Alexandra Chang

Global Art Flows: A Translocal Positionality

Day 1, Friday September 16, 2011, 11:30 – 13:00

This paper looks at post-1990s Asian and Asian diasporic art, exploring transcultural flows of artistic production and artists. In the developing discourse of the field, with new global realities of artists living and working in a space of transculturality, diaspora has come to be less affiliated with, as James Clifford writes, “roots in a specific place and desire for return as around an ability to recreate a culture in diverse locations.”

The paper explores ideas of diaspora, transculturality, hybridity, localism, and cosmopolitanism. I will look at how the notion of “intervisuality” inherent in the art of these diasporic artists, who live and work in urban centers enmeshed in a cosmopolitan intermix of cultural signifiers, empowers agency within their works. I will draw examples from the artists’ lives and works by contemporary artists Tomokazu Matsuyama, Ma Jun and Zhang Hongtu, and Tomato Grey art collective artists Annysa Ng and Bing Lee.

c5-p74Zhang Hongtu, LAST BANQUET, 1989, laser prints, pages from the Red Book and acrylic on canvas, 60 x 168 inch. Courtesy of the artist

These artists use the notion of what Nicholas Mirzoeff calls “intervisuality” in his well known text Diaspora and Visual Culture: Representing Africans and Jews, which he states:

The diasporic visual image is necessarily intertextual, in that the spectator needs to bring extratextual information to bear on what is seen within the frame in order to make full sense of it. However, in the visual image, intertexutuality is not simply a matter of interlocking texts but of interacting and interdependent modes of visuality that I shall call intervisuality. From a particular starting point, a diasporic image can create multiple visual and intellectual associations both within and beyond the intent of the producer of that image.[i]

I will explore how the intervisuality inherent in these diasporic artists and artists who live and work in urban centers enmeshed in a cosmopolitan intermix of cultural signifiers empowers agency within these artists’ works. I am particular in noting that I am not speaking about transnational artists, but artists who are affected by the notion of transculturality that also blurs the specter of nation-state boundaries, but more importantly is arguably less about border crossings than an intermixing of cultural signifiers in our everyday with culture as defined as pre-transculturality, which of course never existed to begin with, but we are now just experiencing on a hyper level.

Since the creation of chinoiserie for export, or as developed in Europe for the European mass market as early as in the 16th century, an idea of blending and mixing within an overlapping cosmopolitan space has mingled with elements of power asymmetries connected with the notions of the popular imagination, the art object, and the everyday.

In the recent past, artists have increasingly traveled between Asia and Europe, following examples of early and mid-twentieth century artists who moved between Asia, U.S., and Europe as international elites, such as the oft-cited artists Yun Gee and Isamu Noguchi. However, with the increasing ease of international travel and bi-continental lives, contemporary artists are able to sustain active communities with constantly renewed flows between Asia and Europe, such as Tomokazu Matsuyama, who travels between Tokyo and New York several times a year or artists who are able to travel on a fellowship for projects or by individual choice.

Recently, semi-virtual artist groups have formed that come together in the same locale to participate in their collaborative arts projects, but whose members live in separate countries. For example, the artist collectives Barnstormers and the New Grand Tour artists each have established communities in New York and Tokyo (the Barnstormers) and New York, Hong Kong, and Australia (New Grand Tour). The New Grand Tour artists emphasize that now low fares allow more artists to travel, redefining the Grand Tour, which used to be common to European aristocrats in the 17th century as a part of education. The Hong Kong-New York artist collective Tomato Grey utilizes Skype conferences to meet. The collective also interestingly emphasizes localism as central to its mission and its diasporic collectivity, with its artists citing the former British territory’s collective post-colonial histories that set it apart from the wider Chinese diasporic network.

However, unlike Matsuyama and these international artist collectives, many diasporic artists were unwitting participants in forced migrations, such as Zhang Hongtu, whose family and self came under scrutiny during the Chinese Cultural Revolution as a Muslim and artist whose works have been routinely banned by China. Others remained in one place, such as China-based Ma Jun, while the asymmetries of the flow of images invaded and became a part of his everyday life. In a double play of the flows of imagery, each of these artists’ works are once again shown and seen throughout the world as reconfigured art objects by their art dealers on the international art market.

