Mimi Wong writes about art and culture. Her work has appeared in ArtAsiaPacific, Catapult, Electric Literature, Hyperallergic, Literary Hub, and Refinery29. Her fiction been published in Crab Orchard Review, Day One, and Wildness. She is also Editor-in-Chief of the literary magazine The Offing and a part-time lecturer at The New School.
Mimi Wong explores the slippery notion of an "Asian aesthetic," and the many ways it can manifest in East Asian and diasporic art.
Is there such a thing as an “Asian aesthetic”? The question has preoccupied me for some time now, but I worry that by entertaining the possibility, I’m only furthering racist generalisations about artists of Asian descent. After all, different Asian cultures often already appear interchangeable in the West, while an “Asian” identity is sometimes used to stereotype artists and their work. The term “Asian” is also regularly conflated with “East Asian” in America, thus erasing Southeast and South Asian representation.
This essay looks specifically at “yellowness” within the broader spectrum of “Asianness.” In the preface to her book of critical theory, Ornamentalism, Anne Anlin Cheng writes, “I am not so much recuperating 'yellowness' as a gesture of political defiance as I am intent on grasping the genuine dilemma of its political exception.” To apply the racialised word “yellow” is to acknowledge the tendency to lump together East Asian cultures regardless of ethnic or political specificities—a byproduct of dated, Orientalist thinking.
As a writer who reviews East Asian and diasporic art, my scope here will be focused on the question of “yellow art” in these communities, and how they participate in their own identity-making, regardless of the white, Western gaze. Is it possible, here, to recognise a shared aesthetic language that reaffirms identity rather than fetishises it?
“Globalised” Hot Pot, Transnational Lives
The contemporary art world often celebrates the figure of the international artist, who lives and works between countries in the East and West, while ignoring the class implications of being able to do so. Still, it is true that artists from Asia live increasingly transnational lives, and by that same token, these migrant artists might be tempted to embrace a more fluid sense of cultural identity. Echo He, a New York transplant from Sichuan and founder of Fou Gallery, believes the younger generation has less of an expectation for what Chinese art is supposed to look like. In other words, it doesn’t necessarily involve well-worn emblems like dragons, lions, or what she deems “simple, naïve symbols.”
Back in 2017 when I first visited the then-year-old space housed in a Brooklyn brownstone, He walked me through some of the works by the gallery’s artists, including Zhe Zhu. She described Zhu’s darkly lit still life photographs from his joint exhibition with Liu Zhangbolong, Vanitas/Traces (2015)—which capture images of dead fish, peeled rambutan, and chicken bones—as being reminiscent of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century vanitas paintings from the Netherlands. At the same time, she clarified that the Shenzhen-born artist was inspired by something closer to home: the death of his grandfather, and that these abandoned and decaying things reflect daily life and its ephemerality.
The gallery founder then used a charming analogy to compare the interplay between an artist’s cultural heritage and exposure to outside influences: “It’s kind of like making a hot pot. Maybe you are cooking a hot pot but with shitake mushroom and kale.”
With access to popular culture and sub-cultures sourced from all over the world—including movies and television, fashion and beauty, technology and gaming—many younger generation Chinese, who came of age after the period of economic reform, live in what Lu Yang refers to as “the globalised Internet.” Steeped in Japanese youth culture, the immersive pop-up Lu Yang Asia Character Setting Show (2017), previously on view at Special Special gallery in downtown Manhattan, resembled an arcade bursting with cartoon videos, anime figurines, graphic posters, and mannequins dolled up in Harajuku-inflected streetwear. In the musical animation Cancer Baby (2014), kawaii aesthetic effectively transforms cancer cells into cute, pastel critters that bounce and sing. The Shanghai-based artist’s maximalist sensibilities have been described by writer Danielle Wu as pushing “Orientalist stereotypes into extremes to unsettle us even further.”
When asked about concerns over cultural appropriation, particularly in light of China and Japan’s “rough political history,” Lu insists it’s different for her generation: “If we watch something online, we don’t really care where it is from and who is the creator. The lines are more blurred.” Since the question of whether or not an act of borrowing can be considered appropriative ultimately comes down to power—that is, if one more dominant or privileged group takes from a less powerful group—it does appear less clear-cut than if a white artist were to do the same. Anne Anlin Cheng might argue that this case is not so much about appropriating as it is activating ornamental tropes.
