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  • Harry C. H. Choi

Why Home Matters

by Harry C. H. Choi


Despite several decades of sustained interest in artists of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, a precise theoretical framework that appropriately contextualizes their practices in the present seems still in the works. At the center of the enigma lies the question of how to untangle the varied layers within the Asian and Pacific Islander diaspora—the dislocated conditions of those who can retrace their heritage back to the continent of Asia or the Pacific Islands but are living or have lived the majority of their lives outside of the regions—when a shared ethnicity could easily push these artists to be grouped into one homogenous mass. 


A brief look into the histories of exhibitions elucidates the ways in which artists from Asia and the broader Asian diaspora are brought together without a clear-cut distinction. Post–Cold War curiosity about contemporary art produced in East Asia prompted influential Western institutions to host a series of exhibitions—including Japanese Art after 1945: Scream Against the Sky (1994–1995), which traveled to the Guggenheim Museum SoHo, and Inside Out: New Chinese Art (1998) at the Museum of Modern Art—developed through a curatorial lens that privileged the nation-state. Irrespective of the complexities of the artists’ sense of allegiance to particular countries, what grouped them together in these shows was their shared cultural roots. 


This nation-based perspective was eventually supplanted by methodologies that concentrated on the practices of individual artists. Many benefited from the new millennium’s increasingly globalized biennials and traveling exhibitions, becoming globetrotting artists producing one site-specific project after another. The studies on singular figures such as Ai Weiwei, Takashi Murakami, and Do Ho Suh, nevertheless, are wanting as they have oftentimes overlooked the significance of the locational contexts such as New York, London, and Berlin, which could have been integral to the development of their ideas. Instead, the different ways through which the artists engaged with their own cultural heritage have been solely attributed to the workings of their individual minds. 


Artists, however, do not exist in a vacuum. By setting aside the complexities of the physical milieu to which they belong, we forgo the opportunity to consider the ways in which tangible experiences of diaspora might have given rise to particular ways of thinking. What I would like to propose in this essay is a more nuanced understanding of the Asian and Pacific Islander diaspora as it intersects with specific places in which the artists lived and worked. Elucidating the various tonalities of diasporic experiences that consider how shared cultural heritage manifests through disparate locational contexts, I argue, provides a necessary framework that reveals the histories of art that have neglected artistic practices that emerge out of diasporic realities. 


Identity in Process

The notion of “diasporic identities” as formulated by the British cultural theorist Stuart

Hall offers a useful theoretical framework through which the practices of this year’s Gold Art Prize artists could be interrogated. In “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” Hall argues for a notion of identity as a “production” rather than an “already accomplished fact.” In Hall’s view, identity cannot be inscribed in a fixed, immutable manner—rather, it is constantly refashioned throughout manifold layers of life experiences and thus “never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation.” This view allows Hall to formulate cultural identity that is not based on commonalities of a particular community, but on the differences that constitute what a particular group of people have “become” in settings away from their homelands. While the origins of a specific group of people can be traced back to a single geographical locus, this notion of cultural identity prompts a consideration of “the ruptures and discontinuities” that continue shaping their narratives. 


For Hall, such rifts are not only physical, in the sense of the literal dislocations of colonization or forced removal, but also intangible, apparent in the transformations of culture that have manifested from particular ethnic groups being separated from their countries of origin for extended periods of time. The distinction offers Hall an opportunity to tease out what a diasporic identity could resemble: a conception of cultural identity that “lives with and through difference,” which emphasizes cultural hybridity by “constantly producing and reproducing [itself] anew.” Hall’s argument that cultural identity is constantly fluid and reshaped suggests that the respective locational contexts of the artists’ practices could serve as generative contexts to situate their practices, precisely because the tangible and intangible inputs from the specific locales must have shaped their thinking in particular manners.


Shifting focus to the possibilities of “diasporic identities,” indeed, should not

overshadow the fact that there are common ruptures and fissures inherent to diasporic

experiences that make it necessary to tie them together. Essential to the diasporic experience is

the recognition of one’s own body—as well as a set of political, social, and cultural connotations

inscribed within it—that is different from the “mainstream” body of the society to which one belongs. If, following the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the recognition of the self within early psychological development originates from the visual awareness of one’s own image reflected in the mirror, the diasporic experience could also be similarly rooted in a fundamental phenomenological experience of the disparities between the bodies of their present homes and their cultures of origin, however many generations have passed since the initial point of immigration. And such recognition of fundamental bodily differences may not only be the origin of a racializing gaze but serve as a tool to read the manifestations of the foreign, the unknown, and the extraterrestrial in the works by artists of the Asian diaspora. 

 

Between Lives and Works 

The question that persists, then, is the extent to which individual artistic practices manifest the artists’ locational contexts of diaspora. Take, for instance, the works of Enzo Camacho and Ami Lien, whose projects often emerge from the duo’s immersion into specific localities for an extended period of time. Their prolonged research into the history of capitalism and colonization culminated in their sustained engagement with a group of investment bankers in Singapore, a country that developed into the financial hub of the region largely due to the British Empire’s designation of the nation as a trading post (Smog Cocktail Interlaced with Sexy Banker, 2016). Such early endeavors, which were borne out of personal interactions with groups of individuals through residencies and exhibitions, allowed for prolonged periods of involvement with the local communities and subsequently came to fruition via a series of interrelated projects that also delved into histories specific to particular locations. 


