Asian Artists Who Don't Make Work about Being Asian

July 15, 2010

You know how when someone says, “I have to tell you something -- oh, nevermind," it suddenly makes you obsessed to know what that thing is?

After walking into the Arario Gallery for the exhibit titled Irrelevant: Local Emerging Asian Artists Who Don't Make Work About Being Asian, it took only two minutes before I began peering at each piece of artwork like a blind crazy person, gauging whether or not, indeed, there was nothing Asian-y in the artwork. I snapped photos of a sake bottle, a placard that said “Korean paper,” and a Pocky box (re: incriminating evidence) before finally getting ahold of myself.

Thankfully, I learned to stop overanalyzing and love the art itself, as Irrelevant features an enjoyably diverse array of paintings, photography, performance, sculpture and installations, from nearly fifty New York-area Asian American artists, arranged in a lovely open space.

The artists hail from vibrant communities, but audiences will not find, per the gallery press release, “paintings about the Cultural Revolution or Mao Zedong that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars” or “manga-infused characters performing acts of hypersexuality."

Instead, viewers will find works such as Hidemi Takagi's Blender, a visual interpretation of New York's immigrant cultures in the form of a food cart with international eats; A Thousand Things for the Taking, a sprawling half-floor-length spread of 1,000 items exchanged between two long-time friends and collaborators Amy Fung-yi Lee and Caroline Jung-ah Park (Sample items: Tolkien book, Caramel Nut Blast balance bar, sticky pic, and Passion Pit ticket stub. Viewers are encouraged to "feel free to take what you like."); and Tattfoo Tan’s S.O.S./ Sustainable Organic Steward exhibit, a fascinating sequence of the artist’s environmental efforts as certified Master Composter, Citizen Pruner (of public park trees) and Mobile Gardener (lobbing GREENades -- wildflower seedballs shaped like grenades -- into abandoned urban lots and empty tree pits).

Curated by Joann Kim and Lesley Sheng, Irrelevant stands on its own as a survey of some talented young artists. The exhibition title, however, adds an inventive extra layer to the experience and provokes thought on the relationship between artists of a certain background and their art. The gallery calls Irrelevant a “friendly” and “humorous” rejection of the art market's “obsession with specifying artists to a particular culture and ethnicity.”

In some ways, I feel as if I fell into its trap. If “Local Emerging Asian Artists" had titled the exhibit, I could have seen plastic cups and red velvet sculptures, nodded my head and gone home. That the exhibit stated the Asian artists explicitly did not address “being Asian," however, made me hyper-aware that the art could harbor some sort of overt "non-Asian" aspect ... whatever that meant.

And I found out that I did not know what that meant. I wandered the exhibit over-thinking the nuances between “being Asian” vs. making Asian references, and whether it was possible for Asian artists to create works with Asian references that didn't comment on personal Asian identity and whether one’s cultural background automatically informed all artistic output (no matter how minimally) ... and in the end, all that matters little anyway. Great art is great art, regardless of source or purpose, which, I suppose, was part of the point of the exhibit.

Batty philosophical musings aside, check out Irrelevant: Local Emerging Asian Artists Who Don't Make Work about Being Asian for some memorable new artists. Exhibit runs through August 6th, Monday to Friday from 10 am - 6 pm, with performances and workshops every Thursday.

Arario Gallery has branches in Cheonan (flagship), Seoul and Beijing with the goal of bringing challenging Korean and other Asian artists to the attention of the international art world, as well as fostering a dialogue between East and West through cutting-edge contemporary art.




Interesting article!  I really like the thought of the exhibit's name being part of the exhibition itself.  It sounds like it could lead into all kinds of heady questions about the nature of art, self-expression, the relationship of artist to audience,  the asumptions of shared experience, and the perception of self in relationship to culture.