Nǐ shì zhōngguó rén ma? (Are you Chinese?)
For the rest of the year, a large colored lattice pattern will cover the windows of the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center (SJDC) at Parsons The New School for Design. This fantastic, monumental piece which will literally color the way visitors to the SJDC view the other works on display in this fall’s show “兩岸關係” | “Cross-Strait Relations” | “两岸关系,” is inspired by a photograph of the ancestral home of artist Michael Lin. The piece is called Kellen Gallery 09.26-12.15.13 in recognition of its extremely site-and-time-specific nature. The photograph shows Lin’s ancestor standing in front of a window decorated in the same pattern. Lin has worked in this vein before: In 2010, he covered the Vancouver Art Gallery in a floral pattern inspired by traditional Chinese textiles.
“The dislocation of highly specific motifs, transplanting them to a different context, rewinds the motif and allows it to be considered in a different way,” says Arthur Ou, an assistant professor in the BFA Photography program at Parsons and the show’s curator. This description is itself an apt metaphor for the lives of the artists represented in the show, including Ou, who was born in Taiwan but grew up in the United States.
The show takes its name, Cross-Strait Relations, from a term often used to refer to the traditionally fraught relationship between China and Taiwan. Since 1950, when Nationalist forces led by Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan after their defeat by Mao Zedong’s Communists, the two nations have co-existed uneasily, each claiming recognition as the legitimate government of China. While relations have warmed somewhat in the 21st century, difficulties remain. “China has a pavilion at the Venice Biennale,” explains Ou, “but Taiwan’s pavilion is not really recognized. It’s the same at the Olympics—Taiwan has to be called Chinese Taipei.”
Ou has collected works from artists who share his and Lin’s itinerant sensibility. Increased mobility between places inhabited by Chinese—Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and other sites of the diaspora—has given rise to a generation of nomadic artists, culturally unmoored and removed from the traditional cross-strait divide. Lin, for example, was born in Japan to Taiwanese parents, emigrated with his family to the United States as a child, grew up in California, and moved to Taiwan to launch his artistic career; he now splits his time between Shanghai and Brussels. The artists on view create work that takes up the complexities of movement and identity in various ways. In his piece, Ming Wong re-imagines the 1974 film Chinatown by playing all of the main roles himself. Chen Chieh-jen takes his own U.S. visa interview as a point of departure for staging the drama of anticipation and supplication that such encounters entail. The slyly playful photographs in Cao Fei’s PostGarden series transplant popular BBC cartoon characters from the idyllic settings of their TV shows to less magical surroundings, where they look lost and dejected.
“Not only do these works shatter monolithic conceptions of Chinese identity, they also explore transformation rather than migration as a global condition,” said Radhika Subramaniam, chief curator of the SJDC. “We are reminded that the slim straits that separate us are also spaces of translation and radical re-invention, all issues familiar to the life of New York.” Other works featured in the show are by Heman Chong, Lee Kit, Charwei Tsai, Hong-kai Wang, and Hu Yun.
“I hope people come away from the show with a better understanding of more plural definitions of what being ‘Chinese’ is,” says Ou.