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Transpulsation: New Asian Imaginings

Doris Sung and June Rhee | Exhibition pamphlet | June 2009

Cultural traversing and globalization are (re)shaping our understanding of the 'connected world.' These processes have significant importance to the members of the Asian Diaspora in Canada, whose interactions with their cultural origins transform their social, economic, political, and cultural experience. Asian Canadians, one of Canada's largest groups of immigrants, illustrate the possibilities of building meaningful links between their native places and newly-adopted homes. They reveal a good deal about the enriching of life experiences through traversing between 'here' and 'there.'

From the 1970s to the early 1990s, the desire to belong, identity politics and cultural memory were among the common themes in the works of Asian Canadian artists. Since then, 'transnationality' has become an important trend. As opportunities for travel to and from Asia have increased, the geographical distance - both physical and emotional - between one's place of cultural origin and Canada is shorter than ever before.

The exploration of 'identity' remains crucial in the works of the four artists in this exhibition, Shelly Bahl, Will Kwan, Meera Sethi and Amy Wong. However, the artists reconstruct the paradigm of identity politics through the experience of transnationality. They explore a broadened scope of cultural interactions that attempts to create and enhance the socio-cultural and historical connections between Asia and Canada.

Shelly Bahl's A Day in the Life consists of a series of staged photographs of a group of women of South Asian descent taken at the now closed Terminal 2 of the Pearson International Airport in Toronto. In the photos, the women (a cleaner, a security officer, a flight attendant, a businesswoman, and a holiday traveler with a baby) engage in various social activities, innocently transcending the stereotypes and expectations of the identities delineated by their clothing, a conventional marker or sign of their ethnicity and class. For instance, in one of the images, the businesswoman is cleaning the lavatory sink; while in another, she is conversing with the other women, appearing to be teaching them a trick or two about immigration and customs rules. Through her make-believe documentation of a day in the life of immigrant women and travelers, Bahl contemplates the hierarchically organized South Asian Diasporic community and the stories of personal transformation played out in a transitory space. The airport itself becomes a signifier that embodies the manifestation of reality, desire, hope and distopia.

Paprika/ Cinnamon/ Curry/ Nutmeg… Are Heating Up More Than the Kitchen is a set of line drawings on paper disks painted with Bahl's personal rendition of the four colours of the spices named in the title. Using details taken from images of fashion magazines, Bahl's drawings reflect on the meanings of Indian-ness as a recent trend in the fashion world. 'Exotic' women are at the centre of this fascination. In contrast to the surreal and yet believable photographs in A Day in the Life, the only partly recognizable images in Paprika broach the question of how ethnic adaptations of consumer culture alter and disguise the actual lived experience of immigrant women. The work also express the desire to break through restrictive frameworks created by stereotypes.

As someone who was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Canada, Will Kwan is familiar with the Chinese practice of giving hongbao. These are the red envelopes of money presented to young and adult children during Chinese New Year by their parents or other older married couples. This 'lucky money' is supposed to bring the children health and good fortune. Kwan became curious about how this tradition continues in the Chinese diaspora and started collecting the empty hongbao issued by local banks in Canada, the United States, Asia, Europe and Australia. These envelopes are given away to the banks' Chinese customers as a token of appreciation. It is also an advertisement strategy for the banks when the hongbao are filled and handed out during Chinese New Year.

Endless Prosperity, Eternal Accumulation is a set of more than 30 photographs of larger-than-actual sized images of some of the hongbao Kwan collected over the years. These photographs are an archive of visual records, recounting a history of the growth and transformation of the global Chinese Diaspora. Printed on the hongbao are auspicious phrases commonly used to greet people during the festival, patterns of animals, flowers and lucky symbols, as well as names and logos of the issuing banks. In recent years, in order to cater to their growing Chinese customer base, many banks also issue special hongbao to recognize the prestigious status of their 'personal' or 'corporate' banking customers. In these photographs, the original function of the hongbao diminishes. Instead, the rising force of global capital flow and development becomes the focal point, changing the nature of the cultural practice.

Kwan further investigates the power of the financial institutions and their global impacts in Displacement (with Chinese Characteristics). In this work, Kwan photographed an earthwork he created using rubble from a nearby construction site in Shanghai. The work is a reconstruction of the logo of the Bank of China, a design derived from an ancient Chinese coin. At first glance, the aerial view looks like any construction site found in Chinese cities nowadays. Upon closer scrutiny, however, the bank logo is but a dimple on the face of the huge development projects in the area. In the deconstruction and reconstruction of global developments, the symbol of the humble ancient coin in the Bank of China logo is transformed. It is no longer as innocent as the single coin that was once wrapped in red paper and given to children during Chinese New Year.

