Proximities 3: Import/Export

Review

Proximities 3: Import/Export

By Heidi Rabben February 17, 2014

Proximities 3: Import/Export is the third and final exhibition in a series at the Asian Art Museum exploring the Bay Area’s perception of, and relationship with, an increasingly globalized Asia. In this last installment, curator Glen Helfand [Full disclosure: Helfand has been an Art Practical contributor] has assembled a formidable group of artists whose work responds to issues around manufacturing, labor, trade, and commodification. The exhibition covers plenty of ground: Amanda Curreri’s works reference her time in South Korea, Byron Peters collaborates with a Shenzhen-based company to create his digital work, Imin Yeh borrows her creative process directly from India, and Rebeca Bollinger displays objects inspired by Japanese culture. Meanwhile, Leslie Shows’s and Jeffrey Augustine Songco’s contributions take a more macro approach to the region, thereby allowing the exhibition to simultaneously hone in on more narrow, context-specific scenarios while still addressing the wider implications of our relationship with Asia as a region. Of primary concern remains our growing reliance on outsourcing, industrial manufacturing, and the mobility of both material and immaterial labor.

Imin Yeh, Paper Bag Project, 2013; Handmade paper bag; 15 x 12 x 6 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

On the material side, Imin Yeh’s work Paper Bag Project (2013) reveals the painstaking process of creating a consumer object with a very short lifespan: handmade paper shopping bags. Yeh singlehandedly replicates a production process she witnessed while visiting a factory in India, and documents every step on video, from hand pulping the paper, to screen printing designs, to weaving the rope handles.  The finished objects hang in the exhibition space in a grid against a white wall, their subtle pearlescent texture nearly blending into the background. With the addition of the accompanying video, we become acutely aware of how easily we could (and often do) miss the detailed amount of labor that goes into such disposable objects. Yeh’s piece underlines the wide disparity between labor and the attribution of value in trade and globalized societies.

Filling the wall next to Yeh’s grid is Untitled (2012), Byron Peters’s single-image projection of an unquestionably beautiful, yet largely unremarkable sky. Peters worked with an architectural firm based in the city of Shenzhen, which specializes in digital image renderings for luxury buildings in North America. Instead of commissioning an image for a specific architectural space, Peters requested a rendering of the sky directly above the firm’s building. In exchange, the artist agreed to pay the company something equally as ephemeral: fifty “likes” of the firm’s Facebook page. The scale of the projection, combined with its dense, pastel cloudscape, imparts a sense of calm. Yet there is something eerily generic and unfinished about the image; this sky marks a specific time and place, and yet at the same time, it feels like it could be any sky. Untitled isn’t a photograph, but a digital approximation of a natural phenomenon that is itself inherently transitory and malleable. Coupled with the “deal” that brought it into being, Untitled asks what it means when both product and currency in a business transaction remain virtual.

Byron Peters. Untitled, 2013; Single image projection; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist.

Just as the exhibition turns on its thematic binary of importing and exporting, Yeh, Peters, and the other selected artists provocatively address the larger issue of material and immaterial labor across transactional flows. The Proximities series as a whole raises multivalent and timely questions about Asia’s relevance to and influence on the Bay Area’s contemporary culture, and Proximities 3: Import/Export ends the series with plenty of food for further thought.

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