An Empty Identifier: In Criticism of “Asian American” as Curatorial Construct


An Empty Identifier: In Criticism of “Asian American” as Curatorial Construct

By Sarah Hwang February 27, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.

This essay was made possible with support from Portland-based arts platform c3:initiative. Art Practical hosted our inaugural Art Publishing Residency last summer with emerging arts writers Sarah Hwang and Audrey Molloy. Over the course of two months, the residents learned all aspects of art publishing with Art Practical, developing critical writing and editing skills. In conjunction with c3’s Working Library, Audrey and Sarah embarked on the second half of their residency with c3:initiative in Portland, where they spent time speaking to and learning from artists and curators in the region.


Mills College Art Museum’s exhibition In-Between Places: Korean-American Artists in the Bay Area is, according to the curators, “the first exhibition to clearly claim that Korean-Americans are Koreans, and simultaneously, Korean-American art is Korean art.”1 This statement attempts to confine these ethnically Korean artists and their art in a culturally essentialist and nationalist framework. They are being aligned with one side of the coin of their identity while the institution neglects the influences and cultural contexts within which they have decided to live and work.

This archetype also applies to discussions of the Asian American identity, providing what is perhaps too narrow a view on a vast geopolitical region with nearly fifty nations, each with a unique history, culture, and relationship with the United States. Art historian Margo Machida considers Asian American artists as those who are “conjoined by a shared presence in the United States and are compelled to contend with how they are positioned as Asians in their various encounters in this social and political landscape.”2 For many Asian Americans, “Asian-ness” (an identifier of those most typically from East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, or the Pacific Islands) is a concept they constantly negotiate in order to come to terms with their complicated relationships to the ambiguous landscape of America—a place where individualism is highly valued and nationality does not equate with ethnicity or cultural heritage. It goes without saying, then, that art is a cross-section of a time and place and only shows one side to a multifaceted identity. Its very nature as a fabricated object cannot fully reproduce the maker’s intentions, nor can it simply represent a centralized cultural message. For artists who deal with Asian American identity in their work, Asian-ness or Asian American-ness is only a positioning of a subjectivity and not a stable status.

How, then, do Asian American artists navigate this instability in their art? Utilizing postcolonial discourse, one way in which Asian American artists navigate the complexity of their identity as  “not quite” culturally American is through the performative nature of mimicry, or masquerade.3 Masquerade can become a medium in which artists explore the malleability of their own identity, the interchange between their identity, and their identification by others. Their art becomes the product of a masquerade through which they can simultaneously distinguish themselves from their white American peers and complicate stereotypical or singular notions of their Asian American identity.

In acknowledging the nuances of transnational identity through the varied practices of Asian American artists in Portland, Oregon, a city known for its relatively homogenized demographic, a more complex picture of the “Asian American” identity arises. Art historian David J. Clarke explains that identity issues play a part in the local, a distinct context where the forces of globalization are both played out and resisted.4 Portland’s position as a progressive city in a vast conservative state echoes the current political landscape in America. The city has the largest concentration of Democratic Party and liberal-leaning voters in the state, while the rest of the state’s population has historically voted more conservatively. Though Oregon’s electoral votes went to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential elections, twenty-nine out of the thirty-six Oregon counties voted for Donald Trump.5 There has also been a new shift in Oregon’s demographic composition. In June 2017, The Oregonian reported Asians are the fastest-growing population in the state, surpassing Latinos for the first time since 2010.6 Much of the growth is also concentrated in the Portland metro area, where the majority of the state’s current Asian immigrant population resides, yet the city’s population is still overwhelmingly 71% white or Caucasian.7

Taiwanese filmmaker Ivy Lin’s documentary Beauty & the Sea (2017) exemplifies the interchangeability of Asian American identity. The film follows an older Taiwanese woman (played by Lin’s mother) on a typical day visiting a Chinese-owned salon and a seafood store in Southeast Portland, a district known for its high Asian immigrant population. Using handheld close-up shots, Lin focuses on detail views and actions of the woman’s errands: the hairdresser’s fingers combing through the woman’s newly permed hair or a close-up view of fish swimming in a tank as the woman directs the seafood seller which she would like to purchase.

Lin’s focus is on the universality of the woman’s everyday life as a Taiwanese immigrant living in Portland. Signifiers offers clues of her Taiwanese ethnicity to the viewer. Dialogues are spoken in Mandarin and Cantonese about where she grew up; the signs of the two establishments are written in English and Chinese; the woman uses the staple ingredients of Taiwanese cuisine—ginger, scallions, and soy sauce—to cook her fish dinner. Yet the intimate portrait of the woman could be anyone’s grandmother. Lin herself confided that when she presented the film at the 2017 Våsteräs Filmfestival in Sweden, an audience member came up to her and commented that their own Swedish grandmother also used to sharpen her knife using the bottom of a bowl, just as the woman did in the film.8 Beauty & the Sea weaves a multiplicity of dialects, people, and stories into a thoughtful exposition on the meaning of diversity in a homogenized, neoliberal city like Portland:

Here [in Portland], people think diversity means different lifestyles; to me, it means different ethnicities. It's very frustrating. Even though the city has grown so much, it's still not diverse, especially after living in Chicago. You can chit-chat with cops, see all people of color walking on the street.9

