The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2022

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MARCH 2022 Issue

Livien Yin: Ka‑la‑fo‑ne‑a

Livien Yin, <em>Vice Report</em>, 2021. Oil on linen canvas, 50 x 66 inches. Courtesy the artist and Friends Indeed Gallery.
Livien Yin, Vice Report, 2021. Oil on linen canvas, 50 x 66 inches. Courtesy the artist and Friends Indeed Gallery.
On View
Friends Indeed
January 18 – February 25, 2022
New York

In her solo show at Friends Indeed, Ka-la-fo-ne-a, Livien Yin transforms what Hal Foster calls “the no-place of the archive into the no-place of a utopia.”1 Through fictionalized, photo-realistic oil and acrylic paintings, Yin subverts archival photographs and written accounts of Chinese Americans during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and imagines “what could have been”—alternatives and contingencies that, according to scholar Lisa Lowe, lay within, but were later foreclosed by, determinations of modern history.2 Inspired by Candice Lin’s research-based practice and Henry Taylor’s conflation of time, such as in his speculative portrait Cicely and Miles Visit the Obamas (2017), Yin works in the subjunctive mood. Her paintings create spaces of doubts, wishes, and possibilities that unfix the past of our inheritance; they attend to furtive intimacies and everyday practices of transfiguration that are eclipsed in narratives of Chinese immigrants’ dispossession.

Livien Yin, <em>Coaching Notes II</em>, 2021. Acrylic on gessoboard, 30 x 30 inches. Courtesy the artist and Friends Indeed Gallery.
Livien Yin, Coaching Notes II, 2021. Acrylic on gessoboard, 30 x 30 inches. Courtesy the artist and Friends Indeed Gallery.

In Coaching Notes I and II (both 2021), Yin evinces the carceral circumstances of the Angel Island Immigration Station and Chinese people’s strategies of evasion. The station was erected to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers. Chinese people seeking entry to the United States were interrogated and detained on Angel Island for anywhere between two weeks and two years. In Coaching Notes I, fruits are passed from one hand to another in the Angel Island “Oriental dining room,” where slats of blue and flax reminiscent of Miyoko Ito’s “warm but not relaxed” color spaces conflate windows and benches; outside and inside; the American dream and enclosure. Yin uses coarse molding paste to give highlights in her painting a grainy texture, which she described to me as the “weightiness of the light hitting the skin.” She alludes to the abrasive realities of “yellowness” weaponized during the Exclusion Era, but this basis for violent racialization also forged the bonds for diasporic homemaking. Chinese immigrants found a loophole to immigration policies by establishing “paper families”—a system by which US citizens of Chinese descent claimed to have children in China to enable prospective immigrants’ entry. A map of an ancestral village unfolds from within the peel of a banana in Coaching Notes II, an example of the type of document that was smuggled into the Immigration Station to prepare Chinese detainees for unreasonably detailed interrogation questions about their family ties, such as, “Who lived in the second house in the third row back home?” Beyond a liability, yellowness afforded refuge and escape hatch; permeating Yin’s canvases, it signifies both constraint and solidarity.

Livien Yin, <em>Pear Picker</em>, 2021. Oil on gessoboard, 18 x 24 inches. Courtesy the artist and Friends Indeed Gallery.
Livien Yin, Pear Picker, 2021. Oil on gessoboard, 18 x 24 inches. Courtesy the artist and Friends Indeed Gallery.

The map in Coaching Notes II finds its counterpart in Vice Report (2021), which shows Ah Toy, the second Chinese woman to arrive in San Francisco, speaking to Yin about the Official Map of “Chinatown” published in the San Francisco Daily Report in 1885. The map, color coded to identify gambling houses, brothels, and opium dens, originated from Willard Farwell and John Kunkler’s municipal report that portrayed Chinese people as “slumbering pests” and a “constant menace to the welfare of society.” They described Chinatown as “black and grimy with a quarter of a century’s accumulation of filth,” the air “thick with smoke and fetid with an indescribable odor of reeking vapors.” In Yin’s luminous painting, the lurid opacity that Farwell and Kunkler conjure gives way to the sun’s kiss upon the face. Yin paints herself reclining on the bed and listening attentively to Ah Toy, who, turned away from the viewer, answers reporters’ and historians’ fantasies with an enigma. Yin refuses to tether Ah Toy to Curt Gentry’s fetishization of her “slender body and laughing eyes” in The Madams of San Francisco (1964) and tunes in to what Paul Gilroy calls the “lower frequency” of Chinese lives beneath governmental and journalistic papers. She paints against the hegemony of immigration certificates, vice reports, and accounts of history, and speculates about Chinese people’s quotidian lives and the subjectivities that they assembled beyond identities that they memorized and tragedies and romances retrospectively assigned them.

Yin exceeds the constitutive limits of the archive again in The Promotion (2021) and Pear Picker (2021), and practices critical fabulation, à la Saidiya Hartman, to counteract the objectifying power of the photographs she sources. In The Promotion, she paints Mrs. Dorothy Siu from a 1939 photograph of Siu and Mrs. Chung Dat Loo swarmed by white photographers. Siu is now depicted as a photographer, cross-dressing to take the representation of her friend into her own hand. With Pear Picker, Yin turns the abjection in Arnold Genthe’s photograph of A Slave Girl in Holiday Attire (1896–1906) into sexual agency by zooming in on a female figure, who, no longer subject to Genthe’s exoticizing gaze, bites into a ripe pear. Yin compounds her refusal of what is known with what Tina Campt calls “living as if”—an orientation towards what should be true, an insistence upon “that which will have had to have happened,” and an immigrant’s assumption of belonging. The women in Yin’s portraits live in our future and tell our life stories. We remember the first bite of the pear: its acerbic sweetness like longing for a home left behind and the even more subversive desire to stay.

  1. Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 (Autumn 2004): 22.
  2. Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 175.


Ekalan Hou

Ekalan Hou is a writer and art historian based in California.


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2022

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