Archive for the 'Photography' Category


The reader of The Classic of Mountains and Seas plays hopscotch from peak to peak, moving in leaps and bounds roughly according to one of the four cardinal compass directions. On each stop the traveller is given a Rough Guide equivalent of the major points of interest: natural resources, resident deity, flora and fauna. Some of the denizens are rather strange. A familiar creature may be used as reference for point of comparison, but deviations from the expected are dutifully noted: a multiplicity of legs, a single eye, a human face atop a snake’s body.

None are perhaps as strange as the “look-flesh” creature, helpfully described by translator Anne Birrell in the glossary of the Penguin Classic edition, quoting third century commentator Kuo P’u, as “a mass of flesh which looks like the liver of an ox: it has two eyes.” Coming across it again and again in the text, I’ll admit I found it rather hard to visualize hopping about the slopes of its territory. Farther east than the scholars could have imagined (and their imaginations were robust), further even than the country of the Blacktooth people across a vast ocean is a city at the foot of two hills, barely worthy of mention compared to the legendary peaks in the eighteen books. I only bring it up it because it’s here that I think I’ve finally got a glimpse of the “look-flesh,” far from its home.

Liting Liang is only one of the dizzying number of participants in the Chinese Culture Center’s current show Present Tense Biennial. Her ink on paper works immediately brought to mind the descriptions from the book (one of the joys of which is the many interpretations by artists throughout the ages of the creatures within). There is the crouched chimerical woman, lower body sheathed in rows of reptile scales. Another figure stands posed, cleaver in hand, snake wrapped around her neck like an alert scarf (snakes are often described grasped in the hands of deities or clamped between their jaws). Then there’s a curious lump of a thing, kind of like a potato or blowfish with legs, in stockings and heels. Is this the “look-flesh,” dressed to impress for the twenty-first century? It’s probably wishful thinking. Maybe a distant relation? Or is it something never before seen, field notes for an as yet unwritten nineteenth book? At the very least, the impossibilities inherent in her striking work offer a good entrance point for the show as a whole, because it gives me license to call her a favorite among a multitude of favorites in this diverse and absorbing show (a site dedicated to images from the center has proved a broken link in the last few weeks that I’ve tried to visit. But you can get an idea of how amazing her pieces are here:, it’s the first image in the review).

The bulk of the show is less concerned with mythology as a whole as it is with mythologizing, or to be more specific demythologizing. Curator Kevin Chen of Intersection for the Arts, with the aid of Abby Chen and Ellen Oh, have spread the net wide in the selection of contributors: 31 artists, not all of them of Chinese origin or descent. The diversity of the participants has borne fruit in a show with varied approaches and executions. I start with Liting Liang’s work not just because I love her ravenous eater and dismembered legs washed ashore but because the works are so singular. The raison d’être of the show has such a strong psychological pull that it’s easy to forget that Present Tense is not just an exercise in itself. The show offers many reminders that identity is a tricky thing, constantly embattled and contentious, and many of the pieces are meditations on that theme, urging the viewer to revise their assumptions. But the engine that drives that process is the uniqueness of each artist’s vision: they are well worth appreciating each for their own sake.

subjunct1Thomas Chang, for example, explores what’s left of a theme park in Orlando, Florida fallen into disrepair. The miniature monuments captured in C-Prints have a haziness in the details which only serves to draw attention to the haziness behind the enterprise itself. The brain child of the Chinese government, the amusement site was meant to foster interest in tourism with replicas of famous sites in 1/10th scale. A facsimile of Tengwang Pavilion however is now gutted, the front exposed like a doll house and overgrown with weeds. This official “imprimatur” of Chinese culture, made for export and based on sites of historic importance and grandeur, has an interesting counterpart in the export of Americaness in Charlene Tan’s work (more on that in a bit).