For each of these artists, the flows of imagery between Asia, the U.S., and Europe serve as a marker of difference and the marker of connection. It is the collective recognition of the cultural signifier in different contexts that draws power to their works. While diasporic space is nebulous, constantly in flux and creating cultural overlaps and collisions, allowing for the movement of people and images, it is not a nomadic internationalism, but one in which place becomes central to the readings of the artist’s intention and viewer reception. Cultural signifiers are enhanced through the context in which they are found. When shown in one space, the imagery can take on a certain significance, while in another setting that significance is read in another light. The artists in this essay consciously utilize instances of wandering cultural signifiers, ambiguities, and historical contexts in their works.

In keeping with Wolfgang Welsch’s concept of transculturality, it is the individual on the micro-level that has become the locus for multiple networks of cultural connections.[ii] As artists, their works and selves inhabit the transcultural cosmopolitan space between urban sites in Asia, the U.S., and Europe: Tomokazu Matsuyama, Ma Jun, Zhang Hongtu, and the Tomato Grey artists each utilize an amalgam of Western and Asian icons and images in their work, from consumer design and art historical icons to medium. Their artwork provides a space to explore the overlaps and cultural collisions of Asian and Western aesthetics and iconographies through both medium as well as potential visualities. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, this paper draws on both a formal analysis of the artists’ works, the individual details of the artists’ lives, as well as the broader historical context and cultural discourse and visual cultures in which these five artists find themselves creating, and in which they are shown and critiqued.

Ma Jun

Whether in famille verte, blue and white, or a Qing-style Technicolor of red, green, and gold porcelain, in the world of Chinese sculptor Ma Jun’s New China Series (2005–2007) Qing dynasty-style chinaware is handcrafted and produced in multiples, and takes the form of 1980s era TVs, boom boxes, radios, sports cars, Coca-Cola cans, and Chanel perfume bottles. His sculptures were presented for the first time in the U.S. and internationally at the Scope art fair in New York City in 2007. He has since been shown at Scope Miami, Art Basel, and the Asian Contemporary Art Fair in New York, and is represented at Krampf Gallery and Lothar Albrecht galleries in New York and Frankfurt.

His work Television (2005) is created in a traditional blue and white, and tinged with a cracklature effect in the glaze, “antiquing” the china. On the screens of this boxy, eighties-style TV-screen, Ma paints scenes of traditional mythologies and classical stories of what the artist calls “peace, happiness or beautiful wishes,” or the “social ideals of ancient Chinese people.” In this case, the image portrays a monk atop a mountain surrounded by whirling clouds and a mountainous landscape. On his Coca-Cola Bottles I (2006), Ma also utilizes blue and white and cracklature.


Ma Jun, New China Series, TV, 2007. Porcelain, 38 x 27 x 25 cm. © Ma JUN and courtesy L.A. Galerie Lothar Albrecht, Frankfurt, Germany.


Ma Jun. New China Series, Coca Cola Bottles, 2007, porcelain, 30 x 50 x 50 cm (square of 50 x 50 cm for the wooden box). © Ma JUN and courtesy L.A. Galerie Lothar Albrecht, Frankfurt, Germany.

Each of Ma’s sculptures is covered in a replication of Qing flower patterns, birds, dragons, phoenixes, clouds, and other traditional scenes. Instead of referencing modern brand signage, the artist instead imprints the pieces with maker’s marks that denote their imagined “official” ancestral origins during the height of Qing dynasty rule under such emperors as Qian Long and Kang Xi. For Ma, his allusions to the dynastic past call attention to a rich cultural and historical tradition. The shapes of the sculptures are instantly recognizable from popular brands and items that have become visually branded into the country’s subconscious, the new objects or narratives of the country’s foundational mythology. By using the everyday objects of his childhood and combining them with this decorative style, he retains the notion of a pop-cultural reference to the quotidian sublime, yet suggests an imagined bridge between the nation’s and a personal cultural past and their intersecting futures.

Ma’s reconfiguration of the order of things, this clash of time and the resulting amalgam of polarities of pop and traditional culture, stems from the artist’s own nostalgic longing for China “once upon a time.“ Although cheerfully colorful, even humorous at times, and highly decorative in their painted detail, Ma’s works vigorously confront the viewer. They are lavish sculptural displays showing the artist’s sense of progressive dissipation and displacement in the country’s cultural history. The sculptures are informed by this sense of Chinese everyday life thrown into constant motion by the seemingly chaotic whirl of internationalism and consumerism since the economic reforms of the 1980s.

After working in various mediums, including bronze, metal, glass and papier-mâché, in 2005 Ma visited Jingdezhen, known for its porcelain since the Han dynasty, and found in its craftsmanship and lifestyle the inspiration for his New China Series (Fig. 2). Each of his works is crafted from clay set from molds made in the forms of TV sets, lipstick, perfume, or other iconic vintage 1980s items from an era of conspicuous consumption.

