David Diao and the Problem with Asian American Artists
In my trip to Beijing Art District 798, I stopped by the Ullen Center for Contemporary Art, where David Diao’s works were on display. His works on large canvases recalled pop art in its use of bold colors and appropriation of everyday items. They also belonged to the broader post-modern movement of utilizing a wide range of materials, from data visualization techniques to collages and text.
Diao came to America at a very young age and was heavily influenced by the artist milieu in New York, especially Barnett Newman (several works in the exhibit meticulously record, categorize, and/or replicate the 140 works that Newman produced). Diao’s works overall show a depth of knowledge in art history, to the point of obsessively tracking every artistic nomenclature and lineage of famous artists. Western art history is his de facto visual language.
Many of his works carry a playful, tongue-in-cheek tone. In a series titled Resume, he artificially adds his name into collections and retrospectives at prestigious art institutions like the MoMa and Centre Pompidou. In others, Bruce Lee replaces Diao in the credits. Diao knowingly positions himself as a perpetual outsider and token Chinese artist to museums and galleries, even though he was very much in with the crowd of artists that were celebrated by the same art institutions.
If Diao is communicating a simultaneous fascination and struggle with America and its institutions, he isn’t alone. Many Asian Americans have experienced being categorized and/or stereotyped, struggling between being in with the crowd and outside the crowd while assimilating to Western culture. In the end, it is neither a triumph nor failure for them to assimilate perfectly or retain all of their so-called roots. It is a double-bind that women also face (the shrew vs. obedient wife), and in this case, we are always either too ‘Asian’ or not ‘authentic’ enough.
A French curator once told Diao, “You’re not a very Chinese artist” when in fact Diao never thought of himself as a Chinese artist in the first place. To the curator, “Chinese-American” wasn’t a full identity, only an in-between, incomplete stop between two distinctive cultures. Diao’s works visually reflect this in its use of black and white color schemes and of mashup between American visual style/medium with Chinese content.
Admittedly, I have to think pretty hard to come up with famous Asian American artists that I’ve studied during my undergraduate years. On Kuwara, Ai Weiwei, Yayoi Kusama are all well-known Asian, but not Asian-American, artists. Maybe Nam June Paik, though he didn’t move to the U.S. until his mid thirties. This lack of representation is not just in art but also in film, TV, music, and mass media.
As the norm in Western art history, minorities are often ‘essentialized’ with a modifier prior to ‘artist’ like women artist or black artist. Whereas, white male artists are often not judged by any other standard than an aesthetic one. His work is the norm, as he comes from a lineage of other white male artists. He makes a comment on the universality of the world and paints big picture ideas on even bigger canvases — this is one of the defining characteristics of Abstract Expressionism.
When the post-modernists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol poked fun at Abstract Expressionism’s ultra serious, so-called ‘masculine’ art, they challenged the male aspect but not the whiteness. Adrian Piper, Kara Walker, and others later challenged it by openly rejecting the white aesthetic, but again there were no Asians in the mix.
When I try to link artists to works similar to Diao’s, Korean photographer Nikki S. Lee comes to mind. She role plays different cultural stereotypes, blending in almost perfectly as the corporate yuppie, trailer park blonde, or ghetto Asian. I also think of Yasumasa Morimura, who inserts himself in the Western art historical timeline much like Diao. In all of these works, the real identity of the artist is hidden behind Western icons, and the fact that this is the common ground is a bit unsettling.
The problem is not just about pro and anti-white stance in Asian-American art but our muddled identity in general. Some Asians make up the model minority of higher income, well-educated crowd, but others, especially those from Cambodia, Philippines, and Southeast Asia struggle to maintain a living. While our socioeconomic class and cultural background vary enormously, Asian-Americans are often thrown into just few categories in mainstream media. The pockets of different Asian cultures put us lacking in a single coherent identity, but to some, we are seen as interchangeable. With many of us coming from a culture that values conformity, we find ourselves conflicted between the choice to comply vs. choice to rebel.
There are two possible explanations for this in-between art, where we struggle to retain our color as we blend. Asian-American artists are deeply interested in the idea of fitting in and seeking approval from Western cultures, not unlike how the idea of model citizen is imposed upon Asian Americans. This is a rather muted, disappointing explanation, making the artists more or less succumb to the existing status quo.
Alternatively, like Cindy Sherman who chose to show the stereotypes rather than fight against them, they are subversively revealing the tropes established about Asians in Western media, which in turn raises the viewer’s awareness of his/her own biases. Sometimes the strongest catalyst for change is self-reflection.
But it doesn’t have to end here. We are still asking the old question of whether art is a mere imprint of our time in history or if it has dialectical influence to instill new change. I personally believe in the latter, and so I’d like to see Asian-American artists challenge themselves further, exploring new mediums and visual styles, especially in performance, film, and digital media. As Ai Weiwei once said, “Everything is art. Everything is politics.” What we need is to celebrate diversity within Asian art; works that speak to traditions as well as current issues, works that subtly reveal our problems as well as actively encourage participation, and works that are about our identity as well as works that are about our co-existence.