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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
I recently bought copies of two books I previously owned but somehow lost: Spraycan Art, a photographic journey through graffiti styles by Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff, and Mixed Blessings, Lucy Lippard’s 1990 survey on identity politics and multicultural art. When I first had them in the mid-90s as a student at San Jose State University, I wore those books out like favorite sneakers or a new CD on heavy rotation, reviewing its pictures and texts over and over, trying to grasp graffiti’s extreme stylization and the emotional agitation of art in the multicultural era – my era. Through these books, I understood these art forms to be tools in a cultural war between the underrepresented and the “system” that operated against them. Moreover, the books were windows into world’s I wanted to participate in; their words and images populated my imagined New York.
But when I actually did move to New York in 1998 those movements already seemed out of step. Galleries and museums weren’t showing graffiti and neither were the streets. Handball court walls and subway trains were no longer canvases – they were “so fresh and so clean,” and that was how they stayed. Of the four elements of hip hop culture, graffiti seemed most in danger of homelessness and obsolescence. Similarly, multicultural art, work by minority artists, and that which trafficked in identity politics was largely missing in the clean white galleries of Soho and Chelsea, within the institutional space of museums, and in the printed pages of the top art publications. When I finally got my bearings in the art world here and met a bunch of other like-minded Asian American artists committed to pursuing the idea of representation, it seemed clear that minority artists only had a handful of spaces where they could realistically show – those that were explicitly established to present culturally-specific art like the Studio Museum in Harlem, El Museo del Barrio, the Asian American Arts Centre, and a handful of others.
Graffiti and multiculturalism, attitudes as forms on which I pinned my early conception of art and culture, were clearly old news. To taste-making New Yorkers in the late 90s, these movements had grown old and ugly together. Multicultural art, like graffiti, was first fueled by anger against under-representation. Minority artists were disenchanted at a system that routinely omitted them from the “center” of contemporary art and the art historical canon. Emboldened by past generations of Civil Rights protests and feminist theory’s breakdown of patriarchal social order, artists began to come together, forming communities of like-minded, disaffected cultural producers and making work that spoke directly to and against the powers they felt kept them down. They used art to talk about the struggles of their people and the historical, political and cultural forces that informed their identity – an effort to mark cultural territory in major narratives of American Art from which they were omitted. Their work directly targeted the power structure of the art world, but it also was a self-conscious process of formulating their own sense of identity within a dominant white culture. As such this work was primarily shown in those spaces whose audiences were sympathetic to these perspectives. Multicultural art was preaching to the converted its own practitioners complained.
The 1993 Whitney Biennial was a watershed moment for multiculturalism in art, an art that paradoxically was meant to strike out against the institutions it was also trying to gain access to. It’s curators – Elizabeth Sussman, Thelma Golden, John Handhardt, and other Whitney curators – pursued an exhibition about identity politics and it became a test of whether this movement would sink or swim in the mainstream. It wound up getting trashed in the most absolute terms by many of the influential critics of the day. Christopher Knight called it a “disastrous installment” of the biennial, and Robert Hughes subtitled his review “A Fiesta of Whining” and complained that it was “preachy and political.” Multiculturalism and identity politics fell completely out of favor, its moment falling from the loftiest, most public perch available in art. Thereafter, this kind of work was dismissed as little more than political rhetoric – pedantic and conservative like state-sanctioned propaganda in a communist country telling its populace what was morally correct.
But now, in our current politicized moment when the nation is gripped in a deep recession as it was during the ’93 Biennial, art has returned to politics. The rhetoric has been re-occupied, but the politics of identity remain on the margins. Now politics in art seems to refer to a personal politics that become buried within the movement of global capital and information, a loss of difference that occurs when everyone’s desire is driven towards the same products, and the language used to sell them is co-opted from anti-corporate subcultures. In art, it is now the logistics of forms and materials, their means of production, the way they enter the world and feed back into the language of consumption that weigh heavily in artistic and theoretic thought – this circular meta-process operating on every work of art is now thought of as its politicization. The artist as ready-made.
