Among the many works that Within Global Isolation: Asian Artists in America presents, Defense Line by Chinese artist Ying Zhu most explicitly exemplifies the multifaceted experience of working and living during precarious times. The site-specific installation is made of eggshells—a material famed for its delicacy. But the duality of an eggshell—as something that at once holds life and is fragile enough to allow life to break through—is an apt metaphor for living and producing work during a global pandemic.
Within Global Isolation: Asian Artists in America is a virtual exhibition, organized by curators Han Hongzheng and Chandler Allen, and fueled by a spike in anti-Asian sentiments, xenophobia, and discrimination as a result of COVID-19. The exhibition brings together work by ten Asian artists living across the country: Hương Ngô, Ying Zhu, Guanyu Xu, Damien Ding, Tinwai Wong, Leonard Suryajaya, Zhen Guo, Toby Zeng, Weina Li, and Siyuan Tan. It contextualizes work within the current social, political, and physical circumstances while examining coexistence within stark global disparities. Within Global Isolation also features substantial conversations with the artists, who detail the discrimination they’ve faced since the pandemic started, as well as the hardships brought on by this massive economic halt.
Candyman (2016), a photograph by Chinese Indonesian interdisciplinary artist Leonard Suryajaya, was a touchstone for the curators in conceiving this show. Suryajaya, who lives and works in Chicago, mainly focuses on photography. The image was made during the 2016 Zika Virus outbreak on a trip to Indonesia, where the artist—a queer Indonesian citizen of Chinese descent who was educated as a Buddhist in a Muslim-majority country—planned to introduce his partner to his family. Candyman depicts a family huddled around each other in an overly colorful interior home space, draped with vibrant Technicolor and patterned clothes, wearing masks and worriedly looking away from the camera, some with eyes wide open. One person, however, is looking straight at the camera: this character is carefully hidden behind bunched bamboo poles, and a human draped in colorful tassels—blending into the setting, invisible at first sight. The photograph reveals itself in layers, the more you look the more details you can isolate. It illustrates the anxiety and confusion brought forth by the virus, as well as unspoken homophobia. The careful placement of characters that blend with the background and are difficult to make out speaks to the erasure of queer identities in the artist’s home country.
For Chicago-based Asian American multidisciplinary artist and SAIC assistant professor Hương Ngô—who is particularly attuned to histories of colonialism and migration having lived in the US, Hong Kong, France, and Vietnam—ethnography is an important factor in understanding the long-term effects of colonialism, her personal experiences of migration, and how the two are deeply enmeshed. In an interview with Allen, she shares: “a critical gaze at ethnography might help us understand histories of thought and ideologies that have enabled colonialism and spurred migration.” On view here is Ngô’s film ESCAPE (2004–06), made during the Iraq war, but ringing eerily familiar today. The piece chronicles two protagonists as one puts on a white Hazmat suit, and the other spends an afternoon outdoors in an orange one. The 7-minute video is marked by two sections: “SUGGESTED USES FOR YOUR NEW ESCAPE POD,” and “PREPARING FOR THE NEAR NEAR DISASTER.” The screen itself functions as an isolation pod, with one person occupying it at a time. In one particularly arresting scene, the protagonist sits at the opposite end of a park bench from another person. Though the work was created in response to the claims of biological warfare, it takes on new meanings and valences with the COVID-19 pandemic, where distance is encouraged and at times imposed. The gestures in this project were meant to be speculative, but they’re now very real. Ngô shares: “The emotional landscape of increasing distance and distrust of one another is also real.”
Other artists featured in the show deal with the physicality of creating. Damien Ding, in his interview, talks about how experiencing “tremors” when interacting with artworks led to his desire to produce his own work. Born in China and based between New York and Virginia, his paintings and sculptures emphasize the importance of physical interactions and how such interactions have the potential to generate experiences of intimacy and tenderness. One painting in specific, Getting used to heat (2020), depicts a boy who’s hunched over, trying to pick at a piece of red chili, while his tears pour straight into it. The artist discusses the importance of sight and proximity to the work of art—one that may not always be achieved through virtual experiences. In contrast, Tinwai Wong’s MAMA (2019–20) has the advantage of being a sound installation that, when experienced intimately in one’s private space, carries immense depth. The piece consists of her saying “mama” repeatedly, at times achingly, along with varied background noises—sounds emanating from a TV, someone sobbing, and white noise. Repeating a word that is universally understood echoes powerful communal empathy.
In his interview, Chicago-based Chinese artist Guanyu Xu talks about the effects of migration and geography on artistic practices. Born and raised in a military housing complex in Beijing, Xu moved to Chicago in 2014. This move propelled him to work in an interdisciplinary capacity, bridging the gap between the personal and political through examining the similarities, rather than the differences, between the US and China. His series, Temporarily Censored Home (2018–19) explores his multiplicities of identity as an Asian man in America as well as a queer man in Asia. In this series, the artist reconstructs the interior spaces of his childhood home in Beijing, and incorporates tokens of queer identity, visibly reclaiming that home as a safe space. The photographs are carefully yet organically layered, confusing notions of depth. How does one reclaim a home with photographs? Is it the act of imprinting onto them traces of oneself and one’s identity? Xu’s photographic sphere invades the screen, driving us at times into sensory overload, one that screams: I exist, I am here.
Withing Global Isolation: Asian Artists in America doesn’t aim to tell a narrative or offer answers. Instead, it declares, with words and images, that we are in this together—inciting an act of communal care rooted in the individual. It is a little window into the unraveling consequences of global unrest and upheaval.