“Forging American: Art in the Workings of an Asian American Rust Belt”, curated by Van Tran Nguyen and Natalie Fleming, highlights Asian-American visual artists working in Rust Belt communities spread around the Great Lakes in an attempt to unpack the fraught, and violent relationship between white working-class residents and their Asian neighbors. Coalescing around the 35th anniversary of the murder of Vincent Chin at the hands of two out of work automotive workers from Detroit, the exhibit tackles modern Asian-American identity, and the falsehoods and misconceptions which ensconce it.
Collaboratively grappling with Chin’s murder, Van Tran Nguyen and Robert Fleming deploy the interviews and ephemera surrounding his murder in their piece For Vincent. The artists document Nguyen’s mother reading transcripts and court papers related to the case and interrupt her, in the same way Chin’s mother was often interrupted on the record of her son’s murder, to corral and correct her skewed, broken English speaking abilities. This act of challenge to both the written word and the mother tongue speaks to the ways in which authorities have seen necessary to leash and muzzle Asian bodies, even in the eye of a murder investigation.
Identity alights across numerous categories within this exhibit: familial, architectural, socio-political and sexual. This faceted existence, highlighted in the wake of the pan-Asian-American activist movement brought on by the murder of Vincent Chin, more fully fleshes out how Asian-Americans move and exist within our contemporary moment. Artists such as Dan S. Wang, Natalie Fleming, Harumo Sato and Mizin Shin examine, by turns, the Asian-American – and Asian/American by implication – relationship built upon economy and trade. In our global moment, with an ascendant Asian economy, these artists demonstrate the branching ways in which an individual, yet wholly Asian, economy is made. Overseas ascendancy over the last two generations has gutted entire ways of life throughout the Great Lakes region, hollowing it out, and producing the Rust Belt economies we know today, and the asymptomatic anxieties which foment our current political moment.
The deconstruction, reconstruction and serialization of Asian identity within the American eye is made manifest through the installation by Howard Hao Tran. Hanh Trinh #1, made up of burlap and video, is a large-scale head made out of decommissioned and discarded sacks. Totemic in its presence and with a magnetic resonance, it becomes the visual focal point of the exhibit. Which is perhaps the point. The scale and texture of the sculpture invite visual and discreet tactile inspection, which speaks toward the circumspect inspection and discreet suspicion which has hovered – in the same manner as Tran’s sculpture above the gallery floor – like a specter across Asian bodies in America.
“Forging American: Art in the Workings of an Asian American Rust Belt” is on view until November 17th, 2017. There will be a screening of the documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin? with discussion to follow at Squeaky Wheel Film and Media Art Center on November 10th, 7pm. Exhibit viewing hours, directions and availability can be found at www.cepagallery.org/about-big-orbit.