Black Beltby Nick Stillman
Studio Museum in Harlem
Funny when culture-world heavy-hitters coincide like this. American fetishization of East Asian kung fu film and martial arts imagery from the 1970s has suddenly emerged as something to confront, evidenced by the concurrent openings of the Studio Museum in Harlem’s group show Black Belt and Quentin Tarantino’s newest bloodbath Kill Bill: Volume 1. Black Belt is an attempt to examine the social implications of widespread fascination among African-Americans in the 1970s with Bruce Lee and martial arts films through the work of contemporary Asian and African-American artists. Kill Bill is an ode to the dish of revenge, served cold. It’s an exercise of substance-less style—fighting femmes in tight pants, referring to each other only as "bitch."
Curator Christine Y. Kim’s aim is to "place the African-American fascination with kung fu, Bruce Lee, Eastern martial arts, and spirituality on the table." It’s never totally clear in Black Belt why this topic is relevant now, nor if the artists are responding to the "spirituality" of ’70s martial arts culture as seen through the mass media or simply its exotification. The most naked attempts to address this cross-cultural exotification are D.C. painter Iona Rozeal Brown’s seven "a3" acrylics (2002-2003)—"a3" short for afro-asiatic-allegory. The allegory isn’t all that complicated. Her seven painting are portraits of Japanese/African hybrid people done in the Ukiyo-e style of the late Japanese Edo period. White skin peeks from beneath black faces that have mostly Asian features. The characters wear flashy jewelry, have long nails, Nike hightops, and so on. This re-placement seems like an attempt to address cultural cross-exoticism, but does so without the grace or subtlety of other young black artists like Kehinde Wiley doing similar things.
More successful political statements came from Sanford Biggers and Clarence Lin. Biggers’ "Nunchucks" is a set of gloriously bling-blingified nunchucks, Koons-like in a glass case with a solid gold chain connecting either end. Black Belt’s bleakest piece is Lin’s "Housing Project: The Prison Industrial Complex" (2000-2003). The installation is a scale replica of a prison cell, albeit an easily escapable version, with its widely separated bars (of easily breakable wood) and large holes in the walls. An accompanying text-based work in the form of a book is attached to the cell, and paraphrases Sanford Kwinter’s book Mutations: "Prisons are currently the fastest growing category of housing in the U.S." Lin’s metaphorical prison feels not only like the prison of reality, but the prison of the Chinese and African-American projects in New York’s Lower East Side, trapping its residents in encompassing homogeneity, mundanity, and extra-thick glass ceilings.
A Black Belt curiosity is the inclusion of several pieces that don’t really address the curatorial premise—an obvious excuse to use only quasi-related but irresistibly cool work. Paul Pfeiffer’s "Live Evil" (2003) is a good example. It’s a characteristically tiny video screen, showing a dancing Michael Jackson who continually morphs into Rorschach blot-like blobs. Perhaps the implication is that these blobs resemble traditional Asian watercolors? Or that the morphing MJ symbolizes America’s tendency to immortalize, sexualize, and demonize its non-white icons? Maybe, but the connection is pretty weak at best. Sean Duffy weighs in with "Thank you, Ernest, JoJo, and Leslie," (2003) a custom-made turntable with three arms that dig different grooves of the same record simultaneously. The piece succeeds on its own as a lo-fi Christian Marclay knockoff, but lacks in conceptual substance. Refer to the wall text, which quotes Duffy explaining the piece as "Sort of a tribute piece to my favorite albums from my early years," then offhandedly addresses the influence of music from Asia and other continents on Jamaican music. How this speaks to Kim’s intention or fits within the show remains unclear. Oh, the turntable is on a table made out of bamboo.
Leave it to David Hammons to steal the show. His "Untitled" (2003) is a hokey gong, suspended from a wooden support with red yarn and decorated with cheap Chinese decorations. A big mallet hangs adjacent. Hammons’ wall text quote: "Rap music and kung fu have the same level of madness to me. They’re not about cultural exchange." A real head-scratcher, this. So much so that I spent a good ten minutes staring blankly at the mute gong, trying to figure how it translated Hammons’s words. Nothing doing until a museum guard—just doing her job—sauntered over, grabbed the mallet, and whacked the gong, producing a deafening but ephemeral clang. "Man, you’re thinking too hard," Hammons seemed to be saying to me. If Black Belt proves anything, it proves that the celebration of kung fu culture in the ’70s is largely attributable to the simple lure of new, exotic entertainment, the Kill Bill syndrome. While there’s doubtlessly a lot of good work in the show, it’s hard to be convinced that any soul-searching for deeper meaning won’t stop dead when you figure a lot of young Americans in the ’70s basically just thought kung fu was the coolest thing on television.