MuseumsWeekend

Postscript to the Whitney Biennial: An Asian-American Perspective

by John Yau on June 29, 2014

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Martin Wong’s “Closed” (1984–85), acrylic on canvas, with a glimpse of Robert Kinmont’s “The wings are in the paper drawer” (1972–73), wood, paper, and Snow Goose wings, at bottom left (photograph by Hrag Vartanian)

Now that the Whitney Biennial is finally over, did anyone notice that Patty Chang, Nikki S. Lee, and Laurel Nakadate weren’t included, just to mention three mid-career, Asian-American women artists who were conspicuously absent? Forget about younger Asian-American women artists like Jiha Moon and Chie Fueki. – they don’t seem to stand a chance. And of course Mel Chin wasn’t in the Biennial, because what’s he ever done for you lately? What’s up with that?

I know, I know – Paul Chan has been in it, quit your griping. And yes, longtime New York artist David Diao is in this one. You know you are not behaving like an Asian American whose mother came over in 1949, on the last boat to leave Shanghai. You should be more grateful.

When the ubiquitous term “people of color” is used, does the speaker or writer also mean Asian Americans – itself a complicated category? Or do yellow and red get tossed out, like dirty bathwater?

Or should Asian Americans simply check the box labeled “Other” and quietly and politely go – like all well-behaved Asian Americans – into the room marked INVISIBLE.

Has Laurel Nakadate, who had a large-scale exhibition, Only The Lonely at MoMA: PS1 (January 23 – August 11, 2011), ever been included in a Whitney Biennial? What about Patty Chang, whose Flotsam Jetsam, a collaborative film with David Kelley, is currently being shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (March 15 – August 15, 2014)? What about Nikki S. Lee, whose film, A.K.A. Nikki S. Lee, premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (October 5 – 7, 2006)?

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Ken Lum, “Midway Shopping Plaza” (2014), powder-coated aluminum and enameled plexiglass (photograph by Jillian Steinhauer) (click to enlarge)

Yes, it’s true that Ken Lum was in the Biennial, along with, Martin Wong, who is dead. Lum’s piece, “Midway Shopping Plaza” (2014) is full of fictitious placards referring to the Vietnam War, while the strip mall signboard evokes the Vietnamese communities living in America. Martin Wong’s painting,” “Closed” (1984-85), which depicts a shuttered Chinatown storefront, is in the Biennial because of Julie Ault, not one of the curators, chose him. Ault curated a room that had as its center point work by David Wojnarowicz and Wong, both artists who died of AIDS, and included pieces by Martin Beck, James Benning, Jesse Howard and Danh Vo.

This leads me to the next question. Is it true that if you are a person of color (black, brown, yellow or red), the only way to get into the Biennial is to make work that deals with racial identity in a way that is acceptable? Who determines that agenda? If you go by the Whitney’s curatorial choices, the answer is obvious. You have to do what white curators want or you are going to remain invisible. So while everyone was applauding the number of mid-career abstract women artists who were in this year’s Biennial, no one gave a hoot that they were all white.

Let’s face it, if you are part of the art world, you live in a segregated society full of little ghettoes, with one of them being “people of color who make abstract art” and another being “Asian-American women who deal with identity.” It is not that the artists consigned to these ghettoes want to be shut up in them, but because the art world has decided that this is the way it is. These groups, it would seem, were underrepresented because no one in them made work of high enough quality. You can’t really argue with that, can you?

The 2014 Whitney Biennial was on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) March 7–May 25, 2014.

Update, 6/29 12:32pm: The text has been revised to note David Diao’s participation in the most recent Whitney Biennial.

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  • Zak Vreeland

    Laurel Nakadate is funny

  • Naomi Reis

    Yup. Agree wholeheartedly. “You have to do what white curators want or you are going to remain invisible.” But also, you have to speak up. Speaking up is increasingly something Asians (Asian/Asian American/mixed race Asian, etc– I for example am only half Asian but look Asian in America, white in Asia, and have a white-sounding name, so quickly this issue of who is even Asian or Asian American gets complicated) need to be doing more of. Add to that the Asian cultural taboo of drawing attention to yourself (especially if you are female), the lack of a unified culture or language, plus the fact that most of us are here voluntarily, model minority, blah blah, the message can feel like it boils down to, shut the f up, don’t call attention to yourself, you chose to come here. Race issues in this country tend to boil down to black and white, but other minorities with unique cultural identities are also here that should have more visibility. The onus is somewhat on us of Asian heritage to be more vocal, and more organized. (However there is also precious little institutional support for Asian artists in NYC. Where is the Asia Society’s support for emerging contemporary artists in NY? They seem to only show artists who are already famous, and preferably authentically “Asian” from an Asian country. It’s an uphill struggle for emerging Asian artists in NY, and this invisibility and lack of value/attention paid to Asian aesthetics starts at the very beginning, in grad schools.) Happy to see this topic getting some public air time in an art context, it’s about time.

    • http://www.quizdit.com Quizdit

      Thank you, Naomi. This article and your opinions are important to challenging the art world to embrace the multitude of voices that exist in our field.

    • Rob Colvin

      Hi Naomi,

      I write here at Hyperallergic pretty often. I also write on and for Asian artists working in New York. This writing is legal (meaning, it can’t be published) and only gets read by a half dozen people at most, including me and an immigration officer. That said, I’ve read, very closely, hundreds of CVs from Asian artists all over the world. I can’t cite from memory any counterexamples to your claim.

  • http://www.laurakina.com Laura Kina

    Keeping the spirit of the Godzilla artist collective alive! After the 1991 Whitney Biennial a group of Asian American artists brought this issue up to then director David Ross and “cced” the art world and press. This is sadly not a new issue. Read about this history in Alexandra Chang’s book Envisioning Diaspora: Asian American Visual Artists Collectives from Godzilla, Godzookie, to the Barnstormers. Margo Machida would be a great choice for one of the next curators. I love the work of Laurel Nakadate. Wei Ming Dariotis and I included her in our book War Baby/Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art. Patty Chang and Nikki S. Lee are also great suggestions. I’d also lobby for work by Mequitta Ahuja, Shizu Saldamando, Gina Osterloh, Tina Takemoto, Anida Yoeu Ali. Talk to the Center for Art + Thought and the Diasporic Asian Arts Network…we can send you “binders full of” names for Asian American women artists!

  • Naomi Reis

    Perhaps part of the problem is, it’s difficult to bottle and package what makes an artist’s work unique — not all characteristics of an artist’s work can be attributed to their race, cultural background, etc — but it’s certainly a part of it. The problem with including someone in a show *because* they are Asian/Asian-American/mixed-race, whatever, implies that by definition that’s because there is something inherently Asian/Asian-American/mixed-race, whatever about their work. And unless race is being directly addressed in the work, how can you label it as such if their work is an amalgam of something more subtle –perhaps an aesthetic that belies an Asian sensibility, a philosophy, a viewpoint? I suspect that Laura Kina, the artists you’re talking about are Asian-American artists who make work specifically centered around an Asian-American viewpoint; what about artists for whom that’s a factor but not a central focus? Or artists who grew up in Asia but now live here in the U.S. (who are not Asian-American, not Asian, but somewhere in-between?) It’s a complex topic with many hidden subtleties and shades of grey…

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