Across the room, Imin Yeh’s Good Imports, 2008 presents a laptop completely shrouded in patterned textile. In an online interview, the artist explained that the fabric is typical of that found lining boxes of souvenirs from China. Perhaps it is the usual taboo of “look but don’t touch” but the wrapping evokes a sense of prohibition at the sight of screen and keyboard enveloped, even while the design lends a mystique of value, despite both the material and the hardware being the result of mass production. There is a divide between the reaction to goods which reach our shores somehow imbued with a sense of China as a country of deep history and traditions and cheap consumer products whose cheapness would not be possible were they made State-side.

subjunct2Exploring the source of those imported goods whose provenance is invisible to most consumers, Suzanne Husky recreates a factory floor of tiny workers. As a group they are nearly indistinguishable in their spread armed poses and blue aprons, but the faces are taken from photographs of actual people, giving at least the illusion of individuality. Down on Kearny St., Husky has installed a sister piece in an empty store front that instills the eerie sensation of spying on actual factory workers through the glass doors (see below).

The portraits in Sumi ink by artist Nancy Chan are precisely observed. The sense that Annie is observing you above her clasped hands is palpable. The works were rendered on long sheets of paper calling to mind traditional prints and calligraphy presentation.
I’m watching Fang Lu’s music video Straight Outta HK when I see a familiar face. Alex Yeung is the front man of hardcore band Say Bok Gwai (and a coworker of mine) and the story behind the piece is coaching hip hop artist Kelda in a cover of one of their tunes, the trick being the lyrics are in Cantonese.
Perhaps the most dramatic piece in the show is the cornucopia built of wire and paper, spilling out facsimile cartons of McDonalds packaging. The name of the piece, The Good Life, 2009 reminds us of the associations that accrue to the powerhouse chain’s product, being such a ubiquitous American brand. But a close look at the photocopied boxes reveal the traces of glocalization. These particular boxes have been tailored for the Chinese market, while still retaining the signifiers (like the arched “M” logo) that entice a consumer hungry not just for food but the array of symbolic connotations that go along with it. Charlene Tan’s piece captures many of the absurdities: the ostensibly American meal would be prepared and served by Chinese workers employed by the franchise, and even the most American of offerings on the menu go through a process of vetting to make sure they’re attractive to the palates of the country of that particular outlet. The abundance of empty boxes inside the horn of plenty underscores that our exported idea of “the good life” may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Even the “weave” of the cornucopia is just a photocopied texture.

Fans of painted chopsticks, bundled in groups of a hundred, form Arthur Huang’s demographic study of cities in which he has held residence. My Life as a Chinese American So Far (36 Years and Counting), 2009 breaks down the racial makeup of communities based on census data. Simply looking over the color key (“raw umber” for African Americans, “burnt sienna” for Latino Americans) reveals the quixotic nature of the enterprise. Huang has attempted to match the selected hues with an eye to them reflecting to some degree an approximation of actual skin color. In doing so he underlines the suggestive power of what appears at first glance to be objective statistical data. Even the selection of something as subtle as color coding can have a profound effect on our assumptions whether we are aware of it or not.

Yu Yudong’s One person’s parade series is a good end point for this glimpse of a show that negotiates ideas of shared heritage, tradition and experience even while critical of imposed collective identities. The four protest signs display photographs of the artist, bullhorn pressed to his mouth, sign in hand. In one, he stands in an empty street, midway between a crosswalk, beneath signage indicating that this is the city of Songzhuang, China. In another, he is atop a wall of painted brick, near the building’s corrugated metal roof. The works stand in stark contrast to the work of Hei Han Khiang just a few rooms away that focuses on the Tiananmen Square protests of Spring 1989. Although following the forms of the demonstrator engaged in a group action, Yu Yudong’s “protester” stands alone with an unknown message that goes unheard, at times in locations where his presence is assured to go unnoticed.

The Present Tense show actually continues outside the gallery, with a number of satellite installations located throughout Chinatown on Kearny St., Clay St., Columbus Ave. and Walter U. Lum Place. You can watch video of curator Kevin Chen touring a few of the window displays on this installment of Culture Wire.


