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Asia/America Explores Identity through Art

Asia/America: Identities in Contemporary Asian American Art at the MIT List Visual Art Center through March 24

By Nicolas R. Rapold

Few things strike the heart so jarringly as the wrenching of an individual from his native-born society, his home, only to be thrust into the melting pot (read: salad shooter) of America. In "Asia/America: Identities in Contemporary Asian American Art," therefore, not surprisingly the themes of loss, separation, and alienation dominate overtly. But as each artist lets these general ideas churn on the surface, the deeper psychological effects of such attacks on identity gradually bubble up, too, revealing more tortured, distinct individual sufferings.

The artists hail from a variety of countries--China, India, the Philippines and Vietnam, to name a few--yet many share similar experiences with war and poverty. Accordingly, the works, which range from large and small-scale mixed media to straight acrylic paintings, are all informed with an undercurrent of sheer nervous or stressful energy, giving many a frenzied and busy look that sometimes gives the piece an overdone, overblown appearance.

One such work, Ken Chu's "Hey, Chinktown! You killed my father!", focuses on lingering animosity towards Asians in general as a result of the Vietnam War. Mimicking the extreme nature of such animosity, the painting rages with a garishly colored car almost jumping off the background it speeds past. Combined with the provocative title, a sensory overload is the result: little of substance sticks with you afterwards.

Other works seem to threaten a powder-keg of tensions, hidden under a ominous veneer. Long Nguyen's "Soul Boat No. 7" -- the title itself a sardonic jab -- seethes with the Hades-like passage of a boat slowly assuming the shape and qualities of its passengers. The nightmarish metamorphosis, replete with shadily defined forms and oil gloops that seem to jump out at selected spots, continues to haunt the viewer with its fearsome evocation of adaptation and voyage gone awry.

But the finest works are, ironically, those borrowing from a more traditional Eastern sense of elegance and simplicity, rather than the stereotypically busy idea of America. Bauchi Zhang of China offers "Did God Create the Chinese?", a visually striking, yet simplistically eloquent work, consisting only of a molded hand cleft by a knife, a mirror, and wood. The work speaks directly and without distraction--a quality to be prized in capturing the unruly nature of questions of identity. Most importantly, the straightforward nature of the work suggests a mind that has cogitated carefully enough on the subject to realize its basic nature while not losing its personal connection to himself.

Some works don't quite succeed in this respect. Hanh Thi Pham's "Along the Street of Knives" series, a group of arranged, representative story action photos, seems contrived at best. The components of the photo, though carefully arranged, are otherwise empty: a man in a spiffy suit is the American; Hanh Thi Pham peers from around a wall with stage-like exaggeration in drama.

Others are hindered by the downright banal quotations included with the artists' biographies. Certainly there is nothing wrong about their sentiments--"I am not Japanese American, but I'm not American, either"--but they only slow down the greater evocative achievements of the works themselves.

Yet flashes of humor and insight serve ably in refreshing the viewer. Masami Teraoka's "New Wave" series juxtaposes the modern anxieties of confrontations between Americans and Japanese into the traditional format of old Japanese prints, informed some what with anime qualities. In "Mega Morning Calm," Y. David Chung confronts the viewer with the imposing sight of two enormous urns flanking a central chaotic painting; look inside the jars for a treat.

First shown in fuller form at the Asia Society in New York City, even this pared-down version of the exhibit illuminates the ever-relevant subject of split national identities. To the exacting eye, however, the show comments more tellingly on the individual, human reaction to adversity in general, merely placed against the sometimes straight-forward backdrop of nationalities.

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