Posts tagged ‘photography’
Just attending the vernissage for a couple of excellent new shows at the San Jose Museum of Art. It was a bit of a drive from my San Francisco homebase but both exhibitions were well worth the gas and time traveled to get there.
Rising Dragon: Contemporary Chinese Photography is a survey of work from Chinese artists that looks at the rapidly changing social, cultural, and political landscape of the world’s most populous nation. As I was just in Southern China last fall I was particularly looking forward to seeing the show, and it didn’t disappoint. Ranging from street photography to portraiture to manipulated digital images, the show is a good cross-section of recent work that includes artists from urban centers such as Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai as well as those from farther-flung provinces like Sichuan and Fujian.
Much of the work in the show addresses China’s rapidly changing society, looking at toxic waste, overdevelopment, industrial pollution, westernization, cultural appropriation, and the reclamation of Chinese history and culture amidst the onslaught of modernization. Several of Rising Dragon’s artists deal head-on with China’s environmental degradation and destruction. Yao Lu’s New Landscapes series depicts what at first glance appears to be traditional Chinese landscape paintings, with pastoral scenes of mountains enshrouded by mist and clouds. Upon closer examination, however, these images turn out to be photographs of the massive mounds of garbage covered in green netting that can be found throughout China.
Similarly, Wen Fen’s series Sitting On The Wall documents the impact of China’s accelerated urbanization. Shot in the same location over the course of more than a decade, Wen’s photographed a schoolgirl sitting on a wall overlooking the once-distant Haikou cityscape. As the years pass the skyscrapers become larger and move closer to the girl until the wall is torn down and the nearest building sits right on the edge of the frame.
Liyi + Liubo’s photographs take a more whimsical look at China’s social landscape, with their staged tableaux inspired by headlines from China’s infamously sensationalist tabloid newspapers. Self-explanatory titles include Failing to Steal Anything, a Thirteen-year-old girl Sets Fire to Classmate’s Home; Karaoke Hostess Forced To Drink Intoxicant, Now Under Police Investigation; and An Escapee Being Chased Dropped Through The Top Floor of a Building and Scared Everyone.
An unintended irony of the exhibition is the siting of Rising Dragon in Silicon Valley—the high-tech industry has outsourced much of its manufacturing to China, thus possibly contributing to the overly rapid industrialization that has lead to the destruction of China’s environment and the breakdown of its social structures. By addressing these and other aspects of 21st-century China, the show is a good primer on new photography from that country and demonstrates the ongoing vitality and innovation of its art scene.
Also on view at the SJMA is New Stories From The Edge of Asia: This/That, a show of Asian American artists organized by SJMA’s senior curator Monica Ramirez-Montagut. Included in this exhibition is a mini-retrospective of work by San Francisco’s own MOB/Mail Order Brides, aka Jenifer Wofford, Eliza O. Barrios, and Reanne Estrada, aka Baby, Neneng, and Imaculata. The MOB were there in person to introduce their newest project, Manananggoogle, that links the world of Silicon Valley women with the manananggal, the Filipino mythological creature that, among other things, eats the hearts of human fetuses. The MOB attempt to reclaim the myth of the manananggal by parallelling its often-misunderstood image with misogynistic stereotypes of female corporate executives. As always, the Brides exploit their singular brand of humor, irony, and cosplay to examine what it means to be pinay.
Also notable is Landless In Second Life, Tran T. Kim-Trang’s three-channel video project that utilizes the popular online platform to look at biculturalism and filial piety. In a kind of virtual version of hell bank notes, Tran builds an online dream home for her deceased mother, populating it with avatars from her immediate family and with icons from both the U.S. and Vietnam.
The show also includes an installation of The Heart’s Mouth by Erica Cho, a sleek narrative film about love, gender, and identity, and some of Mike Lai’s continued explorations of his Bruce Lee fetish. This included a performance piece during the opening reception that pitted Aztec dancers against Lai’s oversized Bruce Lee Fists of Fury puppets in a volleyball/dodgeball tournament played out on a floor-sized map of the United States.
All in all the two shows nicely complement each other. Each deals with culture, politics, identity, and race from both sides of the Pacific, with wit, style, and humor.
Just got back from a long weekend in Vegas, but I didn’t do any gambling, see any shows or go to the Liberace Museum (though I did eat at a couple buffets). Instead I spent most of my time consorting with a crowd of fired-up labor union activists at the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) convention. Equal parts awards ceremony, strategy session, and revival meeting, the APALA convention rocked the old-school trade unionist rhetoric with more than 300 delegates from across the country. I got a crash course in union acronyms—represented at the convention were IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), SEIU (Service Employees International Union), AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees), IFPTE (International Federation of Professional and Technical Employees), and CWU (Culinary Workers Union), to name just a few. I met homecare workers, teachers, electricians, lab techs, hotel and restaurant workers, longshoremen, nurses, ironworkers (not to be confused with steelworkers, who were also in the house), and straight-up union organizers, all of whom were dedicated to the cause of uplifting and honoring the worker and making sure we all get paid a living wage.