For 陰府 (Shady Mansion), their 2018 solo exhibition at Kunstverein Freiburg in Germany, the duo examined a proposal by the government of New York City, where Ami currently lives, for  “The Lowline”—an underground park in the Lower East Side that directs sunlight into subterranean settings through cutting-edge solar technology. The neighborhood once housed a largely Puerto Rican and Chinese community, whose apartments were destroyed by the city’s initiatives for urban renewal with the blatantly unkept promise that they would receive more long-term, affordable housing; the surrounding areas were thrown into neglect until waves of gentrification radically transformed the landscape. Camacho and Lien thus intervene in the ways in which the proposal for the Lowline and the histories of the Lower East Side converge with their ongoing research on postcolonial conditions. In Freiburg, a city known for its environmentally friendly technology and, like New York City, facing problems with affordable housing, the duo met with solar technologists to create their own version of the Lowline within the spaces of the exhibition (fig. 1). Dystopian, arboreal sculptures that made use of found materials from the city of Freiburg served as stand-ins for the five skyscrapers that will overtake the landscape of the Lower East Side once the Lowline is built. The artists’ own identities as subjects of the Asian diaspora are reconsidered within different spatial contexts in which they are situated, as they delve into the consequences of the broader historical narratives surrounding colonialism and capitalism that have shaped their own existences. The locational contexts of their practices, therefore, are significant as they function as a source of references through which the complexities of their own personal narratives are fleshed out. 


For some, Camacho and Lien’s work might not be a satisfying example to demonstrate why the specific local contexts of the Asian and Pacific Island diaspora is crucial, for the duo’s practice seems rooted in the model of site-specificity that has been a key strategy of artistic production for the past two decades. As Miwon Kwon observed, the rise of the so-called “biennial circuits” enabled artists to produce works that respond to the historical, social, and political specificities of the places of exhibition, oftentimes with little regard to the artistic conversations that take place within the local context. Indeed, it would be difficult to argue that artists like Camacho and Lien, who have realized exhibitions in different countries on a short-term project basis, are playing a key role within a specific local scene, whether it be Singapore or Germany. But by emphasizing the spatio-cultural milieu in which an artist is situated, we nevertheless perform the important task of situating the artist within a sphere of conversations and influences, rather than placing her as a singular figure who emerges out of an unspecified spatiotemporal context. Importantly, what the methodology enables is a richer reading of the same project, which considers it as a result of layers of historical contingencies at work. 


Such a hermeneutic approach is indeed more convincing when there is a longer timeline of an artist’s oeuvre, against which the currents of art history specific to the locale can be juxtaposed. But even for artists whose practices are still developing, the emphasis could lay the groundwork for an unexpected and yet important set of considerations that augment ongoing discourses. Mire Lee’s biomorphic sculptures that evoke the ugly and the abject, for instance, could be understood not only as a byproduct of the artist’s interest in vorarephilia—the sexual desire to consume or be consumed by another person or creature—but also as an expression of alterity that she experiences as a Korean woman living in Europe. For some, positioning Lee’s work as a product of diaspora may seem far-fetched when considering the broader genealogy of her practice: the artist, who relocated to Amsterdam in 2018 and established a studio there afterwards, was interested in the affective possibilities of kinetic sculpture before her move to Europe, as can be evidenced from her earlier works that she presented in her native Seoul. (fig. 2) But even so, a consideration of her locational identity could bring into relief how the artistic discourses within the Dutch scene as well as the practical realities of working in Amsterdam could have shaped Lee’s practice as it evolved.


In the case of WangShui, whose work explores the possibilities of collaboration with artificial intelligence, the fact that they are an artist of Chinese descent born and raised in the United States and currently working in New York could help indicate why the remnants of Chinese history and culture, both in the abstract and the concrete, are featured within their work from a certain distance, oftentimes in a mediated, historicized form. Glimpses of their Chinese American heritage could be teased out from the early film From Its Mouth Came a River of High-End Residential Appliances (2018), in which drone footage of peculiar holes built into skyscrapers in Hong Kong is juxtaposed against a voiceover that merges Chinese mythologies surrounding dragons as well as the practice of feng shui, which was banned in the People’s Republic of China after 1949. But a more complex reading that moves beyond the cultural signifiers in their practice would suggest that the manifestation of the “other” in their practice in the forms of AI is also a product of the particularities of their diasporic experience that is shaped by physical and generational distance from their cultural heritage. In their contribution to the Whitney Biennial 2022, Scr∴ pe II (Isle of Vitr∴ ous) (2022), the artist created an installation that consists of an LED ceiling projecting constantly changing images produced from multiple generative adversarial networks (GANs) that created a feedback system across multiple screens (fig. 3). Installed within the room with the LED ceiling were multiple sensors that measured light and CO2 levels that changed depending on the number of visitors present, which in turn became the source from which the imagery displayed on the screens was generated. Considering the biographical context of the artist, it would not be possible to trace such evocation of an alternate entity that is structurally built into the work of art as simply an expression of interest in burgeoning technology—alterity, here, does not only reflect the changing technological landscape of the present moment, but could also be construed as a metaphor for the artist’s own experience as a foreign body. 


