remarked: “Hom is a very Philadelphia-based practitioner and much of her work relates to materials found within the city. In a sense, she addresses the Asian American experience most indirectly. But I felt it was important to include her because we need to make space for the diversity of experiences within the Asian American community.” Admirably, Shozawa has created an inclusive space for Asian American artists to present work that is powerful, historically rich, and relevant – not only for the Asian American community, but also to the contemporary art world.
Janette Chien is a visual artist and writer from Hong Kong who lives in Philadelphia. She is a contributing writer for Title-Magazine and Printeresting and has exhibited work in Salisbury, Baltimore, MD and Boston, MA, She currently works at Big Brothers Big Sisters Southeastern PA.