Why COVID-19 Spurred Us to Create an Online Show Highlighting the Asian Experience in America
Leonard Suryajaya, Candyman, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
Responding to the recent uptick in racially motivated incidents spurred by COVID-19, curators Han Hongzheng and Chandler Allen have organized a not-for-profit exhibition that sheds light on the Asian experience in America. Titled “Within Global Isolation: Asian Artists in America,” the exhibition exists exclusively online and includes interviews with the artists detailing the discrimination they’ve faced since the pandemic, as well as universal hardships brought on by this period of self-isolation. Here, Hongzheng and Allen speak to the show’s inspiration and give us a preview of the artists included in its first installment.
We met four months ago, at the same time that researchers in China were first identifying a new virus that would come to be known around the world as COVID-19. We were both working on research in different capacities at Matthew Barney’s studio in New York and quickly became friends, partially due to our kindred spirits as two aspiring scholars who grew up in rural and intolerant communities. What we did not know then is that within weeks, confirmed coronavirus cases would appear in the U.S. and, by mid-March, New York City would become the epicenter of the pandemic.
Damien Ding, Anti-stigmata, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
Toby Zeng, Minimal Body, 2015-16. Courtesy of the artist.
As the death toll surged, so did reports of verbal and physical assaults against people of Asian descent. It was at this juncture, between old and new realities, amid blatant displays of racism and a resurgence of manufactured nationalism, that we had the idea to co-curate a not-for-profit exhibition of work by Asian artists living in America. We decided to focus on artists engaged with issues of cross-cultural identity and international governance, with no limitations to medium, notoriety, or age. It was also important for us that the exhibition have a substantial interview component, as the diversity of views helps to dispel any notion of a single, overarching perspective.
We joined forces as one amplified voice to combat xenophobia, spending our nights working from our apartments in isolation on long calls and cold-emailing artists. This project was not funded by any institution or individual, and is separate from our professions in the arts, so the outcome relied solely on the determination of each person involved. We built a website from the ground up; while it’s simple compared to some of the high-tech virtual reality exhibitions being developed by major galleries and museums, it works for us. Our intention is not to provide answers or spin a narrative; instead we offer ten artists a platform to reassess their past work in light of the pandemic and to prompt questions of coexistence—both globally and locally.
Hương Ngô, ESCAPE, 2004-06. Photo by Paul O’Reilly. Courtesy of the artist.
It was apparent to us early on that we wanted to include the artist Hương Ngô. Her artistic practice and her work as an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago is interdisciplinary and rigorously driven by research. Born in a Vietnamese refugee camp in Hong Kong during the Vietnam War, she briefly returned to Hai Phong, Vietnam, before her family relocated to the American South. For our exhibition, we chose to feature ESCAPE (2004–06), a body of work Ngô made during the Iraq War. At the time, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was running a campaign to seal the windows and doors of American buildings in preparation for potential biological warfare. In the video exhibited, Ngô teaches audiences various shelter-in-place procedures and demonstrates how to deconstruct and reassemble protective clothing. Though ESCAPE was only a speculative reality when it was completed over a decade ago, the protective gear worn by Ngô’s character now mirrors our everyday lives.
To contrast the neon-orange suits featured in ESCAPE, we placed Defense Line (2009) by Ying Zhu next. Born in Lanzhou, China, Zhu currently lives and works in Washington, D.C. Meant to deteriorate over time, Defense Line is an installation built entirely out of cracked eggshells. Zhu’s use of this delicate material suggests satire and emphasizes the concurrence of birth and death. In her interview for the exhibition, she explained that the egg is “meant to protect and hold life, yet it has to be fragile enough so that life can break through.” That hit home for us as a metaphor for our current societal infrastructure, or lack thereof.
