TIFFANY JAEYEON SHIN: Like Water and Oil Never Assimilating
AC Institute | September 8th – October 6th
Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin's exhibition Like Water and Oil Never Assimilating (2017) is simultaneously an education on racist American history and an ongoing effort to tend to its casualties. Shin is a Korean-Canadian-American artist, curator, and community organizer. In her exhibition at the AC Institute, masses of news clippings set the tone, situating the work in instances of historical racism. Their stark presentation is tempered by quieter sculptural pieces such as Untitled (Self-Conditioning) (2017), an arrangement of four vases connected by tubes through which the traditional Korean medicine Hyangyak flows. Hyangyak is an antidote to the toxins in Western food. It breaks down mucus formed in the stomach lining produced, in this case, by resistance to Westernization. Shin has produced a home-brewed replication of the medicine made by her mother in Korea. Exposed to air, the medicine will eventually rot.
Addressing the violence of American history is an embarrassment for many—a strategic omission for others. For diasporic communities, the erasure of culturally specific histories dislocates them in time and space. Shin’s project asks us to recognize certain bodies as inheritors of violent pasts and as pawns in white conceptions of future progress.
News clippings, Yellow Peril journalism, and other examples of American racist news coverage are reproduced on tiles that cover three of the gallery’s walls. These tiles are as much a patchwork of oft-repressed American histories as they are records of the racist Western imaginary and its cultural products. For instance, we see depictions of Eastern medicine so often co-opted in the West’s brand of “self-care,” as well as images of hypersexualized Asian femmes popularized through anime and reproduced by Westerners. Anti-Asian racism such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the story of Blue, the first Korean War bride, figure prominently alongside materials from Free Palestine and Black Lives Matter.
Shin’s exhibitions are consistently bolstered by ambitious programming schedules of workshops, roundtables, and panels born of the artist’s commitment to community organizing. Frequent collaborator Danielle Wu inaugurated the programming for this exhibition by facilitating an open discussion on Asian-Futurism and Techno-Orientalism, particularly on how projections of the future (think Blade Runner) tend to over represent Asian bodies as expendable, profitable, and hyper-efficient masses. This stereotype is a derivative of decades of Yellow Peril sentiments and the exploitation of Chinese migrants as cheap, expendable labor unworthy of naturalization rights during westward expansion. Shin’s Untitled (Anime Girl) (2017) brings this inquiry to the present, depicting how Asian bodies are used as the very technology of Western Imperialism. Rendered here as a sexual fetish, the Asian body becomes an expendable tool or even the raw material for domination.
Across the room, a compound of soap and food spells out ASIAN three times. The fatty soap material acts as a binder and a partial preservative, while pieces of food exposed to the air turn to mold. Similarly, in Untitled (Fermentation) (2016), a glass jar of Hyangyak slowly spoils as a thick layer of vegetable oil separates the brew from the air it needs to ferment. The vessel holds these two immiscible liquids in contention, suspending their refusal to settle into one solution.
Shin’s work diagnoses a state of unrest for bodies razed or omitted by dominant Western racism. One antidote she offers for such erasure is to bear witness to collective trauma through a return to racially specific histories. As is the case with the medicinal fluids and foods, Shin’s tile arrays, too, are impermanent. Exposure to sunlight and interior lighting alike causes the cyanotype used to reproduce the images on the tiles to gradually fade. As such, these ephemera are nodes in the ongoing and entangled processes of remembrance and of healing.
JACLYN JACONETTA is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail