SAN FRANCISCO — Turn on your computer, sit at a cafe, answer a few phone calls, sip tea from a ceramic mug, and scribble notes into a paper journal. Whether it is raw tin from Indonesia, manufactured objects from southern China, or items designed in Korea, chances are most of your interactions are with articles produced in Asia.
Import/Export, currently on show at the Asia Art Museum, looks at Asia’s ubiquitous impact on our everyday lives. The third in the three-part Proximities exhibition curated by Glen Helfand, Import/Export continues in the show’s overarching theme of Asia seen through the lens of Bay Area-based artists. The first show examined notions of place and perception, while the second part focused on relationships. This third in the series is set in the context of Asia’s rapid economic rise and the complexities of globalization.
Jeffrey Augustine Songco ponders the export of Asian spiritual practices with “Blissed Out” (2013), an apparent video of “a young, muscular American man,” as the show’s wall text describes him, sitting in meditation. The ruse is that he’s only taken one deep breath, which Songco has placed on repeat, like an animated GIF.
For his contribution, Byron Peters commissioned an unnamed studio in Shenzhen, China (a major center of Chinese manufacturing) that specializes in visualizing luxury homes in North America. Instead of a home, he asked for something without a blueprint, the sky, and instead of paying in cash, he had the company agree to allow him to trade 50 Facebook likes for payment. With mounting pollution problems in China, the beautiful sky the company rendered could be seen as much of a fantasy as any luxury home, while payment through a social media currency felt reminiscent of Chinese gold farming on World of Warcraft.
As the curator contemplates on the Asian Art Museum’s blog, knowing and understanding the source of so much of our consumption is literally sewn into the products we purchase in the United States. What we do with that knowledge is not such a simple matter:
“In the Western season of stuff, it’s fascinating to look at product labels that reveal the site of manufacture. No big surprises there — I just checked and my Uniqlo down jacket was, as expected, made in China. But can this information actually communicate to me anything about China, this product’s country of origin? Can this article of clothing literally bring me in physical contact with another place? It might be easy for some people to ignore the implications — Do I really want to know if I purchased a shirt that came from the collapsed Bangladesh sweatshop? And what would I do if I did?”
In Amanda Curreri’s “Double Barbershop Poles (Masked, Unmasked, and Askew)” (2011), we’re told that in Seoul, situated close to an American military base, double barbershop poles signal that an establishment offers sexual services for customers. Curreri deconstructs these icons of Americana and even transforms them into a child’s jump rope. For the exhibition, she has include a video of her skipping rope on loop. The tap-tap-tap of the rope echoes throughout the gallery space, and it is the only sound emanating from the exhibition. She appears to include an enlarged “Identification and Privilege Card” as a reminder of the arbitrary power these little pieces of paper have in situating us in a place.
The piece that lingered with me the longest was Imin Yeh’s “Paper Bag Project” (2013), which was inspired by her time in India during an arts residency. Yeh visited a factory that manufactures high-end paper shopping bags, which, we’re told, are made by hand. Yeh recreates the bags in her studio and has hung them up in the museum space emblazoned with different symbols.
In any other context, these bags are used to carry clothing, shoes or electronics, and they later become receptacles for trash or something else. In this context, they are placed on view in the same building that collects and displays priceless Asian objects. That we seem to value the work of Yeh, a maker of Asian descent in the Bay Area, differently from the work of anonymous Asian makers (anonymous to us, the consumers, at least) is a question we’re left to ponder.
Import/Export is part of a three-part exhibition titled Proximities, and it runs until February 23 at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin St, Civic Center, San Francisco). There will be a tea tasting and curator talk on February 6.