The Vincent Price Art Museum’s Soul Mining show takes on a difficult subject: Asian assimilation in Latino communities and countries. The pain and isolation of it should make you feel like an outsider upon entry.
Your first pan around the gallery includes all the right geography to get you wandering: right through the front door, there’s a blown up green card for a woman named, “Cookie, Fortune.” Then, to your left, there’s a giant scroll over a tiny record player which plays a queered, Spanish version of Iggy Pop’s China Girl (and it’s infinitely superior to the Igg’s track). On the floor, stacks and stacks of sloganeering fliers for the “Happy Guangdong” anti-suicide program in China are arranged into the word “F E L I Z”. And in the corner, an orange neon sign reads, “This is not in Spanish.” It’s in Mandarin. Made in Tijuana.
Many of the pieces in Soul Mining bear the context of forced migration, and forced identities, at the intersection of an othered group being othered by an othered group. The show’s press statement says it aims to point out structural causes and the “‘body and soul’ of the stories.” These things are best exemplified by the quieter, little pieces of Suwon Lee and Mimian Hsu, self-portraits with lonesome and defiant gestures accompanied by physical objects elsewhere in the room.
Suwon Lee’s San Ruperto is a dreary, point-and-shoot self-portrait. Lee is the lone Asian person in the red bucket seats of an antiquated bus in her native Venezuela. She is the focal point, sitting in the middle of eight or nine other contemplative Venezuelans, using the window as her key light, perhaps watching for her reflection in passing surroundings, or maybe just trying to blend in. Companion to that is The Garden of My Exile, a little archipelago of black clay casts with little Hershey’s Egg-sized indentations in them from the condensed ash and clay stones Lee forced into the surface, and removed. Some of the resulting holes are adorned with gold foil. The ashes were gathered from a mountain fire in Caracas before Lee fled Venezuela during the 2016 economic crisis, a forced exit and a forced rebirth. Of course, forest ashes eventually become fertilizer, and it would seem whatever solitary experiences we might glean from San Ruperto have become the seeds of Lee’s renewal.
By contrast, Mimian Hsu’s works in Soul Mining assert her place as a second generation Taiwanese-Costa Rican. Wearing a country girl’s jibarita, she kneels in front of La Gran China, a hole-in-the-wall Chinese joint (also the work’s title). If you know spanish slang, this is a pretty ballsy move, because not only is China (with the long “e” sound) an ethnic term, it’s often a racist term. It almost looks like a Coke ad at first, but she’s glaring at you; you might expect a cigarette in her hand. On the opposite side of the gallery are the ephemera from Hsu’s performance piece Hsu Zheng – Breathing: a projection of her grandfather’s headshot, a set of clothes much like the ones he’s wearing in his photo, and a disfigured print of a young woman’s face that appears slashed and worn. Hsu’s grandfather was a teacher who disappeared at the beginning of Taiwan’s White Terror in 1947, a suppression of political dissidents that lasted nearly four decades. In the original performance, Hsu wore the set of clothes and stood with her grandfather’s face superimposed onto hers, allowing the viewer to see how Hsu wears the haunted presence of her missing patriarch.
The rest of the show is not entirely gloomy, and well worth checking out because the variety of perspectives from other Latinos, Asians, and biracial people really round out an evolving social conscience about the show’s theme. You might still feel out of place when you walk back into the Monterey Park sun, though; it’s a lot to take in.
The exhibit runs through July 14, 2018.
Originally published in Bermudez Projects