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Exhibition Review: Scratching at the Moon

Published onApr 18, 2024
Exhibition Review: Scratching at the Moon

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 Another Beautiful Country at the University of Southern California’s Pacific Asian Museum, 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 views, Scratching at the Moon, Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, February 10–July 28, 2024. Photo: Jeff McLane/ICA LA.

Curated by Anna Sew Hoy and Anne Ellegood at the Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, Scratching at the Moon presents Asian American artists’ works not solely based on their identity, but proposes multiple methodologies for investigating affect, memory, and conflicts resulting from displacement. Featuring thirteen artists from different generations with diverse cultural backgrounds—including China, the Philippines, Korea, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Canada—Scratching at the Moon the multiple possibilities available for artists to probe into cross-border challenges and cross-generational exchanges. As its statement articulates, the show aspires to explore “a far more complex sense of identity as something informed by experiences of displacement, cross-cultural existence, misidentification, and marginalization, alongside strong family bonds, chosen communities, and resiliency.”1 Focusing on displacement and cross-cultural legacy, Scratching at the Moon proposes Asian Americans as a method of approaching hybridity and; at the same time, recognizing the artists’ cultural lineages. This double-move radicality dwells in the juxtaposition of politics of identity, ethical relationship, cultural memory, and eco-criticism. This review focuses on how artists adopt displacement as a method to deterritorialize cultural, racial, and ethical boundaries.

While displaying wide-ranging topics, the show does not sub-categorize works based on their themes. Instead, the curatorial team furnishes detailed descriptions of the work and artists next to individual pieces. This approach offers the audience license to make their own connections. Moreover, most of the works are made in multimedia, films, photographs, and sculptures. This multimedia focus integrates art with politics of identities, infrastructures, and communities.

Archiving stands as the primary approach for several artists addressing affect and memory. Patty Chang’s We Are All Mothers (2022) and Amanda Ross-Ho’s Untitled Prop Archive (The Portfolio) (2024) display two distinct dimensions of processing affective bonds—intergenerational and cross-species—through archiving and restoring. Patty Chang’s installation, We Are All Mothers, consists of a video and six tables each displaying sixteen snapshots of porpoise dissection. Only two of the photos on each table lie visible and face up; the rest are face down and inaccessible. The video documents Chang and a feminist writer Astrada Neimanis’ remote observation of a porpoise dissection conducted by the scientist Aleksija Neimanis during the Covid-19 pandemic. Chang’s installation suggests that through touching, the scientist and her animal subject exchange affect, which creates intersubjectivity. The scientist’s touching of the porpoise carcass becomes a source of intimacy. The connection built upon tactility becomes a source of affect. Breaking boundaries between human and animal, between death and living, Chang explores the constant exchanges of feelings inscribed in rituals, tactility, matrilineal connections, and liminal stages.

Patty Chang, We Are All Mothers, 2022. Installation view, Scratching at the Moon, Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, February 10–July 28, 2024. Photo: Jeff McLane/ICA LA.

In a different vein, Amanda Ross-Ho’s Untitled Prop Archive (2024) showcases her father’s collections of daily objects in miniature sizes, which were mostly purchased from eBay. These objects are placed on a replicated homestyle tall wooden table vis-à-vis an almost life-scale commercial portraiture of her father (Untitled Waste Image, Heavy Duty, 2024). Smudged by water damage stains, the father is positioned between three boxes of laundry detergent and trash bags. The objects on the table—including fake fruits, goblets, a cooking pan, and candles—reveal both stereotypical imageries cast on immigrant Asian families and the artificiality of American consumerist society. Remodeling the treasures of her father, Ross-Ho creates a microcosm preserving cross-generational memory in an immigrant family.

Amanda Ross-Ho, Untitled Prop Archive (The Portfolio) (front), 2024; Untitled Waste Image (HEAVY DUTY) (lightbox/back), 2024. Installation view, Scratching at the Moon, Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, February 10–July 28, 2024. Photo: Jeff McLane/ICA LA.

If Ross-Ho’s miniatures retell memory through intimate objecthood, for Yong Soon Min, memory is something embedded in both personal and collective histories. Min’s Defining Moments (1992) consists of six photos—including five artist’s self-portraits superimposed with texts and protest images; and one image of an illustrated female body. In all of these five portraits, Min writes “DMZ” (or Demilitarized Zone) over her forehead and “Heartland” over her chest. In the superimpositions of the body and protesting images, Min’s body becomes transparent canvases, a metonymy of her homeland devastated by the Korean War and political violence under Syngman Rhee’s regime and the Kwangju Uprising.

