Los Angeles

May Sun

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

China-born, Los Angeles-based visual and performance artist May Sun has produced work at such disparate Los Angeles venues as the Woman’s Building, City Hall, and the Japanese-American Cultural Center. Her latest installation, L.A. River/China Town, was installed at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. In collaboration with director Peter Brosius and composer Tom Recchion, Sun created a multimedia installation that melded myth and history. The work revolved around a symbolic search for the old L.A. Chinatown that was demolished during the building of Union Station. Sun wove together four stories that were reflected in the viewer’s passage through the installation. The viewer passed along a bridge and over a river of soil that surrounded four large white tents; inside each tent, a separate story was revealed through sound and slide projections. In the center of the space hung a set of metal gongs that tinkled with the sound of falling rice, signaling the beginning and end of a tent story. They included tales of laborers coming to L.A. to work on the railroad, the training of Sun Yat Sen’s soldiers in Chinatown by the Caucasian Homer Lea, and the Chinatown massacre of 1871.

Sun’s choices were almost eccentric, avoiding a straightforward educational approach or chronological reconstruction of the past. Sun reached deep into the emotional, physical, and spiritual realities surrounding the Chinese presence in California, creating, via the river metaphor, a meditation on the fragility of immigrant cultures as they flow through history. Standing inside the large tents, the viewer saw images of an oncoming train or rising moon, heard the sound of river crickets and recorded voices that propelled the narratives. The dusky light, the sound of running water, the feel of sand crunching beneath one’s shoes, the smells of dry leaves and incense—the interplay of image, poetry, and music—all contributed to this oblique view of the Chinese-American past.

As research for this piece Sun visited the concrete ditch called the L.A. River, which runs through the oldest part of the city; that area is adjacent to what is now L.A.’s Chinatown. It was particularly interesting to experience this slice of hidden cultural history near the community where the events it recounts actually took place. Sun’s work makes a potent contribution to local culture, while reflecting the broader concerns of cross-cultural exploration.

Linda Frye Burnham