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Fetish: the Culture of Fear & Desire at KSW's Space 180

Exotification by Decoupage

One of the key themes explored by this modest show of pieces by local Asian American artists it that of Asians themselves as the object of a fetish. Walk down the street anywhere in San Francisco or the Bay Area , and you’ll spot several instances of what are uncharitably referred to as “rice kings” (or queens) -- tall, handsome and rich white guys with Asian girlfriends (or boyfriends).

This phenomena does excite strange emotions in otherwise fair-minded people: white women or men probably resent being marginalized in favor of “exotic” specimens; Asians often resent being “fetishized;” and perhaps deep down everyone resents the fact of their resentment. Why should “race” matter so much anyway?

The curator’s notes on the show talk about the artists’ “…shared experience of … being regarded with a mixture of fascination, desire, and fear…” In terms of our local history, I immediately thought of the vicious racism and oppression visited upon our Asian brothers and sisters here in San Francisco since the Gold Rush and for a century or more thereafter. The California and U.S. legislatures passed several laws, beginning in 1850 with the Foreign Miners Tax, directly aimed at discriminating against Chinese laborers.

Originally seen as a highly valuable (and cheap) labor force that could help the state get rich off its bounteous gold deposits, the Chinese were vilified, scorned, and persecuted as soon as the gold ran out and other cheap labor immigrant groups moved in. Such overt prejudice and hatred against Asians today seems hard to imagine (at least here in the Bay Area), but racism, while less visible, is still going strong.

I admire these artists for speaking out in their own ways about what it’s like to be the object of a fetish, and to try to examine the idea a bit more deeply. Although the skill with which they communicate this varies, and a few of the artist’s statements are encrusted with the insipid impenetrable blather so in vogue in academia today, (for example: “[her] prints and drawings confront the idea of body as object to deconstruct notions of identity, gender, race and desire and the discourses in which they operate.”) some of the work manages to be strong and provocative.

I liked Yun Bai’s pieces from her Porn Flower series. Faced with pressing financial needs in college, she became a worker in the adult entertainment industry. Searching for an identity with dignity for herself and her co-workers, as she tells it, “…I settled on the idea that I was a flower; that all women were flowers.” This gave rise to her evocative pieces of decoupage on round black lacquered panels that first appear to be traditional Chinese floral themes, but on closer inspection turn out to be made of snippets from porn magazines. Soft pink colored flower petals are made up of arms legs and the rather more floral body parts of women. The effect is quite beautiful actually, and carries none of the raw, dreary sting of porn.

Derek Chung’s Within Reach is a mildly disturbing installation in which photos of young Asian women from an actual online dating site are mounted perpendicular to the wall on small plexiglass shelves at the minimum heights specified by the women as acceptable for their ideal men. (I’m 5’11” and could only see a few of them). Something tells me that most of these women are not six feet tall, so the absurdity of fetishizing height in men becomes painfully clear. This sly piece that points out a bias toward men that few of us are aware of or discuss.

Truong Tran’s images of vintage gay porn (pretty young boys in nymph like poses, basically) overlaid with sparse, soul-searching verse are poignant and elegant. Created as a response to the Iranian government’s execution of two young men for the crime of being gay, they convey sadness, shame and sensuality.

Dorian Katz’s Dear Madame D. is a horse (make that pony) of an entirely different color. Rather that wrestle with existential questions of gender deconstruction or the cultural context of semiotic discourse, she lets us into her sparkling pink and purple pony world through a series of fanciful, childlike paintings on cardboard shapes. She relays the story of her transformation into a pony, and her submission to her trainer, laced through and through with delicious moments of pleasure and pain, as she champs on her bit, salivates on her knees for large dangling carrots and responds with delight to the sting of the riding crop. Pony play is certainly a fetish, albeit one that for most people occupies a very small corner of the realm of human behavior (if they’re aware of it at all). Ms. Katz presents it as a funny, sensual, and very strange form of play.

Is fetishizing a sublimated form of racism? Perhaps, but isn’t attraction to people different than yourself simply nature following its course, strengthening the gene pool by encouraging cross-breeding? It’s interesting to contemplate the idea of sexual fetishes as a sort of imperialistic imperative, one that perpetuates the alien nature of a conquered of conquering culture. But there are other forces at work in American culture today. Young people who are “halfies” or “hapa” are changing our perceptions and ideal of beauty.

Fashion models everywhere are coming in a much broader variety of colors and shapes, (although most of them are still butt-skinny and quite tall). The melting pot in many parts of the country is really melting, and we’re beginning to accept all types of people as beautiful. This is a healthy thing, and a natural response to the collision of cultures that makes up the heart of what our country is about.

But the melting pot also carries its share of confusion and angst for those who see it as a melt down of cultural and personal identity. "Fetish" has some powerful moments that address the pain of otherness.

Fetish: the Culture of Fear & Desire
at Kearny Street Workshop's Space180
runs through May 5