Asian-American Identity Through Quiet, Ordinary Gestures

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Asian-American Identity Through Quiet, Ordinary Gestures

At the intersection of 58th Street and Queens Boulevard, deep in the heart of Woodside, Queens, and far from iconic city centers like Times Square and Central Park, is a marker: “The Geographic Center of NYC.” It shows compass points for north, south, east, and west. It’s not actually the geographic center of New York — that honor likely falls somewhere in Bushwick — and, according to Atlas Obscura, no one knows why the marker is there or how it got approved. Someone decided to declare it a center, and so it was.

In “Dear Shirley,” a video work by Emmy Catedral, the narrator walks to the Geographic Center of NYC, calling it “a cemented, chiseled monument to someone’s center.” The video’s namesake is Shirley Kwan, a Hong Kong actress whose scenes were cut from Wong Kar Wai’s film Happy Together (1997). Never shown was Kwan’s rendition of the iconic Mexican crooner “Cucurrucucú Paloma,” Tomás Méndez’s ode to a grieving lover.

“Shirley,” the narrator calls out, “I’ve only seen from English query results on the Internet, a version of your life with sensational stories of your lostness. I hope you’re making it through these years with ordinary joys that never have to make the cut.” Kwan recorded “Cucurrucucú Paloma” for a live audience that did get recorded and released, and the video is exquisite. In “Dear Shirley,” Catedral mixes this soundtrack with renditions by Lola Beltrán and Caetano Veloso. Just as the spiritual, if not geographic, center of New York is ultimately a subjective experience, which version of Cucurrucucú speaks to the center of your soul is up to you.

Catedral is one of eight artists in Understatements: Lost & Found in Asian America, an exhibition at the Godwin-Ternbach Museum at Queens College. Curated by Herb Tam, curator and director of exhibitions at the Museum of Chinese in America, the show looks at Asian American art through quiet works that explore this sociopolitical identity. The artists in Understatements “propose a daily practice of intimate gestures to confront similar negotiations of the world,” as Tam writes in his curatorial statement. “They encourage close, slow readings — getting lost in order to find new ways out.”

Emmy Catedral, “Dear Shirley” (2022)

Lostness is the central tension of Yu-Wen Wu’s “Walking X v.1 (Boston to Taipei—an instructional walking journal—v.1),” a two-sided collage on paper in which the artist pasted Google Maps’s walking directions from Boston to Taipei. Wu, whose family immigrated to the United States in the 1960s, reflects on movement with two other works — “Walking VII” and “Walking V.” Both are considerably more abstract, composed of flowing lines, dots, and circles. If migration is often presented as a one-directional story of triumph over adversity, Wu’s Random Walks series seems to invite the viewer to see it for what it is: a winding, impossible journey that complicates family, identity, home, and safety.

Strewn across the gallery floor in gentle curves are kenzan, or “sword mountains,” used to hold flowers in the Japanese flower arrangement practice called ikebana. Part of Kiani Ferris’s Path series, these objects rarely get attention in a finished arrangement and sometimes disappear entirely within a ceramic container or vase. Displayed without flowers, they are oddly beautiful and idiosyncratic on their own. The paths laid out by Ferris encourage a different sort of wandering through the space than what might be a typical meander, and I found myself jumping around between works in response while making sure not to accidentally kick over the pieces.

The daily affairs of life undergird much of the show. Sculptural works like Megan Mi-Ai Lee’s “Lashes” and “Slippers,” both cast in bronze, and Mika Agari’s “Fragments of a Moon Puzzle,” made of glass, salt, gemstones, puzzle pieces, and bouncy balls, invite us to consider the scraps of the mundane. Agari’s assemblage centers around a found puzzle of the lunar surface, and Lee exhibits the lashes and slippers in perfect repose, waiting to be picked up and used one day.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Yuto Nakamura offers us images of journeys around East Coast cities. In “Wendy’s on a Gleaming Hill,” Nakamura presents exactly what the title describes, in a watercolor scene set in Norwich, Connecticut. Xingjian Ding’s “Doom” and “Blue World” are acrylic on canvas paintings of ice skaters’ skates and torsos in motion. And the colorful circles of stream-of-consciousness writing in Sharmistha Ray’s Blindspot series serve as commemorations of a daily meditation.

So often, exhibitions about identity in the United States focus on the politics, oppressions, and complex and often violent histories that come with living minoritized and racialized lives. This is important — at a time when anti-Asian hate forces many people to live in fear, we need to understand the decades of struggle that preceded today’s escalations.

Yu-Wen Wu, “Walking V” (2013–14)

But equally important is the ordinariness of being a person of Asian descent in the United States. Sometimes, exhibitions about identity demand too much of those bearing the identities, expecting them to speak explicitly to their experience. Sometimes, working on a moon puzzle, playing with bouncy balls, putting on slippers, and hitting up a Wendy’s is enough. Like Ferris’s kenzan arrangements, we often miss the beauty of the mundane just beneath the surface.

In his curatorial statement, Tam writes about his undergraduate studies, which included reading important political works from thinkers like Maxine Hong, Carlos Bulosan, and Ronald Takaki. “I equated being Asian American,” he notes, “with much more unremarkable things like the trudging, boring work of the family dry cleaning business, knowing how to the measure the right water level in a pot of rice, and having a cadre of Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese American friends who would passively-aggressively mock each other’s cultures while sharing a mutual sense of outsiderness to a perceived mainstream.”

I paused in front of Mika Agari’s “Little Salty Bubble,” a sheer curtain hanging from bungee cords in the corner of the museum. Embroidered bubbles and text in the center and along the edges read as poems dedicated to long journeys and the sufferings therein. The tiny script running along the edge asks us to contemplate the end of planet Earth and a necessary sojourn to Mars — “In 2045, I might kiss the Earth good bye for a cheap ticket to Mars on a budget ship.” The larger words in the center contemplate the heartbreak, rather than the heroism, of leaving Earth forever:

tell me
how to feel
when I’m in space
where nothing has a weight
& our tears never dry but

Maybe Agari is talking about the Asian American immigration journey. Maybe the artist is suggesting, through the sheer curtain, the flimsy protection we have against the collision course of climate change, hyper-capitalism, and big technology. What I see is an understated exploration of the aesthetics of heartbreak as it pours forth from the body. So often, contained within the little salty bubble of a single tear, we find the big lessons we’re not yet ready to accept.

Mika Agari, “Little Salty Bubble” (2019)
Morgan Mi-Ai Lee, “Slippers” (2019)
Xingjian Ding, “Blue World” (2022)

Understatements: Lost & Found in Asian America continues at the Godwin-Ternbach Museum (Queens College, Klapper Hall, Flushing, Queens) through January 6, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Herb Tam.

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