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Present Tense Biennial: Chinese Character

Re-framing Questions of Identity

Regardless of the industrial and kitchen metaphors used to describe multiculturalism in America, it remains a fact that each person has his or her own individual and shared experiences, background, and understanding of culture. Any art exhibition, play, film, novel or piece of music is an opportunity for us to share those with one another, thus hopefully creating if not understanding and appreciation, then at least acknowledgement.

Present Tense Biennial: Chinese Character, currently showing at the Chinese Cultural Center and in various storefronts nearby, is just such an opportunity. And unlike many other exhibitions centered around a particular place or culture, this one leaves breathing room for artists to spread out and express any number of concerns and messages.

Of the thirty-one artists whose works populate the exhibition, not all are Chinese or Chinese-American, but all have picked up on some aspect of contemporary Chinese culture as it pervades both China itself and other countries around the world, the United States included, and address questions of identity, influence, and (ir)responsibility in some interesting ways.

Some works specifically address the question of race and identity, while others veer off into bizarre yet interesting territory. In the race-and-identity category, Arthur Huang’s “My Life as a Chinese-American So Far (36 Years and Counting)” shows the racial and ethnic makeup of the various cities in which Huang has lived using groupings of fleshtone painted chopsticks, with each grouping representing one year of the artist’s life. A different color is used to represent various classifications such as White, African-American, Asian-American, and specifically Chinese-American.

To see such statistics in striking visual form makes manifest one of the most well-known, yet perhaps least understood, phenomena in the United States: its racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. What is interesting about this piece, though, is not just the changes it shows in demographics from place to place and year to year, but also the question that must inevitably enter the viewer’s mind: “What impact has this had on the life and outlook, and artwork, of the artist?”

On the other hand, there are those works in the exhibition that branch off from the more commonly expected, works such as Thomas Chang’s photo series of the Splendid China Theme Park (now abandoned) in Orlando, FL. Originally built by the Chinese government to promote tourism in China, Splendid China Theme Park consists of more than sixty replicas of famous Chinese structures, all built at 1/10 scale, that in their heyday must have been something to behold.

Here, however, Chang shows photos entitled, “Great Wall of China,” “Tengwang Pavilion,” and “Pagoda Forest” -- all of miniature monuments crumbling and overgrown by Florida weeds and grass, abandoned to theft and vandalism. Again, beyond the striking photography and disturbingly fascinating images arise questions. How might these be metaphors for the relationship between the U.S. and China, both historically and in contemporary culture? Why might Chang have thought that these particular images would be particularly poignant or meaningful? What do they mean?

A few works even ask audiences to consider, if only in an oblique way, the historically strained relationship between China and Japan, now two powerhouses of industrialization. Sean Marc Lee’s photos of his father, and ethnic Chinese born in Kobe, Japan in 1947 who came to San Francisco around 1949, give us a complicated portrait. What is most outstandingly obvious from the photos, though, is not any focus on Lee’s father’s ethnicity or his struggle for identity as a man torn between three different cultures, but rather a revealing of his father as a father, as a man, and as a human.

There is some levity in the exhibition, too, such as Indigo Som’s “<1%,” which has an unmistakable undercurrent of irony running through it. An installation specific to this space, “<1%” is essentially a wallpaper of Chinese restaurant menus from all over the U.S. Less than 300 of the over 35,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States are represented (hence the title), yet viewers can more than get a sense of how Chinese restaurants have become just as much a part of American culture as hamburgers and apple pie -- and of how much Chinese food in the States has become a strain quite different from Chinese food in China.

This exhibition is not limited to an exhibition space, either. The works branch out into the neighborhood, arrayed in storefronts, again stressing the ubiquity of the questions they raise. A wonderfully diverse exhibition in terms of both media and exhibition space, Present Tense Biennial: Chinese Character takes viewers outside of the common framing of questions of identity to get a clearer look at underlying truths.

The Chinese Cultural Center (and various storefronts)
Now- August 23