Anne Anlin Cheng reconsiders Asiatic femininity, racialised embodiment, and the confusion between persons and things.
In a chapter entitled “The Fact of Blackness” in Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon gives us a primal moment of racial formation, of self-consciousness achieved through third-person consciousness, a dizzying moment of identification and projection, the merging of recognition and misrecognition: “‘Look, a Negro!’”1 This moment of “crushing objecthood” sutures the black subject into what Fanon famously calls the “racial epidermal schema” and has become, for many of us, a paradigmatic instance of racial embodiment. But has the ineluctable visibility of the racial epidermal schema unwittingly prevented us from seeing alternative forms of racial embodiment? What would it mean to detach radically the “fact of race” away from the organic and the biological? I ask because the history of race and racism is often narrated as a story about how persons have been turned into things, with chattel slavery being the most egregious example; yet, what if we were to tell the story from a different angle; what if we attended to the ways in which things have been taken for persons or have actually animated ideas of personhood?
We all know that Primitivism and Orientalism, the two great Victorian racial imaginaries that fuelled Euro-American modernism today, produced an expansive and enduring repository of fantasies about racialised gender and its subsequent objectification. Yet “objectness” holds very different materiality, texture, and affect for the varied histories of Primitivism and Orientalism. While Primitivism, concentrated around the figure of the naked Black woman, rehearses a rhetoric of bare flesh and what political theorist Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life,”2 Orientalism, on the other hand, crystallised through the figure of the highly ornamented and aestheticised yellow woman, calls on and energises a cultural discourse of sartorial sedimentation, producing a peculiarly aggregated and synthetic form of racial “liveness” where bare life is never bare.
The supposedly celebrated spectacle of synthetic, ornamental, Asiatic life is hardly new. Western philosophers and writers—from Plato to Marco Polo, Joris-Karl Huysmans to Oscar Wilde, William Morris to Le Corbusier, Ezra Pound to Allan Ginsberg—have long conflated the “Orient” and so-called “Oriental character” with excessive ornamentality and artifice. A brief overview will remind us that Western visual culture also rehearses this association:
From Impressionism to Art Nouveau to French Symbolism to American Rococo and all the way up to wide-ranging iterations in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we bear witness to the repeated confusion between persons and things at the site of, and through the imagined animacy of, Asiatic femininity. To put it bluntly, Asiatic femininity is ornamentation.
Rather than being surprised by how tenacious this racial imaginary has been (and still is), we should be more shocked by the sheer paucity of our critical response in the face of this enduring archive. Sure, we have decried this history of commodification, appropriation, and fetishisation. Yet, even as these terms of political and moral critique are wholly warranted, they have also unwittingly stopped us from seeing afresh the still unresolvable and uncanny affects and consequences of this particular history of objectification and ensuing conditions of objectness.
The problem with recognising a stereotype or a cliché is that it can blind us from more rigorous thinking; to call something a stereotype is to imply that we know something only too well, when in fact there is still so much here to be unpacked and addressed about the life of that thing. How does a person live as an object? What does it mean to understand Asiatic femininity as a form of synthetic assemblage rather than fleshly corporeality? How do we think about the fantasy of a racialised gender that has been highly eroticised and yet hardly requires a real body to make its fullest, most sensorial presence known?
The “yellow woman” can be so easily invoked and animated through objects, scents, textures: a fan, a perfume, a kimono, the swerve of silk, and the stasis of porcelain. What we need here is not just an account of how Asiatic people have been used as things (what Saidean Orientalism has taught us to be alert to), or how Oriental things have influenced our uses of them (what Object Theory teaches us), but instead a conceptual paradigm that can accommodate the deeper, stranger, more intricate, and more ineffable (con)fusion between thingness and personness.