Last year the Telegraph ran a piece about a person who can remember every detail of her life as if it was on some kind of continual playback in her mind. Rather than emboldened by her retention of time, she expressed distress at the constant torrent of memory. Intriguingly, the few individuals identified with the same condition just happen to be compulsive collectors.
If we could record every waking moment, would we cherish what would normally fade away or would it eventually prove a burden? Migdala Valdes, a photographer who has vowed to take a picture a day and to continue doing so for the rest of her life, appears fascinated by the possibility of documenting her experience in a fashion that may seem excessive or at least daunting to the rest of us. A showing of her work at Intersection for the Arts titled Every Day in Black and White is a study in contrasts. The photographs are revealing in their choice of subject matter and treatment: snapshots of a life that look more like stills from a movie that is somehow both verité and David Lynch. In addition, somewhere along the line Valdes also decided to hang onto physical bits and pieces from her day which she collected and saved in albums.

The photographs in black and white are arranged on a shelf around the perimeter of the room. An image of a woman, hair wrapped in a towel and turned toward a mirror, somehow seems both classically beautiful and mundane all at once. There is one of globular chandeliers that appear like floating microscopic life right out of SFMOMA’s scientific photography exhibit from last year, Brought to Life. Below the “feature” works are smaller photographs bound in albums which are much more slice of life, giving the feeling of having been taken on impulse. There are shots of redwoods, an empty basketball court, a mural of Gandhi and a park statue of the 3 Muses. Many display a particular moth-like attraction to light: sun leaking through the steel girders of a bridge, a string of Christmas lights, the Ferry Building at night, a pair of neon scissors above a store front, a Ferris Wheel glowing with hot bulbs.

In the center of the room is a raised black platform. There are furnishings arranged on top, along with random objects like a tricycle, a stroller, a ladder and a construction horse, all thickly coated with applications of white paint. It looks like the sparse but eclectic arrangements that adorn a small theater production. You expect at any moment for a procession of actors to appear one by one from the back room and take up their places. But perched on the surfaces, balanced or resting on the lectern, sink and chair are fat photo albums, their contents leaking out the sides like gooey grilled cheese sandwiches. The performance is there, but it’s quietly waiting for you to turn the pages to bring it to life.

The contents are a far more omnivorous assortment than the carefully composed photographs. Folded delicately inside you might find an entire news article, clipped and annotated with the date and source (“Precious Coin Market May Lose Luster;” Wall St. Journal, May 3-4, 2008). But you’re just as likely to find pack ratted scraps that Valdes has preserved for posterity: a bus transfer, a ShopWise circular, the wrapper of a McDonald’s sandwich, an “XL” sticker from a pair of pants (the kind with the letters stacked in a vertical line, repeating like morse code just to make you feel bad). There are also personal items like a handwritten note that her father called. With a little imagination and the spirit of a detective, you can try to trace her steps for the day and reconstruct the sights and stops, but you’re largely on your own: this is a self-guided tour. A snapshot from the interior of a bus or BART seems to reflect the ethos of the experiment: “Information gladly given, but safety requires avoiding unnecessary conversation.”

On the way out I sign the guest book. I see my neighbor Todd has been here so I write in a plug for his show (if you’re pushing someone else’s work it can hardly be called shameless). I leave wondering if the words “hideous sunday” will find their way into the pages of a scrapbook filled with wrappers, news clippings and polaroids someday.

Loud, Quiet, Loud

I’d been trying to get into ATA to see my downstairs neighbor Todd’s photography and music exhibition without much luck for several weekends. On my latest attempt I spied the light of a projector through the window glass of the door and finally got someone to answer the buzzer. They were having a workshop, but my pleading won her over. The lights are off. I’ll have to climb over a log jam of folding chairs pushed to the margins of the room to see some of them and do without the CD recording that accompanies the exhibit, but I was in.