On yet another plane, Ma’s sculptures go beyond the clash of East and West or the symbolic use of medium. The work of Marcel Duchamp was an early influence on the artist, and Ma uses the very same space-time coordinates of his pieces to affect the impact of the his work, which is ever-changing. He is quite aware that his work takes on a different perspective when situated amid an art fair in New York or Germany, than when viewed from within his studio in China. Thus, the piece is read with a multiplicity of possibilities. Outside of China, the medium itself becomes exotic and foreign. Inside China, the pieces speak of a daily clash between recognizable tradition and rapid, everyday modernization. Yet in the West, too, there remains something familiar, the Western 1980s culture of extravagance that is also undergoing retro-nostalgia in popular culture. However, the perspective is altered: unlike Ma’s case, nostalgia here is produced from a vantage point of a fundamental longing for memories of a childhood in the U.S. or Europe, rather than of growing up in one’s home country undergoing an infiltration of Western commodities, goods, and ideals.

With a constantly developing international consumer culture, along with tourism and travel, the move of certain urban settings into the cosmopolitanism of global centers like Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, New York, and Tokyo seems inevitable. Along with this comes a constant flow of energy, thought, goods, services, and the people and multimedia technologies that carry them back and forth. As a result, a chaotic ether of cultural histories is generated that threatens to slowly lose its boundaries and shift its meaning as it crosses from one border into the next. A Chanel bottle is brought to China and becomes an organic part of what modern China recognizes as its own. It becomes part of the daily cosmopolitan intermixing with another life. Like chinoiserie centuries ago, the work is created from the imagination of a place or the foundational myth of nation that no longer exists. However, unlike chinoiserie of old, Ma’s work embodies a possessing of power through his appropriation of the form.

For Ma’s work, he explains that no one specific time in history or one specific dynasty’s works is more important within the overall reading of his pieces, underlining an idea of a history beyond linear narrative. It is the imagined, yet still very real past of a country or group of individuals, the core comparative past of one generation of Chinese to the next. It is the slowly fading notion of tradition, of a culture, although it is always shifting and changing in the way it is read and understood. Ma’s works situate and re-situate themselves within a whirlwind of international interest in Chinese art that has gained momentum since the early 1990s, and the burgeoning of global urban centers with their cosmopolitan intermixing of gradually blurring cultures and traditions within everyday life.

Zhang Hongtu

Formerly a Godzilla Asian American Art Network and an Epoxy Group member, artist Zhang Hongtu is fully self-aware on the subject of being suspended between the categories of the Asian and the Asian American. Zhang immigrated to the U.S. in order to continue to work as an artist. In China, he had gone to a High School affiliated with the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. However, during the Cultural Revolution, the academy was closed and Zhang came to study at the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts. Although he was on the track to a career in fine arts, his schooling shifted and he was assigned by the government to become a jewelry designer. In 1980, during the burgeoning of a contemporary art movement in China, his work Eternal Life was displayed at the Contemporary Artists exhibition in Beijing, which was the first of the exhibitions that allowed for paintings that were not based on Mao and painted in the style of social realism. Also during this time, he was asked to teach by the Central Academy for Fine Arts, Chinghua University, and his alma mater Central Academy for Arts and Crafts. However, the jewelry factory that held his government papers refused to allow him to do so. In 1982, desperate to continue his artwork, Hongtu moved to New York. According to the artist, it could have been any city that allowed him to paint, but his wife happened to have family residing in New York, and so it was there he went.

Since his move, Zhang’s pieces have gravitated towards works he was prohibited from attempting in China at that time, where, according to the artist, painting landscapes were forbidden and only social realism was encouraged. His series of landscape paintings created in 2002, entitled Recreating Chinese Shanshui, plays with the natural landscape painting styles of Van Gogh and Monet, but also copied from famous compositions of master Shanshui artists such as in his Shitao/Van Gogh or Wang Shen/Monet. In his work Shitao/Van Gogh, the artist renders a steep traditional Chinese mountain range in the style reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Starry Night with black and midnight blue swirling paint strokes that build up and surround a crescent moon. In Wang Shen/Monet, an elongated horizontal landscape that refers both to the format used by Monet and traditional scroll paintings, Zhang paints with the multicolored touches of muted hues so familiar from Monet’s work to render a waterscape. As he also does with many others works in the series, the artist stamped several red seals and written calligraphy on top of the works, indicating previous ownership of the artwork, as is done in traditional Chinese art.