To generate further and deeper conversations about this particular and peculiar form of racial embodiment, I recently proposed in a monograph the concept of “ornamentalism,” a term that is meant, at its most basic, to mark this enduring conflation between the Oriental and the ornamental.3 But more than naming a symptom, I meant for the term to capture the dynamic and idiosyncratic processes (legally, materially, imaginatively) whereby personhood is named or conceived through ornamental gestures. I am interested in those dynamics behind eerie moments of transformation—and they happen more often and more visibly than we think—when a person or the seductive idea of personness gets vivified and made highly plausible, not through the human, but precisely through the inhuman, the minute, the sartorial, the decorative, the prosthetic.
For me, the making of this highly artificial, ornamented, and synthetic personhood challenges some of our most basic assumptions about freedom and agency, about what constitutes a person and what kind of a life can count. If Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism offers us a way to critique the West’s appropriation and commodification of the East, then I like to think of ornamentalism as moving the discussion away from that implicit divide between a thinking and imagining West versus the “brute reality” (to quote Said) of the East and to, instead, locate our thinking on the ontology of Asiatic thingliness. In short, if Orientalism offers a political critique, ornamentalism opens up a theory of being.
So, what does ornamentalism allow us to see that Orientalism does not? Let us turn to one of the most iconic, racialised, and gendered figures from nineteenth-century America:
This is Afong Moy, more commonly known as simply “The Chinese Lady,” who was imported by the Carne brothers to tour major US cities in the 1830s as a living tableau. Little is known about her; even the accuracy of her Chinese name is dubious.4 At the level of fact, there is no rescuing her; she is lost to history. At the level of theory, she remains reified. Orientalism tells us that she is a reified object of Western epistemological mastery. Psychoanalytic fetishism would diagnose this as a scene of lack and compensation: Moy’s racial and sexual lack has been displaced onto her sartorial splendour even as it is iterated through her bound feet, which are neatly and conspicuously displayed on a little stool. Marxist fetishism would train our gaze on the proliferation of commodified objects. Indeed, every object in this room—the chintz, the silk, the mahogany or rosewood implied by the furniture, the tea, the sugar, the porcelain, and of course the Asian woman herself—is saturated with colonial and imperial history.
Historians of American Orientalism (John Kuo Wei Tchen, Lisa Lowe, Teemu Ruskola, Colleen Lye, Josephine Park, among others) have well documented the instrumental role that the use of people and things from Asia in real and imagined forms has played in the formation of American modern politics, economy, cityscapes, cultural identity, and citizenship; the construction of notions of class and taste since the early colonials; the so-called China Trade’s foundational role during the American Revolution in inaugurating the birth of “American free trade” and supplying the rationale for the articulation of American liberation and manifest destiny; the great wealth that built great modern American cities like New York and Boston; the use of Asian labour in the construction of American agriculture and landscape; the segregation and discipline of Asian bodies in America providing the crucible for the formation of modern US citizenship; the formative role of so-called Asian aesthetics in modern American letters; and, finally, the enormous contemporary American appetite for “Asian styles” from the cute to the erotic. Against this extensive backdrop, the staging of Afong Moy presents us the ghostlier demarcations behind much more mainstream Victorian representations of white femininity, especially when the latter becomes conflated with commodity culture. Think, for example, of Becky Sharp posed for sale in the drawing room with her silk shawl and damasked cotton and her notable “small feet” on display.5 Or consider Lily Bart’s intense spiritual materialism in the face of an exquisite tea service.6
This expansive documentation of this history of commodification, however, remains mute to more complicated questions about what is really going on in that scene, or how it is that “objectness” on so many levels speaks to the many American spectators there to witness a “live, Chinese lady.” The paradigm of “Oriental fetishism,” which we can easily use to explain this scene, nonetheless cannot address the strange life being bred by this scene of global exchange. Instead of dismissing this scene as just another instance of Orientalist reification, let us attend to its animatedness—to what I call the animation of ornamentalism. The lady in question here is part of a composition of objects whose placid harmony really derives from a dynamic frisson between foreground and background, skin and fabric, persons and things. This still tableau is in fact very much alive. The immobile lady’s ontological promise, her imagined interiority and liveness, is not just framed but also deeply infused by the built environment. Even as her “interiority” has presumably been displaced by flat surfaces—indeed, textiles—there is nonetheless a dynamic, sartorial, and semiotic reciprocity at work in this scene. She accessorises the furnishings, while the furnishings accessorise her; she lends the human element to this theatre even as the props lend her a human domesticity. The sitting woman repeats the two “Chinese” figures behind her, themselves European replicas of Chinese paintings.7 This “human” triptych is in turn echoed by the teapot and lone cup, both surely empty, on the table, reminding us that a woman’s close proximity to “china” allows her to be read as a particular kind of surface: perfectly contained, perfectly empty, but also perfectly coextensive.8 The semiotic conductivity of china (the conflation of porcelain for Asiatic femininity, of “china” with “China”) alerts us to how recursive this scene is: a fantasy about the interchangeability of persons and things.
