Interviews

Beyond Hello Kitty: Asian Artists Who Don’t Make Work About Being Asian

Satomi Shirai, “Breakfast” (2007) (via Arario Gallery) (click to enlarge)
The postcard for “Irrelevant”

Last week, a show titled Irrelevant: Local Emerging Asian Artists Who Don’t Make Work About Being Asian opened at Arario Gallery’s New York branch. The South Korean gallery has a mission to exhibit Asian art but their latest exhibition, which includes nearly fifty artists and it is curated by Joann Kim and Lesley Sheng, seems more interested in changing New Yorkers’ perception of what Asian art is or could be than anything else.

Don’t expect your typical Asian fare, which the press release makes clear:

You will not find paintings about the Cultural Revolution or Mao Zedong that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. You will not find manga-infused characters performing acts of hypersexuality nor will you find decorative miniature drawings with motifs embedded within a specific cultural history.

After a curious description like that I set out to talk to curator Joann Kim about the parameters of her show and what we can expect from a visit.

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Hello Kitty (left) getting no love from curator Joann Kim (right).

Hrag Vartanian: So, what do you have against Hello Kitty?

Joann Kim: She’s cuter and more generically consumable than I am. We also had a big falling out when Keroppi came to town and confessed he was looking for someone more “animated” and ran off with Hello Kitty. Also, she symbolizes all that is twisted and cruel in the underpit of sexually repressed Asian culture.

HV: So, we shouldn’t expect art in the show to address the sex trade, geishas or the whole “ping pong balls being shot out of the vagina” thing?

JK: No bukaki, no octopus arms gushing through open orifices. However, there IS a decapitated deer head, urination, nipple pinching, self-gorging, rotten bread squares [by artists Jaeeun Lee], and various other aesthetic mindfucking creations.

HV: You sound like an angry Asian. What gives?

JK: Asians are by nature a cruel race (according to a quote from a movie I can’t now remember). We’re emotionally and psychologically stifled, our outlets are what come out of demented sex fetishes and hyper-realized cutedom. The Angry Little Girl in me comes out from a cultural ambivalence from Asians towards stereotypes and an unwillingness (or inability) to create a relevant identity that doesn’t pathetically adhere to American expectations.

Kikuko Tanaka, “A Tragic Bambi: Mother’s Tears” (2009 - Present) (courtesy Arario Gallery) (click to enlarge)

This may sound vague but I swear somewhere in my head it makes sense, this direct link to the art market and how folks fetishized contemporary Asian art during the market’s boom and bought anything related to the Cultural Revolution or had the stamp of a Chinese imported painting. It was frivolous and incestuous, this obsession that was so short lived, arbitrary and meaningless. Then the market crashed and no one cares about Asian art anymore.

Irrelevant is a sidetracked response to that, a mocking of what sprouted from this weak trend, and a highlighting of what occurred outside of this small community of know-nothings blossoming in this city, beneath the high towers of the neurotic art world. The artists in the show reveal their race whilst dismissing it, showcasing works that may not end up in the pages of a Christie’s auction catalogue but will leave the slightest dent within art history as a whole. I sound like a blinded idealizer but I swear, it all makes sense to me.

HV: How are you defining Asian?

JK: Majority of the artists in the show are of Japanese, Korean, Chinese descent. It was easy to find them according to their last names in art registries. There are also artists of Pacific Island and Central Asian backgrounds. We even have a few mixed Asians in there.

HV: What did the artists think of the concept for the show? Were they relieved? Confused?

Pixy Liao, “Intimacy will improve your relationship” (2007) (courtesy ArarioNewYork.com)

JK: They thought it brilliant of course. Seriously, they were excited to participate and found it a relief to not be scapegoated as an Asian artist, precisely by being scapegoated as an Asian artist, who doesn’t make work about being Asian or doesn’t make work about being scapegoated as an Asian artist.

There were also participating artist who found it slightly offensive to make an invitation card with the back of their heads to the camera because it might come off as defeating and “giving in” to the whole idea of what we’re “fighting against” with the show. Others thought it hysterical and was happy to contribute.

HV: Tell me about 3 people we should we excited to see in the show?

JK: Kikuko Tanaka’s performance July 29th titled “Tragic Bambi: A Mother’s Tears,” Tattfoo Tan’s urban agriculture and environmentalism infused social sculptures, and Yijun Liao’s photograph series Experimental Relationships.

HV: Any surprises curating this show? Did any major themes emerge?

JK: My only surprise was how good the works actually ended up being. And how themes emerged from these random searches for Asian artists who don’t make work about being Asian. Themes that found it’s way to the show is as quoted in the press release:

What you’ll find is a surging flow of creativity where artists actively engage in their practice, exploring the absurd within everyday experience, the use and misuse of materials both new and found, and the curiosity of defining artistic practice. Food and consumption is considered within an urban agricultural environment, and social interaction is taken out of norm and reenacted in refreshing alternative ways. Pictured narratives gear toward a dark and isolated realm and obsession is the source behind abstracted images.

Irrelevant continues at Arario Gallery (521 W 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until August 6. It features work by Seong Min Ahn, Shin Young An, Sophia Chai, Louis Chan, Karen Chan, Rona Chang, Gigi Chen, Yoon Cho, Micah Ganske, Hyoungsun Ha, Geujin Han, Takashi Horisaki, Jane V Hsu, Hidenori Ishii, Hong Seon Jang, Kyoung Eun Kang, Heige Kim, Seung Ae Kim, Nancy Kim, Hein Koh, Shizuka Kusayanagi, Amy Fung-yi Lee & Caroline Jung-ah Park, JaeEun Lee, Sinae Lee, Soo Im Lee, Jiyoun Lee-Lodge, Yijun Liao, Juri Morioka, Tadashi Moriyama, Joel Morrison, Dominic Neitz, Christian Nguyen, Asuka Osawa, Eung Ho Park, Youngna Park, Jung Eun Park, R&D, Ruijun Shen, Satomi Shirai, Hidemi Takagi, Tattfoo Tan, Kikuko Tanaka, Jason Tomme, Mai Ueda, Kako Ueda, InJoo Whang, Wenjie Yang, Mika Yokobori, Yejin Yoo, Jayoung Yoon, Seldon Yuan

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