Some of the convention’s most interesting aspects were the various forms of creative expression, both subtle and overt, that repeatedly surfaced during the weekend. Songs and poetry by labor unionists go way back, and one of the convention’s speakers, Johanna Puno Hestor, referenced this long history by quoting from a poem by famed Pinoy farmworker and organizer Philip Vera Cruz. Chants and unions also go together hand in glove and one of my favorite moments was when John Delloro of the Dolores Huerta Labor Institute let rip with a full-throated rendition of the old picket-line chant, “We Are The Union,” getting the whole convention to swing it with him. Several other times during the proceedings a speaker would spontaneously bust out with a rousing chant in various languages including Spanish, Tagalog, and Mandarin as well as English.
The connections between art and activism were further explicated throughout the convention. Rapper Kiwi, formerly of Native Guns, and Geo Quibuyen, aka Geologic, aka Prometheus Brown, blogger and a member of Seattle’s isangmahal arts kollective and one-half of the rap duo Blues Scholars, led a standing-room-only workshop entitled “Cultural Activism and The Fight For Workers’ Rights,” which looked at the work of sansei singer/songwriter Chris Iijima, Pilipino filmmaker Lino Brocka, Tupac Shakur, and writer Carlos Bulosan, linking their creative work to issues of human rights and social justice. Rick Rocamora gave a slide show of his luminous and evocative black-and-white photographs from “Filipino World War II Soldiers: America’s Second-Class Veterans,” his book about the Pinoy soldiers’ struggle to receive benefits from the U.S. government. On the filmmaking tip, Tam Tran screened “Lost And Found,” her poignant short documentary (see below) about Stephanie Solis, a UCLA undergraduate and undocumented immigrant who entered the U.S. as a child. Both Tran and Solis spoke in support of the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which would facilitate legal status for many young people who are, due to the peculiarities of U.S. immigration law, in permanent non-citizen limbo.
All in all the convention was pretty informative and enlightening, with much more lively speeches than the dry-as-dust presentations I’m used hearing at, say, your standard academic conference. I enjoyed the convocation being referred to as “sisters and brothers” and it was fun to hear the boos and gasps of shock when particularly nefarious employers were called on the carpet for their various transgressions (ten-hour work day! no lunch break! no overtime!). The topics discussed were particularly relevant to me since my own union, the California Faculty Association, just voted on whether or not to accept work furloughs equaling a 10% pay cut. Trade unions may seem outdated and retro but with the Republican policies of the last presidential administration resulting in the current economic meltdown, maybe there’s something to be said for fairer labor practices and a return to honoring workers instead of exploiting them. In the end, it’s all about doing right by as many people as possible instead of only looking out for yourself, which really isn’t a bad thing at all.
A few fun facts:
Only 12% of U.S. workers are union members, with only 9% of the private sector unionized.
All of the hotels on the Vegas strip save one (The Venetian, boooo!) are union shops.
It took more than six years to unionize the MGM Grand Hotel.
Here’s Tam Tran’s short about Stephanie Solis and the DREAM Act.
UPDATE: May 16, 2010: Terrible news–Tam Tran was just killed in a car accident in Maine today when a pickup truck crossed the meridian and crashed head on into a car she was riding in. I’d only met Tam once, after she showed the above video, and she was a promising young filmmaker and activist. All thoughts to her family and friends.
UPDATE 2: June 6, 2010. More incredibly bad news–just found out today that John Delloro died of a heart attack yesterday. This is quite shocking to me since John was an incredibly vibrant person who was literally bursting with life. I’d only met him once, at the APALA convention last year, but I was more than impressed with his incredible energy, dedication, and optimism. The Asian American community has lost a a potentially great leader who has passed long before his time. We can only hope that in his memory we will all continue his work toward peace, justice, and the betterment of the world for all.
And for good measure, the lyrics to Which Side Are You On?, written by Florence Reece in 1931 during a strike by the United Mine Workers of America in which her husband, Sam Reece, was an organizer.
Which Side Are You On?
Come all you good workers,
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how the good old union
Has come in here to dwell.
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
My daddy was a miner,
And I’m a miner’s son,
And I’ll stick with the union
‘Til every battle’s won.
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there.
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair.
Oh workers can you stand it?
Oh tell me how you can?
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?
Don’t scab for the bosses,
Don’t listen to their lies.
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance
Unless we organize.
Surprisingly, the Tunnel Road dump smelled a little ripe when I visited there last week to check out The Way of All Flesh, Bill Basquin’s photo exhibit. My husband is a contractor so I’ve been to a few dumps in my time and in my experience the Norcal Solid Waste Transfer and Recycling Center on Tunnel Road in San Francisco is actually one of the least odiferous ones. Colma’s a bit stinkier and don’t even get me started on the big landfill near Dixon on Highway 113. But Tunnel Road is curiously fragrance-free most of the time, perhaps due to some errant breezes blowing off the ocean a little ways away.