The subject here is tableau vivant: the art of transforming life into the paradox of still life. And the pleasure afforded by this scene—the piquant insistence of nonliving live things—is not fleshly indulgence but rather the naughty porousness between persons and things, the alluring satisfaction of ontological shallowness.
Yellow womanhood invites us to think rigorously about the entanglement between organic corporeality and aesthetic abstraction. How do we begin to think about racialised bodies that remain insistently synthetic and artificial? How do we approach bodies not undone by objectness but endure as objects? Yes, the imbrication between things and bodies commodifies, but the so-called objects at stake are also always asked to act and emit beingness. How do we understand commodities in transit as neither simply cargo nor easily translatable back into cherished human subjects? Asiatic femininity offers us the rare and critical opportunity to articulate a different form of racial embodiment: one that is indebted not to enfleshment but to mattering—and one that challenges and alters the foundational terms of what constitutes human ontology.
"Yellow womanhood invites us to think rigorously about the entanglement between organic corporeality and aesthetic abstraction."
The publication of Ornamentalism (2019) has brought me into conversations with several artists who are also thinking and working through the complicated imbrication with Asiatic femininity and materiality. This past summer, I collaborated with a group of artists on an exhibition entitled Ghost in the Ghost at Tiger Strikes Asteroid Gallery in Brooklyn, NY. The exhibit was conceived by independent curator and visionary Danielle Wu as a conversation between my scholarship and contemporary artists of colour, who were drawing on Asiatic femininity as a critical lens to reconsider racialised embodiment and the confusion between persons and things. All the artists in the show—Charlotte Greene, Tenaya Izu, Candice Lin, Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin, Juana Valdes, and Elliott Jun Wright—though vastly unique in their methods and objects, engage in this larger and aspirational conversation about a dream of the human that does not reject but is instead deeply indebted to the fantasy of objects and objectness. The show offered a rich array of varied provocations about that persistent, porous, and flickering interface between flesh and non-flesh, beauty and monstrosity, memory and oblivion, art and commodity. For the purpose of and within the limits of this essay, however, I would like to concentrate on the works of Candice Lin and Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin, because their specific engagements with the media of ceramic and porcelain offer us a critical opportunity to explore the relationships between the idea of yellow flesh and the materia nova that the early eighteenth century named “white gold.”
In fact, I see both as staging their own interpretations of what it means to view the spectacle—indeed, the ghost—of “the Chinese Lady” in the twentieth-first century. Lin’s piece in Ghost in the Ghost is an excerpt and quotation from her larger 2017 solo exhibit in Bétonsalon in Paris, where her exhibition A Hard White Body consists of a fragile sculptural landscape composed of porcelain fragments submerged in water and filtered human urine, with rotting plant material and other debris soaking in a shallow pool, colouring the liquid and aging/dirtying the ceramic surfaces. Shin’s Untitled (Torture) gives us a piece of fractured porcelain (a blue willow pattern intended to invoke Victorian sensibility bred out of imperial ventures in Asia), constantly being nursed (or eroded) by a slow drip of cow’s milk suspended above it.
