Thursday, October 26, 2017

Remember It, Jake. It's Chinatown.

It stands to reason that the further a skin is stretched, the thinner it gets. And as we all know, a thin skin is a sensitive skin.

For a polarizing country like the United States, a thin skin is inevitable. What accounts for this thin skin is not simply a metaphorical stretching but a political economic disparity that began to accelerate with the Nixon administration and is only now just ripping.

(A thick skin, by contrast, is a privileged skin, if for no other reason than it does not know what it is to be thin.)

A couple years ago I reviewed an exhibition by Ron Tran at 221A. Entitled The Kitchen Garden at Home/Store, the exhibition began with the artist acquiring wares from neighbouring Chinatown shops for display -- and for sale -- at 221A's exhibition space. (There is more to it than that; and if you are curious, you can read my review here.)

Not simply a riff on the "pop-up" phenomenon, The Kitchen Garden at Home/Store reminded me not only of where I was, but how variable that "where" is. For example, I am in Chinatown, but I am also at an art gallery. Or not simply an art gallery, but an artist-run centre. And not simply Chinatown, but amidst a complex of relations brokered by both feudalism and capitalism, benevolence and paternalism; prone to its own expressions of racism, sexism, heteronormativity. And not simply an artist-run centre, but one that participates in -- and profits from -- the sub-leasing of private property. It was all there in Tran's show, and a big reason why, for this writer, it remains a highlight of the 2015 exhibition season.

The Kitchen Garden at Home/Store came to mind this past week when I read about Israeli-born Berlin-based artist Omer Fast's exhibition at Manhattan's James Cohan Gallery, where the artist repurposed the (private) gallery's exterior and front space to approximate what N.Y Times critic Holland Cotter describes as a "funky Chinatown [0:48] shop or bus company waiting room." (There is more to it than that; and if you are curious, you can read the entirety of Cotter's review here.)

Fast's repurposing has not gone over well with the Chinatown Art Brigade, who have called out the gallery for its "racist exhibition" and "for treating Chinatown as poverty porn." (There is more to it than that; and if you are curious, you can watch the video atop this post.) Indeed, Cotter too laments Fast's installation:

At best, the installation is a serious misfire, as some preliminary canvassing on the artist’s part might have revealed. The ethical indeterminacy that has worked in other contexts for him backfires here. It reads as nasty condescension. And, really, can a portrait of a “lost” ethnic neighborhood as a study in tawdry dysfunction read any other way? Not in the class-and-wealth co-opted New York City of today.

I agree with Cotter that there is something condescending about the installation, particularly at a time of gaping disparity, in a borough as wealthy as post-Giuliani Manhattan. But I also wonder why such a response did not accompany Tran's repurposing of the 221A space, particularly in a "class-and-wealth co-opted" city like Vancouver. Is it because 221A is an artist-run centre? Or because 221A has forged relationships with the Chinatown community? Or because Tran, a Vietnamese-Canadian, was selling his wares not for profit but at cost? Or because Canada, unlike the United States, is buffered by what remains of its mixed economy? Questions like these will be on my mind over the next few days.

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