Ghost in the Ghost
Curated by Danielle Wu
On ViewTiger Strikes Asteroid
June 21 – July 21, 2019
More than 50 people squeeze into Tiger Strikes Asteroid New York on a Saturday afternoon. Chairs are packed into every square inch of the Bushwick artist-run space, and yet, the crowd still spills out of the gallery’s threshold. Curator Danielle Wu announces the beginning of a talk with interdisciplinary scholar Anne Anlin Cheng, whose book Ornamentalism (2018) served as the theoretical foundation for Wu’s exhibition Ghost in the Ghost.
The enthusiasm is palpable as Cheng delves into the premise of her project, centered on the idea of “Ornamentalism”—a combination of Edward Said’s “Orientalism,” and “ornament”—which describes the continuum of representation and construction of Asian femininity through the synthetic or prosthetic. Think porcelain wares, the china doll, jade, silk, and beauty products, or anime to artificial intelligence that have taken on their own life as Asian and female, thus conflating personhood and objecthood. For many East Asian Americans, Ornamentalism forges a critical language to name, rethink, and discuss an expansive state of being—one inseparable from a Western imaginary that has historically and enduringly confused racialized bodies with artificiality. (This is especially visible in the current media age of futurisms, through films such as Blade Runner , Ghost in the Shell , and Ex Machina .) Ornamentalism emphasizes, if “the artificiality of Asiatic femininity is the ancient dream that feeds the machine in the heart of modernity”, then the fantasy of the “yellow woman” is “the ghost within the ghost".1
Ghost in the Ghost as an exhibition thus investigates not only Asiatic femininity and techno-Orientalism, but through this, probes age-old, entangled histories of commodity and otherness, as well as expanded philosophies of human nature. Drawing from Cheng’s research, Wu brings together six artists—Charlotte Greene, Tenaya Izu, Candice Lin, Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin, Juana Valdes, and Elliott Jun Wright—whose work describes the exteriorization imposed upon Asiatic, female identity, and the complexities of metaphysical and physical being.
One of the first works encountered is a photograph by Juana Valdes, Single Drawn Line/Drummer (2014). Cheng arrived at her theory of Ornamentalism by comparing the racialization of the black body versus the yellow body—where they diverge and, eventually, converge—which is an exercise this piece compositionally engages in. The image, of three white porcelain wares arranged around a sleek black figurine wearing a silver collar, references the different ways Blackness (subtractive, antiseptic) and yellowness (additive, all ornamental and object) are perceived and fetishized through commerce.
All of the objects in Valdes’s ensemble were popular items bought and sold in the 18th century China Trade as exotic wares for Western homes. Though such trinkets eventually fell out of style, the occidental desire to consume parts unknown, and embody a sense of cosmopolitanism, or “eating the other,” remained.2 It is no coincidence that while such physical souvenirs have been forgotten, their spirit of evoking slices of other worlds and bodies lingers in contemporary museum collecting practices as well as in the everyday commerce or pop culture, which relentlessly objectifies the Other. Valdes’s image, which blurs the line between documenting a commercial product and museum artifact, prompts us to further re-think how cultural voyeurism, in differing ways, strips people of their humanity by conflating them with objects for consumption.
On the same wall, two collages on wood panel by Charlotte Greene, (Resentment) Flows Thru Mountains & Streams and Puss Pollen (both 2019), collapse the line between the manufactured and the organic. The found images overlay manga limbs, which hover over both industrial and natural landscapes, and zoom into neoplastic forms. Through the lens of Ornamentalism, Greene’s work points us toward an awareness of all life’s enmeshment with nonlife. When paired with the image of a bustling food market, or pristine mountain landscape photography, the images of manga—specific to Japan and signifying Asian-ness—conjure a world where meat for devouring becomes yellow flesh, or vice versa.
Bannerlike and strung from butcher hooks, Tenaya Izu’s giant dish towel / the Sidekick / pink ombré (2018), features a crocheted picture of Japanimated gaze from cotton thread, and colored by hair dye. Though the gradient fades to a hair dye-pink, overall, the palette similarly evokes a fresh cut of meat, complete with unblinking, sparkling, long-lashed eyes. Opposite is another face, Elliott Jun Wright’s Skyn Revive (2016), composed of varied, recognizable products, among them, a single Korean skincare mask, resin, jade, plastic, rope, and steel. Though the gaze here is voided—the figure’s eyes are gouged out, as in a skincare mask—the embalmed face as crystalline artifact maintains a perverse agency that nonetheless looks back at us. In Izu and Wright’s work, where ornaments intended for things are worn on bodies, an otherness or second skin emerges at the cusp of human and humanoid, consumed and enduring as object.
Adjacent to Wright’s sculpture, Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin’s chain-suspended, glass bottle-gourd drips milk onto a broken porcelain plate. The first object of international trade, porcelain was regarded as white gold, and a water purifier. It was also used as a marker for perfect skin—an association that persists today in cosmetics that employ lactic acid to lighten skin tone. Entitled Untitled (Torture) (2019), the work asks: Is the milk, which contains the bonding properties of lactic acid, healing the porcelain body that seems fractured beyond repair? The hanging composition of a crude machine evokes a system of domesticity and violence, sensuality and purity, bonding and eroding.
Candice Lin’s installation A Hard White Body (2017), comprised of a film projected onto a sheet of industrial film and a floor sculpture, generates two ghostly apparitions: one on the translucent screen itself and one echoed on the wall behind. The video played, titled The Beloved (2017), appropriates the style of a colonial history documentary, but is interlaced with Photogrammetry scans, CGI animations of objects, and found archival material. The work narrates an almost autobiographical journey of porcelain itself, which speculates that bone china was born from the bones of those who died in the plague. Not only did these world-wide circulated objects become flesh in their anthropomorphization, but flesh literally became object. The low notes of harpsichord provide an uncanny backdrop to the disembodied monologue, which seems to further animate the floor assemblage, featuring porcelain slabs with cross-sections that resemble the epidermis as well as silk embroidery motifs. These are interlaced with documents, including some by the novelist James Baldwin and botanist Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe, disguised as a man—two identities that perturbed many in terms of their race, sexuality, gender, and/or class. Lin’s juxtapositions further complicate the racialized language used by Europeans who praised porcelain as a superior white body, impregnable by foreign substances. Baldwin, Baret, and porcelain alike remained resistant to classification by the very scientific technology and taxonomy that insistently validated the “superior” white patriarchal standards of what a human should be.
Ghost in the Ghost thus shows how objects and non-sentient life also carry baggage and trauma. And as a whole, the show is important for considering how artificiality and ornament, rather than corporeality and embodiment, sustain the infrastructure for classical categories such as race and gender. The exhibition provides a lens through which we can grasp the coexistence between persons and things, and the resulting extensions that are ultimately superficial and migratory, that make being richer and stranger. Beyond complacent categorization or stereotype, these objects ask us to look closely at the possibilities produced when human, thing, and environment fuse in collaborative and enigmatic ways.
- Cheng, Ornamentalism, 442.
- bell hooks, "Eating the other: Desire and resistance" in Black Looks: Race and Representation, (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 21.