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Art

Godzilla, the Asian American Arts Network, Teaches Us That Critique Is Essential

Danielle Wu
May 7, 2021 7:38PM

Portrait of Godzilla: Asian American Arts Network members, 1990. Photo by Tom Finkelpearl. Courtesy of Tomie Arai.

Godzilla, the fictional Japanese beast that emerged from the Pacific waters to rage against humanity, became a fitting moniker for a group of Asian American artists who assembled to storm the oppressive whiteness of the American art landscape. The idea struck during a casual conversation among friends. In 1990, young artists and thinkers Ken Chu, Bing Lee, and Margo Machida gathered at Machida’s studio in New York to resolve their mutual dissatisfaction with the lack of opportunities for Asian Americans in the arts. Roping in their colleagues, the three ultimately founded what would be named Godzilla: Asian American Arts Network.

Decades later, and after unofficially disbanding, Godzilla’s concerns continue to haunt ongoing discontent with American institutions. Recently, many members from the arts network reunited for what would have been a long overdue retrospective of their work at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), curated by Herb Tam and Ryan Lee Wong. During the planning stages, however, Godzilla affiliates Tomie Arai and Arlan Huang decided to withdraw in protest of MOCA’s cooperation with the city’s new jail plan. Spearheaded by New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, the citywide plan would finally retire Rikers Island prison, but replace it with new vertical jail towers in multiple city boroughs. One of the proposed locations is in Chinatown, situated just a few blocks away from MOCA. Expressing solidarity with local businesses and community leaders, Huang and Arai objected to the museum’s request and acceptance of over $35 million in “giveback” funds made available through the proposal.

Over the course of this past year, other Godzilla members gradually followed suit in negotiating with MOCA to oppose the jail plan and host an open forum. When the museum refused, 19 Godzilla members (from the total 23 included in the exhibition) ultimately withdrew this past March. Identifying themselves as G19, the group notified the museum of their decision in an open letter published on e-flux that read: “The complicity of MOCA’s leadership with the jail plan amounts to supporting the system of mass incarceration and policing that disproportionately affects Black and Brown lives.” Whether this gesture has done anything to move the city government’s commitment to its prison expansion plan has yet to be determined.

Although many have written in general indignation towards the immorality of the circumstances, there seems to be little regard, even from the museum, for the price that Godzilla has paid for its activism. As an Asian American in the arts, albeit from a younger generation, I can guess how it feels vain to even address the pain of turning down an opportunity for celebratory recognition. For even if one were to survive the art world’s casual racism and exoticism (at times confused for appreciation), the centuries of work done to keep Asians at bay in the United States leaves a representational void that can feel debilitating and lonely.

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As recently as 2016, in an essay on Asia Futurism, art critic Dawn Chan remarked, “I leave most art shows still looking for my own face in the present.” Between the glamorized model minority and gruesome negative stereotypes, there remain very few options for Asians to be legible in this country. Responding to #StopAsianHate, in an interview with CBS News, scholar Anne Anlin Cheng reminded us of the human stakes when we fail to abate even minor offenses: “Mild forms of racist, sexist harassment is on a continuum of what we saw in Atlanta last week, a very lethal expression of that.”

Without knowing a history of artists who have tried to correct this course, Asian American visual culture seems relegated to a perpetual orbit where different generations will posit the same questions for the first time. Thirty years have passed since Godzilla first made public demands to rectify Asian American absence in institutions with their pivotal letter to the curator of the 1991 Whitney Biennial, David Ross. In it, Godzilla addressed the “conspicuous absence of Asian American visual artists in the current Biennial, with the exception of Martin Wong, who was selected by Group Material, not the Whitney curators or the outside consultants.” Godzilla’s membership mushroomed after widespread coverage of the resulting controversy, reaching 231 artists and arts workers by 1994.

Godzilla provided a utopian vision of pan-Asian unity that, during its short lifetime from 1990 to around 2001, lived on ascetic principles like eschewing institutionalization or corporate funding structures, as well as creating spaces away from the institution to feel validated. Godzilla members such as Lynne Yamamoto participated in public art projects to mourn the murder of Vincent Chin. In 1993, Godzilla staged a group exhibition at Artists Space titled “A New World Order III: The Curio Shop,” which called into question the context in which Americans primarily engage with culture deemed “Asian.” Although the group varied vastly in artistic style and personal backgrounds, they shared a common pursuit and inextricable link to activist inclinations. Responding to a long history of invisibility and racist depiction, Godzilla’s work in part seemed to be issuing a remedy through more authentic representation. Members Ken Chu and Bing Lee even dreamed of one day opening an Asian American museum; a “place of our own.”

Godzilla: Asian American Arts Network, installation view of “The New World Order III: The Curio Shop” at Artists Space, 1993. Courtesy of The Godzilla Asian American Arts Network Archive; MSS 166; and Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.

When I heard that MOCA would be the first museum to present an exhibition on Godzilla’s work, an Asian American identity that was for us and by us seemed to have a light on the horizon. However, the developing impasse between MOCA and Godzilla reveals something about the contradictions that afflict Asian American representation. For the members of Godzilla’s G19, protecting their community and keeping their values intact paradoxically entails refusing an opportunity in line with their aspirations. Meanwhile, MOCA has felt unable to refuse favors from the carceral state; notably, the institution has only received generous government funding when it agrees to be a line item that dresses up a jail plan, or when it experiences significant damage (a devastating fire in 2020 led to $80 million from the city). The competition between perpetual foreigner versus lawful citizen is a losing game. Asian American critique remains at odds with being inducted as American at all, and any attempts to consolidate Asian American identity for the public only seem to reinforce that we can never truly be noticed unless we are politically neutralized.

It’s a sad, if poetic, coincidence that the filmic Godzilla was subject to a similar fate—the original 1954 Japanese film, Gojirah, lamented U.S. nuclear war crimes in the Pacific. Of course, its later Hollywood adaptations have clumsily mistranslated the beloved monster movie to justify American militarism.

As Godzilla shows, visibility and representation are highly limited tools; symptoms of what the artist Anicka Yi has called an “ocular-centric society.” Unfortunately, it overwhelmingly constitutes the language that institutions can comprehend. Curiously, the Godzilla network began to unravel when several members were anointed to relatively powerful institutional positions, officially “Asianizing” once monolithically white museums. Although these upward moves call for some degree of triumph, they also too easily work on behalf of the establishment to obscure enduring forms of racial dominance. In her lecture “Asian Americanist Critique in the ‘Asian Century,’” scholar and writer Kandice Chuh asked, “What are the responsibilities of Asian American studies and Asian American intellectuals in the face of the normative Asian American subject, a subject who identifies as a minority in order to further majoritarian ends?” The 19 members of Godzilla who dared to decline a moment for themselves remind us that pursuing freedom doesn’t end with saving our own skins.

Danielle Wu