Dispute Over Asian American Stereotypes Gives Way to Dialogue at an Art Fair [UPDATED]

Show Mein, an exhibition at this year’s Spring/Break Art Show, became the focus of a heated debate about cultural appropriation.

Installation view of Show Mein at Spring/Break Art Show (all photos by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

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.

Promotional flyer for Show Mein (image via Facebook)

Curated by Chris Held and Lydia Cambron as a continuation of their exhibition project JONALDDUDDShow 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.”

Promotional image for Show Mein, prior to the change in typeface (image courtesy AN/OTHER NY)

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.

Installation view of Show Mein at Spring/Break Art Show

The turn of events is an example of the efficacy of sensitive, challenging dialogue in dealing with what could easily have blown into a controversy built on public shaming. For AN/OTHER NY, it was, more importantly, an example of the urgency to address broader systems at work not only at Spring/Break but in the art world at large that allow for the proliferation of cultural stereotypes. The incident, the group wrote in a new open response, was “a consequence of the intentional and repeated misrepresentation of Asians and Asian Americans in the US evidenced by a long history of xenophobic policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII.

“We see this sentiment continuing in the current political controversy regarding the extreme immigration policy and the presidential administration’s discourse around East and Southeast Asia. It is thus difficult for us to accept the request to reserve criticism simply for JONALDDUDD alone.”

AN/OTHER told Hyperallergic that it thought the conversations that occurred over the past week were productive and “good steps” toward the work that needs to be done to create cultural environments of understanding and inclusivity.

American sentiment is changing rapidly with each passing week on what foreignness is and looks like, how marginalized groups should or should not be protected at the federal and state levels, and who are ‘Americans’ — what they look like, what language they speak, and how they live their lives,” the group wrote in an email. “So while to some it may seem trivial to debate minor issues such as cultural appropriation and representation at an art fair, we feel that artists and cultural producers in NYC have a responsibility to address these issues, and better equip ourselves to build an equal and inclusive community radiating outward from there. If a culture of open dialogue about these issues is not present, then these questions will likely not get hashed out on the local level, which could further complicate things on a more global level.”

The collective added that it is drafting another response to Spring/Break’s statement, as the group feels that the fair did not acknowledge the realities of privilege and power, essentially skirting accountability as an established institution.

Works by Thing Thing and Tyler Held in Show Mein

Meanwhile, the physical installation of Show Mein remains intentionally the same as conceived “for the purposes of furthering the discussions that have arisen,” Cambron told Hyperallergic. She said AN/OTHER NY did not request that JONALDDUDD make any changes. AN/OTHER NY confirmed this, saying that it chose not to largely out of respect for the exhibition’s artists, who were not responsible for the curatorial concept.

“We encourage people to visit and consider with respect to their own cultural vantage point, as well as through the lenses of other through face to face dialogue,” Cambron told Hyperallergic. Many of our peers, including those in the Asian-American community, have expressed support and enthusiasm for the exhibition. That being said, however, we acknowledge that it is problematic and hurtful for others, and it is an egregious offense to betray the trust and feeling of safety one has a right to enjoy in our community.

“We are glad to have begun a dialogue regarding appropriation and cultural sensitivity, one that we hope will lead to healing, as well as a greater understand of the difficult battles ahead that we must all confront together — side by side.”

Update, 3/6: AN/OTHER NY has released a statement in response to that of Spring/Break’s organizers.

The exhibition checklist for <em>Show Mein</em>
The exhibition checklist for Show Mein

The 2017 Spring/Break Art Show continues at 4 Times Square (Midtown, Manhattan) through March 6.

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