In order to enter these works, we first have to remind ourselves of the historic significance of ceramic and porcelain in Euro-American racial imaginary. Called “white gold” by many, ceramic was a highly valued and contested material in the eighteenth century with the advent of European encounter with Asia and China in particular. The entanglement between the so-called Orient, ideas of Asiatic femininity, and European notions of value is multi-layered, at once economic, industrial, artisanal, affective, and imaginative. Recent scholarship in the area of material culture, for example, has revealed the complex history of Chinese porcelain: its importance in early global imperial trade; its role in spurring European technological invention and decorative design; and its impact on growing economic, social, and cultural values in Denmark, Germany, and France, as well as England and its American colonies.
But more than signalling economic or social values, Chinese porcelain personifies a set of affective and somatic values forged out of the kiln of what Gordon Chang aptly calls the centuries-old “fateful ties” between China and the West. Out of the era of the China Trade, Atlantic slavery, and their aftermath, we see the birth of a material culture that shapes the physical and affective values attached to racialised bodies. Objects and materials are racialised, yes, but objects and materials also racialise people. Scholars like Mechthild Fend and Chi-ming Yang have demonstrated how material substances spurred chemical experiments with colours that not only fed artisanal and industrial innovations across centuries, but also promoted racial ideas. Mahogany’s red sheen, glossy black lacquer, translucent white porcelain, and the brilliant colours of indigo, cochineal dyes, and silver ore all carried and produced racial meanings. 9 In short, race making in the nineteenth century is also an artisanal project, as indebted to ornamental practice and material making as it is to the pseudo-biology of early ethnography.
Imported goods and materials of Asia and the Americas held novel, structural properties like durability or elasticity that Europeans not only strove to imitate and harness for their own manufacturing, but also increasingly came to associate and project onto the racialised bodies from whom the objects came. Porcelain, what was known as true kaolin Chinese porcelain, is particularly interesting in this regard because of its alchemical and seemingly impossible properties: known not only for its glossy beauty, its refinement, its receptivity to colour and design manipulation, but also for its surprising durability, its miraculous capacity to sustain the extreme high heat that lends it its translucency. The invention of porcelain as a precious and rare new material—an advanced production process that baffled Western manufacturers for decades and served as something of a precursor to the twentieth-century fascination with other materia nova such as plastic—promised in the eighteenth century the magic of material transformation. Porcelain thus connoted both hardness and plasticity, old-world beauty and new-world technology, fragile daintiness and insensate coolness: a mixture of antithetical symbolic meanings that are then ascribed to, indeed, become the very “stuff” of Asiatic femininity.
The seemingly trite and repetitive association of Asiatic female skin with porcelain—e.g., Nancy Kwon hawking “Pearl Cream, the Secret to Oriental Beauty” on late-night television throughout the 1980s; Maggie Q’s Shiseido campaign for its UV White line of skin care that boasts, too, of “porcelain skin”; or Yue-Sai Kan’s celebrated, porcelain-skinned “wa wa” dolls—thus carries this profound and layered history of what I call ornamentalist transformation, affecting the merging of flesh and matter, persons and things.
"Porcelain thus connoted both hardness and plasticity, old-world beauty and new-world technology, fragile daintiness and insensate coolness: a mixture of antithetical symbolic meanings that are then ascribed to, indeed, become the very 'stuff' of Asiatic femininity."
