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Exhibition Review: Another Beautiful Country

Published onApr 18, 2024
Exhibition Review: Another Beautiful Country

This review is paired part of a duo that consider exhibitions in Los Angeles whose themes each concern the elemental features and fractures of Asian American identity as expressed through contemporary art. To read the review of Scratching the Moon at ICA: LA, click here.


On the pairing of the exhibitions, Cheng writes:

Both on view at the same time in Los Angeles, Scratching at the Moon and Another Beautiful Country mark the increasing critical concerns with Asian American art and artists’ idiosyncratic methodologies. While adopting distinctive approaches, both of the shows repudiate cultural assimilation, racialized identities, and grand narratives. On the one hand, not categorizing artworks by the artists’ cultural lineages, genders, or generations, Scratching at the Moon destabilizes cultural and ecological boundaries by highlighting mixed cultures, the fluidity of identity and affect, and the dysfunction of the social system. On the other, Another Beautiful Country discovers the valence of individual histories and focuses on social relationships to counter sweeping and oversimplified understandings of Chinese American identity.

Despite their differences in curatorial strategies, both of the shows share interests in transnational connections and cultural mobility. If racialized identity and commodified labor are ineluctably the consequence of Asian migration, examining the minutiae of generational and cross-cultural differences, displacement, and transported inheritance is a way to recuperate the distorted image of the dialectic self and the other.

Installation view, Another Beautiful Country, USC Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, January 26, 2024–April 21, 2024. Photo: Hsin-Yun Cheng.

Another Beautiful Country: Moving Images by Chinese American Artists, closing April 21st at the University of Southern California’s Pacific Asia Museum imagines an intersectional space that investigates social bonds and cultural identities.1 The curator, Jenny Lin (who is also an Associate Professor of Critical Studies at USC’s Roski School of Art and Design) focuses the exhibition on cultural relationships. Invoking Caribbean poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant’s concept of “poetics of relation,” Lin reworks the idea of Chinese American identity through “the relations built on care, friendship, family (including chosen family), and generosity.”2 The term Lin deploys, guānxì (關係), or “relationship” in her translation, carries more than one singular meaning in Chinese. It can refer positively to social bonds or negatively to nepotism. Lin adopts the broad lens of guānxì to defy what she calls a “totalizing nationalist narrative” typical to the exhibition of work by Chinese American artists, exploring instead the intricacies of Chinese American identity and the cultural lineages of individual artists, while emphasizing their mobility and agency.3 For me, Another Beautiful Country poses questions such as: How do cultural objects inform one’s memory and identity? What do the typical images of Chinese Americans represent? What do intergenerational and familial bonds express? Moreover, Lin asks: how does the heterogeneous composition of Chinese immigrant culture create a new configuration? Using cinematic “montage” as a metaphor, Lin suggests that montage not only sutures diverse images together but also implies the materiality and labor of assemblage.

Ken Lum’s two billboard-like works—Coming Soon (2009) and Melly Shum Hates Her Job (1990)—greet the audience on the windows of the main gallery’s façade. Coming Soon juxtaposes a blithe image of a mixed-race nuclear family, accompanied by both the English text “coming soon” and the Chinese “即將來臨.” Lum’s ostensibly idealized image ridicules the stereotypical imagination of Asian Americans. The three figures in the image are strangers to each other in real life. Lum’s posters set a pastiche tone for the show.

Ken Lum, Coming Soon, 2019. Installation view, Another Beautiful Country, USC Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, January 26, 2024–April 21, 2024. Photo: Hsin-Yun Cheng.

Several works in the show turn cultural assimilation into sites of contradiction, negotiation, and open translation. For example, Charlene Liu’s room-size installation, China Palace (2023), presents diverse and splendid objects, borrowed from the artist’s mother’s old restaurant in Wisconsin. The setting includes colorful vases with artificial flowers, tchotchkes placed on tables, finely carved dividing screens, framed qípáo patterns, exported oil paintings, and photographs of the restaurant and its hostess in the 1980s. The antique, dazzling, and mixed-cultural collection alludes to how foreign objects, as metonyms of cultures and communities, are translated and transported into new environments.

Charlene Liu, China Palace, 2023. Installation views, Another Beautiful Country, USC Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, January 26, 2024–April 21, 2024. Photo: Hsin-Yun Cheng.