Another series that Zhang created while in the United States were his pop Mao works. Overcoming a psychological need to cut out Mao’s image without feeling a sense of guilt, Zhang came to use both the image and silhouetted cutout of Mao in his works. In his 1992 artist statement about the Material Mao series, Zhang writes about cutting out the iconic bust of Mao:

If you stare at a red shape for a long time, when you turn away, your retina holds an image of the shape and you will see a green image of the same shape. In the same way, when I lived in China, I saw the positive image of Mao so many times that now my mind holds a negative image of Mao. In my art I am transferring this psychological feeling to a physical object.[iii]

Haunted by this iconic image, each morning, he was joined by the character on the Quaker-brand oatmeal box, which morphed in his mind to the exact likeness of Mao. Zhang admits that he was perhaps more apt to see Mao where others would not, with the image having been impregnated into his sensibilities during his time in China. Nonetheless, he began timidly painting the billed cap on the cylindrical cereal container and to use this new pop Mao imagery in his works. He swapped out the faces of Jesus and his Apostles in Da Vinci’s The Last Supper with faces of Mao in each role in (Pop Mao) Last Banquet (1989). Soon his pop Mao even came to adorn Vivien Tam’s line of clothing in the “Mao” collection in 1995. Mao was thus demystified, now commodified.

His work is very clearly based on his former experiences in China and his ability to create artworks in the U.S. Yet his cutout works are influenced by his time in the U.S., or , as the artist humorously puts it in his 1992 artist statement, “The visual inspiration of my work comes directly from a bagel.”  And considering he has also resided in the U.S. for nearly twenty-five years now, is his work Asian American? Zhang quips:

Before I came here, I never thought about anything about the identity issue. I’m just an artist. Nobody considered you a Chinese artist, a foreign artist, because instead you are an artist. Later I find out this big issue because people have to label me, people have to now put in a special category so asking myself even if I am now Chinese, still Chinese artist or American artist or Chinese American or Asian American? I had no clear answer really. I’ll tell you the truth. I just came here. I thought I forgot everything that happened in China. I had forgotten my nightmare life in China. I just started it all over again from zero, I tried so many different styles, but sometimes, you know you’re painting without any Chinese flavor, Chinese image on your painting. But people were asking me, “As a Chinese artist you’ve forgotten your culture; that’s too bad” . . .  But you can’t make another art that looks like it’s from Mars or from the Moon because you are always bringing your own culture to your art. But you don’t have to do your art with this kind of a burden on your shoulder: “Oh! I am doing art to want American people to know more about Chinese culture.”

Zhang is forced to confront the peculiarities of being Asian in America and being caught between independent creativity, the burden of representation, and popular expectations.

While in the U.S., he lived in SoHo and his work slowly came to investigate a new position in which he was facing: his own dual polarities and the space within of being Chinese-American. Yet the artist explained:

I really don’t want to label myself . . . For example I trained as painter, but later I did installation, I did computer work or sculpture, now I am back to painting . . . the important thing is your concept. So because the medium is not important to me, I like to work something in between, just like my position as an artist between West and the East. Between my past life and my life today. Between the high and the low.

With the Coca-Cola brand so much a marker of the West, other Chinese artists have also used this symbol in combination with Chinese traditional ceramics, such as Zhang Hongtu and Ai Weiwei. Ai’s Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo (1994) is a well-known example. However, Ai’s concept differs in that the urn and the logo are not fused together as one seamless object, but can be seen two ways: the logo can be read as an act of violent defacement on the urn, or the logo can be seen as artistic Westernized graffiti on the urn from the mainstream tradition. The hand of the artist is very much present and emphasized. For Ma, however, his work also combines design and concept with a preciousness rather than violence in the work, and a conscious attempt to avoid direct commentary.

Zhang Hongtu, on the other hand, refers to his Asian-American diasporic experience in his piece Kekou-Kele (2002), a blue and white ceramic coke bottle, as well as Mai Dang Lao (2002), a bronze fast-food hamburger box and eating utensils. Both titles play on the pronunciation of the two brands Coca-Cola and McDonald’s in Chinese. On the surface, the pieces may appear to veer closely in concept to that of Ma’s work. Both artists’ works stem from transcultural lives. They both also underline the asymmetries of socio-economic change in China with the flow of brand images seeping into everyday life. However, Zhang’s work comes from a history of works in which he fuses together his experience as an artist living within two cultures simultaneously, rather than underlining the urgency of nostalgic longing as Ma does. Unlike Zhang, who has been living in the U.S. since 1982, Ma sets out from a different point of departure. Like Ma’s New China Series, the bottle marks Zhang’s interest in the infusion and intermixing of Western lifestyle and global consumer culture into and within China. Unlike Zhang, Ma’s intent is additionally admixed with an urge to maintain a so-called traditional, historical, and cultural base.