In spite of this new, compelling reading of our culture, multiculturalism and identity politics still matter today because the problem of representation persists. The vocabularies that artists use to spell out their realities have changed greatly since the late 80s and early 90s, and I know most want to avoid divisive rhetoric, but there is still much to learn from a movement that many wanted to forget ever happened. And that’s because, while art looks quite different today, there’s a lot about the art world that hasn’t changed.
I was heartened to see some new bubble letters freshly spray painted by some clearly nostalgic graf artists on a new section of sound wall bounding the Grand Central Parkway in Queens as I was driving home today after lunch with Claire Barliant and curator Edwin Ramoran. It seems as if graffiti is making some tentative come-back moves. At lunch, we talked about the stuff I mentioned above and threw around some direct references: The Decade Show, Marcia Tucker, MOCADA, Museum of Hispanic Art, Godzilla, Longwood Art Gallery, Eugenie Tsai, Holland Cotter, Rocio Aranda, Elvis Fuentes, Marcia Tucker, Elizabeth Sussman, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Thelma Golden, Lauren Haynes, Thomas Lax, Jeff Chang, Lia Gangitano, Jose Ruiz, Erin Sickler, and on and on.
And as long as I’m dropping names, I realized I left a bunch of deserving artists out of the “My Whitney Biennial” post from a couple weeks ago. Here’s the new though ever-evolving list with new additions in bold:
Jaishri Abichandani, Manuel Acevedo, Derrick Adams,Terry Adkins, On Akiyoshi, Elia Alba, Laylah Ali, Blanka Amezkua, Tomie Arai, Nicole Awai, Nadia Ayari, Radcliffe Bailey, Tamy Ben-Tor, Sanford Biggers, Karlos Carcamo, Nick Cave, Patty Chang, Mel Chin, Cecile Chong, Theresa Chong, Ken Chu, Seth Cohen, Robert Colescott, Papo Colo, Ernest Concepcion, William Cordova, Jimmie Durham, Nicolas Dumit Estevez, Zachary Fabri, Ming Fay, Cui Fei, Brendan Fernandes, Benin Ford, Coco Fusco, Chitra Ganesh, Rupert Garcia, Rico Gatson, Mariam Ghani, Deborah Grant, Renee Green, Alejandro Guzman, David Hammons, Skowmon Hastanan, Leslie Hewitt, Annamarie Ho, Donna Huanca, Arlan Huang, Shih Chieh Huang, Yoko Inoue, Emily Jacir, Mathew Day Jackson, Arthur Jafa, Steffani Jemison, Rashid Johnson, Jennie C. Jones, Charles Juhasz-Alvarado, Brad Kalhamer, Jayson Keeling, Swati Khurana, Byron Kim, Terence Koh, Las Hermanas Iglesias, Simone Leigh, Shaun Leonardo, Lam + Lin, Bing Lee, Nikki S. Lee, Kalup Linzy, Jeanette Louie, Miguel Luciano, James Luna, Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow, Tala Madani, Kerry James Marshall, Daniel J. Martinez, Esperanza Mayobre, Ana Mendieta, Charles McGill, Yong Soon Min, Wardell Milan, Naeem Mohaiemen, Ivan Monforte, Irvin Morazan, Yamini Nayar, Manuel Ocampo, Pepon Osario, John Outerbridge, Joe Overstreet, Cliff Owens, Fahamu Pecou, Paul Pfeiffer, Adrian Piper, William Pope.L, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, Sara Rahbar, Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, Naomi Reis, Faith Ringgold, Nadine Robinson, Athena Robles, Jose Ruiz, Rafael Sanchez (the one who had a solo show at Exit Art in 2010), Jacolby Satterwhite, Dread Scott, Seher Shah, Xaviera Simmons, Arthur Simms, Shinique Smith, Jeff Sonhouse, Chanika Svetvilas, Mickalene Thomas, Mary Ting, Slavs & Tatars, Sol’Sax, Hong-An Truong, Juana Valdes, William Villalongo, Roberto Visani, Mary Valverde, Anahita Vossoughi, Kara Walker, Kay WalkingStick, Hank Willis Thomas, Fred Wilson, Saya Woolfalk, Lynne Yamamoto