Beyond the Nation

But beyond the simple fact that individual works of art can be read through the specific places out of which they were born, placing diasporic artists into the particularities of local artistic discourses could also destabilize the national histories of art as they are currently written. In large part, the trajectories of artists of the Asian and Pacific Islander diaspora are oftentimes brought into view only within racially and culturally specific contexts, within a lens that highlights a particular national diaspora or the region more broadly. As such, those artists that are not directly responding to the specific cultural backgrounds that they have inherited have been left outside of history, even though their conscious decision to disengage with their own cultural backgrounds is an expression of their specific artistic positions. 


The life and work of Tishan Hsu, for instance, offers a particularly compelling case in point, as they were shaped by the artist’s decision to position himself against the grain of the conversations surrounding identity politics in downtown New York in the 1980s. Born in Boston to Shanghainese parents who had immigrated to the U.S., Hsu recalls his parents raising him in a setting that emphasized assimilation into mainstream America—in the age of McCarthyism and Cultural Revolution, his Chinese identity could signify alignment with Communist ideals. Such an upbringing, combined with the increasing infiltration of technological apparatuses into everyday life, pushed him to explore his own self as the “racial other” through the “otherness of technology.” Hsu’s paintings, which simultaneously evoke the luscious exterior of gadgets fresh off the box and the glitchy errors that are all too common on digital screens, as well as his oddly dystopian sculptures that hover between functional objects and cyborgian robots, then could be read as a certain statement on discourses surrounding the Asian diaspora in the 1980s—an artistic position that was theorized through Rachel C. Lee’s formulation of the Asian American identity in “a more fragmented and distributed material sense,” that is informed by “chemical, informatic, and cybernetic flows” that are characteristic of the technologized era (fig. 4). 


That is not to say, indeed, that the historiographical potential of diasporic identities could also be similarly restrictive. It might seem counterintuitive to think about the specific locales in which the artists are situated, at a point in history where the possibilities of transnational movements have been easier than ever. For many artists working in the present moment, where they work may not be decided because of the kinds of conversations that take place within those particular locales, but for practical reasons that may have little bearing on the development of their practices. More so than ever, cities where many artists settle, such as New York or Berlin, could be considered “non-places” devoid of geographical specificities that merit such historical analysis. Such initial hesitations would be further complicated by the fact that diasporic identities are not simply a mix of two different cultures; rather they can manifest through an intersectional mélange of various cultures, which makes it difficult to theorize certain practices as an expression of a particular cultural heritage—whether it be Chinese, Korean, or Filipino—through the terms of a particular locale. 


Gala Porras-Kim, an artist of Colombian and Korean descent who is currently based in Los Angeles, is an apt example. Her experience of diaspora includes the layer of her upbringing in both Latin America and the U.S.—an aspect that further complicates a neat placement into the category of “diasporic identities,” for much of her practice engages with museological strategies of Mesoamerican and other cultural artifacts that are oftentimes embedded with colonialist perspectives that center Western notions of cultural heritage and conservation. But these limitations should not forbid us from teasing out the many layers of differences that are enfolded within the broader notion of “diaspora” that is too easily resorted to within discourses on artists of Asian and Pacific Islander origin. Noting the specific traits of the artists’ home locations matters—not only because it will complicate the conversation beyond the somewhat umbrella term of Asian and Pacific diaspora, which attracts scholarly attention in the present moment, but also because it will elucidate the systems of oppression that have excluded bodies of color from the national consciousness in various corners of the world. After all, even in the moments of blissful oblivion marked by endless dislocation, the home, estranged or chosen or otherwise, continues to shape who we are. 


 

Harry C. H. Choi is an art historian and curator based in San Francisco and Seoul. Previously, he was Assistant Curator of the 14th Gwangju Biennale and held curatorial fellowships at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and Museum of Modern Art, New York. As a critic, he writes regularly for publications such as Artforum, Aperture, and Texte zur Kunst. He received his BA from Harvard University and is completing his PhD at Stanford University with a dissertation on the emergence of avant-garde cinema in South Korea.


  1. Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004).

  2. Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), 222–237.

  3. Hall

  4. Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” in Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink (New York/London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), 343–344. 

  5. Kwon, One Place after Another.

  6. Louise Benson, “Tishan Hsu’s Art Preceded Internet Aesthetics by Decades. Now, His Prescient Work Is Finally Getting Its Due,” Artnet News, March 22, 2023, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/tishan-hsu-profile-2272666.

  7. Jeppe Ugelvig, “Tishan Hsu,” ArtReview, April 10, 2019, https://artreview.com/ara-spring-2019-feature-tishan-hsu/.

  8. Marc Augé, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, trans. John Howe (London: Verso, 2008). 

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