Tomokazu Matsuyama: A Reflexive Japonisme

For artists like Matsuyama, who travel frequently between one metropolitan center and another, one local culture is brought to intermingle and reshape another experienced culture. In the worlds of his paintings, various icons of cultural meaning intersect, and yet remain as commonplace as a Coca-Cola bottle placed on a table in an American sushi restaurant. Through the use of randomized points of contact between wandering cultural signifiers, such as appropriated ukiyo-e prints and contemporary fabric patterns, the artist investigates the nebulous overlapping space of common polar dichotomies including design and art, East and West, contemporary and traditional, and order and chaos. And instead of individual elements of form and content, he finds an organic chaos in the nature of the everyday.

In Matsuyama’s work Kirin (2006), the artist uproots the image of the mythological creature symbolizing “prosperity” in Japanese culture and figures it amid an abstract white space, dripping in a brightly colored contemporary acrylic palette, with a fumbling character in modern Western garb trying to climb up on its back. The artist is well aware that the artwork is being viewed within an international art market context in which the original iconic cultural meaning of the kirin will be lost. Instead, with this piece as well as his new series of investigative paintings involving the icon, the artist questions this shift of meaning now reappropriated and rearing its mythic head in a layered patchwork international setting outside of its original culture.


Tomokazu Matsuyama. Kirin, 2006, 5×5 ft, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

In his works Unit (2006) and Shunger (2006), the artist appropriates images that originate in Japan’s Edo period ukiyo-e woodblock prints of beautiful women, Bijin-Ga, as well as of the exquisite artistry of the spring pictures, Shun-Ga. These two pieces demonstrate Matsuyama’s research into traditional woodblock prints and textiles. His interests stem from a childhood spent in the traditional city of Takayama, Japan, where these age-old industries still exist, and from his past as a graphic designer with an interest in contemporary patterns and colors. In Shunger the artist plays with modern polka dots and striped patterns paired with heaps of overflowing fabric and arms and legs, taken directly from of a combination of Utagawa Toyokuni’s (1769–1825) works portraying highly emotive characters caught amid their sexual exploits (Figure 4). Matsuyama is able to re-situate the characters of an intimately entwined couple and a man bending backwards and remix them into a contemporary international mélange of icons and patterns, thereby losing the original meaning of the piece and its sense of cultural belonging as a traditional Japanese erotic print. Instead, these objects are consciously inserted into the inter-textual world of contemporary conceptual art.

Folie22Tomokazu Matsuyama. Shunger, 2006, 20 x 28 inches acrylic on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

The heightened awareness of randomized international overlaps and fluidity and a highly acute consciousness of his own contemporary art aesthetic resonate from Matsuyama’s background as a graphic designer and his earlier works based in the urban subculture of street-influenced artwork.

Returning to the U.S., Matsuyama landed in New York City directly after 9/11, where the U.S. had declared a “war on terror” and a focus on cultural difference was at its peak.  Matsuyama decided to dub himself Matzu-MTP, hoping to produce questioning around  his adopted identity. On the art market, his works were scrutinized and labeled as street-influenced or design. In his work Minority (2005), Matsuyama painted his alter ego as the Japanese icon of the goose, an animal traditionally featured as a side character rather than as the main subject of an artwork. His works increasingly strove to meld his Japanese and American influences in contemporary modern art, street, and design work.

Matsuyama also turned to a technique using acrylic on heavy watercolor paper, combining controlled paint splatters and heavy solid painted areas. His technique reflects a conscious desire to mimic and combine the effect of traditional Japanese tarashikomi techniques used in early silk and paper watercolor painting, in which drops of paint are layered and intermingled with others while still wet. The result work that reappropriates characters from traditional ukiyo-e prints, such as Shunger, Kirin, and Unit.[iv]

Artists like Matsuyama, who engage in travel between urban centers, maintain a free-flowing life within a set of multiple communities. Scholar and critic Hugh Kenner’s book entitled The Elsewhere Community explains that it is through travel and coming face to face with the unknown, or “elsewhere,” that the evolution of art and the self is enabled. Attempting to conceptualize Matsuyama’s patchwork world of segmented communities of exchange, an expanded view of Kenner’s “elsewhere community” may allow for an ongoing connectivity of exchange where the artist serves as a nexus. Welsch’s concept of transculturality is useful for expanding this idea. As Welsch maintains:

