Thursday, September 18, 2014
Editor's Commentary on  MOCA's Oil & Water: Reinterpreting Ink Symposium

On April 27th, the Museum of Chinese in America mounted a symposia along with the exhibition Oil & Water: Reinterpreting Ink. The exhibition featured works by Qui DeShu, Wei Jia and Zhang Hongtu and will be up until Sept 14, 2014.  More about the symposia can be found here.

This was an innovative event for a community institution, echoing themes and issues that were the prerogative of mainstream institutions like the Metropolitan Museum with their exhibition Colors of Ink. MOCA’s choice of featured artists highlighted their unique perspective, with each artist having a unique background and artistic stance distinct from the art practice in China. 

The art critic Robert Morgan’s interest in the artist Wei Jia formed the basis of a panel where the two discussed Wei Jia’s traditional yet innovative approach towards ink painting. Other talks paired Zhang Hongtu with the art critic Richard Vine, artist Qiu Deshu with Joan Lebold Cohen.  The prominent lawyer Jerome Cohen concluded the talks with a discussion of censorship and the artist Ai Wei Wei. 

The symposium featured an interesting panel talk entitled “What is Asian, What is American” with Lilly Wei and Aileen June Wang, where they took up the question of Asian American art, a rarely discussed subject in academic circles. The complexity of the subject was duly noted.   

Given that the Asian American Arts Centre (AAAC) initiated discussions about the complexity of Asian American art in 1983, and has continually advocated for its legitimacy by mounting exhibitions annually for over twenty six years,  it behooves us to take this opportunity to comment on it.  
Excerpts from the AAAC's exhibition catalog, Emily, Anna & Ti Shan, 1985

Historically speaking, the idea of proposing Asian American art as a legitimate field of study was undertaken in the midst of the Asian American movement, which arose from the Anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements. Basement Workshop began on the East Coast in the late 1960s as a hub for community activism. By the 1980s, Basement Workshop was more than a decade old; their activism had shifted to the campus, where they sought to establish Asian American Studies as an academic discipline through fighting for legitimacy and tenure. In the 70s and 80s, the media deployed terms such as “Political Correctness,” “the Model Minority,” and “the Culture Wars” to critique activist efforts that arose in the 60s.

“Yellow Power to Yellow People” In front of court house at Huey Newton's Trial – Oakland , California – l969

To maintain a sense of community activism, the AAAC exhibited and featured artists in its community gallery. More importantly, the AAAC established its archive for these artists to demonstrate the historical significance and value of creating art, an idea that had little resonance among grassroot people struggling to get by. Yet community is where the Asian American movement was born and where the notion of Asian American art arose. This is where the experience of immigration is central, unifying all whose art is touched by it.  We decided to shun the mainstream art market, and its publicity/media arm. Academic institutions were also suspect, generating their own community and sense of legitimacy separate from the generative energy of real communities. We chose to establish an archive for later generations when Asian American interest would increase, and speak and write directly to the community, our audience through our own publications.  
AAAC's Eye to Eye Panel (1983)Panel: David Diao, Margo Machida, Lucy Lippard, Lydia Okumura, Kit Yin Snyder, John Woo, John Yau

For the AAAC, Asian American art was not about consumerism. It mattered little if an artist had made it in the market.  Asian American art triggered an awakening of our cultural roots, of an early 80s multi-culturalism that would transform this country, possibly set it on a new course. It was where many peoples and heritages dreamed of coming together to chart a new destiny for America. Asian American art was not then a 'next wave' that would further fuel the marketplace. For the AAAC, Asian American Art was a case study of how two civilizations collide yet interweave on countless levels. 
It is on the community level that generative forces are still active. Here, people live with all the contradictions two cultures imply, despite the jingoism of rhetoric and politics, learning how to be practical with ears to the ground, at the same time, not giving up who they are or what they believe. Supporting artists has meant having the strength and faith to explore the changes and permutations of 'Asian sensibilities', regardless of how they might be affected by trends in the market or university art departments. Awareness of artists’ feelings and inflections are vital to seeing the art, and key to understanding both the aesthetic and political issues embodied by the art. An openness and an awakening to different cultural perspective on the most basic questions of being is crucial.  
A view of Bowery Street at night
A cursory view of printed materials by the AAAC  reveals where it stood and how it functioned.  We welcomed all Asian American artists, from whether they were from Afghanistan or the Hawaiian Islands, whether they had just arrived on the shores of the US, or were here for ten generations.  We also welcomed other artists, particularly American artists, if they could submit a reasonable statement of how they were significantly influenced by Asia in their art.  Our vision guided us, our historical approach opened us so that how artists chose to innovate attracted our focus and challenged whatever interpretive skills we could find or bring to bear ourselves.

AAAC defined Asian American artists in the way they have been changed by their encounter with American culture, how they see their homeland differently, and how they may chose to express this in their art. The origin cultures of Mohenjo Daro in India and the An Yang River valley in China established civilizations different from the West. The complexities of cross cultural art do not appear on the horizon until later, when globalism created situations where an artist can be located in Korea, yet still encounter Western influences of such magnitude that their art, as well as their person changes. Experiences such as traveling to the US or to Europe remains key in shaping these perspectives.  
Zhang Hongtu “Kekou-Kele (six pack)”, porcelain, 2002
The collision of two worlds is still happening, and is now commonplace. There is no longer a question of split loyalty, except for special situations like Wen Ho Lee. The marketplace continues to absorb all in its path, and it can be argued that Asian American art is no longer viable as a way to transform society significantly. Each artist, however, had their impact, and some have shaped a path, points for others to make their own imaginative leaps. Change has happened and Asian American art was part of it. Issues of identity are now part of the mix. This history continues to be made and should be written, whatever political, sociological, and racial formations form. 
Theresa Chong "Budapest" 2008, colored pencil and gouache on paper, 25" x 36"

In writing about this situation, words can lose their points of  reference, including terms like ‘multiculturalism’ and 'China'. In the absence of new words, old words and references may become vague and ambiguous - part of the process where two worlds become one. As we become accustomed to the feel of this fluid era, we come to know it, somewhat. Bewildered perhaps, or resistant, much seems new, though in essence it may not be. How we come to see it, live with it, interpret it, becomes most critical.  A recent cartoon depicts a road sign informing a pair of lost motorists -  "you are now entering the Middle".  We might ask, the middle of what...of where?  The answer - here.
Comments from readers are welcome.  This may be the first and last time AAAC has been challenged to engage with this question explicitly.

Robert Lee
Read more