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  • Jasmine Wahi

Notes on Shape-shifting* and (In)visibility

by Jasmine Wahi


*Shape-shifting is a term often used when speaking about physical appearance—the idea of passability comes to mind. In this essay, the term is used in two ways. The first usage is in the context of being able to assimilate, camouflage, or be accepted into the mainstream. The second definition is my own, with a positive connotation. To shape-shift is to be malleable as a form of resistance—a way of metamorphosing away from the imposed rigid binary structures that have stifled us for so long. This stifling has come from both within our communities and outside, but our abilities as creatives to remold ourselves—to shape-shift—is what propels us to be radical change-makers.


Introductory Ruminations

When I initially learned about the Gold Art Prize I was thrilled, to say the least. Learning who the inaugural recipients are sent shivers up my spine. We are here (we’ve been here). And we are seen.


I have been entrenched in the journey for representation and visibility for AAPI culturalists for most of my adult life. To see the names of artists whom I know or have admired from a distance sparked a tender and bittersweet chord in my heart. Bittersweet because we have long existed outside the establishment of the “art world”—relegated to niche markets, exploited by secondary markets without the room or care for scholarship, and ultimately siloed back into a niche space. Rarely is there room for us to exist in a state of duality—being both accepted and supported by the mainstream.


When I was asked to write this essay I was, as always, flattered and surprised. To this day, the specter of “imposter syndrome” looms large—a sentiment that is acutely on my mind as I think about our existences as Asian creatives living in a whitewashed world. What does it mean to be neither Black nor White in a nation that does its damnedest to maintain binary structures across all aspects of life (race, gender, political parties, etc.)? What does it mean to be pushed (by others) and pulled (by ourselves) into the peripheries where we adapt and shape-shift to be accommodating? Do we, the AAPI creatives of the 21st century, still kowtow to the stereotype of the docile, quiet model minority? Do we actively invisibilize ourselves, or have others sought to erase or ignore us?


To say we have been invisible is an abstract theory to be challenged. Invisible to whom exactly? To ourselves? To each other as Asians? How are we, people of the global majority, shrunken into the category of “minorities”?


But to live in the “real world”—that is, to live in a world dominated by dregs of colonial Whiteness—is to be invisible. Many of us have been neither seen nor heard for much of this century, with the exception of two notable instances: 9/11 and, nearly two decades later, COVID-19. In these liminal moments of visibility, we are either seen through the lens of danger (as terrorists or disease carriers) or we are co-opted through the gaze of fetishism, or stereotyped essentialism—the model minority.


What does it mean to be a quiet parasite? What does it mean to be the model minority? Is it the ability to camouflage into the background, or to seamlessly self-segregate into our Chinatowns, our Little Indias/Pakistans/Bengals, our K-Towns? Or can we recontextualize and subvert the outsider view of who and what we are? Can we maintain our commitment to cultural heritage—our Rassam (essence)—while maintaining a presence in the “mainstream” without compromising or exploiting ourselves? Can we exist in a simultaneous stratosphere of being BOTH/AND, not EITHER/OR?


The answer is a resounding yes. Our generation’s artists—exemplified here by Candice Lin, Miljohn Ruperto, Jes Fan, Moved by the Motion, and Maia Ruth Lee—make works that are the quintessence of BOTH/AND.



Each Gold Art Prize awardee demonstrates that as AAPI individuals we are more than the compressed sum of many parts that presents one face—in fact, we are the many parts existing simultaneously in equal measure. We are the descendants of othered geographies, the children weaving together the legacies of pasts, presents, and potentialities. We are ever-present in a multitude of concurrent presents in which our intersectional backgrounds both define and undo us.


For me, the most exciting part of looking at these individual artists through a collective lens is how each artist addresses cultural dynamism in innovative and distinct ways. These artists have subverted the canonical and pejorative idea of “shape-shifting” into a means to explode rigid hegemonic social structures.


Each articulates social complexities—from individual identities to heterogeneous cultural histories, to interpersonal proximities, to multidimensional futures—in ways that are multidisciplinary and materially complex. From group performance to interactive installation, Lin, Ruperto, Fan, Moved by the Motion, and Lee reiterate that we are here.