The transcultural webs are, in short, woven with different threads, and in different manner. Therefore, on the level of transculturality, a high degree of cultural manifoldness results again, it is certainly no smaller than that which was found between traditional single cultures. It’s just that now the differences no longer come about through a juxtaposition of clearly delineated cultures (like in a mosaic), but result between transcultural networks, which have some things in common while differing in others, showing overlaps and distinctions at the same time. The mechanics of differentiation has become more complex, but it has also become genuinely cultural for the very first time, no longer complying with geographical or national stipulations, but following pure cultural interchange processes.[v]

Transculturality becomes an avenue in which not only influence, thought, and artistic exchange are enabled and brought back to one’s own community through interactions with an “elsewhere,” but rather than such a static form in terms of circumscribed memories, an active intermeshing of urbanisms is created—investigating this idea of a maintained borderless connection now possible through the internet and frequency of travel.

Further emphasizing the importance of place, Margo Machida points out that the cosmopolitan space of these artists is not a floating one. It is grounded in localism and in the communities where the artists find their multiple places in differing, mixing, and interconnecting visual cultures.[vi] And for each of these artists there remains the significance of their backgrounds, notions of home, and importance of place, despite the idea of living in an in-between space, as can be seen in the works and iconography of both Ma Jun and Matsuyama. With this idea of creating the home wherever one travels, their itinerant life is in fact grounded in localism, in places traveled and associations around particularities of place and urbanisms, perhaps even offering the notion that the artist as nomad is in fact a theoretical rather than an empirical state of being.

Tomato Grey, unlike the well known artist collective Godzilla, which was an artist collective that came together during the time of the multicultural backlash of the early 1990s in the U.S. and was seeking to bring visibility to Asian American art through a pan-ethnic movement of solidarity, was building off the momentum of the Asian American art movement of the early 1980s. While the collective had an overlap of founding membership with artist Bing Lee, who also was a key member and founder of Epoxy Art Group and the Hong Kong Arts Society, Tomato Grey came after the ebb and flow of the initial wave of Asian American art visibility. Instead of finding solidarity in a common imagined pan-Asian American identity, Tomato Grey underlined the importance of Hong Kong, arguing that within the Chinese diaspora the Hong Kong diasporic artist should be seen as a specific case.

Tomato Grey situates itself as an energetic and self-aware collective of six artists, spanning not only geographic time zones, but also the cultural continuum between the fast-paced cities of Hong Kong and New York.

The first “official” meeting of the group for the White Box Gallery exhibition Tomato Grey: 18 Degrees of Acclimation took place in front of a computer. Crammed around an Skype conference in my small office at NYU, the New York participants and gallery director Juan Puntes waited patiently as the Hong Kong-based artists connected, were online, offline, then online again.

The Tomato Grey artists refuse to be categorized, but instead model themselves after the figure of a tomato and a color (preferring the British spelling, “grey”), which they call in their collective’s statement “neither a fruit or a vegetable, while grey is an achromatic color.” Their artwork in turn spans the amalgam of medium and plays with the genres of decorative art, media, public art, performance, pop culture, and everyday. They are also not bound to one thought path or conceptual umbrella, but rather by the overlapping connections of Hong Kong, New York, art, and a desire to promote an awareness of the work of Hong Kong artists in the Chinese diaspora, and specifically New York City.

The question of identity is one that emerged anew in Hong Kong since the British handover to China in 1997. With a unique history spanning a post-colonial past and SARs, amid questions about the rapid modernization that is overtaking many larger urban areas in Asia, Hong Kong is rich in personal and collective memories and unique pop cultures, myths and traditions all its own and what Tomato Grey artists consider separate unto itself from that of mainland China. Some Tomato Grey artists are holding onto memories of a Hong Kong past, while others similar to Ma Jun and Zhang Hongtu are intimating their unease about the cultural collisions and erosions possible in the near future.

While the “Asian diaspora” in its very terminology brings about an idea of a nebulous overlap of identities, hybridity, and the notion of an in-between space, the artists of Tomato Grey often comment on not feeling “Chinese” or “British” enough, telling stories among themselves of travel fiascos involving dual passports and embassies. This double force of alienation is also something that the artists feel separates them from others of the Chinese diaspora and is unique to their collective identities.