Our third artist, Guanyu Xu, grew up in a military-housing complex in Beijing before moving to the U.S. in 2014. His photographs are autobiographical, if not diaristic, helping him to reclaim his lived experience as a queer member of the Chinese diaspora. In the series “Temporarily Censored Home” (2018–19), he covered the rooms of his childhood home from floor to ceiling with magazine editorials, family photos, and both self-made and found portraits of himself and other gay men. The rooms are unoccupied, but contain evidence of the colliding conservative and progressive lifestyles that once animated them (with the latter covering up the former). As much as his photographs depict a private disquietude, they also speak more broadly to the censoring of Asian identity in America and queer identity in Asia.
Unlike Ngô, Zhu, and Xu, who are all established artists that have exhibited worldwide, Damien Ding and Tinwai Wong are MFA students at the start of their careers. Ding is primarily a painter, whose alienated subjects oscillate between vulnerability and introspection. For example, in Last minute late night thoughts (2019), an ambiguous figure is shown alone, looking out into the distance in a heightened, almost uncomfortable moment of contemplation. A halo or shadow emanates from the crown of their head, leaving the impression that this person has found solemnity in their solitude. Meanwhile, in Wong’s MAMA (2019–20), we hear a series of audio recordings featuring the artist repeating the word “mama.” Over the course of the work, she’s heard sobbing in a state of surrender, hardly able to catch her breath. Playing each of the recordings, the word “mama” starts to sound foreign, as if it has no allegiance to a specific language. Ding’s and Wong’s contributions stand out in the exhibition for their emotive and amorphous propositions, manifesting the psychological disorientation we experience in social isolation.
Damien Ding, Getting used to heat, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Leonard Suryajaya, I Want to be the Only One to Fuck You Raw, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.
If any single work could be credited for being the initial impulse behind this exhibition, it is Leonard Suryajaya’s photograph Candyman. Although it was taken in 2016, when the Zika virus was spreading in cross-continental outbreaks, the photograph feels more relevant now than ever before, depicting a family half-glancing at a newspaper in incredibly close quarters, all wearing surgical masks. A second, equally visceral photograph by Suryajaya is I Want to be the Only One to Fuck You Raw (2014), a self-portrait in which a blue pill representing an HIV antiretroviral is floating in front of the photographer. As we were organizing the exhibition, antiviral medications typically used to fight HIV briefly inspired hope as a potential treatment for the coronavirus; they have since been shown to be ineffective and, in some cases, even increase the risk of death. The blue pill also shifts our attention to the fact that, with limited access to healthcare, the queer community is one of the most vulnerable in the pandemic.
Zhen Guo has spent the most time in America out of all of the artists included in the exhibition. Her cultivated understanding of the distinct differences between the two cultures allows her to show how the two can coexist, celebrating both traditions. In her performance Timeline of Movement (2010), she combines the tradition of Chinese tai chi with American aerobic dance.
Siyuan Tan, It Began to Rot Around the Wound, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
As the two artists that most recently arrived in America, Toby Zeng and Weina Li sit on the opposite end of the spectrum. Zeng is a photographer still pursuing his undergraduate degree. His work, including the series “Minimal Body” (2015–16), prioritizes the most neglected details of the human body in identity-obscuring, tightly cropped frames. Li employs a similar strategy in her video The Butterfly of Styx River (2020), where she and her peers’ bodies are cloaked in mesmerizing handmade costumes. Ritual ensues as characters dance and one cuts off their robes. Li describes these performances as pursuits of unconventional love and acts of empowerment. Each of these artists employ modes of abstraction that allow them to reconstitute their multinational heritage into liberated, undefined identities.
To close out the exhibition, we chose It Began to Rot Around the Wound (2019) by Siyuan Tan. In it, a bronze-cast rotten apple sits atop a tall, narrow pedestal, bringing the object just above eye level. Originally created as a critique on capitalism, Tan says the sculpture has taken on a second meaning as of late as a totem of the new New York: a city in disrepair, but still standing tall.
To view the exhibition, please visit withinglobalisolation.com.