Anyways, Bill Basquin’s show was the end product, so to speak, of his four-month residency at the Tunnel Road dump, sponsored by San Francisco’s Recycling & Disposal Artist-In-Residence program. The dump’s AIR program, which has been in operation since 1990, hosts several local artists each year in a nice big studio with a woodshop and all of the trash they can handle. Artists get a monthly stipend and are free to use whatever they can dig out of the adjacent dump site to make art. I’ve seen several shows there, including Donna Keiko Ozawa’s extra-cool crank-handle sculptures (way back in 2001) and Paul Cesewski’s bicycle-powered circus installation (just last year) and each artist transforms the space in his or her own way. By repurposing the waste stream and finding usefulness in discards, the SF Recycling & Disposal AIR program’s undercurrent of anticonsumerism is all too relevant in these days of late capitalism gone awry.
Bill’s exhibit mainly consisted of images of the rotting produce that he composted on-site, then photographed up close and personal. The resulting large-scale color prints, in frames constructed from wood scavenged from the dump, are both fascinating and repellent, with each fruit or vegetable’s decaying carcass so closely rendered you can almost smell them. Some of the photos, like “Banana Pair, O weeks,” keep a wary distance from the subject, while others, such as “Moldy Avocado,” bring the viewer so close that the prosaic subject matter becomes a furry mass of color and texture. But while the fruits and veggies have lost their original shape and form, both through decomposition as well as through Basquin’s intimate portraiture, the photos never sink to simple abstraction. Each desiccated corpus pretty much retains its connection to its origins as a living plant, though some are much farther along than others. Bill Basquin grew up on a farm in the Midwest and his photography reflects an awareness of the planet’s oscillations perhaps less evident to the urban dweller. His loving close-ups of moldy plant matter serve as microcosmic reminders of the cycle of degeneration and rebirth that we city folk too often forget.
Regarding Chinese restaurants of a different sort, Indigo Som has an installation from her Chinese Restaurant Project in Present Tense Bienniel: Chinese Character, at the Chinese Cultural Center in San Francisco. Indigo’s project is manifold and ongoing, but its three main parts basically attempt to document and capture the gestalt of Chinese eateries in the U.S. and look at the ways in which these omnipresent establishments reflect and represent Chinese American culture, both real and imagined.
My brother and his wife once went on a driving trip that took them through a sparsely populated part of Idaho. On the way they stopped at a roadside restaurant and when they walked in, the Chinese proprietor spotted them immediately. As soon as he saw that my brother was Chinese, a huge grin broke out on his face. My brother must’ve been the first Chinese person outside of his own family that the owner had seen in a mighty long time. Indigo’s project reminds me of this incident in that it demonstrates both the pervasiveness and the isolation of these solitary outposts. Living in the Bay Area, which is clogged with Asians of every make and model, it’s pretty easy to forget that Asian Americans still only make up about 4% of the total U.S. population. The Chinese Restaurant Project captures some of the melancholy of life outside of urban centers for many Asians in this country.
Some of you might be familiar with the large-scale color prints of Chinese restaurant facades that Indigo’s exhibited extensively in the past few years—she’s been selectively documenting Chinese restaurants across the U.S. for a while now, shooting hordes of images of this multifarious architectural phenomenon with a plastic, fixed-focus Holga camera. Many of the pictures were taken in locations far from sizable Chinese American communities and are plaintive reflections on the sometimes funky, in-between state of being Chinese in America.
The other two parts of the Chinese Restaurant Project are Indigo’s blog documentation of her travels across the country in search of Chinese restaurants and her quixotic attempt to collect a menu from every one of the thousands of Chinese restaurants in the U.S.
Indigo’s project captures the absurdity of attempting to define “Chinese American culture” in this modern world. Signage from most of the restaurants uses “ching-chong” script, or what Indigo calls the “Evil Chinky Font,” the one that poorly emulates classical Chinese calligraphy; names for the restaurants usually involve pagodas, jade, bamboo and other tiresome “Chinese” signifiers. Her menu collection also demonstrates the ways in which these restaurants have adapted Chinese cuisine to suit the tastes of the mainstream American palate, such as the weird pervasiveness of Crab Rangoon, those nasty little deep-fried cream cheese and surimi wontons that in all likelihood were invented in the 1950s at Trader Vic’s, that tiki torch lounge heaven in San Francisco.
On display as part of Present Tense Bienniel is a floor-to-ceiling installation of all of Indigo’s current collection of Chinese menus, which number in the hundreds. Covering a pretty big corner of the gallery, it’s still only a tease of what the piece will be when Indigo has, say, a thousand Chinese restaurant menus papering an entire gallery. Knowing her capacity for obsessive activity and her dedication to her goal, I have no doubt that one day we’ll see an entire floor of the deYoung Museum covered over with menus sporting the Evil Chinky Font from all over the country. But until then, this little snippet will more than suffice.
Present Tense Biennial: Chinese Character – an exhibition of
contemporary artwork by 31 artists that reflect and reinterpret China
Curated by Kevin Chen
May 1 – August 23, 2009
Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10am to 4pm; Sundays, 12 to 4pm
Chinese Culture Center, 750 Kearny Street, 3rd Floor (inside the Hilton Hotel), between Clay & Washington Streets in San Francisco CA
Admission is free.