Luckily, Mr. Sanchioni thought of everything: you can download the music tracks from his website to listen to while viewing the photographs, certainly the best way to experience The Changing Face of Laos Through its Music. The show may have come to a close at ATA, but the images and sounds waiting for you on Todd’s site are part of a journey you will want to take.
Todd’s lens has captured the dizzying variety that is Laos: an image of monks huddled around a laptop is suitably iconic. Using music as the common thread to run through the show means the images never lapse into an outsider’s sentimentality. A cell phone ring tone briefly comes to life at around 3:52 into Track 8: Singing Monk, stirring the listener out of any misplaced notions that this is a culture where the traditional and the contemporary lead separate but parallel lives. Indeed judging from other reviews a collective favorite is of a glaring Cells’ band member picking at his axe, engulfed in smoke, mining that primal essence of rock as hard joy wrenched from dark places. If anything it proves the continuity of humanity’s obsessions from sacred meditations to the latter day glam of stage shows.
A shot of Mr. Tu playing piano, his song sheet a big board with the keys depicted pictorially is a personal favorite. Tucked into the corner are burlap sacks and a mop. Like many of the images, of the Laos Original Gangsters caught in an off-stage moment or of Mr. Khamsuan silhouetted in a doorway with his flute, it carries an undertone of quiet, waiting for the music track to prove the lie to such assessments. Frozen as they are, even a teenager playing an acoustic guitar on the back of a scooter seems to be traveling through a zone of silence, his expression one of absorbed concentration.

Girl Power

Forget the Watchmen. A child superhero undaunted by the prospect of taking on a shark? That’s who I want watching my back.
More powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men available for viewing here. The photographer Elena Kalis’ website can be found in these parts, and a tip of the hat to Alice at My Modern Metropolis for calling these out.

Brand Upon The Brain

I kept finding these intimidating looking plaques inset into the sidewalks everywhere and I’ll admit my first reaction was one of indignation.
What, are sidewalks not even considered public space anymore? Am I allowed to tread on them only by the grace of the nearby property owner? I, like so many others, directed the sheer force of my anger into the Google search engine and discovered that a lot of people were asking the same general question. After a bit of digging, I discovered that the answer is a lot less sinister than I had inferred. Pursuant to a State of California Civil Code (other states and cities have similar codes), property owners are required to post such notices to prevent someone claiming ownership of their land through continued use (known as an easement). In this case, the building nearby has a sizable plaza area, and someone could claim, simply because they’ve crossed the space regularly for a number of years the legal right to that space’s use. Case closed then.

Not so fast.

It turns out that the ambiguity of the wording of the plaques, mixed in with a little Post-9/11 hysteria, have had a chilling effect on the use of public space. Here in San Francisco, citizens are savvy enough to not leave well enough alone, but the message is clear: just as property owners could be in danger of losing slices of their real estate, we are well advised to exercise our right to public space or risk watching it evaporate due to our irresolution.

For example, here’s the view from 2nd and Harrison:
Not far away but in a less trafficked area you can find this:
I know which I’d rather look at, but the fact remains that the latter work, by a street artist named Eddie, is where it is because the act of posting it is illegal.
There’s an irony in the fact that the former is so prominently displayed considering it’s a direct riff off Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” campaign posters. Fairey certainly has had no end of trouble both because of his guerilla tagging efforts and because of the appropriation of images (the Pepsi campaign is also a nod to Pop Art in general, which makes the whole business even more absurd).
I found it interesting to discover recently that the genesis of Fairey’s methods sprang in part from the John Carpenter flick They Live. It’s a personal favorite and comes from an era when even the most frivolous of entertainment came with a subversive undercurrent warning of everything from creeping facism and corporate greed to the military-industrial complex (Blue Thunder, Short Circuit, Alien, Robocop, Real Genius, et al.)
It’s small wonder that he would find inspiration in propaganda art and yet seek to invade commercial space with his early work. In They Live, the two are presented as nearly indistinguishable. What Fairey’s art evolved into is brilliant in its simplicity: a stylized image of wrestler Andre the Giant’s face paired with the bold capitalized injunction “Obey.” Since it offered a critique of the encroachment of advertisement into every available square foot of visible space, it was necessary that it occupy the same landscape. The nonsensical “message” was essential. Just as the images and copy on advertising were ciphers, Fairey’s work was an attempt to cause a short circuit in our brains, to stop and consider the disjunction between what we saw and the subliminal cues we were receiving. It was art that did not want to be understood.

