Ghost in the Ghost
Curated by Danielle Wu
On ViewTiger Strikes Asteroid
June 21 – July 21, 2019
Donna Haraway infamously called humans in the late 20th century cyborgs, “hybrids of machine and organism,” in her 1991 treatise on binaries. Yet Anne Anlin Cheng’s feminist theory of “ornamentalism,” which she outlines in a 2018 book by that name, resurrects an older, perhaps even original, cyborg: “the yellow woman.” Aesthetic yet perverse, delicate yet pliable, “the yellow woman” easily conjures china dolls, silken geishas, concubines, and objectified representations of Asian women in the West. However, the making of her flesh through the artificial tells a stranger story about how race and sex haunt human dreams of the machine, long before the machine age.
The exhibition Ghost in the Ghost at Tiger Strikes Asteroid, curated by Danielle Wu, shows the works of six artists who engage Cheng’s insights. Installation, photography, and sculpture map how Black and Asian femininities mediate the borders between humans and objects. Alongside the reduction of Black femininity to nonhuman flesh, which Black feminist scholars like Hortense Spillers have argued is a legacy of slavery, Cheng contends that ornamental Asian femininity becomes, through colonial encounters and trade, an “alternative American racial logic.” Unlike many other exhibitions that have engaged race and feminism through explorations of the body, Ghost in the Ghost lets nonliving materials—their patina, glow, and grime—speak in the body’s place.
At the back of the space, a rippling, celluloid sheet obscures the video projected onto its surface. Adapted to a smaller scale for this site, Candice Lin’s installation, A Hard White Body (2017), is named for imperial Europeans’ admiration of porcelain for its durability and the associations they drew to transcending human flesh. Amid footage of museum objects, the video narrates how scientists used porcelain’s fine pores as a filter to study viruses. When one of these viruses infected tobacco plants, Europeans described the leaves as “going mulatto,” linking viral and racial contamination. Behind the video projection, I find a display of stranded objects: porcelain casts that resemble classical statuary or rumpled bedsheets, their sides painted veiny like muscles, and burnt pages from James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, which recounts a Black American protagonist’s intimacy with his Italian lover. A receipt documents the purchase of Louis Pasteur’s porcelain filters to provide clean drinking water at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Filtration emerges as one of the racial discourses that links Blackness with disease. But perhaps here it’s also a method to catch obscured histories that slip through a Eurocentric archive.
I imagine artist Juana Valdes, too, sifting through housewares at thrift markets to select objects that mimic those collected during the 18th-century china trade to compose her photographic still life across the gallery. Single Drawn Line/Drummer (2014) depicts a tsotchke of an African woman’s body surrounded by a gold-rimmed tea set. Softy lit, ebony wood and china gleam like collarbones under skin. In juxtaposing Asian and Black femininity, Valdes asks us to look beyond the immediate color contrast of race and towards textures; delicate empty shells and solid raw wood imitate undressed bodies. If the still life genre projects the human onto the inanimate, Single Drawn Line/Drummer expresses how these objects have their own still lives.
Tenaya Izu has strung their crocheted textile from meat hooks, like a butcher hangs his fresh cuts to tenderize over time. In giant dish towel/the Sidekick/pink ombré (2018), dyed strands depict anime eyes on a pink and yellow background. The eyes, as well as the sheen of mercerized cotton, evoke skin and screen, each loop of thread a pore and a pixel. Simultaneously meat, craft, and cinematic projection, here Asian femininity speaks less to the fantasy of the male gaze than to the allure of a screen itself, and how it digitally extends our bodies.
Yet despite fueling Western dreams of technological advancement, yellowness can conjure the cheapness associated with Asian labor and commodities. These value systems inform Charlotte Greene’s bricolage Puss Pollen (2019). Wood and coral commingle with three low-res images of cartoon hands touching, a sprawling fruit marketplace, and a maggoty formation. Greene connects the racial logic of undesirable materials to our bodies’ feared yet inevitable contact with other things.
In light of anti-Black, Islamophobic, and misogynist violence against women, queer and trans people, and immigrants, Ghost in the Ghost might seem abstracted from more urgent Asian American feminist concerns, and it is largely limited to East Asian representations. However, this small exhibition moves towards filling voids around Asian American embodiment in feminist art canons. If the art world loves objects more than addressing how bodies have been made into objects, this show, supported by critical race theory, assesses how race and sex literally craft objects and our desires for them. Feminist art has used the body to critique and heal from violence, but here nonhuman objects pull that weight. In this way, Ghost in the Ghost aligns with contemporary art and writing that turns away from the human to understand how to care for lives cast outside of proper humanity.
Perhaps in critique of how we tend to conceive care through the organic and maternal, Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin’s sculpture enlists casein protein in milk, a natural bonding agent, to repair broken porcelain. In Untitled (torture) (2019), a breast-shaped glass vessel filled with milk “lactates” onto the fractured plate below, which rests atop a chainmail-covered vat to catch the drippings. Over time, the milk may fail to mend the shards, but it will spawn bacteria, clouding the vat like a feverish breath. The second time I visited the work, the milk had already congealed around the tip so the liquid could barely slip through. The first time though, I sat still as the droplets steadily ricocheted onto my skin. They dried translucent, like fish scales. I had wanted to touch the cool metal and clear glass, to trace their edges. Instead, the sculpture traced mine.