San Francisco

May Sun

Capp Street Project

In a linked series of graceful visual metaphors, May Sun’s installation at the Capp Street Project presented a lesson in history, both local and international. Titled FUGITIVE LANDING: a revolutionary at sea, 1991, it told the story of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s little-known visit to San Francisco in 1896. (A political exile, he came to California to gather support for the eventual overthrow of the ruling Manchu Dynasty in China.)

Dr. Sun was a pivotal figure in his nation’s political development—first, as a leader of China’s national independence movement and, later, as the president of the new republic that was founded in 1911. In a sense, his tenure formed a bridge between one empire and another, an idea represented metaphorically by an immense wooden arch connecting opposite sides of the mezzanine balcony. Above the bridge, the skylights were covered with rectangles of red gauze, each one emblazoned with the black bars of a different hexagram from the I Ching.

In the shadowy, blood-tinged gloom below these ominous prophecies, a vast rectangular pool of blue water revealed itself. Its surface was mostly hidden by an elaborate pattern of elevated wooden walkways, reminiscent of the decorative carving on Chinese furniture. This labyrinth also suggested both the long and winding path that led to China’s revolution, and, on a less abstract level, the deck of the ship on which Dr. Sun made his voyage to America. Such an association was reinforced by a film of waves breaking on a beach projected onto one wall of the room. Dissolving occasionally into still images of Dr. Sun with a group of Chinese men—supporters, perhaps—the film was accompanied by an atmospheric soundtrack of dripping water.

In a smaller room off to one side, books, threaded on loops of cord, hung like trophies from a row of sword handles (the angle of the blades suggesting that they had been thrust into the walls). Works on Communism, Chinese history, and Dr. Sun’s life were available for perusal, although the only light to read by came from a sideboard/altar at the far end, where candles and incense burned. On a carpet in the middle of the room, carved Chinese chairs framed a small table with the first two moves of go laid out on a board.

The elements of FUGITIVE LANDING, large and small, required the viewer to enter, walk, experience, and think—in short, they functioned as the parts of a text, rather than as an illustration. Sun’s elliptical approach reminds us that the “facts” of history are always colored by its telling. Instead of a biased narrative, what she offers us are incidents and images. Pigtails of braided hair hanging on the pillars in the main space, for example, represented both the actual event of Sun Yat-sen cutting off his queue as a rejection of Manchu tradition, and the metaphorical severance of Chinese people in America from their traditional roots.

The medium of installation has become a didactic vehicle for many artists. It is almost as if history painting has been revived in a contemporary form. Influenced by film, the theatricality of this kind of work makes it the perfect medium for a kind of poetic politics. Through revealing a different configuration of past events, artists like Sun create new readings of the present. The personal significance of these revised texts to their discoverer/inventor (in this case, Sun’s maternal grandfather was one of the generals in Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s army) foregrounds the importance that a more inclusive, less appropriative history can have for our lives.

Maria Porges