China On My Mind
Essay for exhibition catalogPresent Tense Biennial: Chinese Character
May 1 - August 23, 2009
Chinese Culture Center
San Francisco, CA
144 pages, paperback, 8" x 9.5"
Chinese Culture Foundation (May 2009)
to purchase catalog
In the middle of Fall last year, Abby Chen of the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco asked me to consider working on this years incarnation of Present Tense, a self-proclaimed biennial exhibition for the organization. I was somewhat familiar with earlier versions of their biennial, specifically the one organized by Kearny Street Workshop in 2007 that featured over a dozen young, emerging Chinese American artists. I was intrigued by the possibilities of organizing a group show that would ultimately be viewed in the larger context of the neighborhood of San Franciscos Chinatown, not just at the Chinese Culture Centers gallery, but also in and around the streets immediately surrounding the main exhibition site, where ideas and artwork could spill out into storefront windows and attract non-traditional viewing audiences. Chinatown, one of the oldest neighborhoods in San Francisco and home to one of the largest Chinese communities outside of Asia, is flanked by the city's Financial District, North Beach, and Nob Hill neighborhoods, occupying an area ripe with daily cultural, economic, and social friction and fusion. I was also excited about the opportunity to expand the scope of artists exhibiting at the Chinese Culture Center to include those without familial ties to either China or Asia.
As the guest lead curator of the exhibition working in close collaboration with Ellen Oh of Kearny Street Workshop and Abby Chen, I knew that we were working within an incredibly tight time frame to organize and mount the biennial. We got straight to work identifying artists, looking for particular themes and practices, arranging studio visits, talking, meeting, talking some more. The further we dug into the initial ideas of the show looking at what defines, encompasses, and represents China today the more apparent it became how colossal the project could be, as immense as the physical geography, cultural history, and population of China and the Chinese diaspora itself.
This exhibition, organized within the larger framework of a biennial, is meant to be a broad and far-reaching survey, covering an array of contemporary art practices, media, and subject matter by a diverse group of artists, including Chinese nationals, first, second, and third generation Chinese Americans, multi-ethnic Asian Americans, and non-Chinese. The work itself in the exhibition covers abundant ground by looking at how family dynamics, language structures, consumerism, diaspora, environmentalism, food culture, sexuality, tourism, historical amnesia, and popular culture fit within the context of what China is today as a nation, a culture, a history, a people, a notion. The next edition of this biennial can and should look and feel entirely different, as artists and their practices change as much as the world and society does, and whose work occasionally forecasts and precedes those changes.
A bit about myself: I have been working in the arts since moving to California in 1994. Born in central New Jersey to Taiwanese immigrant parents who met in Minnesota in the 1960s, I grew up with similar experiences to many who remember Carter and Reagan as Presidents during the formative years of childhood and adolescence. I spent time living with my grandmother in Taipei and a summer in pre-Internet Beijing studying Mandarin Chinese and endlessly wandering around the (then existent) hutongs
nestled between main roads bursting with bicycles and buses. This I remember: how different that part of the world felt to me, and subsequently, how different I felt upon returning to the U.S., yet feeling a connection and belonging to both.
The overall tone of this exhibition is one that embraces these types of contradictions, because contradiction and conflict in a sense pushes culture to evolve. With the wide-ranging diversity of work and artists represented in Present Tense Biennial: Chinese Character
, we have sought to position what defines, encompasses, and represents China today as a humanist concern, not one based in ethnic or nationalistic concerns. As Michelle Y. Hyun astutely states in her essay contained herein, perhaps we can all be Chinese in some way, by testing the limits of constructions such as identity, nationality, and ethnicity by reconstructing and rearranging our own preconceived notions of what China and Chinese mean today. Hopefully the work in this exhibition, through its combined playful humor, sublime sincerity, and enticing artistry, can serve as that catalytic inspiration.