I’ll Be Your Mirror: Rising Dragon and This/That at the San Jose Museum of Art
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.
Entry filed under: asian american, china, visual art. Tags: china, erica cho, liyu + liubo, mail order brides, mike lai, photography, san jose museum of art, tran t. kim-trang, visual art, wen fen, yao lu.