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#Hashtags: Nostalgia and its Discontents

#museums #diversity #nostalgia #representation

Proximities 2: Knowing Me, Knowing You was the second of three exhibitions of Bay Area contemporary art curated by Glen Helfand for the Asian Art Museum. This series marks a departure from AAM’s customary focus on artists from remote geographic locales and the museum’s heretofore sporadic commitment to exhibiting contemporary art. The second exhibition resolved the primary concern that I raised in response to Proximities 1: What Time Is It There? This concern involved the first show’s emphasis on Western artists’ imaginings of Asia, a premise that reinforced rather than corrected historical biases dating to AAM’s founding by the San Francisco tycoon and collector Avery Brundage. The second installment of Proximities considers the experiences of Asian diasporas. Though stronger, this show is not without clichés, introducing a trope of “nostalgia”[i] so ubiquitous in any discussion of immigrant mindsets that its complexity as a concept is largely overlooked.

Michael Jang. Aunts and Uncles, from the series The Jangs, 1973. Gelatin silver print.  11 x 14 in. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Wirtz Gallery. Photo courtesy of Stephen Wirtz Gallery.

Michael Jang. Aunts and Uncles, from the series The Jangs, 1973. Gelatin silver print.
11 x 14 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Stephen Wirtz Gallery. Photo courtesy of Stephen Wirtz Gallery.

In Proximities 2, the emphasis is on Asian and non-Asian American artists with “connections to Asia.”[ii] The show includes numerous artists of Asian descent. Particularly exciting in this context is a photographic series from the 1970s by Michael Jang. This documentation of the artist’s working-class Chinese American family represents a necessary and overdue introduction of this community into the artistic dialogue at AAM. The images are playful and surreal, revealing that the photographer’s life is filled with blended influences. These works are effective precisely because they forgo nostalgia and rely instead on character and situation to establish their narrative.

Similarly dispassionate are works by Kota Ezawa in which he uses simple animation to render mediated images emotionally and visually flat. In Self-Portrait as Someone Else (2013), Ezawa takes emotional distance from his conception of self by instead presenting the image of another who shares his name. An animation of the other Kota Ezawa—a Japanese news analyst—is accompanied by a light-box image of a Finnish kota, a freestanding sauna. Through these misdirections, Ezawa questions the fixed nature of self-identification with dry humor.

Pawel Kruk. The Lost Interview, 2009. Single-channel video. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Pawel Kruk. The Lost Interview, 2009; single-channel video. Photo courtesy of the Artist.

Nostalgia underpins Pawel Kruk’s love of Bruce Lee films and his decision to re-perform a 1971 interview with the martial artist and action-film star upon settling in the actor’s native San Francisco in 2009. Kruk is a Polish-born artist who has reenacted media moments from the lives of famous athletes including Michael Jordan and swimmer Dana Torres. His reenactment works pay tribute to the broadcast images that signaled the onset of media globalization in the 1980s. Kruk’s approach to nostalgia is unsentimental, as he allows the loss and distortion of the image to reflect its incomplete perspective.

Charlene Tan. Love Forever: A Homage to Yayoi Kusama, 2010. Color photograph. 36 x 48 in. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Charlene Tan. Love Forever: A Homage to Yayoi Kusama, 2010; color photograph; 36 x 48 in. Photo courtesy of the Artist.

Nostalgia can obscure the thornier nuances of history, such as for Yayoi Kusama, appropriated by Charlene Tan in Love Forever: A Homage to Yayoi Kusama (2010). The wall text describes Kusama as “reaching new heights of creativity and recognition” in an era “when the art field was dominated by high-profile male artists.”[iii] Kusama, who embraced the hippie movement’s free love and antiwar values, also struggled with poverty and illness, only gaining true prominence in her sixties.  Her work Love Forever (1966), referenced by Tan, marked the beginning of a series of works dealing frankly with sexuality that saw Kusama briefly notorious and then left out of American art history of the 1960s. Her resurrection in the 1990s followed more than 20 years of exclusion from the global art discourse centered in New York. This was a result as much of her health as of her unwillingness to cooperate with the limited roles available to her as an Asian woman in contention with “high-profile male artists.” Tan, an artist whose practice hinges on replication, mass production, and commodity fetishism, here re-creates the “Love Forever” button multiple initiated by Kusama in 1966, while replacing Kusama’s image in an accompanying photograph with her own face and body. To what extent does she identify with Kusama’s experiences?

Anne McGuire. Lazy Susan/Turn Table, 2007. Single-channel video. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Anne McGuire. Lazy Susan/Turn Table, 2007; single-channel video. Photo courtesy of
the Artist.

Anne McGuire’s Lazy Susan/Turn Table (2007) indicates that nostalgia for Asian cultures’ perceived closeness to family and tradition has a strong pull even for those who are not of Asian descent. Her video shows a group of Chinese women and girls sharing a meal at a restaurant in Taiwan. She adds a soundtrack—a Mandarin-language song, pulled from a film for children. The juxtaposition of food, children, and a plaintive song elicits a calculated emotional response. Awkwardly inserting her own non-Chinese body among the group, she positions herself as a counterpoint to the un-self-conscious denizens of the restaurant. She is the only one at the table equipped to produce and control the visual record. She is a tourist, stopping in to these women’s lives for a moment that will take on a different character in her imagination than in the minds of her companions. Her work is marked by the deceptive nostalgia of the leisure traveler, whose superficial cultural engagement renders her prone to romanticize mundane situations for their “authenticity.”

Among immigrant communities, including many represented here, nostalgia can have destructive implications. The culture of origin, long since left behind, ceases to be understood as dynamic and becomes idealized as inherently more moral and functional than the culture into which the immigrant has struggled to acclimate. This can result in hyper-religiosity and other attitudes of the “West is corrupt” variety. In its most dangerous form, nostalgia is a factor in political radicalization and terrorism. In a more measured sense, nostalgia contributes to the struggles many immigrants experience in reconciling their social desires and impulses with family expectations. Asian Americans have high rates of depression and suicide, attributable to experiences of exclusion from both of their communities. Familial expectations rooted in nostalgia can be nearly impossible to reconcile with outside expectations of assimilation, which are equally rooted in nostalgia for a more homogenous society.

Barry McGee. Untitled 2012, 2012–2013. Acrylic on wood. Photo courtesy of the artist and Ratio 3, San Francisco.

Barry McGee. Untitled 2012, 2012–2013. Acrylic on wood. Photo courtesy of the Artist and
Ratio 3, San Francisco.

In this context, the controversy surrounding Barry McGee’s Ray Fong Adidas[iv] from 2006 is illuminated. The caricature, a self-portrait, references hurtful stereotypes originating in both American and Chinese immigrant cultures. Through Fong, McGee transcends narrow expectations from each community by embodying their opposites. Adjacent is Mik Gaspay’s Eve (2013), an idealized avatar of multiracial ethnicity who represents the elimination of cultural specificity in a society determined to assimilate differences. Meanwhile, Ray Fong is an emblem of the failure to assimilate. His buck-toothed resistance has become iconic to young Asian Americans seeking permission to accept themselves.

Proximities 2: Knowing Me, Knowing You was on view at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco from October 11-December 8, 2013.

#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.


[i] From exhibition introductory text by Glen Helfand.

[ii] From exhibition introductory text by Glen Helfand.

[iii] From Charlene Tan wall text by Glen Helfand.

[iv] Mentioned in Barry McGee wall text by Glen Helfand.

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