Every year, a small group of organizers of the Spring/Break Art Show vets all curatorial proposals and artworks, submitted in response to a theme, in part to ensure that the exhibition features no culturally insensitive works. A group show at this year’s sixth edition of Spring/Break testifies to the necessity for such a process that is careful and cautious, after a final installation that differed entirely from its original, approved concept caused outrage for its Orientalist presentation and promotional material. Show Mein — a play on the Chinese noodle dish — opened Wednesday in the fair’s new location at 4 Times Square, with flyers and promotional materials edited as the result of critical conversations that have unfolded over the last week.
Curated by Chris Held and Lydia Cambron as a continuation of their exhibition project JONALDDUDD, Show Mein first received backlash after Held and Cambron launched a Facebook event page last Friday. The curators posted invitations with graphics featuring a Chinese restaurant takeout container emblazoned with the so-called “chop suey” typeface and an image of a Judd-like box cradling chopsticks. A banner image echoed the same iconography in blue.
The curators describe the show as framing “the works of seven artist/designers within an aesthetic homage to New York City’s Chinese takeout restaurants. The presentation of seemingly disparate works within a non-neutral context aims to highlight the similarities between objects by displacing the perceived tension onto the environment.” It’s an exhibition entirely different from the duo’s original proposal for this year’s “BLACK MIRROR” theme: Spring/Break initially accepted their concept of a furniture series designed by the duo’s other practice, Nice Condo, as Cambron told Hyperallergic. She added that they made hasty decisions that “we now regret not full[y] vetting with our peers or the SPRING/BREAK curatorial team.”
To many, Show Mein‘s title and accompanying invitation imagery were problematic, tone-deaf, and dismissive of the racist origins behind the design elements, which were seemingly casually appropriated and deployed. The show also represents overwhelmingly white artists — one member of the participating collective THING THING, Eiji Jimbo, is of Japanese background. A curator had also allegedly shared the event on Facebook with the caption, “it WILL smell like egg rolls.”
“While it is obvious that the title and imagery were intended to be interpreted as fun, they engage in a rhetoric that reinforces stereotypes about Asianness and foreignness at a time when it is, quite frankly, not a very fun time to be a person of color in America,” AN/OTHER NY, a group of artists, writers, and curators who advocate for Asians and Asian-Americans in the arts, wrote in an open letter on Tuesday, after JONALDDUDD defended its concept. “Unfortunately, Show Mein is a crystal clear enactment of the way that Asians in America have historically been mistreated and misrepresented, from seemingly harmless slights like being made the butt of racist jokes, including those that refer to the supposed potency of Asian food aromas, to greater traumas like the Chinese Exclusion Act, the internment of people of Japanese descent, and US-led wars on Asian lands.”
In response to Tuesday’s open letter, Held and Cambron changed the layout for all promotional materials in both digital and print forms, opting for a modern, sans serif typeface. After meeting with members of AN/OTHER on Wednesday, they also issued a public apology in which they recognized the oversight in their decision-making.
“Our decisions and actions were not intended to harm anyone, but we recognize that good intentions do not make up for ill-informed cultural appropriation,” the curators wrote. “It is not the rules of cultural appropriation that have shifted, but rather the reprecussions [sic] for the people and communities affected by the reckless co-opting capable of reinforcing negative stereotypes.”
Spring/Break’s organizers also issued a public statement yesterday. In it, they apologize for not having a chance to critically engage with the new JONALDDUDD exhibition, noting that they had been informed of the changes only immediately prior to the fair’s opening.
The 2017 Spring/Break Art Show continues at 4 Times Square (Midtown, Manhattan) through March 6.