Candice Lin

Candice Lin’s interdisciplinary and multi-sensorial practice is materially and aesthetically complex in its approach to addressing and dismantling colonial legacies. I consider Lin to be a futurist or a world maker. In her most recent exhibition, Candice Lin: Sleeping, Rotting, Resting, Weeping, at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, Lin interrogates the intersections of racism, sexism, and colonialism through an exploration of trade routes and co-opted colonial-era goods. An azure/indigo tent depicts a pantheon of cat-like creatures, the largest of whom holds a banner proclaiming states of being: seeping, rotting, resting, weeping. Other hand-drawn and hand-printed tapestries cover the floor, and cats (ceramic, video, woven) laze about the dim interior. The pseudo-religious/pseudo-nomadic structure is flanked by two humanoid creatures built in the structure of a totem. These guardian/pillars—one with a multitude of breasts/teats and a smiling cat lower half; the other horned and goateed with a potbelly—transcend social constructs of gender, race, ability, reality. These sentinels urge us to contemplate the possibility of new futures cured of the cancers of colonial oppressions.


An early work, circa 2008, Raising the Dead depicts a series of intermittently playful and horrifying concurrent narratives, and is painted in a traditional miniaturist style. A grandmother-esque mountain with full breasts overlooks humans in various states of decay or pleasure, animals gnawing at both human trunks and tree stumps, and other animals surveying the landscape. The painting’s technique evokes a sense of nostalgia and the possibility of what a future world, pregnant with possibilities, could be.


The kneading of traditional techniques and use of archival material such as maps are important methodological strategies in Lin’s practice. She is not alone in employing colonial archival materials to explore ways of understanding. Miljohn Ruperto also uses materials from European art history to question perception, identity, and the tension between specificity/obscurity, invisibility/camouflage.


Miljohn Ruperto

I first encountered Miljohn Ruperto’s work at the 2014 Whitney Biennial, where I was struck by the way he incorporated European art and philosophical history to explore tensions of obscurity, visibility, definition, and binary dichotomy. Silver gelatin prints from his Voynich Botanical Studies (2014) series, created in collaboration with Ulrik Heltoft, show painstakingly rendered unidentified plant life from the bewildering and unattributed Voynich Manuscript (c.15th century, Italy). Specimen 56v Zima (2014) has an anthropomorphic quality, with its cancan-like root-legs, its lush leafy torso, and suction-like head. The flora depicted in this series feels familiar yet disconcertingly exotica recognizable sensation in the context of social understanding. Through an arduous process of scanning the drawings, digital rendering to magnify the incredible details, and transferring to analog film, Ruperto’s final photographs articulate a hard truth about simultaneous states of specificity and obscurity. One could consider the work as an indirect indictment of how AAPI identities have historically been seen in states of (in)visibility until recently.


Ruperto’s Janus (2013), animated by Aimée de Jongh, also explores the ambiguous space of imperceptible identities. Its namesake is the Roman god of beginnings and transitions often rendered with two identical faces (diprosopus). In Ruperto’s video, the god is represented by the duck-rabbit illustration made popular by the 20th-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: a single image that may be interpreted as either a duck with a slightly open beak or as a rabbit with its ears pulled flat. In the animation, a gash opens on the chest of the rabbit, or the back of the duck, with a morbid ultimate end to the lives of both animals. The animation loops perpetually, with the ambiguity of what/who is lost in continuous question. The interpretation depends on the positionality or perspective of the viewer.


Paired together, the Voynich Botanical Studies and Janus exemplify the artist’s interest in binary understanding and the possibility of shifting perceptions. The duck-rabbit, in particular, is a rumination on the potential of a both/and existence over an either/or reality.


Jes Fan also explores this dichotomy, albeit within the context of biological versus constructed identity, and how social constructionism is manifest at both the individual and the collective levels.


Jes Fan

Fan is an interdisciplinary object-maker frequently described as working within seemingly oxymoronic or paradoxical ways—mashing together objects/ideas/identities that have been pinned as oppositional to each other. However, Fan is an artist working within the context of both/and; he/they visually articulates multiple realities and identities existing in concert with one another.


