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One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now

Bay Area Artists in the Exhibition

Michael Arcega: Eternal Salivation, 2006; alligator, antelope, beef, buffalo, crocodile, elk, emu, pig, kangaroo, lizard, ostrich, salmon, sea horses, shark, snails, tuna, turkey, deer, yak, wild boar, trees, and plants; 15 ft. x 7 ft. x 5 ft. 6 in.; courtesy of the artist and Heather Marx Gallery.

Binh Danh: James Titmas, 19, 2006; chlorophyll print and resin; 41 1/4 x 31 1/2 x 2 1/2 in.; courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery.

Ala Ebtekar: Elemental, 2004 (detail); mixed media installation; dimensions variable; courtesy of the artist.

Indigo Som: China Garden, Yazoo City, Mississippi, from the series Mostly Mississippi: Chinese Restaurants of the South, 2004–05; digital pigment print; 34 x 34 in.; courtesy of the artist.

Four Bay Area artists signal the diversity of works at play in One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now. Michael Arcega’s installation Eternal Salivation was motivated by his interest in the introduction of Christianity in the Philippines by Spanish colonists in the sixteenth century. His boat references the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, paralleling this allegory of salvation with the contemporary events of Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters. Arcega considers the highly politicized and often distressing results of mass efforts to preserve both humans and animals, asking in a statement accompanying the piece, “Who is worthy of saving and who is left to drown? Who has the power to inherit the earth, and who decides?” In this context, the visual and linguistic play between “salivation” and “salvation” is key to understanding Arcega’s ironic commentary on human, animal, and cultural preservation in both historical and contemporary terms.

Binh Danh marries image to landscape and place quite literally, transferring personal and historic photographs photosynthetically to the surface of freshly cut leaves. In his series Life: Dead, Danh prints images of soldiers fallen in the Vietnam War, individualizing the American toll. As he writes, “In a war-torn jungle, memories survive. They bleed into the soil and seep into the roots of plants. The plants reflect these spirits into corporeal forms. . . . I printed these portraits onto leaves so you can imagine what death might look like when the body decays and the memories remain. How does the jungle tell what it witnesses? How do the spirits remain, camouflaged in the jungle?”

Ala Ebtekar’s installation Elemental merges the disparate influences of historic Iranian coffeehouse culture and contemporary American hip-hop culture. After visiting Iran in the late 1990s, Ebtekar saw parallels between the marginalized voices expressed in the populist narratives and folk aesthetic of coffeehouse painting and the rhythmic storytelling of rap and visual punch of graffiti that he was familiar with from growing up in the United States. As he writes, “By merging influences . . . I articulate a moment in time where the past and the present collide. Here the audience is invited to envision and experience the many types of interactions that could happen in this hybridized place, amongst MCs and coffeehouse narrators, graffiti artists and coffeehouse painters, b-boys and wrestlers, DJs and drummers.”

Issues of identity and authenticity figure largely in the photographic work of Indigo Som. She explores the heterogeneous nature of cultural existences in America, referring here to her experiences as a Chinese American growing up in California. For the series Mostly Mississippi, Som traveled the American South, photographing ubiquitous Chinese restaurants in small towns, which she sees as “the most pervasively visible and yet unacknowledged” presence of Chinese Americans in the United States. The photographs visualize how culture, and the superficial performance of culture, becomes inscribed within the most banal American landscapes. They posit questions about how these restaurants function as thresholds between Americanness and Chineseness or between notions of the “norm” and the “exotic.”  But for Som, these sites transcend ethnicity, serving also as “anachronistic holdouts,” often the only mom-and-pop establishments in the commercial landscape.

The exhibition was organized by Asia Society, New York, with support from Altria Group, Inc., the W. L. S. Spencer Foundation, Nimoy Foundation, and Asia Society’s Contemporary Art Council. The Berkeley presentation is supported in part by Richard Shapiro and Patricia Sakai. In-kind support provided by Southwest Airlines.