It is not surprising, then, that the fates of Chinese female bodies and Chinese porcelain ran parallel to each other. When it came to represent the precariousness of a system of Western wealth based on importing novel Eastern goods, porcelain, along with other things Asiatic, started to lose its radiance. As Euro-American acquisitiveness began to run in excess of what it could offer China in return, the early romance with china and China began to deteriorate. This breakdown left lasting traces in American law and economic policy, from US foreign policy and trade agreements in the eighteenth century to discriminatory immigration laws in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. China’s meaning in the American popular imagination changed, with Chinese porcelain itself coming to connote tacky crockery. And, crucially for our discussion, the breakdown of this country’s China romance marked the bodies of Asiatic women. The New York Times had this to say about the Chinese women’s gymnastics team at the 1996 Summer Olympics: “The Chinese remain the world’s most erratic top gymnasts, and today, like many a Ming vase, their routines looked lovely but had cracks in several places.”10
Thus, more than simply exemplifying an incidental decorative motif or revealing the limits of the imperial imagination, the citation—indeed, the embodied objecthood—of Chinese porcelain in the works of contemporary women artists such as Lin and Shin refer to and revive this long, expansive history about human imbrication with racialised and manufactured materials, fuelling the fraught amalgamation between inorganic commodity and Asiatic female flesh—and between beauty and consumption.
The title of Candice Lin’s larger project A Hard White Body at Bétonsalon, at first glance, invokes the cherished notion of the white masculinity that underwrites and sustains the ideal of Western personhood. But there are no bodies in this show, just the suggestion of its less-than-glamorous traces: dirty sheets and toiletry. The dominant matter in this installation is, instead, unfinished ceramics. From the Duchampian urinal at the opening of the show to the primitive tea distillation along the way to the large ceramic bed and other domestic objects scattered around, the viewer seems to have stumbled upon an abandoned colonial encampment where civilisational efforts have gone to seeds: a Pompeiian scene of arrested quotidian life. But instead of blackened ash, what we have is inert, darkening clay. Yet the very presence of ceramics, like the presence of tea, reminds us of the imperial and racialised goods that have come to support Euro-American ideals of civilisation.
As we started to see already, porcelain embodies a thick sediment of material and affective meanings. This so-called white gold is at once Oriental and British; at once hardy (being able to withstand tremendous heat in its production) and fragile; durable and brittle—qualities that are then mapped unto and confused for the racialised bodies from which this material came. After all, China = china. Indeed, Lin reminds us of yet another historic connection between ceramic porcelain and racial embodiment. Resting on the urinal in Lin’s Bétonsalon installation is a funnel, also made of porcelain.
On the one hand, this funnel lends cross-gendered utility to the urinal (instructional scribbles on the wall); on the other, it invokes a racial history behind the discipline of biology. Lin points out in the gallery publication that this mini-sculpture is meant to reference a porcelain funnel that was used by Louis Pasteur in his studies of microorganisms in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Pasteur and his assistant Charles Chamberland developed what came to be known as the Pasteur-Chamberland funnel, made from unglazed porcelain. Porcelain was celebrated for its resistance to stains from liquids such as coffee, tea, and other contaminants, but its very invincibility paradoxically came to signal its susceptibility. For it turns out that because porcelain boasts of such fine pores, it could separate bacteria from the liquids in which they live, and came to be used as a filter system. When Pasteur and Chamberland discovered non-bacterial infectious agents that were so small that they can pass through the P-C funnel—that is, it was through porcelain’s failure to sieve out contaminants from its “hard white body”—that we first learned of viruses, revealing a whole new world of invisible contaminants, from tetanus to diphtheria, and jump starting the field of virology. Pasteur and Chamberland’s scientific discoveries, profoundly stimulated by colonial encounters and settings, were not surprisingly shot through with racial ideas and racialised language. In describing the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), for example, Pasteur and Chamberland spoke of plants that “go mulatto,” that exhibited unhealthy “woolly textures”; and the first sign of contamination was the “sickening” and “weak yellowing leaves.” Porcelain thus stands in both for the pure white body and the racialised threats against it. What we are witnessing then is the ghost within the ghost: the spectre of the yellow body within the hard white body.