While Fairey never abandoned the appropriation of images as a starting point, his work has reached a baroque phase of sublime beauty.
Before you jump to conclusions like I did that the above work is another authorities-defying proof of performance, I hasten to point out that it is, for all intents and purposes, an advertisement.
The wheat pasted artwork you can see above Le Central from the Chinatown Gate is affixed to the side of the Hotel des Arts, which features a Shepard Fairey room. Fairey has reached a point where he is well known enough that he can receive commissions for his work. But what about the next Shepard Fairey? What will she do?

The fact of the matter is that advertisements have every right to be where they are. They after all pay for the use of space. But their proliferation transformed our environment. Previously, when one talked of public space they probably had a square or city park in mind. To be honest, having a share in the available visible space probably never occurred to anyone.

But people want to participate in their culture, it’s inevitable. Since popular culture and mass culture have fused, much of our mental landscape is dominated by images and themes that we have no ownership over. Browse through the lists compiled by Slash Film of “Cool Stuff” and you will find an inexhaustible outpouring of creativity by individuals, nearly all of it inspired by a licensed property. No one seems overly upset about their “appropriation” of images, however interpreted or stylized.

Nor would anyone likely show the rancor they do toward Fairey’s tagging if they saw someone put up a flyer for their missing dog or a garage sale on the same real estate. If the only place that art endures is in neglected backstreets, people are liable to draw conclusions based on their surroundings. I will unashamedly admit that I wholeheartedly love stuff like that done by Invisible Venue and Princess Hijab, but efforts like the Peace Billboards Project demonstrate that we as a community care enough to put our money where our mouths are. Individual artists can’t be expected to starve for our sakes until their reserves run out. I loved Jenifer K Wofford’s FLOR 1973-78 series that the Arts Commission put on Market St. kiosks. But they really deserve a billboard or better yet, the side of a building downtown (the businesses there know they’re part of a community, right?).

If there is a reason that advertising can appropriate images and occupy space without question it is its ubiquity. We’ve simply grown accustomed to the idea. We may not have known we needed it before, but artists like Shepard Fairey have shown the importance of dialogue within a culture that is more and more dominated by the visual. Advertising is imminently capable of rendering nearly anything a brand. Art is one way to assert our identities in lieu of becoming ourselves easements for someone else’s ideas.


I figured I better take advantage of the break in the rain, so last night I caught the T and headed over to Dogpatch. The sky looked pretty amazing with the billows of dark storm clouds blotting out everything except for a streak or two of the orange sunset. Over by Mission Rock you might confuse it for a completely different city with the concrete barricades and empty-looking high-rises.

I don’t have many reasons to hit that section of town, but I really wanted to see this exhibit before the show closed. Ping Pong Gallery has some funky hours, so you’ve basically only got two chances left to catch Brian Wasson’s show Last Wash. The good news is that artist will be on-site for a talk this Thursday at 7:30pm, so if you’ve been waiting out the weather like I have, now’s your chance come rain or shine.

This is my fav from the show, Honey, perhaps Wasson’s tribute (or lament) to our insatiable appetite for the sweet stuff in all its forms.
After all, the website notes that the artist, like many, has reached the point where he’s just about had enough of irony (although I suspect that people might be more fed up with sarcasm, which is too often peddled as the same thing). “The irony has warped from absurdity into meaninglessness, the pleasure, only solace…” The absurdity of Honey is undercut nicely by the dignified expression on the artist’s face.

