1.12 / Review

Plastic Life

By Laura Cassidy April 7, 2010
Tao Mei-Yu. Plastic Life, 2006; single-channel video; 6:00 min. Courtesy of the Artist and the San Jose Museum of Art.

Plastic Life, currently on view at the San Jose Museum of Art, is a group exhibition of experimental narrative artworks from the Pacific Rim. Of the eight artists in this show, only one deals with plastic in a literal sense: Tao Mei-Yu tailored herself a head-to-toe rain suit using a pair of scissors and a few plastic shopping bags. Her video of this process, also entitled, Plastic Life (2006), demonstrates that the crux of the show is storytelling. The show is not an elegy to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, that gyre of plastic waste in the ocean that has decomposed into particulate matter so fine that humans are hard-pressed to clean it up. Instead, it references the plasticity of the human condition, the ability to creatively adapt to changing cultures and environments.

Many of the featured artists have layered personal histories, reflected in work that progresses over time and between geographic locations. For instance, when she made Plastic Life, Tao was a graduate student from Taiwan studying abroad in the Netherlands. Another artist, Hye Rim Lee, was born in Korea and studied music at Ewha Women's University in Seoul, but later moved to New Zealand to pursue an art degree at the University of Auckland.

Lee’s career has flourished in the past ten years. She exhibited her 3-D digital animation Crystal City Spun (2008) at the 2009 Venice Biennale as part of the “Glasstress” exhibition at the Istituto Veneto Di Scienze Lettere de Arti. It is a pleasure to see Lee’s mesmerizing animation here, exhibited as a large-scale wall projection. The first frame of Crystal City Spun displays an assemblage of translucent objects poised on a black reflective surface, invoking the mirrored glasswork of Josiah McElheny. As the animation progresses, the objects begin to spin on their axes and fill with color, revealing themselves to be a monochromatic ensemble of sex toys. The gravity of the work increases when several curious creatures, serene and unthreatening, appear amidst the toys. According to the wall text, the purple bunnies and the Barbie-like figure, each with their own coquettish mannerisms, embody “notions of female beauty." The accompanying electronic audio track is upbeat yet contemplative. Lee simultaneously evokes traditional Korean mythology, Western pop femininity, and video game culture, probing the impact of such encompassing cyber narratives on our perceptions of contemporary women.

Hye Rim Lee. Crystal City Spun, 2008; 3-D digital animation; 3:15 min. Courtesy of the Artist, Kukje Gallery, Seoul, and the San Jose Museum of Art.

The exhibition includes two other large-scale wall projections, one by Bruce Yonemoto, and the other by Charlene Shih. In Sounds Like the Sound of Music (2005), Yonemoto follows a young Peruvian boy as he prances awkwardly through an idyllic Andean landscape, singing in Quechuan. Yonemoto's work highlights Hollywood misconceptions about this indigenous language. Although spoken by 13 million people in South America, George Lucas appropriated the language in Return of the Jedi (1983) as an obscure tongue spoken by Jabba the Hutt. The boy’s piercing prepubescent voice disrupts the hypnotic unfolding of Lee’s Crystal City Spun. Charlene Shih’s stop-action animation, on the other hand, is silent, though no less assertive. Shih adapts the visually rich language of calligraphy for the big screen, grappling with tradition and change. Thousands of figurative watercolors on rice paper poetically morph from one form into the next.

The other four works are displayed on wall-mounted televisions with headphones. Bad (2005), by Su Hui-Yu, is a reenactment of the famous music video starring Michael Jackson and directed by Martin Scorsese. Chiang Chung-Lun’s Nocturnal No. 4 (2009) is also derivative of music videos, though he combines stylistic elements from raves and masquerade balls to create a dark futuristic aura around his mysterious dancer. Next to Chiang’s video, A Wolf Loves Pork (2008), by Taijin Takeuchi, appears exceedingly playful. Takeuchi uses stop-motion animation to depict a boy dressed as a wolf chasing a pig through his neighborhood. Whereas Shih animated thousands of calligraphic sketches on rice paper, Takeuchi cleverly animates thousands of small snapshots that rapidly progress across a living room carpet, kitchen sink, and writing desk, like a low-tech flipbook version of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989).

The Soliloquist (2008), an animated short film by Ma Kuang-Pei, is the most remarkable of this small-screen group. The film tells the sad love story of a young man with a broken heart, and is textured by ambient sound recordings from handsaws, birds, water, and wind.  Muted colors wash over what seems to be hand-pressed papers with rust marks and stains, like a sullen rainbow.

Plastic Life is the first of a new exhibition series that will feature contemporary artists from the Pacific Rim. This first iteration is fresh and exciting, but leans heavily on artists from Taiwan and other East Asian countries. It is therefore a bit narrow in its efforts to represent the entire region.1 Nevertheless, the exhibition demonstrates that plasticity is indeed a key concept in understanding contemporary art from the Pacific Rim, wherein people are creatively adapting to the conditions of production in a changing world.

Plastic Life is on view at the San Jose Museum of Art through September 19, 2010.


  1. A great companion to “Plastic Life” is the exhibition “Niu Pasifik,” currently on view at the C.N. Gorman Museum at UC Davis. It features multimedia work from New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Niue, Hawaii, Papua New Guinea, and Australia.

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