If as we noted, the clichéd association of Asiatic female skin with porcelain carries a profound and layered history of ornamentalist transformation, affecting the merging of flesh and matter, persons and things, then where is yellow femininity in Lin’s installation? I would suggest that yellow femininity appears in Lin’s installation as but the suggestion of a stain, a residue that is unnamed but enjoys an ongoing life of its own. “It” makes it presence felt on various invisible levels. First, in the spectre of care and domestic labour: constructed in unfinished clay, Lin’s installation requires daily maintenance, spraying with water, negotiating the filtration systems, etc. Even so, within as short as a couple of weeks, the unfinished porcelain begins to decay and yellow. This is particularly noticeable in the primary piece in the middle of the installation: a large, unmade bed with rumpled sheets, made all of a piece in ceramics.
The surface of the unfinished porcelain, exposed to water and tea, becomes dingy and yellow over the duration of the exhibition, reminding us of the “sordid” history of colonial sexual relations and its contaminating effects on the “hard white body.” In other words, the spectre of yellow female sexuality becomes the vestibular funnel through which white masculinity tests, proves, and loses its integrity.
I want to suggest, however, that this yellowing is also a sign of life and endurance—turning what was initially an ossified scene into a living, changing, and growing exhibit. It is not that Lin’s “bed” and domestic colonial scene remember the human bodies that have long receded from the scene, but that her construction here (in fact, new and not a reconstruction and never occupied by humans) is living out a human history that was incredibly indebted to a history of material and labour extraction that never made a distinction between the two. The installation thus offers an unstable but living environment that threatens the fantasy of an obdurate “hard white body” impervious to decay, while reminding us of the material and semiotic history of racial-crossing that troubles that dream’s integrity. Yellow skin and white gold: the entwined fantasies hidden within “a hard white body.”
If the ghost of the yellow woman for Lin resonates in the colonial history of science and medicine, for Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin, she haunts contemporary fascination for the science and business of beauty. Her 2017 installation Universal Skin Salvation meditates on the paradoxes between continued anti-Asian sentiments in the US and the US’s seemingly insatiable appetite for so-called K-Beauty (products from the Korean Beauty industry). Her installation featured serums, lotions, and hydrating sprays that the artist created using home-made lactic acid, an organic substance which can be synthetically processed for beauty products, but, as Shin reminds us, is also the very same product made via fermentation in foods like kimchi.
Lactic acid—a compound that can be found in our very muscles but also extracted from animals, food, and synthetic processes and then repackaged and racialised through the burgeoning ideal and industry of so-called K-beauty today—becomes the agent through which Shin forces her viewers to rethink the connections and erasures between the organic and the synthetic, between the exoticism of Asiatic female beauty (the very product being promised and sold through K-Beauty) and racialised (and often degraded and denigrated) history of Korean food and medicine in the US.
For Shin, who emigrated to Canada from South Korea as a child, fermented foods such as kimchi were understood to be beneficial to gut health and a critical source of comfort in the face of a foreign diet. At the same time, she had to negotiate new cultural perceptions of these foods as now presumably strange or smelly. In the recent consumer appetite for K-Beauty, Shin saw the contradictions between the desire for Asiatic beauty (flawless, porcelain skin) and the erasure of racialised presence, both a need to exoticise and normalise at the same time. To heighten this paradox, Shin plays with the contrasts between DIY projects and synthetically, industrially produced products: her displays of these acids—alternating between home-made brewing jars (hefty vats of yellow lactic acid) next to pristine, sanitised, creamy white lotions in vials that mimic science labs and the cosmetic counters often made to look like labs—compel the spectator to rethink the difference between what is too racially different versus what is racially different enough to be desired. While some spectators may hesitate to stick their fingers inside what looks like a mouldy jar, they have no problem trying on creams and lotions in unmarked but elegantly lined vials. The promised sanitisation of the art gallery space, and the display that mimics commercial beauty counters, lull the viewers into ease and openness, reminding us that we are willing to open our skins to all kinds of invasions…as long as the invasion comes in the proper packaging. (Indeed, we might even think of the abbreviation of “K-Beauty” as yet another gesture of deracination whereby the “funk” of being Korean gets transformed into the synthetic and sanitised comfort of beauty and science.)