Often rooted in autobiographical considerations, Jes Fan’s work is quintessentially intersectional. His/their practice uses biology to unpack, critique, and ultimately explode/destroy constructed rigid identities that originate from colonial and White supremacist, capitalist, and patriarchal (credit to bell hooks) impositions. The processes of making are as important as the final objects.


Testo-soap (2017) delves into the flexible space between binary genders. The primary object(s) of the installation is soap made from testosterone during a residency at the Museum of Art and Design (MAD)—an institution known for its dedication to craft, which is often seen in a marginal context within the larger art world because of its linkage to the categorization of craft as “women’s work.” With this consideration in mind, Fan sought to both de-gender and de-stigmatize craftwork within the space of an institution dedicated to the genre. This contemplation of a broader context enhances the impact of the work in the context of dismantling constructs.


Fan’s Systems II (2018) also works scientifically to dismantle and acknowledge toxic social constructionism, especially within the context of race. Systems II, made during a residency at Recess in Brooklyn, is a system of tubes with “stops”—bulbous glass vessels that contain melanin from E. coli. The piece not only inquires how that which holds so much weight in society is biologically conceived; it also functions as an exploration of the relationship between oppressive constructs such as racism, colonialism, disease/contagion, and immunological superiority. Experiencing colonial rule in Hong Kong, where Fan spent his/their childhood, influenced Systems II. The global outbreak of COVID-19 has reinforced the relevance of both this specific piece and Fan’s commitment to exploring intersectional identities and oppressions.


Of the five winners of the Gold Art Prize, three of the artists are directly interested in the contemporary relationship between social interaction and intersectional identity. Similar to Jes Fan, Moved by the Motion is deeply interested in how our pluralistic identities impact the ways in which we, particularly those of us “on the margins” (outside the space of Whiteness), operate interpersonally and collectively, and how movements are shaped.


Moved by the Motion

Moved by the Motion (MBTM), an interdisciplinary collective led by Wu Tsang and Tosh Basco, includes artists who work across film, sound, performance, object-making, theater, and literature. This constellation of artists morphs with each new performance or happening, and is an ever-shape-shifting practice that relishes the complex structure of social movements, individual identities, and the construction of narrative around both. Members of the collective have included Wu Tsang, Asma Maroof, Tapiwa Svosve, Patrick Belaga, Fred Moten, Serpentwithfeet, Tosh Basco, Ahya Simone, Daniel Pineda, and David Quam, among others.


MBTM is interested in the ways that narratives are constructed through creative processes in fiction and truths (plural), particularly in relation to social movements. The intersectionality of the participants in each happening is an important aspect of why the work is successful. As a whole, each performance creates a centering of voices that have been historically invisibilized. While visibility is not the primary focus of the collective’s work, it is nonetheless an essential part of the overarching function.


A Day in the Life of Bliss (2015) interrogates the role of subcultures within a transnational context and the role of fantasy in representing social movements, a recurring concept in works by MBTM. Set in a fantastical near-future, the two-channel film follows BLIS—played by boychild, a celebrity collaborator by day and underground performer by night—who discovers her unique ability to challenge dominant and oppressive groups. In both structure and content, the film upends and shape-shifts the traditional narrative of the outsider protagonist.


The Show Is Over (2020) expands upon the relationship between culture-making, social movements, marginality, and narrative. The soundscape, which includes rehearsal audio, chatter, and other elements from the cutting-room floor, delves into the idea of the B side—the parts that are left out or left behind. The work functions as a metaphor for the importance of seeing the unseen, and evokes a sense of universal camaraderie among those of us who’ve been considered the B side for so long.


MBTM creates a lens that speaks to collective or shared experiences by literally gathering a constellation of peers and collaborators. Maia Ruth Lee does this by creating object-based works founded in the experience of collective memories, shared cultural histories, and empathetic experiences.



