Scholarship

I’ve been thinking recently about going back to school to get a PhD, a terminal degree. It’s not a plan so much as a vague notion of something I could maybe think about looking into “soon.” One reason for being noncommittal is not knowing what to study. I could go into contemporary art history, Chinese art history, Asian American art history, U.S. History, cultural or media studies, or isn’t there a PhD in hip hop or something in probably Denmark? All of these are interesting to me, but they also look generically like a list of interesting subjects that a potentially interesting person would want to be involved in.

I like to learn, but despise classrooms. I like process, but am suspicious of structure. I like questions, but not as platforms for intellectual gamesmanship. I like languid philosophical discussions revolving around current events and art, but I’m an American who appreciates sports and the conformity that that implies. Also, I like my job. And being in a PhD program would probably mean losing it or going on a reduced schedule that wouldn’t really work with the demands of the position.

In my position, I’m sometimes self-conscious about what I don’t know in the field that I’m a part of, and this partially drives my burgeoning desire to go back to school. Shouldn’t museum curators be experts in their chosen subjects? Shouldn’t they be able to critically examine this subject from various perspectives, armed and assured with exhaustive references, able to quote relevant sources, then wryly joke about matters of bureaucratic triviality in academia? Wouldn’t a PhD also help in getting grants?

In plenty of worlds, ignorance is good enough. I know nothing about wine, but like the taste of most brands and types. I know nothing about poetry, but I know that when I recently heard John Yau read from a poem that was a response to a critic (the poem was basically a diss track), and utter the line “I eat food with two sticks” that I was listening to something historic, pure with emotion, and also stupidly obvious.


Paris Triptych

Charles de Gaulle Airport

Off the train and up the escalator quickly. We stopped and huddled together to take stock. My dad pulled a tattered handle out of his pocket, slowly like someone discovering a severed ear while reaching for his keys. Earlier he had ripped it off a pick-pocketers sack as the thief was trying to escape the train with my dad’s wallet. Two of them surrounded him when he first got on. They grabbed his suitcase in what looked like an attempt to be helpful, then reached into his front pocket and jacked it when my dad struggled for his luggage. They got it all wrong; my mom and dad are survivors. His wallet mattered to them, not just because of what was inside, but because of what it represents – identity, access, value – all proudly earned. I was not surprised to see them fight for it and get it back. We were happy to be leaving Paris.

 

A Canal Near Belleville

I’m assuming there’s no French word for hipster because Paris may have been the birth place of authentic White cool. Me and a friend plopped down on shaded canal-side real estate on Quai de Jemmapes with a couple of small beers to consider what the end of a Sunday in this city means. The beautiful youth with their secrets, whispered just loud enough. A little remote-controlled sailboat, tossing and flailing in the breeze, lazily dipped in and out of our consciousness and we were suddenly irked by it. We imagined being buddies with American diplomats. Let’s dial them up and get the nearest missile-equipped drone to pass through and take care of this little sailboat situation with the full, overwhelming force of the U.S. military.

 

Versaille

The gardens, the palace. We’re now used to waiting in line and this one, on a postcard perfect Saturday, was epic and disorganized but somehow functional. We were moving at a pace that only tourists could tolerate. My niece and nephew, who at seven and nine years old respectively, are much better at being patient than I imagine me and my sister were at their age. They have their obsessions and these occupy their imaginations, becoming realities as much as the waiting gilded rooms and manicured lawns. For my nephew it’s all about a baseball video game and how his team dominates. He recites his players’ gaudy statistics all day in a giddy monologue, asking questions he doesn’t need answers for. He’s a competitor. My niece is a writer. She was born with an intense patience. I see her watching a scene unfold and studying its minor details, seeing humor, tragedy and meaning in those details. She prodded me to read a trilogy she wrote. Sentences were crafted with discipline and economy. I was impressed by her vocabulary. The stories were surreal, dark and frenetic like the deepest dreams. Reading them made me want to write again.

