Art

Dominique Fung’s Tongue-in-Cheek Rejections of the Orientalist Gaze

In Relics and Remains, Fung’s portraits reframe East Asiatic femininity, prompting the viewer to interrogate the tropes of Orientalism.

Dominique Fung, “Stay Home (detail)” (2020), oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches (all images courtesy the artist and Nicodim Gallery)

Dominique Fung’s work provides respite from the exhausting emptiness of the cult of authenticity. The artist’s luscious, surrealist tableaus celebrate the synthetic by reclaiming objects that have become synonymous with Orientalism. Fung’s larger-than-life oil paintings, replete with anthropomorphized celadon vessels and otherworldly fauna, create breathtaking dream sequences that invite the viewer to consider alternate realities.

Dominique Fung, “Mundane and the Divine” (2020), oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches

In Relics and Remains, Fung’s first solo show at Nicodim, accessible both online and in-person via appointment, the Canadian-Chinese artist explores her identity as 竹升 (jook-sing). Directly translated from Cantonese as “bamboo pole,” the pejorative term is slang for persons of Chinese descent living overseas who identify more strongly with Western culture. The works featured in the show, based on years-long research, were all completed in 2020 after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a period of time that has left many jook-sings in quarantine adrift as anti-Asian racism has escalated across the global diaspora. As I viewed the exhibition from a safe social distance online, works like “Stay at Home” and “Through the Looking Glass,” which render subjects in quiet, domestic isolation, struck a chord. In each, a figure peers into cylindrical glass vessels containing goldfish. Despite the warmth emanating from the paintings’ decadent colors, it is the faces, fragmented and suspended in water, that are unshakeable, invoking the state of limbo that characterizes the jook-sing experience.

Dominique Fung, “Through the Looking Glass” (2020), oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches

Orientalism, and the objectification that accompanies it, is a practice so deeply ingrained in popular imagination that one could argue it has become an essential part of East Asian diasporic identity. In the 2018 essay, “Ornamentalism: A Feminist Theory for the Yellow Woman” (cited in the exhibition’s framework), Anne Anlin Cheng explores the relationship between the homophones ornamentalism and orientalism, drawing parallels between the fates of Chinese porcelain and Chinese bodies. Fung likewise mines this relationship, inverting the narratives of traditional objects through her tongue-in-cheek portraits of ceramics. In “Good Fortune Vessel” and “Three Legged Vessel,” Fung zooms in, crowning intricate vessels with long black hair — a symbol of the “yellow” woman. Similarly, “What’s Left Behind” depicts an anthropomorphized traditional decorative teapot, undulating with sensuality. Through her playful decontextualization of fetish from the corporeal, Fung reframes East Asiatic femininity, prompting the viewer to interrogate these tropes.

“What’s Left Behind” (2020), oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches

Elsewhere in Relics and Remains, human flesh appears mainly as disembodied appendages — a knee peeks out from behind drooping vegetation in “Near Death Experiences” and fingers caress an ornament in “Mundane and the Divine.” When the human form does become recognizable, its flesh takes on a distinctly kiln-fired sheen, a play on texture that further fuses human and object. “Material Manifestations in the Act of Remembrance,” which spans two canvases and is the largest piece in the show, centers on a blank, vaguely human organic form painted in the same celadon hue as the vessels in the other featured works. However, the eye is drawn to the ochre-hued margins, where Fung’s painstaking attention to detail renders small dramas such as a multi-faced deity looking on indifferently as her long locks fall into a bubbling two-broth hotpot. In this painting, Fung redirects and rejects the othering gaze, filling the lacunae of diasporic identity with tall tales told through ornamental objects.

For some jook-sing, the search for belonging is elusive, an existential battle against forgetting. In response, many of us fortify our genealogies, stretched thin across oceans and manmade boundaries, with the visual language of Orientalism — mass-produced jade jewelry, gold-gilded red paper New Year’s decorations, and blue-and-white-patterned porcelain. In the blue-and-lavender-bathed landscape of “Transition from Signifier to a Sacred Relic,” Fung manipulates depth and composition, lending a flatness to traditional relics layered over alien body parts and recalling the collage-like nature of diasporic identity. Here, Fung visualizes the process through which jook-sing invent selfhood in reclaimed objects.

Dominique Fung, “Material Manifestations in the Act of Remembrance” (2020), 84 x 144 inches

In truth, the touchstones of diasporic identity are always shifting. Since the opening of Relics and Remains, Hong Kong, where parts of Fung’s family are from, has entered an uncertain future under the National Surveillance Law, one that threatens to unravel the territory’s cultural fabric. The West, on the other hand, is undergoing its own reckoning, one that has forced East Asian diasporic communities to confront their complicity in systems of racism and oppression and to think critically about the trap of  the “model minority” mantle. Amidst the precarity of change, Dominique Fung’s paintings immortalize the familiar alongside the otherworldly, inviting the jook-sing to look beyond the limbo of self-perception, and to seek instead, the creation of a new context.

Dominique Fung: Relics and Remains continues online and by appointment at Nicodim Gallery (1700 S Santa Fe Avenue, #160, Downtown Los Angeles) through July 11. 

Editor’s note: Hyperallergic encourages readers to practice social distancing and self-isolation in an effort to mitigate against the current COVID-19 pandemic, which may include opting to explore an exhibition virtually instead of physically.

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