New York

“Asia/America”

Asia Society and Museum

Presenting the work of 20 artists hailing from eight different Asian nations, “Asia/America: Identities in Contemporary AsianAmerican Art” was an articulate response to the failure of the art world to adopt a truly multicultural agenda. In her catalogue essay, curator Margo Machida charges that the existing system has not yet addressed the very complicated questions that surround identity for contemporary Asian-American artists. With this show, Machida attempted to reflect the diversity of the Asian-American scene, refusing to present either a forced homogeneity or to cater to pervasive Western taste.

Machida used four overlapping categories which reflected the everyday realities that determine the nature of Asian-American identity and experience—issues raised in different ways by the artworks themselves—to organize the works in the exhibition. Standout efforts in the first category, “Traversing Cultures,” included Long Nguyen’s haunting oil painting Soul Boat No. 2, 1990, depicting his escape from Vietnam in 1975, and Zarina’s arrangement of a series of wall-mounted minihouses, cast in aluminum, entitled House on Wheels, 1991, which explores the psychological disturbance in moving from one’s homeland to a new country.

The second category, “Situating,” included the folk-inspired works of Toi Ungkavatanapong, whose small, preciously jury-rigged “spirit houses” recall those found in rural Thailand, and Pacita Abad’s rich, quiltlike, mixed-media collages that recount the experience of a Philippine immigrant in America. Also bracketed within this category were the explosive, fragmented paintings of Ken Chu, which, with equal amounts of rage and healing humor, target damaging Orientalist stereotypes. The challenges of coming to terms with bicultural identity were also addressed, albeit very differently, in outstanding sculptural works by Baochi Zhang and Yong Soon Min, strong installations by May Sun and Jin Soo Kim, and in the powerful, deadpan photographic self-portraits of the late Tseng Kwong Chi.

Machida’s third category, “Speaking to and of Asia,” included works that addressed the difficult problem of looking back at one’s homeland from a transformed perspective, such as the hybrid symbolist canvases of Mitsuo Toshida, as well as Masami Teraoka’s sexy, comic dramas, painted in a traditional Japanese mode, which lay bare the complications of cultural difference and desire.

Finally, historical perspectives were explored in works designated by Machida as “Addressing East-West Interaction.” Philippine-Americans Manuel Ocampo and Marlon Fuentes unpacked the tangled cultural codes that are the legacy of European colonialism, the former by appropriating the language of Spanish colonial painting, and the latter by means of surrealistic black and white photographs. The painter Hung Liu’s investigation of gender and culture yielded rich, layered canvases that problematize historical stereotypes of Chinese women, works that were complemented by Hanh Thi Pham’s Cindy Sherman–like, photographic tableaux vivant, featuring herself and others in scenarios enacting patterns of mutual voyeurism and misunderstanding between Vietnamese and Americans.

Admittedly, the heterogeneity of artistic strategies proffered by “Asia/America” was somewhat disorienting, due in part to the limited institutional precedent for understanding the issues at stake here, and especially to Machida’s willful bypassing of familiar curatorial taxonomies—at once the show’s weakness and its stubborn strength. “Asia/America” demanded that we rethink the multicultural agenda, calling for a shift away from showcasing art stars within the same old mainstream hierarchies toward representing the depth and diversity of what existing minority artists have to offer.

Jenifer P. Borum