High Quality Multi-Orientation
A part of the University of Chicago Department of Visual Art MFA thesis exhibition ‘No Burden for Continuity’, photographed by Elisabeth Hogeman, 2018
During a conversation about my recent projects, a colleague was reminded of a tattoo she never got. At Hungarian scout camp, she learned about rovásírás: the runic Hungarian alphabet that was replaced by Latin script in the 9th century. She, like many first generation Americans, including myself, wanted to reconnect with the culture of her parents’ homeland, so she decided to get a tattoo in rovásírás. That was until her friend, who actually grew up in Hungary, told her that right wing nationalists had reappropriated the runic alphabet, so she should not get the tattoo unless she wants people to think she’s an ethnic purist. READ MORE >>
This story brings up many of the same questions I ask myself when I work on projects. What do later generations feel they have lost? What do symbols, like tattoos, do? What does authenticity look like? How do we distinguish patriotism from nationalism? How does a single object harness not only multiple meanings, but extremely polarized ones? More than anything, I’m fascinated by the hierarchies with which viewers imbue things.
Cultural theorist Edward Said’s book Orientalism describes a continent-wide Stockholm syndrome in which colonizing nations successfully assign identity to the citizens of the countries they occupy. Harmonically, Nakamura Miri proposes that war trauma can cause a dissociative identity disorder in which an individual identifies with multiple national identities. The complexity of dissociative nationality quickly becomes overwhelming when we examine a country that has oscillated between the role of the colonizer and colonized. Initially it was the United States that opened Japan’s borders at gunpoint in an affair known as Bakumatsu. Japan then violently occupied numerous countries until, finally, the Allied forces won and Japan entered its current state of American military occupation. While we often hear that Japan is Westernized, “Westernization” is a generalization. Historians recognize American, British, French, German, Italian, and Spanish influences that compose a lineage of Japanese Westernization. I recently had lunch with an American potter who is an expert in Japanese ceramics. We drank out of the finest chawan I ever held. I asked him, “which chawan is more authentically Japanese, this one or the mass produced one I have that my mom brought over from Japan?” He responded, “the cup doesn’t know it’s Japanese.”
As complex as identity may be, identities animate objects. The history of official portraits of Japanese emperors shows how objects generate national identity. Before Bakumatsu, all emperors were portrayed wearing wafuku (Japanese-style clothing). Uchida Kuichi shot two official portraits of the first emperor after Bakumatsu, one wearing wafuku and the other wearing youfuku (Western-style clothing). Emperor Meiji’s comportment is significantly different in the two photos suggesting an internalization of the two identities that goes beyond clothing. The two portraits solidify Nakamura’s discourse about dissociative nationalities. Today, Japanese people continue to wear both, and make stark distinction between, wafuku and youfuku.
My installations Homesick, Orientation, and Alpha Beta Moheji feature both kimono and suiting. These three works also appropriate furniture that polarizes the Occident and the Orient. The Emperor’s comportment is different in the two photos partly because he is situated within a washitsu (Japanese-style room) in the one photo and among Victorian-style furniture in the other. By distinguishing a zabuton (floor cushion) from a chair in my work, I propose that posture is political. Alpha Beta Moheji presents a toppled monitor showing a video of a figure inflicting a shimewaza (chokehold) on another. The monitor struggles on the ground as two fighters would, drawing connections between antagonism and lateral orientation. I teeter between affirming and denouncing national lineage by both representing and degrading cultural forms.
An image of an interior I saw in a Japanese magazine inspired Orientation. In the image, a colloquially called Oriental rug was sandwiched between tatami (straw flooring) and a zabuton. I recreated the still life using Japanese furniture in tandem with an Iranian rug to express not only how cultures cross-pollinate but how objects associated with nations compress one another. Because of the prevalence of Oriental rugs in Victorian rooms, the rug in Orientation is more Western than Iranian. Ironically, the rug belongs nominally to the same “Orient” to which Japan also belongs.
I continued experimenting with nationally imbued objects in Homesick, an installation in which Alexandra Mieko Vasilou, a Yonsei (4th generation Japanese-American) and I, a Shin-Nisei (new-2nd generation), sourced items from the homes of five generations of Japanese-Americans. We contemplated the expat who watches their favorite Japanese soap opera on bootleg video and the Sansei (3rd generation) who collects knickknacks of reclamation. Both attempt to treat their homesickness. The treatment, however, is not sufficient; the homesickness remains and is inherited by the following generation.
Homesick gave prominence to a chinoiserie cabinet made in Chicago with a geisha painted across the drawers that we stuffed with the objects we collected. The cabinet with a French name meaning “from Chinese” featuring Japanese motifs filled with diasporic jetsam questions the appearance of identity. Emphasizing traditional Japanese patterns like higakimon, a universal pattern that emerged independently in the West and East–known in English as “Herringbone”–Homesick queries the timelessness and spacelessness of identity. Furthermore, Orientation and Homesick investigate the contradiction of an idiosyncratic self amongst an imagined homogenous herd.
These works draw heavily on the conceptual and material practice of Yinka Shonibare MBE. The Nigerian-British artist collects materials from colonized and colonizing cultures. His interest in textiles as objects that harness diasporic narratives merges the subjects that I study. In place of Eastern motifs, his article of choice is Dutch wax fabric which has a complicated genealogy of its own. Although identifiably West African, this type of fabric retains “Dutch” in its name. The name is further complicated by the Dutch having developed the wax technique as an emulation of Indonesian batik. Shonibare’s work demonstrates a collage of identities that I strive to put forth in my own work.
Blur the Border
The Hungarian-American, Japanese-American and Nigerian-British narratives I reference, among multitudes of other mergings–national and personal political–are all distinct, yet they share a specific frustration with hierarchies. I see parallels between these tensions and the institutional classification of artists. When Wolfgang Tillmans released his first techno album in 2016, I was perplexed to see that no reviewer considered him a musician. All introduce him as a “German photographer” as if no one is able to or allowed to view his music sovereign of his photography. This realization led to my sculpture The Treachery of Still and Motion Pictures, a vinyl record of Tillmans’ album Device Control melted into the shape of an ashtray. The title of the sculpture references Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, which presents the quote “This Is Not a Pipe,” and a lyric Tillmans repeats in the title track: “you can blur the border between still and motion pictures.” If a painting of a pipe is not a pipe, then perhaps a figure we deem a photographer is not a musician. Or, you can blur the border between vinyl record and ashtray. I aspire toward hybridity in both medium and culture.
A collaborative installation with Alexandra Mieko Vasilou, 2018
Homesick is a physical manifestation of the symptoms that follow an exorcism of culture. Items used in this work are resourced from the homes of multiple generations of Japanese-Americans spanning from Issei (1st generation) to Yonsei (4th generation). All experience symptoms of homesickness ranging from the literal to the residual and abstract. The expat who watches their favorite Japanese soap opera on bootleg video and the Sansei hoarding knickknacks of reclamation both attempt to treat their homesickness. The treatment is not sufficient; the homesickness remains and is inherited by the following generation.
-A. み。Vasilou & M. た。Shallow
Electronic Voice Phenomenon
An installation conceived with Shanna Zentner, 2017