For Samson Young, the specifics of that Hong Kong artistic voice is one that is meant to counter the notion of a disappearance of Hong Kong in the thought imaginary. He explained to me in an interview in April 29, 2010:

I think it is only just recently that artists from/in Hong Kong are coming to the realization of the importance of a Hong Kong artistic voice, almost ten years after the handover. This is a part of the city’s intellectual community’s resistance to the fading of what is considered to be the essence of Hong Kong, whatever that might constitute. I am not sure where I stand politically, but I think it is interesting how such a self-awareness and identity crisis is triggered by the act of de-colonization; or perhaps we are actually being colonized anew?

Tomato Grey artist Annysa Ng moved to the States in January 2002 to study at the School of Fine Art. She underlines the unique post-colonial past of the former British territory through her use of decorative art and fashion, working between Chinese and British cultural signifiers. Her 2D works bedeck Elizabethan collars based on the paintings of Rembrandt onto black silhouetted forms adorning detailed traditional Chinese robes based on the work of Qing court Jesuit painters like Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766) and Jean Denis Attiret (1702–1768) amid a blank setting. Here is a work of Castiglione, aka Lang Shi’ning,  a Jesuit missionary from Milan who painted under the emperors including Kang Xi, Yong Zheng and Qian Long. And here are images of Jean Denis Attiret, aka Wáng Zhì Chéng, a painter and Jesuit missionary from France Qian Long, this is Portrait de la concubine Chun-Hui. She notes: “I depart from that Easternized West, combing my Westernized-East; further transgress the borders.”

The faces of the forms remain purposefully indecipherable and ambiguously featureless. The artist notes that the notion of void and white space figures centrally to her work due to her belief in Daoism. When I interviewed her in September 13, 2011, Ng explained: “There is white in the black and black in the white, as in the Yin-Yang. There’s no absolute, everything changes, so only ‘change’ is the forever true.  I am a visual artist, but I think the essence lies in the invisible.”

Her 3D works are less direct reflections on identity and her background as a Hong Kong artist. Ritual consists of a convex mirrored dome, in which viewers can see themselves reflected, that is encaged by an antique iron bed frame draped with delicate white tulle and airy Japanese lanterns. The conceptual installation calls on the artist’s interest in the cyclic crossover from the consciousness to the dream state of sleep, in which the self is given free reign to perpetually reconfigure and continuously re-imagine itself. Meanwhile the piece is composed of items with specificities of manufacture and place, even if they are not acknowledged. Also, she notes that it is rare for her to show these because the commercial galleries are more drawn to her 2D works due to marketability.

Forbidden Collar 2

Annysa Ng, Forbidden Collar II, 2009, ink on paper, 76.2 x 55.9 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

With her work Convergence: Divergence, her 2D and 3D work seems to come together. In this installation, she notes that she wishes to show a timeline of history from past to present as something that is infinite like the mirror within a mirror and cannot be isolated, that the past also continues in the present. It is the viewer who is placed into this continuity.

Artists of Tomato Grey avoid blanket statements of cultural authenticity or essentialism. Instead, they leave a subtle track for the viewer to distinguish and decide.

Titled Lemon Freeze and Black Bean Soup, the mural Bing Lee created for the Tomato Grey exhibition in 2010 18 Degrees of Acclimation follows a series of past murals named after what the artist calls a bizarre food menu. Other titles include New Lime and Mustang, Dried Parsley and English Brown, Nachos and American Cheese. The idea of intermixing and the everyday menu options may call forth the idea of accessibility, diversity of cultures, as well as pairings of visual colors.

A conceptual installation in black and light blue latex paint cover the wall as a site-specific mural painted in situ. Stark, horizontal blocks of black and light blue dash across the wall, as if they should represent a Morse code message, yet serve merely as a background visual pattern, while the Pictodiary glyphs—icons which he has been creating daily since 1983—seemingly scattered across the wall, are organized into a systemic pattern as Braille.

This double-play on language and signs came from a conversation the artist once had with a friend in which his friend had seen a Chinese film and could not understand the language of the film, yet drew from it his own interpretation.

Through his vocabulary of markings and intertextuality, his manipulation of codes and symbols within a larger project allow the images to be both read as a systemic pattern, yet as individually indecipherable.

On a larger scale, the artist considers the Pictodiary as both a semiotic and visual study on what he calls “a form of pattern in terms of time and behavior.” Just as words organize themselves as sentences and then paragraphs and so on, as structures and patterns, so do Lee’s glyphs. His exploration of schematic patterns and scale reveal themselves within his Web site project, where the images he documents for each day of the month form individual frames of a flipbook animation, and when placed together alongside as a larger image, their background continues to reveal images, such as of a rubber band, a mosque or an image of the Earth from outer space. From the subtle patterning of Braille, to the patterns revealed in his larger-scale murals, the smaller images that Lee utilizes in his works become part of an increasingly larger puzzle. And when his works are broken down to these individual smaller images, they then become individually unreadable.