While Bahl and Kwan largely deal with the far-reaching effects of a global economic system that reorganizes the socio-cultural behaviour and practices of Asian Diaspora, Meera Sethi and Amy Wong tell us stories of their family, their childhood memories and the places they live in. Meera Sethi's three drawings are part of the series Mix: Master. In this series, Sethi's cultural identities, Indian and Canadian, are whimsically woven together through a myriad of images from Indian and North American popular culture. Clothing, jewelry, records, songs, boom boxes, bricks, water, fire, ornamentation, and words are some of the many cultural references that Sethi seamlessly interweaves into a rhythmic space. Each element represents an important part of the artist's life. The weaving process is her attempt to understand her surroundings and her place within them.

Music is a dominant feature in Sethi's drawings. In Beautiful Struggle, record labels such as "Tuff Gong" (formed by the reggae group, The Wailers, in 1970 and named after Bob Marley's moniker) and the rapper Talib Kweli's 'Beautiful Struggle' are clearly visible. They appear alongside many figures and patterns including a pair of imaginary birds, her grandmother's portrait photo and a camera. The drawing as a whole represents her 'hybrid self', one that is fully conscious of both her Indian cultural heritage and the dynamic sphere of North American pop culture. This fusion of the various facets of Sethi's intercultural life is her response to the vibrant and yet contentious space where meaning is constantly being produced and re-produced. The densely built pictorial narratives reflect the intensity of her 'struggle' to find new meanings in her identity.

Sethi loudly speaks of her desire for belonging and connection. In Come As You Are she proclaims, "Hello India, its me, Meera." India is not just the place where her family members once lived. It is also a country to which she is meaningfully connected through religion and personal memories. In Come As You Are, the bearded man is the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak. Sethi is inspired by Nanak's teachings of love and humility, which have guided her to attain self-love and self-respect. Sethi's intimacy with her native place is also nurtured by her parents' memory of India. Throughout her works, Sethi reconstructs images of dwellings in both Canada and India from her imagination and her father's memories, delineating a selfhood with multiple perspectives.

This multifaceted and intercultural existence is also explored in Amy Wong's works. As a Chinese Canadian who grew up experiencing two cultures simultaneously, Wong also traveled widely, discovering meanings of culture and identity in "shades of grey" rather than in clear-cut oppositions. Wong is interested in approaching this 'shady' space where she seeks a way to make sense of the multi-layered complexity of shared cultural codes and sentiments. With an open mind, she satirically twists clichéd understandings of life, cultural barriers, tourism and identity politics.

Wong subverts norms through her satirical play of words and images. In What?, Wong's 'child self' talks to her 'adult self'. Simultaneously juxtaposing her own past, present and future, Wong challenges perceived knowledge of 'things in life' attained at different stages of selfhood. While What? questions generational difference, Talk Bananas deconstructs cultural norms. Wong plays with the English slang that is often used to measure 'whiteness' or 'yellowness'. In the painting, a broken egg is placed at the centre surrounded by half-peeled bananas. Unexpectedly, what's underneath the yellow banana skin is still yellow. The politics of 'inside' and 'outside' is played out in brutally honest language. Yet, Wong does not politicize the notion of cultural affinity. Rather, she approaches the subject openly and directly, dealing with the contentious issues with humour. The moment of laughter refreshes by exposing the superficiality of boundaries.

Wong expands her episodic critique on material life in The Cumulation of Life is the Essence, So is Sublimination. In this painting, a conventional life is bombarded with corporate logos and commercial brands. The irony surfaces in the form of a woman who appears to be asleep under the 'blanket of consumer culture'. Her mind is elsewhere, and yet inseparable from the material reality, leading us to wonder, "how does one find one's 'true self'?" Wong continuously poses such questions to herself and the observer in an attempt to read identities that are stuck between the 'this and that' and the 'here and there.'

The imagination of the four artists moves tirelessly across the dynamic spaces of cultural interaction. They are travelers, exploring the world, encountering their own stories and life experiences and those of many others, transforming, sensing and connecting the 'pulses' of multiple locales, identities and individuals.

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