A lot of years ago, I decided to stop making art. Not because I didn’t like doing it. On the contrary, I was nearly addicted to sitting in front of a painting, getting lost in every last inch of it, obsessing over the relationship between forms and colors, sorting out the next best move. But something changed when I began curating, or it might have been that the decision to curate was a symptom of a larger shift in my own thinking about art and my function within it. In any case, I began to question the very notion of making art into something physical. And that’s when it became clear that I had outgrown artmaking. Because the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like going to the studio to produce art was just an excuse to listen to some new rap on my old Sony boombox.
At that time, curating was an exciting new way to approach art. It was a medium unto itself and its rules seemed as nebulous as any art practice. Over the years, having worked with or in various institutions, I’ve realized that curating is not an alternative way for me to make art. Instead, it’s an administrative discipline involving bureaucracy, management, research, artistic creativity, networking and publicity. Curating is soft coercion, a choreography of information, resources and material towards the production of production. Shows are perpetually in a state of development until that month-long flurry of activity funnels the scraps of work into a cohesive meta-work.
I sometimes wonder how much longer I’ll be a curator, if some other ‘practice’ will overwhelm this interest in organizing exhibitions like how curating usurped artmaking for me. But then I realize that I’m sitting at the convergence of Jeremy Lin’s rise, my own role at the Museum of Chinese in America, and the much touted (and feared) China century. Basketball has somehow renewed and refreshed the substance of what I do. Basketball, through the electric play and hype of Jeremy Lin, has now engaged my racial cognizance, which, now that I think about it, is why I started making art in the first place.
Every time Lin splits a double-team, looks around for open teammates, and goes up hard for a contested layup, I hold my breath, pouring all my stockpiled hopes into the next split second, hoping the ball drops because if it doesn’t, if he gets blocked or turns it over looking to pass, suddenly it would seem that we had lost so much of what he had gained. So much that it would take years for us to get it back, this progress in the perception of Asian Americans, but for him all it would take is a sweet dime to number 7, or a three in the fourth quarter. That’s how much he means, that he can effect my own perception of curating by making it happen on the hardwood.
We made it to the NBA. When Jeremy Lin sized up Pau Gasol a few feet beyond the 3-point line during a key moment in the 4th quarter of friday’s New York Knicks – Los Angeles Lakers game, I knew he had him. Gasol, the Lakers’ star center, was backing up as Lin dribbled threateningly towards him. He rose for a long jumper over Gasol’s long, futile reach. Water.
Basketball in New York City. In 1970, sportswriter Pete Axthelm mythologized the sport’s significance to Gotham in The City Game, weaving together anecdotes of the 1969-70 Knicks team that won the championship with back stories of playground legends like Earl ‘The Goat’ Manigault and ‘The Helicopter.’ “If the Knicks brought a special pride to all New York, they were only multiplying the feeling that the playground kids have always understood,” he wrote.
It’s true that only the success of the Knicks can galvanize and focus New York City basketball interests into pure mania, but since I’ve lived in New York, the Knicks have been a tired joke. For the last decade, the team’s leadership has stacked one star player on top of another in hopes of manufacturing that fleeting magic known in sports as chemistry, or at least buying enough talent to render chemistry irrelevant. But each addition only brought greater disappointment. Madison Square Garden was a place where promising careers went to flounder into incoherence.
Lin was inserted into the Knicks’ lead guard role in pure desperation after a listless start to the season made last year’s gains seem like a mirage. After leading them to five wins in a row with virtuostic performances, he has bridged the 1% row of Madison Square Garden with Korean church pick-up basketball in Long Island City; outdoor runs in the shadow of the 7-train on a 30 degree, windy day in Flushing; rec league games in Upper Eastside gyms; and little kid basketball in legendary Rucker Park in Harlem.
Did you see that move on Luke Ridenour on Saturday? Lin took it hard right then screeched into a crossover. Whoops, sorry! Left Ridenour somewhere out in the forests of Oregon circa 2002, then rained a 15 footer on his head. It was like when Randolph Childress crossed up Jeff McGinnis in the ACC tournament in 1995. Childress motioned for McGinnis to get up off the floor before he drilled a 3. But getting back to Lin.
Asian Americans from California recognize the type: Taiwanese and religious, studious and quiet; there’s something dorky and utterly suburban about him. He crashed on his brother’s couch in the Lower East Side between monster games like a clueless under-rested student. We haven’t yet figured out what Jeremy Lin means, and why this moment feels so historic to us. But even if he is our Jeremy and even if we want to apply the lessons of race to his rise, the most important thing for me is that he’s been tagged by New York’s unforgiving, jaded basketball fans with the most elusive and important of titles: a baller.