If time travel were to exist in the future, what would happen if the owners of such powerful technology were white? Omer Fast’s new exhibition at the Chinatown branch of James Cohan Gallery, August, revels in the power of the Western imagination to utilize non-white cultures as a way to role play and “time travel” into playgrounds for voyeuristic pleasure-seeking that reinforce Western modernity’s sense of superiority.
The artist has transformed the gallery’s white-cube space into a caricature of a derelict Chinese business — a gesture that reads to me as colonialist aggression even if the exhibition’s press release frames it as “an eclectic aesthetic” — in order to present video works from 2008 and 2017. The installation comes across as an amalgamation of stereotypes often associated with lower-income ethnic enclaves.
Fast’s vision of an authentic Chinese business begins with an entryway displaying makeshift debris, a damaged awning, and graffiti-defaced walls. The kind of racialized, classist mockery implicit in such a conflation of Chineseness with destitution continues inside the gallery, which features defunct ATMs taped over with makeshift “Out of Order” signs, overflowing trash bins, and a broken patchwork of a floor. In place of a receptionist’s desk, a glass vitrine displays an unappealing array of cheap cell-phone cases. Exactly what Chinatown business inspired this dilapidated space? Certainly not the fish market that previously occupied the address, nor any of the other neighboring restaurants, bakeries, and shops, which all have legible awnings and clean storefronts. Not a single one of the bus stations dotting East Broadway, which consist of waiting rooms with working ATMs and continuous industrial flooring. The exhibition space does not reflect my own personal experiences living with generations of Chinese people or living in New York’s Chinatown.
The exhibition has angered other community members, including the Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB), a collective of artists and activists working with the Chinatown Tenants Union and CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities. CAB has released a statement condemning the exhibition that reads in part:
“The conception and installation of this show reifies racist narratives of uncleanliness, otherness and blight that have historically been projected onto Chinatown. We cannot underscore enough how offensive this is to the people who live and work here. The artist’s choice to ignore the presence of a thriving community filled with families and businesses reduces their existence to poverty porn. This has a real and negative impact on how Chinatown is perceived by non- residents, politicians and developers who view low-income communities as wastelands ripe for investment and exploitation.”
What Fast has created and presented as a place of fantasy reveals his own condescension toward a culture that is not his own. When Edward W. Said published Orientalism in 1978, he popularized the term as a way of describing the West’s historical tendency to claim its own superiority in contrast to an exaggeratedly abnormal, Other, foreign East. Fast’s Chinese storefront exists in stark contrast to the back gallery, where, down a narrow hallway, the viewer enters a shockingly clean black theater space showing video work “August” (2016). The very layout of the exhibition employs the logic of Orientalism: presenting an exotic, culturally barbaric East as an intentional and over-produced artificial contrast that affirms the inherent cleanliness and desirability of Western minimalism.
Fast’s assembly of negative cultural signifiers could be taken to imply that Chinatown has reached a derelict and dire state and is begging for gentrification. Upon raising these concerns with the gallery staff, I was assured of the artist’s “good intentions” and was told that the exhibition’s provocations are meant to raise awareness of the current threat of gentrification in Chinatown, and the gallery’s complicity in this trajectory. However, neither the gallery nor the artist ever made any attempts to contact the grassroots organizations who have been actively working to challenge the idea that gentrification and displacement are inevitable. When I asked for a comment, Art Against Displacement, another anti-gentrification coalition, responded with this statement, in solidarity with CAB:
“Despite the artist’s presumed intention of highlighting issues around gentrification, without careful engagement with the community it is impossible to raise these issues with the empathy and understanding needed to produce real change. There are many ways for those who wish to actively engage in existing community-led conversations and initiatives on gentrification and displacement in Chinatown and LES. Advocating for the Chinatown Working Group’s rezoning plan is one way, or for candidates who support these plans — like Christopher Marte, who will challenge incumbent Margaret Chin as an Independent in the general election on November 7.”
An action that offends the very community members it claims to support undermines their existing efforts to be heard, and is unfortunately a regular occurrence in the arts. In light of recent controversies such as the Whitney Museum’s response to Hannah Black’s letter calling for the destruction of Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket,” it is likely that a critical response suggesting the removal of Fast’s insulting installation would redirect conversations toward censorship rather than how justice can be served for Chinatown and its residents. Many have yet to fully acknowledge that cultural authority and art as a form of speech has been historically denied to people of color in this country. Fast’s August only serves as another example of how, time and again, art posited as a neutral space exempt from responsibility to the politics of the world can be destructive and bigoted.