Work > Writing

Mind The Gap

Essay for exhibition catalog

Activist Imagination: Exploring and Imagining the Past, Present and Future of Activism, the Arts, and APA Communities
February 29 - May 24, 2008
Kearny Street Workshop
San Francisco, CA

72 pages, paperback, 6.5'' x 9''
Kearny Street Workshop Press (December 2008)
ISBN: 978-0979770722
Click here to purchase catalog

Something artist Christine Wong Yap had said in regards to the ideas informing her role in Activist Imagination stuck with me: I wanted to challenge the idea that somehow as an artist I'm special enough to imagine the future of activism, but in reality you or any other viewer has the same ability to affect the future of activism as anybody else. Her invitation offers an interesting glimpse into KSW’s year-long project. Activist Imagination doesn’t have a monolithic tone or singular perspective on what it means to stand at the intersection of activism, arts, and community. Rather, the exhibition embraces a number of art practices that are as diverse as the methods of activism themselves. The work of each of the three participating artists – Bob Hsiang, Donna Keiko Ozawa, and Christine Wong Yap – employ contrasting artistic strategies to communicate their particular take on the challenge posed to them months ago by KSW in anticipation of their 35th anniversary.

This isn’t an easy exhibition to digest. The combination of three very distinct voices and approaches to exploring the scope and overlap of activism, arts, and community may trigger complicated responses in viewers, presenting several ripe opportunities to dig deeper and ask why as viewers we either get or don’t get certain works.

Some comment on how “common folk” and contemporary art usually don’t mix, and how conventional forms of activist art just don’t generate anything new or original anymore. Does conceptual art have the capacity to inspire the masses? Can traditional activist art excite contemporary art audiences? Although different strategies are employed in the production of both conceptual art and traditional activist art, common ground can be found amongst the two. Each tries to engage audiences in ideas broader than the formal aspects of the artwork itself – be it issues of resolving economic disparity or questioning how one sees the world. Although there are significant differences in how form and function operate within these two strategies, each essentially asks the viewer to remain open and receptive to the ideas being put forth. Art, regardless of its conceptual or activist bent, frequently challenges viewers to question and re-evaluate their assumptions, predispositions, and beliefs. Art isn’t intrinsically educational, but the possibility for new perspectives and broadened horizons exists with the viewing of each piece of art. You may not understand what an artist is trying to say with his or her work. You may not even like it aesthetically. But if you attempt to approach a work of art with an engaged curiosity that is respectful and not immediately contemptuous, you may at least come away from the viewing experience with an awareness that your ultimate dislike or incomprehension of a piece of art doesn’t have to be solely based on subjective knee-jerk reaction.

In Activist Imagination, the overall combination of work by Hsiang, Ozawa, and Wong Yap ask us to check our potentially impulsive responses at the door and to be on good behavior, as Wong Yap reminds us in her piece The Best Person I Can Be. In Activist Imagination, we are presented with a mixture of conceptual art and activist art, instigated by both the subject matter and influence of KSW’s legacy, yet approaching both subject and legacy with extremely varied perspectives. This synthesized location of conceptual art and activist art is precisely where %Activist Imagination %finds its strengths. To attempt to get at the past, present and future of activism, arts, and community, as the exhibition’s broad title posits, there needs to be a number of approaches and languages to illustrate the broad interconnectedness of these issues. What worked before might not necessarily work now, and what works now might not necessarily work in the future.

Picturing Activism
Bob Hsiang’s collective photographic portrait of Bay Area APA activists and activist artists provides an important, grounding framework for the exhibition. As someone who for over thirty years helped to shape and document the seminal movement to locate and articulate an Asian American social and cultural identity, Hsiang provides a living link to the rich history of the confluence of APA arts, activism, and community, not only through his person but also through the lens of his camera. His portraits of thirteen individuals (including painters, performers, activists, poets, attorneys, journalists, and designers) look and feel heroic; indeed, many are larger than life-size. The dignity and self-assurance with which they individually hold themselves form a composite that collectively lands their gaze into the camera and onto the viewer in the gallery — not in a confrontational way, but rather one that asks the viewer to engage a bit deeper, to stretch to find out more about their presence in the room. Hsiang’s work underscores an often assumed, yet taken for granted, component to activism – that the desire for social and political change begins with the selfless dedication of individual people to make a difference. Movements, after all, start with people.

Each person is located within the frame in a larger physical context that rounds out the portrait – in the studio, in front of city hall, in front of historical material. The photographic style is very straightforward, as there isn’t much insertion of Hsiang’s hand into the picture. Yet, each person exudes a level of comfort with the camera, emphasizing Hsiang’s standing and reputation in the community. He has known many of these artists and activists for decades stemming back to the early days of KSW; others he has met only in recent years through programs such as KSW’s APAture festival. The work truly represents a historical lineage, in form, content, and intent. The work is ostensibly not about Hsiang the photographer, but rather about the community of individuals who have committed themselves to a life of soliciting change.

