Identity: Chico & Chang and Stephanie Syjuco
In the late 1990s I vividly recall visiting a class at UC Berkeley to show my work, after which one of the students, a nice Asian American kid, came up to me and said, “I really liked your videos, but are you really interested in all of that identity stuff?” Nearly 15 years later, my students at SF State see Jabbawockeez, and Harry Shum Jr. on their Tivo all the time, and Far East Movement is topping the charts, yet simultaneously they’re dealing with Hollywood’s stubborn refusal to abandon whitewashing (Akira, anyone?) and the teabaggers retro-paranoid siege mentality, while some people continue to deny that Mickey Rooney’s yellowface turn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s is racist. So I’m not completely convinced that identity politics are obsolete, and I’m happy to see young artists of color still examining issues of race, culture, and representation.
Two recent San Francisco shows look at Multiculturalism 2.0. Intersection 5M’s newest show, Chico & Chang: A Look at the Impact of Latino and Asian Cultures on California’s Visual Landscape, deals with this crazy transitional time we’re living in, examining the inexorable demographics shifts in this country and the unexpected ways that U.S. culture is changing to reflect that shift. Organized by Intersection’s indomitable visual artists program director Kevin Chen, this chock full of energy and good information and includes several choice tidbits that bring multiculturalism into the current millennium.
Right up front is Pablo Christi’s clever and arresting Hipster Pig. A life-size mounted patchwork denim hog’s head with gilded chicken-foot necklace, Christi’s sculpture critiques the new snout-to-tail foodie movement that fetishes consuming every bit of the butchered animal.
I immediately recognized the chicken foot adorning the pig’s neck since my dad loved sucking down those bones long before Anthony Bourdain made it trendy. Likewise my grandmother’s stockpot was full of necks, wings, feet, and chicken heads, which horrified her grandchildren but made for excellent soup. Who knew that she and Pops were such culinary trailblazers? I’m sure they was just trying to save a buck, whereas the foodies that Christi critiques are making bank selling bone marrow and fish cheeks to gullible upscale consumers. Funny how poor people eating fish stomach don’t make it onto The Food Network very often.
Ana Teresa Fernandez’ installation Carry On possesses an immediate visual appeal. Fernandez has created a kitchen tableau with all objects, including floor, walls, furnishings, food packaging, clothes, ironing board, and crucifix, covered in the fabric from the plaid plastic shopping bags usually found on the arms of the ladies on the 30 Stockton and the 14 Mission. Not unlike applying an “ethnic plastic bag” filter onto a photoshopped picture, the immediately recognizable pattern of the installation’s surfaces cleverly underscores Chico & Chang’s curatorial premise. By pointing out the ubiquity of said plastic bags in both Asian and Latin American communities, Fernandez’ project speaks volumes about the Asian/Latino cultural intersections and iterates Asian and Latino influences on U.S. culture at large.
Charlene Tan’s Silent Labor investigates a more poignant topic, examining an overlooked aspect of immigrant life in the U.S., as well as the global impact of our hyperconsumerist society.
Tan notes in her artist’s statement,
When I was 14 a family friend gave us an old traditional Chinese-style table. We swooned because my family had just bought a new home and we needed furniture. As we unpacked the table piece by piece my younger brother and I noticed handprints in dust on the finished surfaces. Thinking nothing of it, we chirped about the small size of the hands, thinking it was an errant child playing in the storeroom. Then, we saw small handprints in wood stain and shellac. Our hearts sank when we realized the hands smaller than ours built our table. Silent anger laced with guilt took over; we could be these unknown workers.
In her piece Tan references this experience, replicating a black IKEA-style table under which she has placed a large mirror. Nothing amiss is evident on the tabletop, but below, visible only in the mirror’s reflection, are small handprints on the underside of the table. Tan’s piece is a subtle commentary on the hidden human cost of the cheap imported goods that power the U.S. economy.
Just up the street at Catherine Clark Gallery, Stephanie Syjuco’s “RAIDERS: International Booty, Bountiful Harvest (Selections from the A_____ A__ M_____), is an outstanding prank on art collecting, orientalism, and intellectual property. Syjuco downloads reproductions of collectibles from the Asian Art Museum’s website, blows them up life-size, and mounts them on propped-up plywood backing. Her sly commentary is simultaneously visually appealing, intellectually stimulating, and culturally relevant.
As a refugee of 1990s multiculturalism I’m glad to see both Chico & Chang andSyjuco’s work moving the practice forward. Both shows forgo being simple cultural celebration or definition in their astute, relevant, 21st century views of racial and cultural representation.
Bonus beats: Identity, by X-Ray Spex, with the late, lamented Poly Styrene on lead vocals, ca. 1978
Chico & Chang: A Look at the Impact of Latino and Asian Cultures on California’s Visual Landscape
June 11 – Aug 20, 2011
Intersection for the Arts
925 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
Gallery Hours: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 12-6pm, FREE
(415) 626-2787 x109
Stephanie Syjuco: Raiders
June 4 – July 16, 2011
Cathering Clark Gallery
150 Minna Street
San Francisco CA 94105