The day-to-day performative quality of the process and the archival residue of the art object created—the documented record of the diary pages themselves—denies the ability to be categorized or understood in the encapsulation of a single moment. Instead it takes on the minutely digested fabric of being come into play, alternating as time passes, shifting as memory reinforces or fades away from the image. When viewed once, viewed again and re-digested as interactive mural or fused together in series, the glyphs take on different facets, different meanings, rendering again a deconstructionist whole that is removed beyond the sum of its parts. In the case of his temporary site-specific work, which later only exists in the documentation of the documentation that was drawn from the recorded imagery of his diary, his work is continually recombined and reshaped by spatial and temporal regrouping. What remains is never permanent and never in a moment of stasis; instead, its record and meaning is ever-changing with time and each possible viewing.

The works of the Tomato Grey artists cannot easily be grouped under a single aesthetic or generalized categorization. However, it is the very interaction of the artists—the desire to have contact with one another and to push their agenda for Hong Kong-New York diasporic artist visibility—that creates their interconnection and meaning to the specificity of their group and collective mission. They form a force that desires their diverse voices to be heard and yet requires that they unify under the solidarity of their common Hong Kong-New York diasporic experience. Localism becomes critical in the transnational nature of their diasporic collectivity. Yet, it is the transcultural and interstitial space of change and ambiguity that is seen within the works.

A Translocal Positionality: How Does Art Show without Telling?

The artists in this paper use a “twist” or a repositioning of the self in relation to her work and the dominant visual narrative in which an amalgam of Western and Asian icons and images, from consumer design and art historical icons to medium, intermingle. Repositioning the self in order to invert the asymmetric power function of alterity, many artists have chosen to utilize methods of reappropriation, creating such a “twisting” of the power function by playing out the politics of positionality in their artwork. Yet these artists are not overtly political in their work. Instead, the work examines subtleties of race, iconography, constructed mythologies, and the art historical narrative itself.

As described by Homi Bhaba in the Location of Culture,[vii] there is a form of fixity of the notion of an icon that comes close to that of the image of the archetype and that of the stereotype that cannot be contained by the image as it moves through altering contextualizations. Yet the power of the image is not muted—it remains amplified during certain moments, at certain localities more than others, and there remains a residual power function as it is being denied through these works—it is this originating asymmetry of power that activates the work, this excess of readability, which in stereotypes becomes the ambivalence of knowledge that Bhaba talks about, this notion of uncertainty of empiricism, of “probability of truth.” There is a break to the “authentic past” and “time-frame of representation.”[viii]

Each of these artists works and shows in internationalized metropolises and are situated in urbanized transcultural spaces in which images flow through and intermingle. These flows of imagery become significant through the very porous translocal aspect of the movement of their work and selves. It is through the translocal reading of the image, whether transferred through diasporic flows or international cultural overlaps, that historical context and power play are fully realized through their works.

Within the notion of localisms that derives from their grounded transculturality, there is a regressive pull toward defining a reinscribed cultural context that allows the reappropriated images to have such potency. What remains is a residue of the uneven power structures that contextually surround the images and media these artists use in their works. The very transcultural networks they find themselves inhabiting allow for their positioning as both the subject of historical asymmetries of power as well as the active countering of those asymmetries. It is the artists’ self-recognition of their positionality within a real life context of grounded localism and its specificities of power asymmetries that enables the reappropriation of loaded imagery and media with which these artists and their works gain agency.

[i] Nicholas Mirzoeff, Diaspora and Visual Culture: Representing Africans and Jews (New York: Routledge, 2000), 7.

[ii] Wolfgang Welsch, “Transculturality:  The Puzzling Form of Cultures Today.” In Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World. Ed. Mike Featherstone and Scott Lash.London: Sage. 1999. 194-213.

[iii] “Profiles on Asian American Art,” Zhang Hongtu Papers, Instep Productions Archive, 2003.

[iv] Alexandra Chang, “Tomokazu Matsuyama: An Organic Cosmopolitanism.” in Tomokazu Matsuyama. Found Modern Library, Gingko Press, 2008.

[v] Wolfgang Welsch, “Transculturality:  The Puzzling Form of Cultures Today.” In Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World. Ed. Mike Featherstone and Scott Lash.London: Sage. 1999. 194-213.

8 Margo Machida, Unsettled Visions: Contemporary Asian American Artists and the Social Imaginary. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008, 197.

[vii] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 94–95.

[viii] Ibid., 246–247.