Signifiers of Asian cultures make frequent appearances in science fiction, yet Asian people are either cast in stereotypical roles or missing altogether—a form of what is now known as techno-orientalism. But the technological future has also long yielded fertile ground for reimagining identity. In her oft-cited meditation on “Asia-Futurism,” Dawn Chan situates Lu’s hyperreality within a legacy of futuristic visions that follows “Nam June Paik’s televisions and robots, then Lee Bul’s cyborgs.” Although Asian futurism follows after the Afrofuturist movement, it distinctively must “recast techno-clichéd trappings” prevalent in Western entertainment, which frequently marginalises Asian people even as it consumes their cultural aesthetics and aestheticised bodies. Chan hopes for “more generative ends” that include centring Asian people, rather than simply using them for set dressing.
Not everyone is sold on the prescriptive that futurism promises, however. Responding to Chan in “Asian Futurism and the Non-Other,” Xin Wang argues that “otherness” is not a universal experience and bristles at the very notion because it “necessarily operates from a place of deficiency.” Here, the divergence between the Asian-American-minority and Asian-majority remains irreconcilable. In an ironically titled essay “Continental Drift: Notes on ‘Asian’ Art,” David Xu Borgonjon observes, “You can only be Asian outside of Asia.” For the Asian American, the inverse is almost certainly true, too: You can only be American in Asia. According to Borgonjon, the fissure “between the biopolitical concept of race and the geopolitical concept of place” inevitably leaves us with two split camps: “yellow futurism” and “Eastern futurism.” Even in the future, it seems we cannot escape the East-versus-West dichotomy.
Chan, Xin, and Borgonjon all address in their work how Asian identity is inherently political, while confirming that “Asianness” is a malleable quality. Borgonjon goes so far as to declare, “‘Asian’ is a fetish category,” presciently invoking Ornamentalism. But rather than purely condemn the act of aestheticisation, Anne Anlin Cheng seeks to understand its mechanism: “I am less concerned here with the question of racial identity than in the processes of racialisation and identification and the surprisingly profound role that style plays in their making.” We simply cannot dismiss the potency of ornamental style, which makes ever more important the ongoing exercise of confronting why it has endured.
Anxious Ancient Futures
Futurity merely exposes present-day anxieties with the past. In the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s group exhibition One Hand Clapping (2018), curators Xiaoyu Weng and Hou Hanru sought to “redefine ideas of ‘contemporary Chinese art.’” Prominently occupying an entire gallery, Cao Fei’s immersive installation Asia One (2018) most overtly illustrated the tension between China’s political past and its economic future. Ghosts of the Cultural Revolution haunt the hi-tech sorting facility that provides the backdrop of her speculative film. Appearing like a dream in the video, a troupe of dancing labourers performs under a banner that reads, “Humans and machines, hand in hand,” paradoxically calling attention to the absence of actual manpower in an industrial centre run by robots. Meanwhile, the few remaining employees whose jobs have not been replaced by automation toil away in almost total isolation.
But it was Duan Jianyu’s series Spring River in the Flower Moon Night (2017–18), which similarly invokes nationalist sentiment to ironic effect, that aligns most closely with Cheng’s assertion, “The artificiality of Asiatic femininity is the ancient dream that feeds the machine in the heart of modernity.” Just as the title references a classic Tang-dynasty poem, Duan’s oil paintings feature imagery like the fabled Moon Lady and lute players, typically marshalled out as examples of “authentic” Chinese culture. In shadowy contrast, disabled beggars interrupt these romanticised scenes, representing those in real life who have been left behind in China’s project of rapid urbanisation.
Duan’s work in particular demonstrates how nostalgia can be wielded, especially when the conceit of a homeland itself is politically fraught; the artist offers a societal critique whilst making use of cultural tropes commonly deployed to incite nationalist pride. Anne Anlin Cheng reminds us of the nature of origin stories: “All of this is not to deny the importance of authenticity as an ideal or as a necessary fiction in our lives. But like all ruling or originary fantasies we have about ourselves, these fictions are at once tenacious and fragile, insistent and susceptible.”
Influenced by a variety of culturally specific media from his youth, the Los Angeles-born Ian Cheng also finds his work steeped in nostalgia, yet his projects have found expression by harnessing artificial intelligence, as in his Emissary trilogy (2015–17). Distinguished by his signature lo-res animation style, it utilises a video-game engine to generate self-directed outcomes. In the first instalment, Emissary in the Squat of Gods (2015), a girl known simply as the Young Ancient is tasked with convincing her fellow villagers to evacuate their mountainside community before a volcanic eruption. But whether she succeeds in her mission or becomes distracted by a piece of falling ash is unpredictable. Her actions change each time, and the game resets once the volcano erupts.