Part of the exhibition is a “sauna” that promises to bathe the spectator in a mist of hydrating and rejuvenating lactic acid. Yet the luxury of the experience cannot wholly dispel the uneasy echoes of other and more violent forms of spraying and de-contamination. This sauna is also a port of guarded entry, a zone of contaminating decontamination. Thus the viewer’s own sense of bodily boundary becomes both the object of cherishing and the subject of jeopardy. In the uncanny connections and wilful erasures between the billion-dollar pharma-cosmetic industry, and a history of much more complex and darker US relations with Korea, Universal Skin Salvation thus invites viewers to walk through and test the limits of their skin as a site of experimentation. Most importantly, for Shin, the critique of the fetishisation of Asiatic skin as inorganically flawless and porcelain-like falls on both the Western subject/consumer and on Asiatic subjects themselves. For, if we take our lessons from Candice Lin to our consideration of Shin’s work here, we will have to remind ourselves that the vision of the synthetically flawless and white Asiatic skin (something that prides itself on being achievable through a twenty-five-step beauty regime; that is, not organic or natural) may have already itself been a contaminated and mediated dream. That is, could we say that the fantasy of the “hard white body” may also be hidden within the “soft, white body” of perfect yellow skin?
"The promised sanitisation of the art gallery space, and the display that mimics commercial beauty counters, lull the viewers into ease and openness, reminding us that we are willing to open our skins to all kinds of invasions…as long as the invasion comes in the proper packaging."
In 2019, at Tiger Strikes Asteroid Gallery in Brooklyn, New York, Shin offers us a singular instalment in her meditation on beauty, race, and contamination. In Untitled (Torture), Shin features a breast-shaped glass vessel filled with milk that “lactates” onto a fractured porcelain plate below, which in turn rests atop a chainmail-covered vat that catches the drippings.
The piece is a meditation on time; one is mesmerised by the slow drip that both splashes unto the broken plate but also splatters unto the viewer. The surface at risk here is not only the broken porcelain plate, but also the rusting metal mesh that holds it, as well as our own neighbouring flesh, especially if “we” are subjects who have been negotiating Asiatic flesh-as-ornament.
Over time, we see the milk not only failing to mend the shards (could the dripping have caused the crack in the first place?), but also spawning alternative forms of life: bacteria, clouding the vat like a feverish breath. The drip splatters gently, at times dampening the viewer. Is the milk nursing or eroding the porcelain? And if the porcelain stands in for Asiatic femininity, how can we not see the discomforting intimacy of care and abuse? Untitled (Torture) thus offers a meditation of “care” and its inverse through the organic, the maternal, and their entanglement with synthetic materiality.
At work here is also a crisis of origin and authenticity. Is that blue willow plate genuine Chinese porcelain or a cheap imitation? Indeed, the question of authenticity and legitimacy when it comes to Chinese curio has become a crisis almost as soon as that white gold acquires its value. That shattered plate embodies, quite literally, the fissures of white gold. Indeed, Untitled (Torture) suggests that being anonymous is synonymous with the art object and that being unnamed is an expression of torment. For me, I cannot help but think it makes a difference who is looking at this piece. As an Asian/Asian American woman looking down at this sculpture, at the little “pool” of broken shards under the drip, it is as if I were encountering my version of “Look, a Negro!” But here the mirroring is mediated, not by skin, but by the broken surface of porcelain. And I know I was not the only one having this experience of mis/recognition. As a reviewer in the Brooklyn Rail writes:
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.11
"But here the mirroring is mediated, not by skin, but by the broken surface of porcelain."