Maia Ruth Lee

Maia Ruth Lee’s work is a poetic examination of experiences that can be universally approached. That is not to say that Lee’s practice is generic, or deals in tropes that everyone can comprehend in the same way. Quite the opposite: she presents experiences that challenge us to take note of the differences in interpretation based on who we are.


Bondage Baggage (2018) is a series of sculptures based on the artist’s five-year documentation of Nepalese migrant workers traveling between the Persian Gulf and Malaysia. Lee observed how returnees packaged acquired goods to protect them from theft. Wrapped and bound in bright tapes, ropes, twine, and tarpaulins, travelers’ luggage became vessels for stories across geographies and cultures. These sculptures emulate the actual luggage in material and scale, creating a complicated dynamic between object, privilege, and positionality. Seen outside of the original context or utility, the bundles are elevated to art objects. How the audience understands this object is subjective, based on positionality. Do these packages stir a sense of nostalgia, anger, heartache, or joy if you are an unfamiliar observer? A migrant worker? A member of the Asian diaspora? This is Lee’s subversive indictment of viewers: to demonstrate the non-universal nature of “universal” experiences, and to show that our understanding is based on our experiences as intersectional beings. What Lee accomplishes in this work is twofold. She dismantles a structure of hegemonic understandings by forcing viewers to confront their own array of privileges as they encounter and interpret the objects. She concurrently creates a new mode of visibility around a community that’s otherwise largely invisible in the grand scheme of the Western art and cultural landscape.


With the global pandemic, Lee’s nuanced investigation into universality morphed into an examination of death, loss, and grief. Her exhibition The Language of Grief premiered at MCA Denver one year after the global acknowledgement of COVID-19, amid the resurgence of racial violence against the AAPI community. A massive scroll made out of soft bandages on canvas, Dictation (2021), sliced into the space with the same shocking violation that loss brings. The hanging length is covered in illegible cuneiforms or asemic texts that are vaguely reminiscent of pictographic Asian glyphs. An illegible narrative speaks to the utter impotence that language has for expressing true devastation or loss. Like Bondage Baggage, Dictation attempts to create distinctions between the artist's individual experience and the world beyond her scope. This work aims to bridge the gap between the personal and the collective, asserting that grief is indescribable regardless of the tongue.


Lee’s objects tell us about ourselves and our unique relationships to one another across many boundaries. There is also immense power in what her objects don’t tell us. The deliberate absence or perversion of information urges the viewer to do the work and fill in the gaps.


Conclusion: Living Our Lives Like We’re Golden

Jill Scott’s “Golden” (2004) was the first song that popped into my head while contemplating each artist. The overarching message of the jazz-gospel anthem is about freedom. Freedom to be unabashed. Freedom to be seen “in the round”—from every angle, in the full light. To be golden is to cut through the opaque curtain, whether we sing, dance, metamorphize, build, or barrel through. To be golden is to reflect and radiate, to feel the power to expand and be who we are. To be golden is to be ourselves without fear of tokenism or inclination to adapt to a White audience. To be golden is to be an artist who pushes the bounds not in spite of who we are in the larger expanse of the mainstream, but because of it.


To be golden is to be recognized and acknowledged on our terms. The artists who received the inaugural 2021 Gold Art Prize embody everything that it is to be golden. While the name of the prize and the idea of being golden are purely coincidental, they are nonetheless both significant.


Each artist is not only a dynamic culture-maker but a culture-shaper. Their work, rooted in care and deep contemplation of the complex world within which we exist, deserves every acknowledgment and accolade it receives. They set new precedents for our AAPI communities—a new standard, not only for us to strive toward as artists, but for us to take immense pride in. Because of these artists, our larger cultural landscapes in this country are shifting.


In addition to acknowledging the artists, it is important to acknowledge the prize itself. There are far too few mechanisms for official recognition of AAPI artists. A significant aspect to being recognized is to have the means by which to be seen. In the absence of acknowledgment from most mainstream outlets for our achievements, we must create our own. When there was no room at the table, we were tasked with building our own. It is important for us to not only be seen widely, but for us to see each other. We have always been here.


 

Jasmine Wahi is an activist, curator, and the Founder & Co-Director of Project for Empty Space.

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