Exhibition turns Chinese spotlight back on US

Updated: 2012-04-30 11:17

By Kelly Chung Dawson (China Daily)

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With Chinese artists and the country's art scene becoming increasingly visible, much of the spotlight has been on the rapid changes occurring in China.

But a new exhibition at New York's Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) turns the focus back on the United States, in an exploration of what this country looks like to Chinese artists.

"America through a Chinese Lens" surveys photography by both overseas Chinese living in the US, and Chinese Americans born and raised here. Featuring photographs and projects by Wing Young Huie, Wayne Liu, Yan Deng, Ka-Man Tse and An Xiao Mina, among others, the exhibition attempts to present a range of Chinese perspectives.

"The idea of how Chinese people have understood the American landscape was very important to me," said Herb Tam, curator and director of exhibitions at MOCA, in an interview with China Daily.

"The American landscape really is different from the Chinese landscape, and what's so interesting about many of these photos is how foreign and surreal America appears to be."

Separated into three categories, the exhibition examines Chinese depictions of America's natural landscape, its urban spaces, and suburbia. Photographs collected from New York's Chinese community are also scattered around the gallery, featuring scenes of Chinese family and home life in America since the 1950s. Social media artist An Xiao Mina has also contributed to the exhibition with photos posted online at MOCA's Tumblr account.

"I think that when you look at the exhibition as a whole, there's a feeling of alienation in the sense that we don't feel totally comfortable in the different spaces that are represented here - whether the landscape, suburbia, or the cities," Tam said. "But we're constantly trying to understand America, and it's because of the dynamism of immigration in this country that we're always trying to understand America both as a set of spaces but also as a symbol for ideas like democracy and capitalism and all those other things the country is associated with. I think the reason Chinese immigrants photograph the US so much is that I think in a way, we're always trying to capture those moments in which the American Dream becomes realized, even if only for a moment."

He pointed to various photos of Chinese families with their brand new homes or their cars.

"In those moments photography becomes really important to the immigrant experience, because those are the moments in which the dream feels fulfilled," he said.

Mina, who updates the online portion of the exhibition daily, said she was heavily influenced by a Chinese sensibility for using photography as communication. During a year spent in Beijing, she witnessed a shift toward a functional role for photography.

"Everyone in China has a cellphone or a digital camera, and pictures are communication and can act in the same capacity as text," she said in an interview with China Daily.

"When we talk about the Chinese point of view, we're talking about 1.3 billion people within one country and then all the overseas ethnic Chinese, and they all have their own perspectives and experiences. What I like about this exhibition is the true mix of perspectives, and I think that there is necessarily a different lens through which someone from a certain background will see the world. Whether there is one lens is hard to say, but I think that there are many different perspectives."

Tam, who grew up in the suburbs of California, said he felt that his experience as a Chinese American was defined by feeling apart. For example, Asian teenagers didn't feel comfortable going to the local 7-11, because their white peers hung out there, he said.

"As an Asian American you're sort of limited spatially to where you can go when you're growing up," he said. "It takes on a racial component. My family used to go camping at Yosemite and I never felt quite comfortable in the American landscape either. I remember looking at it and thinking, 'This is weird.' It didn't feel like it belonged to me."

Ka-Man Tse, whose work is featured in the exhibition, said she has focused on the question of who writes American history.

"The canon of American photography has often been dominated by Caucasians," she said in an interview with China Daily. "At the same time, 'outsiders' have also contributed. Whose history is it, and who gets to have a seat at the table? This exhibition of photographs show that a diverse set of artists inherit - as well as participate, riff on and subvert - that tradition."

Julie Kwan's photographs of her teenaged cousins reveal an awkwardness that reflects not only the natural growing pains of the age, but a discomfort at being different, Tam said.

"To me there's an American 'feedback' in the work by the Chinese American artists in the exhibition," he said. "I don't know if it's defensive but it's referencing something deeper about the American existence for Chinese born and raised here. Whereas for Yan Deng, (a Chinese photographer who only came to the US for university), there is something more playful about his work. As a foreigner maybe you can look at America for its absurdity, for its humor."

Yan Deng's photographs, which were recently featured on Time Magazine's online photography blog, seem to poke fun at the American fixation on order, with one photo depicting a traffic line painted directly over a car. 

"For someone from China who hasn't lived here for long to make that statement- that feels very poignant," Tam said "For others who were born and raised here, who have been here for generations, where something like that is part of the social fabric, it's taken for granted."

But it is that very contrast between the new immigrant's experience and that of the second- or third-generation immigrant that gives the exhibition its character, Tse said.