 

 


Shows on Shows on Shows

I’m easing back into this blog thing with an easy assignment: list the most memorable exhibitions I’ve ever seen. I spend so much time looking at shows in galleries, museums, and alternative spaces, but there’s nothing concrete I take away from it since I rarely buy exhibition catalogs. And there’s no immediate processing of what I’ve seen since I don’t write art reviews. But having seen plenty of shows in the last few years, I want to remember what exhibitions shaped how I view art and how I understand the possibilities of exhibition-making. My only rules were to exclude projects I worked on and permanent exhibitions. I didn’t fact check any of these, just went with pure memory, so there may be title and year inaccuracies.

In no particular order:

Robert Smithson, curated by Eugenie Tsai, Whitney Museum, 2000

Welcome at a gallery in Chelsea, 2006 (an exhibition of emerging artists from Iran)

Little Boy, curated by Takashi Murakami, Japan Society, 2007

Art and China’s Revolution, Asia Society, 2010

Black Romantic, Studio Museum in Harlem, 2004

The Whole World is Rotten, Jack Shainman Gallery, 2003

The Downtown Show, Grey Art Gallery, NYU, 2006

Seth Price, Reena Spaulings Fine Art, 2003

Nick Cave, Jack Shainman Gallery, 2008

Hip Hop show (can’t remember title), curated by Franklin Sirmans and Lydia Yee, Bronx Museum, 2002

Arte No Es Vida, El Museo del Barrio, 2010

The DL, curated by Edwin Ramoran, Longwood Art Gallery, 2002

Xaviera Simmons, Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, 2005

Paul Chan, Greene Naftali, 2005

Nikki S. Lee, Jack Tilton, 2000

Patty Chang, Jack Tilton, 2001

Person in the Crowd, Neuberger Museum of Art, 2007

George Bellows, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012

Luc Tuyman, David Zwirner Gallery, 2000

Freestyle, Studio Museum in Harlem, 2003

Yuh Shioh Wong, Southfirst, 2007

Narcissister, Envoy Enterprises, 2013

4-channel video installation by an artist whose name I can’t remember, Participant, Inc., 2005

Rafael Ferrer, El Museo del Barrio, 2009

Kalup Linzy, Taxter & Spengeman, 2007

Willem de Kooning, MoMA, 2005

Theresa Margolles, Y Gallery, 2007

Slavs and Tatars, Newman Popiashvilli Gallery, 2006

Sterling Ruby, Metro Pictures, 2008

Claire Fontaine, Reena Spaulings Fine Art, 2003

Korean video artist with installation next to Panorama, Queens Museum, 2010

Felix Gonzalez Torres and Robert Gober, Andrea Rosen, 2005

Zhang Huan, Asia Society, 2006

Martin Kippenberger, Can’t Remember Where (maybe David Zwirner), 2003

The last show at Orchard, 2007

Alec Soth’s Mississippi River series, a gallery in New Orleans, 2008

 


Flat Tire

We were back in the East Village where the night started. In Maharlika, the stylish Philippino restaurant, numbly recounting how it all went down. Snoop Dogg’s Doggy Dogg World from 1994 spilled threats in that sluggish, Long Beach way. Dangerous and casual. It felt like a California decision to drive 3 hours (“If we can do it in two and a half hours or less, let’s go,” Joe suggested) to a casino in Connecticut – it felt circa 1994 too. Eric B. and Rakim’s Don’t Sweat the Technique was next. I wondered aloud if they had a DJ, wanting to send some approving eye contact his or her way. “It’s Pandora,” Nancy informed me. Shit is almost too easy nowadays I thought, taking a swig of my San Miguel in silent tribute to a harder time.

I was just joking around the day before. It was the end of the workday and concentration was elusive…But wait. I’ve told this story ten times and still haven’t found the hook. In each re-telling, I started obsessing over petty details because the symmetry was so uncanny. But it bogged down the story’s pacing and killed its comedic effect.