Yes, “the Chinese Lady” has long disappeared, but the fractured surfaces that have always stood in for her remain. Both Lin and Shin suggest that Asiatic femininity participates much more in an economy of inure artifice than fleshly presence; here it is inorganic ceramic, not flesh, that generates a racial epidermal schema. Lin and Shin connect racial construction (normally addressed in the realms of biology or sociology) to the emergence of imperial, material culture. Both invite us to engage with a larger, darker, and yet also more aspirational conversation about a dream of the human that does not reject but is instead deeply indebted to the fantasy of objects and objectness. The conversation created by these conceptual artists is a pressing one in a world where we have grown increasingly inured to violence, in both brutal and tender forms, and where we have come to rely on the complacencies of moral critique.
How do we deal with the afterlife—and ongoing animation of—object-life? How can we really accommodate, not simply decry, the intimacy between being a “person” and being a “thing”? How does this intimacy remap the dividing categories of race, class, gender, and species? And if we are brave enough to contemplate the radical unseating of these categories, would we be looking at a brave new world or a collation of stranded objects? For these artists, binaries such as subject/object, interiority/exteriority, agency/oppression continually breakdown—indeed, have never been stable—producing odd, beautiful, and disturbing alloys that resist human sentimentality without letting us forget the haunting human erasures that enabled their construction in the first place. Ornamentalism, as reconceived through the works of these artists, thus serves as a conceptual lens through which we track the haunting alchemy between persons and things, and its strange products. In the end, artists like Lin and Shin leave us with this difficult and chilling question: can we survive a future where we live the discomforts of our own, estranged flesh?
Anne Anlin Cheng is a Professor of English and Director of American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of The Melancholy of Race: Assimilation, Psychoanalysis, and Hidden Grief, as well as Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface and, most recently, Ornamentalism.
Portions of this essay have been excerpted from the book Ornamentalism (Oxford University Press, 2019) by Anne Anlin Cheng.
1. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1967), 109.
2. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Meridian Books, 1995).
3. Anne Anlin Cheng, Ornamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).
4. John Kuo Wei Tchen, New York Before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Cultures 1776-1882 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1999), 101–06.
5. William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1998).
6. Edith Wharton, House of Mirth (NY: Penguin, 1993).
7. The European imitation of Chinese portraits in the background possibly aims to reproduce a genre of screen paintings popular in Qing Dynasty. They resemble a series called “Twelve Beauties at Leisure Painted for Prince Yinzheng, the Future Yongzheng Emperor,” from the Qing Dynasty, during the Kangxi period, between 1709 and 1723, now on display at the Palace Museum in Beijing. (Reproduced in Jonathan Hay’s Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China.)
8. For an imperial history of tea, see Alden Cavanaugh and Michael E. Yonan, The Cultural Aesthetic of Eighteenth-Century Porcelain (Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2010). Candice Lin, whose work can be found in this exhibit, for example, will remind us that “porcelain” and “skin” fuse in an ideology of idealised, white female beauty, creating the uncanny logic where idealised white femininity is mediated through Chinese thingness.
9. Mechthild Fend, “Bodily and Pictorial Surfaces: Skin in French Art and Medicine, 1790-1860,” Art History 28:3 (June 2005), 311–39. Chi-ming Yang, Performing China (Fn 8)
10. Christopher Clarey,“Atlanta: Day3—Gymnastics; Miller Gives United States High Hopes for a Gold,” New York Times, 22 July 1996, www.nytimes.com/1996/07/22/sports/atlanta-day-3-gymnastics-miller-gives-united-states-high-hopes-for-a-gold.html
11. Emily Sun, “Ghost in the Ghost: Curated by Danielle Wu,” The Brooklyn Rail, July 2019, https://brooklynrail.org/2019/07/artseen/Ghost-in-the-Ghost