Young Chung, photos from Not By Birth series (archival pigment prints/left), 1996/2023; Yong Soon Min, Defining Moments (silver gelatin prints/right), 1992; Yong Soon Min, Springtimes of Castro and Kim (stack of posters/front), 2009. Installation view, Scratching at the Moon, Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, February 10–July 28, 2024. Photo: Jeff McLane/ICA LA.

Also in dialogue with Korean cultural legacy, Na Mira’s multi-channel film installation, Hotel (2024), addresses misrecognition, interpellation, and animistic conversations. An interlocutor with pioneer artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1952-1982), Na Mira uses shamanic rituals and automatic writing to explore the relationship between subjects, spaces, and haunting memories. In one of the videos in Hotel, a girl runs through a spiral corridor at the Bonaventure Hotel. This looping, black-and-white video symbolizes death and rebirth. Meanwhile, another video flashes with English and Korean text, sometimes upside-down or mirrored. Two mirrors in this installation proliferate the films, blurring the boundaries between the real and illusion. Deconstructing and displacing linguistic signifiers, Na Mira’s manipulation of text and film apparatus is reminiscent of Cha’s psychoanalytic wordplay in her 1978 video installation Passages Paysages. Although Cha’s films are not exhibited in this show, Na Mira’s re-examination of memory and language suggests that the formation of subjectivity constitutes in interpellative negotiation between the past and present.

Asian Americans’ memories are often entangled with complex political statuses and ambivalent cultural identities. Min’s photographs ruminate over the traumas of her homeland, whereas Simon Leung’s opera, Act 2 (2024), disrupts political borders and ecological boundaries. A collaboration with composer Luke Stoneham, Leung’s Act 2 envisions a house exploring various possibilities for deterritorialization and reconsidering ethical relationships.2 Act 2 interweaves multiple storylines of a Vietnamese American businesswoman, her Mexican American housekeeper, P-22 (a famous mountain lion in LA), and a band.3 Shot at the Fitzpatrick-Leland House, Act 2 grapples with migratory memory, space, figment, and sovereignty. Leung’s play of misrecognition subverts the symbolic demarcations which divide the inside and outside, the domestic and foreign, the authentic and fictitious, and the recognized and unrecognized.4 For example, mixing a shipwreck tragedy with her childhood anecdotes, the Vietnamese American woman’s solo deconstructs an “authentic” account of an immigrant subject. Home, borders, and habitats are metaphors of fluidity and unsettlement in Act 2. They are also exclusionary frameworks that can be deconstructed through border-crossing and deterritorialization. In one of the Mexican American maid’s solos, the film is slowed down and accompanied by a mismatched and fragmented sound. Here, Leung’s approach shows the belatedness of immigrant subjectivity to be material. The impingement of social structures—e.g., spatial segregation and otherization—precondition the formation of the immigrant subject. Toward the end of Act 2, P-22’s utopian utterance strengthens the fracture within the seamless cultural harmony, as he roars, “Sovereignty before the state. Migration without borders.”

The artists’ experiments with materiality explore the political tension and implications of race, objecthood, and labor. Echoing Leung’s treatment of political sovereignty, Michelle Lopez’s sculptures expose infrastructural disequilibrium. Lopez’s installation Ballast & Barricades (2019/2023) uplifts and hangs curved police barricades from the ceiling, while the other side is weighted with a roadblock and a ballast on the ground. Her Correctional Lighting (2024) hangs a highway lamp with a balance of a transparent resin cinderblock. By creating tensional suspension, these two works critique the violence of policing power and racial hatred acts amidst the pandemic. In addition, investigating the migration of Corbicula fluminea (or “Asian Clam”), Amy Yao’s ANZ Clam invites its audience to think about whether alien species, as immigrants, do more harm than good to the indigenous community and environment.

Scratching at the Moon stresses cross-boundary explorations and relationality among different cultural and ecological contexts. This approach deemphasizes racial identity and cultural descent as the only categorizing markers for Asian American artists. The diverse methodologies explored by the artists expand its diasporic framework beyond mere ethnic categories. Through the lenses of archiving, materiality, affect, and memory, these artworks challenge the stereotypes and singular lineage of Asian American narratives. Responding to current political and ecological crises on their own terms, Asian American artists’ approaches reshape the epistemology of subjectivity and the narrative of generational memory.

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