For instance, I like thinking about how Sandrine decided to skip a screening of 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s (the 1979 documentary about Bronx street gangs) in order to ride up to Mohegan Sun with us, but we all wound up in a gas station in the Bronx hours later anyway trying to change a flat tire. The gas station was tucked in an industrial zone just off the highway that seemed to be untouched by aggressive ‘quality of life’ policies and re-zoning that have transformed many dilapidated neighborhoods in the last two decades. She got to see the ‘for real’ side of the Bronx depicted in that film after all. A lot happened that night, but the story is really that nothing happened. A net zero effect. It took everything we had to go nowhere. Had we in fact been gambling all along?


Never let me slip, cause if I slip, then I’m slippin’

My tumble down a full flight of stairs the other day at the museum had to be about something. I had just come back from getting a coffee and some pastries for my colleagues. Walking briskly as one does through a space in which they’re exceedingly familiar, I approached the stairs and noticed a new staff member standing there, waiting for the elevator. Wanting to make her feel welcome, I offered an uncharacteristically jovial, “Hi! How’re you doing?” Her response came back muffled against the industrial grumbling of our barely-used elevator.

I remember thinking how incongruous this scene was (her newness and the medieval sound of the elevator), but I kept going and took a step towards the edge of the stairs. I felt my dress shoes, wet from the rain, slip under me. I then tried desperately to land the next step, but completely missed it and was somehow spun 180 degrees as I began toppling over, my butt hitting first at the edge of a stair. Coffee splashed up and rained down on my shirt and face. I noticed the skylight swirling around – a cinematic dislocation from uprightness, like those scenes in Vertigo where San Francisco spins into distortion.

It was like being plunged into a new kind of medium, like trying to swim for the first time and losing your body in the force of the water. I felt each step hitting me somewhere on my lower back and butt, painlessly. And just as I allowed the exhilaration of the accident to wash over me, I landed with a cartoonish thud at the bottom of the stairs. My colleagues raced over in silent, mortified shock, asking how I was. A few laughed along with me as I noticed my left arm stretched upward, death-gripping the cup of coffee. It felt full.

As we sat around reconstructing the events over fruit tarts and coffee, suddenly the brutal poetry of the accident revealed itself. It turned out that Ryan Wong, our young, precocious assistant curator, was in the elevator that our new colleague was waiting for. Picture this: as Ryan was ascending effortlessly, protected and contained in a rising chamber, he heard me crashing clumsily downward, struggling to catch my balance and ultimately failing that. I became a stunt-double version of myself, abstracted and discontinued in the fall. I lost myself momentarily in the avalanche of my own making while Ryan was moved by the museum’s machinery. I sipped my coffee slowly at that thought, the coffee I fought gravity to save.


Hip Hop Ceramics

A few weeks ago I was in Long Island City early for a meeting and wandered into a Slovakian general store to browse around, suspecting that it might stock ceramics from that part of the world. It was a store like many stores that serve specific cultural communities in the city -  products looked unbought and abandoned, displays that made the whole place look like business was beside the point. Past all the preserved foods and exotic snack chips, were indeed a few shelves of pottery: generic mugs and plain flowery vases mostly. And behind a stack of white plates, I noticed a rough textured piece that looked like a Chinese tea cup had been carelessly plopped onto a long, unglazed cone of a stem. The outside was the color of the most unaesthetic dirt – a yellowish brown that couldn’t have been arrived at intentionally.  The inside of the cup was a dark pea green, glazed haphazardly. Hard to imagine drinking out of this, but that only added to its strangeness.

The store’s caretaker was stocking shelves when I walked in and he wandered over to see if I needed help. When I asked about it, he offered that it was a kind of wine glass for a special Slovakian liquor made of fermented honey. Convinced and charmed, I bought it, brought it home and arranged it on a bookshelf where other ceramics are kept. Among them, a tiny ivory colored bowl made by a former intern of mine, a jade green vase I bought at the local Korean supermarket, a coal black Japanese cup and saucer I picked up at the flea market at the Tenri Cultural Center here in Flushing.

In moments like that in Long Island City, I’m returned to my unexplainable infatuation with ceramics.

