Having worked in the “community arts” for nearly a decade, I’m familiar with the frustration of “political” and “ethnic” artists. The moneyed, mainstream international arts scene places aesthetics and formal issues far above content. Even if this weren’t so, any political or identity content in art makes the work — and the artist — automatically suspect.
Those of artist Christine Wong Yap’s Asian American contemporaries who are making a splash in more mainstream venues tend to come out of conceptualism. Wong Yap’s reputation in the community, however, was originally made in the traditional forms of “activist” art: socialist-realist-influenced graphics, screenprinting, muralism, flyers, t-shirts, and buttons. In fact, my own history with the artist comes from her work creating graphics for, and contributing paintings to, Asian American community exhibitions with a distinctly racial-power flavor.
For such an artist to make a turn into pure conceptualism can be jarring. Wong Yap, who recently graduated from an MFA program at CCA, and has been experimenting with conceptualism for years, still gets requests to produce murals from bewildered community arts administrators. Under a particular gun to explain herself, she is taking advantage of the project Activist Imagination, currently exhibiting at Kearny Street Workshop, to show off the state of her art.
Activist Imagination, an examination of “activist art” in a context of artistic pluralism, is a collaboration between Wong Yap, longtime community activist and photographer Bob Hsiang, and conceptual “activist artist” Donna Keiko Ozawa. The show was commissioned by the Creative Work Fund, and involves both a blog and an ongoing series of public panels on topics related to Asian American activism and arts practice. As part of the project, the artists were given access to Kearny Street Workshop’s archives, including over thirty-five years’ worth of screenprinted posters.
The process by which the artists arrived at their collaboration is still somewhat opaque to me, but the result is confusing. If there is dialogue here, I can’t hear it. For Hsiang’s straightforward piece using art to document activism, the artist has produced a new series of color photo portraits of local community activists, and installed them in an irregular grid, each next to a single artifact meaningful to the activist portrayed. Ozawa’s work comprises three thematically unrelated sculptures, each involving sound: a miniature house on a crank containing a sheep-sound can, a buddha-sculpture containing a radio tuned to the weather channel, and a doorway wired to a sound installation that was not yet up and running by the opening reception.
Of Wong Yap’s four pieces, two seem unrelated to the exhibition’s subject matter. “The Best Person I Can Be” is a darkened room featuring a two-way mirror, inviting viewers to examine their own and their neighbors’ vanity and desire for self-improvement. Her “Untitled” site-specific window intervention is a simple series of dark filters over the gallery’s outside windows, with eye-hole cutouts covered in gels of a variety of colors. While it’s fun looking through the mirror, and testing out the Monet-like effects the various color filters have on Capp Street below, I’m unable to tease out a strong connection to the activist theme of the show. The lack of context within the scope of the exhibition weakens the theme of transparency and perspective Wong Yap has running through all four pieces.
More relevant to the show is the display of digital reproductions of historical Kearny Street Workshop screenprinted posters installed on the landing outside the gallery. Wong Yap’s only commentary here is a pink gel over the lights, which casts a semi-ironic, rose-colored glow on the posters.
“Seeing Red” is Wong Yap’s strongest and most outspoken piece here. She has screenprinted cutout lines for 3-D-style glasses onto a series of paper strips, and covered the eyeholes with lenses made of rubylith, a transparent red material used in screenprinting. Each of the strips containing the glasses is series-numbered, but attendees aren’t necessarily meant to notice, and she offers a pair of scissors to enable them to cut off the part of the piece that would cement its value as an art object. The rubylith material, not intended for use as a lens, fogs and obscures vision, offering instead a blurry “red” view of the world — the distortion of perspective created by constant anger.
At the opening, the viewers’ eagerness to cut out and wear the glasses began to appear like an indictment of thoughtless activists, so eager to put on the distorting lenses of political anger that they would destroy an art object; so anxious for feel-good functionality that they would ruin aesthetics. The screenprinting, and its material, mockingly invokes one of activist art’s most fetishized media. Taking the various subtle elements of the piece together, “Seeing Red” produces an impression of surprising hostility to the attitudes and practices of more traditional activist artists, and indeed to Wong Yap’s own earlier work.
I can, at times, be similarly weary of the relentless celebration community art organizations engage in when they examine activist art. And I am acutely aware that the tension between polemical and avant garde aesthetics does not push virtue or social value entirely over to the left side. But I’m a bit stumped by Wong Yap’s hostility, even while I find it by far the most interesting result of this project. She has outlined her position on the project blog in a post entitled “Why I Am Not Making Activist Art for Activist Imagination,” but I remain stumped.
Ultimately, Wong Yap’s work in Activist Imagination is not activist art but a critique of activist art. As such, she is the artist in this exhibition who engages most strongly with the topic at hand, while openly repudiating it. If nothing else, Activist Imagination is instructive as a document of an artist in a moment of transition, and at war with her previous sensibilities.
Activist Imagination runs through May 24, 2008 at Kearny Street Workshop in San Francisco . Activist Imagination public discussions will take place March 27 and April 24, 2008 at 7pm. For photographs of the work from the Activist Imagination opening, visit mochamonkey.com</a.