Samantha Wall. Undercurrent, 2016 (series); india ink on dura-lar film, 87 x 40 inches or 58 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Samantha Wall’s Undercurrent series (2016) also explores the transparency of societal conventions of identity and femininity. The series consists of ink portraits of women of color, whom the artist interviewed, on semi-transparent Dura-Lar. The figures are depicted as nudes in contrapposto, crouched down, arms folded. Though Wall has described these as portraits, they lack distinct, identifying features—primarily faces—which places significance on the women’s stories rather than their appearances. The series’ title also perpetuates the anonymity of their identities. Even the demarcations of breasts, butt, limbs, and hair are formed by varying saturations of black ink that only suggest the bodies’ nudity. The bodies are suspended in an in-between state of invisibility and hypervisibility. While Wall has painted a conventionally art-historical subject associated with male voyeurism, the distinctly inked quality of the nameless figures against a transparent ground desensitizes the sensual nature of the female nude. These portraits of women are no longer sexual objects of the male gaze, but rather hollow images of naked female figures that can accommodate all gazes. Perhaps this reflects the artist’s own ability to make her identity malleable as half Korean and half Black:

My identity was malleable. I can insert anything into that, like Korean and what? It was like a blank space where I tried on a bunch of different things to see how it felt. That's definitely stayed with me. The malleability is something that I find very attractive.10

We have a natural tendency to align ourselves with a certain ideology or group as a way of anchoring our ever-fluid identity or carving out a piece of the larger world to call our own. However, this does not often reflect a complete picture of our various upbringings, heritages, or affinities. In his three-part visual performance Direct Path to Detour (2017), Japanese performance artist Takahiro Yamamoto investigates the nuances of the Asian American identity. One particular iteration is an hour-long choreographed performance of four bodies moving throughout the stage space in synchronized movements, spastic and automatic actions, and reenactments of the vernacular in varying groupings. The performers navigate the stage space in a trance, embodying the transitional states of being and feeling as they experience their surroundings. Through synchronized passages and pas de deux interludes, the bodies are in control of their space, their roles as performers, and their self-representation to the audience. Through writhing, spastic motions, they challenge the audience’s expectations of their roles as performers. The piece stems from Yamamoto’s own interest in exploring the idiosyncrasies of our identities:

I was wanting to hold or encompass a person as a whole. So the idea of abstractness, unknown-ness, or something that you don't understand as well as the explicit, such as gender, sexual orientation, your height and race. I want to hold all of them together as a concept of that identity. There is a sense of empowerment with a label, but also a sense of limit to that label.11

Yamamoto draws from linguistic anthropology to delve into the discourse of high and low-context cultures. According to anthropologist Edward Hall, cultures considered low-context place more emphasis on the explicit communication of messages while those considered high-context place importance on the implicit meanings of what is spoken.12 Similarly, this portion of Direct Path to Detour provides a high-context approach to identity by focusing on the performative (implicit) aspects of one’s experiences rather than the spoken (explicit). During the piece, the performers cease their choreography and address the audience as a fictitious band on an album-release tour, forcing the audience to engage with the paradox of the explicit through claps and laughter.

The need to seek and articulate a sense of affinity and interconnectedness with others continues to be a significant concern for artists of color. At the same time, there is also a need to stand out—a desire to find one’s foothold in the vast melting pot. Globalization has increasingly diminished the need to identify art and artists with a nationality, and instead has placed significance on conceptualism vis-à-vis the unique stories behind the object and object maker. The varied practices of the artists featured show that their art ascribes to experiences that are beyond just their Asian ethnicities. Rather, they address the personal and intrinsic questions of representation that all artists try to answer. Though “Asian American” can identify an entire population, it also erases the very humanity that makes them unique. The grouping of such artists as a curatorial construct is perhaps too de-specified to contain any pointed implications about their cultures, makerships, or conceptual impulses. The exhibitions that contain their work must bear greater intellectual responsibility regarding a decolonized view of peoples and geographies.


  1. “In-Between Places: Korean-American Artists in the Bay Area,” Mills College Art Museum, accessed December 1, 2017,
  2. Margo Machida, Unsettled Visions: Contemporary Asian American Artists and the Social Imaginary (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 12.
  3. In “Of Mimicry and Man,” Homi Bhabha introduces mimicry as a form of resistance used by colonized subjects against their colonizers while also working within the governance system set up by the colonizers to control the colony. Margo Machida advances Bhabha’s idea in her book Unsettled Visions by discussing the performative aspect of mimicry, which she calls “masquerade,” as an act of colonial resistance. See Homi Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” October, vol. 28 (Spring 1984).
  4. David Clarke, “Contemporary Asian Art and Its Western Reception,” in Contemporary Art in Asia, ed. Melissa Chiu and Benjamin Genocchio (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011), 158.
  5. “2016 Oregon Presidential Election Results,” Politico, accessed January 2017,
  6. Annie Ma, “For a Change, Asians Are Oregon’s Fastest-Growing Group,” The Oregonian, June 30, 2017,
  7. “How Diverse Is Your City?”, Priceonomics, accessed December 2017,
  8. Ivy Lin, interview by Sarah Hwang, November 2017.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Samantha Wall, interview by Sarah Hwang, November 2017.
  11. Takahiro Yamamoto, interview by Sarah Hwang, November 2017.
  12. Edward Hall’s book The Silent Language introduces the equal importance of both verbal and nonverbal communication in cross-cultural exchange. See Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1959).

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