In both Donna Keiko Ozawa and Christine Wong Yap’s work, viewer interaction is required for the completion of the works. In two of Ozawa’s works (Robbie was there I and Robbie was there II), she references Richard Hongisto, a figure notorious both in the organizational history of KSW and in her own personal history through the direct use of prefabricated objects. She additionally uses humor to make her other two works more accessible to the audience. Weather Buddha looks at the unintended consequences of activism, the propensity for fatigue and burnout, and comments upon a growing number of activists turning towards Buddhism as a means of revitalization and sustenance. The large button that activates the sound of a real-time weather report station is meant to parallel the continually changing tide of political and cultural currents to the continuously shifting conditions of the weather. The fourth piece that Ozawa features in Activist Imagination, Sheep House, is also one that invites physical interaction. Ozawa has developed a large body of work that employs the hand crank, a crude analog mechanism for effecting movement. Framed against a backdrop of an archetypal blue sky sits a bland yellow model house. Turning the crank rotates the house on its axis, and simultaneously amplifies sheep bleating from a noisemaker toy located inside the sculpture. She questions the American ideal of success and happiness as manifested in the goal of owning or living in a standard home, and wonders if one’s political ideals and beliefs get disjointed in the process of pursuing this.

Christine Wong Yap’s work is the most conceptually based in the exhibition. She contributes three art pieces (The Best Person I Can Be, untitled site-specific window installation, and Seeing Red) and one curatorial project – reproductions of early KSW posters and flyers lining the hallway leading up to the gallery. Her main approach was to design the work to be inherently about the viewer. In a way, she removes her own hand in order to place the viewer as the central, necessary agent in the work. Wong Yap’s own points of view and ideologies aren’t clearly located within her work; rather she positions the responsibility of determining meaning and intent directly back upon the viewer. Her work is a visual platform upon which the viewer completes the circuit of the idea. The Best Person I Can Be is the first piece that viewers encounter upon entering the main gallery, providing a framework for literal and metaphoric reflection for everyone who enters. The piece consists of a constructed room, the interior of which viewers can see a reflection of themselves superimposed on those standing on the other side of the mirror, allowing the possibility to see oneself reflected in other people – an essential tenet in activist movements. As well, the other two pieces are based in visual perception. Wong Yap’s belief that anyone can shape the future of activism, artist or not, is underscored by her use of tinted film. One’s view of the world can be a driving force towards participation in activist movements, and she posits how a viewer sees the outside world through the contrast of dark tinted window film and pairs of rose-colored peepholes inserted into select darkened window panes. Do you see the world as dark and pessimistic, full of cynicism and distrust, or is there clarity and optimism that drives your engagement with the world? What emotional and psychological elements spur individuals to action? Wong Yap’s articulations of her ideas are very economical – austere materials and simple design allow far-reaching questions to be posed without extraneous or distracting ornament.

Laying The Foundation
Now, more than four decades after a number of visionary artists and activists carved out an articulation of what would become known as Asian American theatre, literature, visual art, music, dance, and film, we can look back and see how substantial and diverse this body of work has grown. An integral part of this history on both a regional and national scale, KSW has provided countless opportunities for then emerging artists to cultivate and share their work with each other and the larger community. Building community through art has always been a backbone of KSW’s mission, and one of the most tangible, enduring legacies borne out of the early years of KSW that continues today. In 1999, KSW presented the first APAture, a multi-disciplinary festival showcasing the work of emerging APA artists that now, in its tenth year, has proven to be instrumental in rendering KSW relevant to a younger generation of artists, activists and community members. Even though the socio-political landscape is substantially different now than over three decades ago, the work featured in the first nine years of APAture has been considerably of the contemporary and experimental bent. Is it that a younger generation of artists within the APA community is not as interested in working within activism, or is it because of the many strides and battles fought over the decades by an earlier generation that has made this type of experimentation possible?

The APA experience is as diverse as human experience itself, and its cultural manifestations are as wide-ranging as culture itself. The expansive cultural lineage that spans from filmmakers Wayne Wang to Michael Kang, authors Maxine Hong Kingston to Jeff Chang, playwrights Frank Chin to Diana Son, musicians Glenn Horiuchi to Jin, visual artists Martin Wong to Anna Sew Hoy – a group of artists as varied in their conceptual and activist practices as the particular social, political, and cultural contexts in which each created their work – underscores how broad a definition of APA culture can and ought to be. Yet, we should continue to acknowledge those who have paved the path towards self-realization and self-expression. Without their struggle to carve out an identity distinct from mainstream America, many younger APA artists simply wouldn’t have the license to create as freely and as experimentally as they do now, and to approach strategies of conceptual or activist art on their own terms.

- Kevin B. Chen