#commerce #spirituality #appropriation #commodification #orientalism
The third and final installment of the Asian Art Museum’s Proximities series of contemporary art exhibitions addresses Asia’s central role in networks of trade, manufacturing, and information. On the whole, this series’ focus on looking at Asia through an American lens has revealed significantly more about America and the Bay Area than about Asia. As with the first and second Proximities shows, the assumptions and motivations behind the third exhibition are expressed as much by who is left out as by who is included in its scope. Unlike the first two shows, each of which centered on Asia as an imagined construct informed by romantic and nostalgic fantasies, the third installation takes a more clinical approach to the subject of internationally commodified culture.
According to the introductory wall panel by curator Glen Helfand, Import/Export responds to “the concept that almost everyone on the planet touches something that is conceived, mined, manufactured, routed, or outsourced in Asia.” However, this is by no means a circumstance specific to Asia or to our present day. For the world’s wealthiest, Asian imports have long been objects of desire, from silk to spice, ivory, and opium. The desire to acquire more Asian imports more cheaply drove Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus to mount extraordinary expeditions from medieval Europe. More recently, a similar desire has resulted in the looting of Asia’s cultural heritage by European and American collectors, such that many of the most significant accomplishments of the continent’s artisans have been expatriated to western institutions in the mold of the Asian Art Museum. Meanwhile, urban denizens worldwide are increasingly outfitted with ubiquitous digital technology, carried in our pocket or kept in our home devices, which were designed, mined, fabricated, and routed through multiple continents. Coltan from Congo, circuits from China, packaging from Mexico—this is the modern condition of globalization. What, then, renders the Asian American trade connection distinct from others?
The distinction, it would seem, is in the spiritual conviction that infuses Americans’ investment in Asian commodities with fetishistic qualities. This is illustrated in the work Blissed Out (2013) by Jeffrey Augustine Songco, who references Americans’ faddish fascination with yoga. In a video loop,
the artist [a performer – Ed.] dons a shirt with a garish corporate logo and assumes the lotus pose. The contrast of his attire with his slow, deliberate breathing highlights how the ancient practice of meditation and body mortification has become another lifestyle commodity. This work anticipates the upcoming blockbuster Yoga: The Art of Transformation, which the Asian Art Museum will be receiving from the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, D.C., later this spring. That show historicizes yoga practices as documented in ancient and classical art, drawing from numerous remarkably strange and chilling sources, and is likely to be a sensation with the Bay Area community due to widespread local interest in yoga as a sport and a spiritual practice. However, both the traveling show and Songco’s work gloss over a crucial issue, which is how the appropriation of yoga into western cultures has been accompanied by the erasure of South Asians as keepers of the cultural tradition. Though Import/Export points to how yoga has been commercialized, it continues the trend of the previous two shows in that no South Asian artistic voices are included in its scope.
Similarly tapping a South Asian context from the outside is Imin Yeh, whose Paper Bag Project (2013) addresses the invisible labor of Indian factory workers who produce paper shopping bags used by luxury retailers. These bags, used to carry expensive treasures, are invested with minimal economic value despite being handmade. Yeh foregrounds this labor by performing it herself, fabricating a wall of printed shopping bags made from handmade rag paper and emblazoned with a delicate white-on-white pattern. Her action highlights the efforts of the laborers for whom she stands in—but it is only a simulation of their labor, because the objects she creates are invested with exchange value that the original creations are not. The laborers themselves remain invisible, their work displaced into the hands of a more autonomous and privileged actor.
Leslie Shows′s Cantra (2013) eliminates geographic specificity altogether. Her sculpture, made from polyurethane packing foam, activates the remnants of the global commodity trade by representing a “natural” landscape from this synthetic material used only to transport goods, after which it becomes waste. Shows is concerned with the chemical/material footprint of global trade, embodied by materials that are generated strictly to be exported, reimported, and discarded.
Amanda Curreri mines memories of time spent on a U.S. military base in Seoul in Double Barbershop Poles (Masked, Unmasked, and Askew) (2011), where her dawning awareness of the Korean sex workers installed nearby to service American soldiers intersects with the innocence of childhood in a game of hopscotch that the artist performs for a video camera. The motif of double barber poles signifying a brothel is deconstructed and abstracted in Curreri’s prints, which are accompanied by an enlargement of the artist’s expired Identification and Privilege Card (2011). Here again an American artist represents a hierarchical relationship to Asia, distinguishing her own relative freedom and privilege as a white American woman from the bondage and degradation of Asian women in her proximity.
Like Curreri, Rebeca Bollinger’s Land, Sea, Air (2013) overlaps commodification of a foreign culture with her own childhood experience. Bollinger’s father imported steel from Japan and frequently traveled there, bringing home objects of japonist desire such as carved wood furniture and ceramic urns. Bollinger, like Victorian-era japonists before her, appropriates and Americanizes the forms of these Japanese artifacts to render her own narrative central to their contemplation. Western artists have found Japanese visual culture irresistible to acquire and to lift from, usually without attribution, for more than 200 years. Bollinger’s installation speaks to the thoroughness with which American and European institutions have substituted Eurocentric aesthetics and narratives for those of Asians when collecting and presenting art from that continent.
As such, the dream of Asia represented by the Proximities series is a collaborative fiction—a dual invention of Euro American interlopers and indigenous opportunists. Byron Peters’s Untitled (2013) wall projection articulates the ways in which this fiction is constructed and dispersed through the mechanisms of affective labor. Peters commissioned an architectural firm in Shenzhen, China, to create a computer-generated rendering of the open skies above its office. This artificial skyscape obliterates specificity, urbanity, and human experience in favor of an idealized, fabricated perspective. Peters compensated the firm for its labor not with cash but with Facebook “likes,” a marker of social capital that displaces fair compensation in a manner typical of the imperialist policies of the 19th century. Peters’s work tackles the impending trade imbalance between the United States and China, in which the Chinese have the upper hand due to their robust manufacturing sector, and the U.S. relies heavily on affective industries such as social media to level the field.
Here is the crux of Import/Export’s dilemma. From the American perspective of the show’s artists, curator, host institution, and audience, there is little that we export and vastly more that we import from Asia. The outflow of ideas, materials, and innovations from the West to Asia gets short shrift here, as in other spheres. Western civilization, however it may wish to position itself above all others, has been wholly reinvigorated by Asian imports in the modern era. In two centuries, we have yet to acknowledge the paucity of what we’ve offered in return.
Proximities 3: Import/Export is on view at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco through February 23, 2014.
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