Jun Yang

JUN YUANG'S METHOD is simple and catchy: juxtaposing Western symbols with Eastern ones. The large, fifteen-piece wall work From . . . D./How to Do That?, 2001, in the style of instruction cards provided on airplanes, for instance, juxtaposes Eastern and Western greeting customs. Chopsticks/How to Do That?, 2001, consists of three large light boxes imparting wordless directions for the implements' use—a motif that recurs in BA006 Chicken with curry rice, 2001, where a few pictorial elements applied to the wall and a spare text relate the artist's melancholy thoughts on the matter of chopsticks.

Yang's family moved to Vienna in 1979, when he was four—too young for him to have retained clear memories of his homeland—and his parents opened a Chinese restaurant in Vienna. “What else could they do?” he asks in Coming Home: Daily Structures of Life, 2000–01. In this central, penetrating installation, Yang speaks of his childhood in Vienna—he says he and his family were “more Chinese than the Chinese in China”—and of the small but significant differences between his daily life and that of his Western friends. Thus his mother wouldn't call him to the dinner table with a brief “food's ready.” He could (or rather had to) choose something from the menu every day, for the restaurant was the center of their lives—their sitting room, kitchen, and meeting place for friends. “Meals were something public,” Yang says laconically.

Four chairs faced a monitor on which this story was told, nearly without images. Other than a few clips from Hollywood films showing scenes that take place in Chinese restaurants, each no more than a few seconds long, the screen remained black—a perfect way to encourage viewers to create their own mental images. Above the monitor one saw the third part of the installation: a small, low roof decorated with the dragon and phoenix typical of Chinese restaurants—symbols which, incidentally, had been reserved for the emperor and empress for centuries, and only recently mutated to a cultural cliché in restaurants and hotels.

The pictograms of greeting customs in the large wall work were also available as small cards to take home. On the back of the cards, Yang relates a short episode touching on the unreliability of ethnic categorizations. Like BA006 Chicken with curry rice, Yang situates this episode during a flight—a wonderful image for the floating state of his cultural identity. A man identifies Yang as Japanese. “I told him I was somehow European,” says Yang, who recognizes the man's own origin: “'Yes—Polish—but I have lived in Germany for many years already.' I didn't think someone would ever say that. . .People say so much just by being.” These thoughts are expressed lightly—just as lightly as Yang plays with clichés that, in combination with his texts and pictorial elements, grant a deep and sometimes disturbing insight into the question of identity. The text ends: “It is difficult to see only what is there, instead of seeing what I imagine—I see—I connect—that makes me uncomfortable.”

Sabine B. Vogel

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.