Your fun fact for the day is that the ancient Egyptians used to shape glops of perfume into cones and placed them atop their heads. Over time, the melting drizzles would run down their heads cooling their bodies and coating them with the fragrance. I feel a sense of relief that I’ve finally found a reason to release that little bit of historical trivia from my brain.

Paper Trail

I thought (wrongly it turns out) that it would be the contemporary works at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art’s exhibit The Shape of Things: Paper Traditions and Transformations that would prove the most interesting works on display. After all, look at this one, front and center on most of the promotional materials for the show:
That’s Dots Front Misfire by Gina Osterloh, from her Shooting Blanks series. There’s the rippling cascade of the colored paper, the kneeling figure. Has it been brought low by the unrelenting torrent of color, cocooned? Faceless, we can’t rely on any expression for cues. There is a contrast here between the illusion of movement in the wallpaper of streamers and the immobile posture of the figure, its helpless state and the brightness of the palette. If it is a cocoon, then perhaps it’s merely been captured in a transitory state, a frozen moment of the process of becoming (check out the stills from her Blank Athleticism series for further mysteries, wrapped in enigmas and covered in confetti).

Contemporary paper art is indeed an important component of the show. It demonstrates that many of the techniques featured in The Shape of Things are enduring ones. There was such a rich variety of traditions on display that I was unfamiliar with though that I found myself gravitating towards works that filled in the gaping hole in my knowledge of Asian paper craft. Whereas in the West the introduction of paper led to its almost exclusive use for documentation, in the East there was a dizzying array of uses: everything from religious paraphernalia, fireworks, utensils, furnishings, and even clothing.

3 Korean paper boxes in a display case for example are representatives of hanji. Paper made from the bark of the mulberry tree, hanji can be woven like reeds into containers or floor mats or layered and glued together: strong enough material to construct a wardrobe or cabinet. A varnish called sichil made from persimmons, rice glue and oil adds that slight glisten to the surface of the containers. There is also a felting process, joomchi, that can produce clothing (all this from the excellent accompanying signage).

Like spiderwebs gingerly untethered and framed, a series of papercuts from the collection of Jo Lonam are evidence of what must be a painstakingly exacting art, that of jian zhi, a chinese craft whose earliest known examples were extracted from tombs of the Southern and Northern Dynasties period. paper2The liveliness derived from the multitude of curves in a piece in red paper of a bird singing perched upon a flowering branch made it one of my favorites. Any Buddhist would appreciate, I think, that both the excised paper and the incised are displayed: it makes no difference. Our eyes fill in the absence or make solid the vacancy: they are one and the same. The piece is dated 1988, demonstrating the longevity of the art, which as you follow the mounted works around the wall, multiply in complexity to mind-boggling degrees. One of two women has so many delicate cuts to the screen on its background that its a testament to the skill of the artist that it doesn’t simply go to pieces at a touch. The lines that define the eyebrows, eyes, nose and lips of the women, as well as those that delineate the patterns on their robes, are no more than the width of a thick piece of thread.

Also here is the inevitable origami, in a mounted collection of insects by Robert J. Lang that would make any entomologist look twice. Flying walking sticks and katydids, silverfish and beetles with antennae that spread out to form a wide “V.”
The works of Jennifer Falck Linssen accompany an explication of katagami, stenciled patterns applied to fabric to dye decorative designs. By the time I reach Gene Apellido’s festive lanterns, modern twists on the traditional Phillipine parol, I realize that the exhibit has pulled me back into the present. The show does a convincing job of proving that the past is inextricably entwined with the work of artists in the here and now. The contemporary art definitely deserves a fresh look, so I’m going to have to make a return trip. Feeling a little like De Niro’s character in the movie Brazil, mummified in paper, I call it a day.

On the Masthead

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