3.18 / Review

Chico & Chang

By Ellen Tani June 27, 2012

The phrase El mundo es un buñuelo (translation: “The world is a handkerchief” or “It’s a small world”) appears to have been scrawled by a miniature graffitist on Tracy Snelling’s architectural diorama, Mexicalichina (2011), on view at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). Perched like an island in the main gallery, the work has a diminutive scale that belies its panoply of cultural references: a wall of Spanish-language advertisements flanks two debating Chinese-scholar figurines while photographs and videos of hotel rooms, dance halls, stores, and restaurants are visible through Mexicalichina’s windows. The work presents a kind of postmodern barrio that bears the signifiers of ethnic services and goods, like cuisine. If this mini city postures archetypally as multicultural California, it does so with irony, referencing today’s culture-as-cuisine attitude and echoing the ’90s rhetoric of salad-bowl multiculturalism. Many of the works take this wry approach in this exhibition, Chico & Chang, whose eleven artists examine the impact of Asian and Latino influences on California’s visual culture. 

The notion of culture as cuisine surfaces in the exhibition’s title, a reference to the name of a Chinese-style Mexican takeout restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia, whose menu features a comical illustration of two national stereotypes, one pulling the other in a rickshaw. The graphic was an inspiration for the Los Angeles–based artist Clement Hanami’s tricked-out lowrider rickshaw, Goon Squad Garage (2009), complete with sound system and hydraulics, topped by the painted phrase No soy chino. Hanami, whose upbringing in the predominantly Latino community of East Los Angeles was marked by his consistently and mistakenly being identified as Chinese (he is Japanese American), asserts this negative identity as a way of addressing his position as a minority within a minority. His negation mirrors Sergio De La Torre’s installation, This is not in Spanish (2011)—the title phrase sculpted in neon Chinese characters—which was inspired by the artist’s research on Chinese immigrants in northern Mexico. De La Torre’s nod at surrealism is a foil for Pablo Cristi’s sculptural installation, which gestures satirically at the nose-to-tail movement recently embraced by San Francisco foodies, grounding its fetishization of animal parts such as heart, feet, and tripe in the traditional cuisines of Latino and Asian cultures that have long considered these parts indispensable. Hipster Pig (2011), a patchwork-denim pig head, is mounted above Do Not Cast Your Pearls Before Swine (2012), a silver tray of shiny, white pig feet pointing hoof-up, like appetizers.

Clement Hanami. Goon Squad Garage, 2009; mixed media; 48 x 96 x 50 in. Courtesy of the Artist.
Sergio De La Torre. This is not in Spanish, 2011; neon; 1 x 14 ft. Collection of the Kadist Art Foundation.

Chico & Chang is part of the 2012 Zero1 Biennial, an international showcase of work at the nexus of art and technology.1 This year’s theme is “Seeking Silicon Valley,” but Chico & Chang unexpectedly (and delightfully) stretches the biennial’s territory in complicated directions: through cultural and subcultural terrains, political activism, and silenced histories. The installation Untitled (Club Lido) (2011) by Angelica Muro and Juan Luna-Avin presents a fictional narrative staged at the Lido Night Club, a hub for the local transgendered population and located only blocks from the ICA. The Lido’s split-level structure houses a Mexican cantina and Vietnamese ballroom-dancing club and is one of the only spaces where these two communities interact. 

Paradoxically, a major undercurrent of the exhibition seems to be the impossibility of representing mixed cultural influences in any given form. This is the task of bottling essence, taken up by Takehito Etani in his installation of book pages featuring partially erased images of luchadores and Harajuku Girls above small sealed bottles containing eraser shavings labeled sol (sun), sangre (blood), luz (light), and espiritu (spirit). Such material and declarative contradictions enact representations of subcultures and frustrate the search for authenticity that the theme “Seeking Silicon Valley” seems to pursue.

While several artists take on the bemused detachment typical of 1960s Pop art, with social content operating only as an undercurrent, others, like Favianna Rodriguez, put it at the forefront. They make the case for Silicon Valley as a site of political activism whose identity is inextricably tied to the thousands of undocumented individuals who contribute to its economy but are prohibited from the benefits of citizenship. In two mixed-media prints and one video work, collectively entitled DREAMers (2011), Rodriguez amplifies the voices of undocumented youths in relation to the DREAM Act. Through the video, viewers witness a series of incredibly moving monologues by students at a public rally, who seem both shaken and strengthened at the prospect of rejecting the term illegal in favor of announcing and coming to terms with their status as undocumented. The prints, a product of Rodriguez’s collaboration with Julio Salgado, an undocumented, queer artist-activist, render in a comic-like style the dark reality of immigrants who seek the American dream. DREAMers utilizes the format of the news—print and television—to present these untold stories with immediacy.

Showing us that there is more to Silicon Valley than the Internet, and that undocumented immigration is not restricted to one ethnicity and border, Chico & Chang is timely, given the relevance of immigration debates to both national politics and the region’s two largest minority groups. The exhibition exudes hyperbole, the stereotypical nomenclature in the title an underhanded reference to the impossibility of representing something as fluid as multiculturalism. Despite the pervasive impact of Latino and Asian cultures on California’s visual landscape, they remain elusive: seen, tasted, and heard simultaneously yet illuminated through mistaken or appropriated identities.

 

ELLEN TANI IS THE 2012 ACAC WRITING FELLOW.

 

Chico & Chang is now on view at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art through September 16, 2012.

Notes

  1. Chico & Chang was originally curated by Kevin B. Chen at Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco, in 2011.

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