Jennifer Ling Datchuk’s installation, Love Yourself Long Time (2019), similarly deals with cultural translation and racialized Asian labor. Twisting a famous racist line from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), Datchuk transforms a Vietnamese sex worker’s “Me love you long time” into “Love yourself long time.” This phrase is inscribed on a red doormat, alongside its Chinese translation, “永遠自愛.” Printing the phrase on a tawdry, red doormat—which is a common decoration at a Chinese restaurant’s entrance—implies the derogatory association of commodities “made in China”. Now with a self-encouraging tone, Datchuk’s work turns a caricature of sexualized and commodified Asian labor into a moment of self-determinism.

Charlene Liu, China Palace, 2023. Installation views, Another Beautiful Country, USC Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, January 26, 2024–April 21, 2024. Photo: Hsin-Yun Cheng.

As suggested in Liu’s installation, the exhibition draws on the prominent role that matrilineal relationships play in many Chinese American families, especially as represented in popular culture. For example, contrasting the moments of contradictions and conciliations, Vivian Wenli Lin’s The Joy Luck Mom Club: Untold Narratives of Migration (2023) reveals the Chinese cultural convention that mothers educate their daughters to “swallow misery of others” and carry the family’s burden. Lin’s film juxtaposes clips from Wayne Wang’s wildly popular film 1993 The Joy Luck Club and interviews of second-generation daughters with conversations between the artist and her grandmother. The film shows how mother-daughter conflicts can paradoxically create intimacy, and then lead to understanding and reconciliation later in life. Patty Chang’s videos Invocations (2013) and Que Sera Sera (2013) also address affect and intergenerational relationships.4 The encounter between the artist’s dying father and her newborn son dramatizes the liminal passing of life. Chang’s mother’s incantation of various emotions and uncanny states expresses the evanescence of life and the irreducibility of affect.

Patty Chang, Que Sera Sera (left), 2013; Invocations (right), 2013. Installation view, Another Beautiful Country, USC Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, January 26, 2024–April 21, 2024. Photo: Hsin-Yun Cheng.

Patty Chang, Que Sera Sera (left), 2013; Invocations (right), 2013. Installation view, Another Beautiful Country, USC Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, January 26, 2024–April 21, 2024. Photo: Hsin-Yun Cheng.

From my perspective, tracing familial lineages serves as a microscopic method to grapple with one’s cultural identity, which challenges the grand narrative of history. Richard Fung and Simon Leung’s works exemplify two different approaches to this problem. Fung’s essay film, The Way to My Father’s Village (1988), unrolls the process by which Fung excavates the childhood and migratory stories of his father who emigrated from Southern Guangdong to Trinidad. The heterogeneous sources for the film—including immigration paper documents, documentary footage, and an interview between the artist’s relatives—evince the complexity of understanding individual migrants’ experiences. In a different vein, Leung’s Family/Archive (2023) retells the stories of his great-great-grandfather, Wong Kai Kah, who was one of the first group of government-detached Chinese students studying in the United States in the late nineteenth century. Leung’s examination of ancestors’ photography and related newsletters demonstrates how Asian people were stereotypically depicted at that historical moment. Leung’s interpretation of family photos narrates an alternative self-genealogy, collapsing the gap between the intimate and the objective history.

Richard Fung, The Way to My Father’s Village, 1988. Installation view, Another Beautiful Country, USC Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, January 26, 2024–April 21, 2024. Photo: Hsin-Yun Cheng.

Simon Leung, Family/Archive, 2023. Installation view, Another Beautiful Country, USC Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, January 26, 2024–April 21, 2024. Photo: Hsin-Yun Cheng.

Focusing on relation as a material and social process in history, Another Beautiful Country investigates individualized experiences through the lenses of transitional states and micro-histories of immigrant families. The heterogeneous path that artists took echoes Glissant’s idea of relation that “allow[s] each person to be there and elsewhere, rooted and open, lost in the mountains and free beneath the sea, in harmony and in errantry.”5 Moreover, the show’s emphases on montage (mending) and friendship suggest Chinese Americans’ self-reflective tendency. In recognizing the formation of social and cultural bonds, the show’s critical stance also resonates with Kandice Chuh’s famous proposition of imagining Asian American’s subjectivity “otherwise” and embracing “the ethicopolitical implications of multiple epistemologies.”6

Another Beautiful Country is on view at the USC Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, CA, until April 21, 2024.

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