Present Tense Biennial at Chinese Cultural Center
by DeWitt Cheng
Thomas Chang photographs the one-tenth scale Chinese monuments of Splendid China Theme Park that the Chinese government built in Orlando, Florida to stimulate tourism. Abandoned since 2003, the dilapidated structures--including a half-mile- long Great Wall with seven million inch-long bricks--exude comic melancholy rather than exotic, photogenic otherness.
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Colonialists like Kipling may have opined in print that never the twain of East and West should meet, but they should have known better. Certainly globalism's intermingling of cultures, and its imprint on the art of the past two decades, prove that polyglot hybridity is alive and well. And likely to stay that way, at least until Bulworth's desire comes to pass: everyone copulates till racial and cultural differences vanish (That would cause new problems, of course: a global monoculture-- however harmonious--might become a bore,). The Present Tense Biennial, curated by Kevin B. Chen with Abby Chen and Ellen Oh in affiliation with the Kearny Street Workshop, explores the theme of Asian identity and acculturation in a post-national world, focusing on the "frictions and fusions" of "family dynamics, language structures, consumerism, diaspora, environmentalism, food culture, sexuality, tourism cultural amnesia, and popular culture." It's a banquet of issues, but one that won't leave you intellectually hungry in an hour. Thirty-one artists --Chinese, Chinese- Americans, as well as other Asians and non-Asians-- were selected to show at the Chinese Culture Center as well as a number of storefronts (which I was unable to see, unfortunately).
Several artists drew on Chinese or Western art history. Cui Fei's Manuscript of Nature, an installation made of twigs and tendrils, resemble a Chinese manuscript, with its characters twisting out from holes in the white wall. For the artist, these "real and permanent" materials defy cultural and political change, "generating harmony in an otherwise chaotic world." Maleonn's large color photographs are collectively entitled the Nostalgia series. Depicting narratives that are partly elegiac and partly satirical--a stooped worker bowing to a small model of the entrance to the Forbidden City; a young man brandishes pistols and a billowing red banner while his girl friend, in pink sun suit, stands next to him, eyes closed, as if sunbathing or dreaming - Maleonn decries the "vulgar age" and looks back to his "distant youth and Utopia." Liang Litang also casts a skeptical eye on the changes wrought by progress. Her Thorny Poetry sumi-ink paintings explore physical and emotional trauma with fairytale grotesqueness. Larry Lee's Endless Column parodies Western modernist art and the gastronomic necessaries of life: a stack of rice bowls climbs toward the sky, sending up Brancusi's famous 1938 proto-minimalist war memorial.
Some explore personal history in documentarian works. Sean Marc Lee photographs his immigrant father, aiming to convey his "childhood sense of seeing and enjoying the world...[and] slight streak of mischief and wonder." Anita Chang's witty documentary One Hundred Eggs a Minute tells the story of feisty San Franciscan May Woo, who grew up in Chinatown and the Mission working in the family business, Ding Ho fortune cookies. She broke eggs every day after school for 14 years.
Others explore the larger social issues raised by globalism's reach and impact. Nadim Sabella's model of the Holiday Inn in which the CCC is located comments on the place of culture in Chinatown, as well as the conditions of its presentation and preservation. A cinematically staged photo of the building alludes to environmental threats facing the community and the world. Hei Han Khiang’s photomontages combine imagery of the 1989 Tiananmen Square political struggle with consumerist signage and imagery to ask if China prefers democratic rights or consumer goods, both of which we Americans can usually take for granted. Suzanne Husky’s Made In... depicts the factory workers of Song Jiang, near Shanghai. She uses recycled materials from the area and photos of the workers to express her feelings of solidarity and appreciation for the hardships of those who make our lives more comfortable.
Several artists tackle these issues more humorously or wryly. Ming Mur-Ray's photo Xishuanbanna depicts a phalanx of Chinese tourists holding cameras pointed toward some unseen spectacle. Imin Yeh designs restaurant placemats printed with a droll new zodiac and horoscope (Urban Street Pigeon: You are a fearless flaneur with...an iron stomach. Three-toed Sloth: You are kind and gentle). Thomas Chang photographs the one-tenth scale Chinese monuments of Splendid China Theme Park that the Chinese government built in Orlando, Florida to stimulate tourism. Abandoned since 2003, the dilapidated structures--including a half-mile- long Great Wall with seven million inch-long bricks--exude comic melancholy rather than exotic, photogenic otherness.
. All quotes from the catalogue accompanying the exhibition.