Cheng said his “virtual ecosystems” take inspiration from Will Wright’s 1989 computer game SimCity, and the player’s relationship to a system rather than a protagonist. Like Lu, Cheng shares an affinity for Japanese animated films, such as Hiyao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997) and its depiction of nature as “a space where we feel that unknown and indeterminate things can happen.” Moreover, Cheng also playfully sidesteps questions of appropriation by building digital worlds that welcome nearly infinite possibilities and configurations, while at the same time short-circuiting present-day anxieties by endlessly differing them to the “self-directed” virtual.
The Original Cyborg
It’s no accident that these fantasies have long been projected onto the Asiatic female body. In her scholarship, Anne Anlin Cheng deliberately hones in on the word “ornament,” defined as “the insignificant, the superfluous, the merely decorative, the shallow, and the excessive.” Contrary to its implication of delicateness, the ornament is burdened with meaning. Cheng links the colonialist consumption of Asian goods (i.e., jade, porcelain, silk) and the West’s objectification of Asian women when she suggests, “Like the yellow woman, the ornament is a category that, for all its glamour, has suffered a long history of denigration.” This subjection to manipulation is what makes the ornamental such a pliable aesthetic tool.
Part of the same “Spring River in the Flower Moon Night” series, a pair of black canvas shoes embroidered with shiny, red thread resemble a pair one might find at any retailer selling traditional attire. Complementary to the feminine motifs of the Moon Lady and women musicians, they recall familiar, gendered mythologies. Turning the shoes over reveals how Duan has refurbished the heels with batteries and electrical wiring. As a prosthetic extension of the body, Duan’s modified shoes is a literal encapsulation of what Cheng means when she dubs the yellow woman the “original cyborg.” She is not seen as human, but merely a sum of human-like parts. Likewise, the clichés commonly used to describe her (porcelain skin, almond eyes, etc.) underline just how much she, in fact, is a composite of inorganic parts. That is what makes her a fantasy.
Hidden in Plain Sight
In other instances, identity lurks in the background rather than manifesting itself through aesthetics. For Jean Shin, embracing hybridity allows these contradictions between “what’s real and what’s actually a total fantasy or fictional construct” to exist simultaneously. She collects and repurposes discarded objects in her large-scale sculptures and installations, often to highlight consumer waste: plastic soda bottles are converted into a field of “cornstalks,” old silverware melded into a branching tree, leather scraps reattached to outline an animal hide. In Huddled Masses (2019–20), commissioned by San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, Shin erects monuments out of what has become our most intimate object and, indeed, augmentations of our selves: the mobile phone. Donated devices ranging from old flips phones to obsolete PalmPilots to cracked smartphones cover wire mesh frames to create undulating, black mirrored surfaces. She intended the looming shapes, some taller than herself, to evoke scholar’s rocks, which are naturally occurring but typically removed from nature to be appreciated in manmade settings.
“I’m always trying to push for that co-existence of both things that don’t render themselves in opposition, but actually completely live in paradox and live in conflict,” Shin told me. That duality resonates with the Korean-American immigrant artist, who feels both sides of her hyphenated identity cannot be separated.
Shin’s lived experience touchingly informs her fascination with obsolescence. Her personal understanding of what it’s like to feel forgotten or rejected motivates her to “rescue” broken or lost objects. At the same time, she is aware of how her East Asian identity has been weaponised against her, sometimes pigeonholing her work. She’s often asked how her work relates to her identity. Interestingly, while the answer may not always be obvious to someone white viewing her work, she said the same piece might elicit a different response from an Asian American person who might say, “This so speaks to me.” For Shin, that reaction may be more indicative of hidden themes underlying her art rather than a conscious decision to incorporate an Asian aesthetic. She called it an “embedded sense.” Reflecting on her practice of trying make visible what’s in plain sight, she incidentally summed up the incongruous reality of the yellow woman: “We’ve dealt with visibility. We’re either the object of fetish, or we’re not there, and yet we’re there. We’re like ghosts.”
A Forgone Conclusion
For so long, apprehensions about orientalist traps have hindered our ability to talk about so-called “Asian aesthetics” in any meaningful way. Cheng notes the “transferability” of Asiatic style, hence its susceptibility to appropriation, but also adaptation. It means that Asian-identifying artists can reclaim the same aesthetics to not be merely decorative but convey their own worldviews. If race is a construct, then racialised identity can certainly be re-constructed. If Saidean Orientalism describes a divorcing of aesthetics from historical specificity, then an aesthetic project that originates from a place of cultural responsiveness could very well act as a form of reconciliation. Such interpretations, or re-interpretations, of yellow art may offer a much more interesting starting point for the conversation.