I remember seeing some centuries old plates and vases from what’s now Iraq at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco a few years ago. They were decked out in blues you could only find in fleeting flashes on an ocean’s surface. This blue was nothing but its own color; ultimately transparent and fresh as tomorrow morning. The marks divining its surface were aggressive (I’m not saying violent) compared to the austere Tang Dynasty stuff I had just marveled at in another room. In the next, from another century, the Japanese surface on some of their vessels: cracked and irregular like volcanic earth in some, mirror smooth in others, delivering their own kinds of complexions that were also nothing like the names we have to describe them. “Brown” just wasn’t enough.

In my kitchen cabinet is one of my favorite possessions: a plate with gently sloped sides that I bought in a pan-middle eastern restaurant in Amsterdam. It’s decorated with a briskly outlined fish in the center and multi-colored dots, dabs and strokes all around it. It’s body is built from a thickly formed ceramic and I’m convinced eating out of it makes stuff like my oxtail stew taste at least 10% better. A pair of coffee cups copped in a Berlin flea market that are just the right size, freckled with blue Pollack-y drips – its cultural origins unknown. All I know is that my coffee’s on point from out of that, caffeine rationed to exactly the right amount.

I was at Smack Mellon, an alternative art space in DUMBO, Brooklyn a few weeks back to see an exhibition by Yoko Inoue. In this vast space, Inoue had created her intimately scaled version of a Japanese night market populated by ceramic figures, vessels and masks that were mutant hybrids sampling from global consumer culture. Things were clearly marked for sale, rightfully – ceramics imply the functionality and normalcy of exchange even when, as in Yoko’s case, they’re aesthetic and conceptual vessels. In her work, Japanese-ness bleeds out, from the hand-crafted care we associate with the production of ceramics to the evoked make-shift spaces where deals are done. At dinner, when ceramics fulfill their most obvious task to make life a little bit better, to make daily rituals a little bit finer, is when we’re returned to our most unintelligible selves and when we become psychically connected to the ancients, who must’ve also derived great pleasure from wining and dining on classic material.


T-Shirt Weather

The California-lization of New York’s weather is evidence that the forces of globalization – the process by which any locale in the world becomes like a quaint Bay Area suburb – are manipulating the environment, flattening it. This shift in the world’s weather patterns might ultimately mess heavily with New York’s sensitive arrangement of culture and intellectual life. New York’s crack-era rap music from the 90s seems mired in an eternal winter, but would it be more like the drawl-ly rhythms of California gangsta rap (made for driving sinisterly in sunny weather) if New Yorkers expected 70 degree weather everyday? Would rap even exist if New York was encased in the air-conditioned geodesic dome imagined by Buckminster Fuller?

Another question: Could the homogenizing force of climate change greatly alter the patterns of another institution of contemporary life: tourism – which depends on a delicate balance of societal stability and exotic difference? I once saw a ritualistic rain dance by Native Americans in a touristic section of Berlin, a city whose bleak winter weather offered an appropriate backdrop to its modern history and lends gravitas to its contemporary art scene. This tableaux on a crowded Berlin street could be read as a kind of environmental, cultural confusion where the truths of dislocated and local racial histories were distorted by the demands and desires of tourism. The significant crowd that had amassed to watch this dance lost themselves for a minute and Berlin became nowhere. Its history disappeared.

For the 2008 Olympics, China was able to shut down rain (for the opening ceremony) and conjure it (to freshen Beijing’s polluted air) at will, but could they impose a “real” winter on New York next year? China’s motivation: it would symbolically solidify their monopoly over this century.

T-shirts have a way of aging quickly, especially those made specifically for the tourist industry. My parents buy me one of these whenever they go on vacation, marking the cities and landmarks they’ve visited. But one stands out: a yellow shirt with a blue, quickly-rendered ink brush graphic of a simplified globe. “The world is my home” is scrawled above it. Unlike the other t-shirts they’ve bought me, I have no idea where they got this one. And its point is clear: it doesn’t matter. Could’ve been anywhere.


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