From Immigrant to Transnational: Nostalgia for an Imagined Homeland

by Kyunghee Pyun

Have you heard of Chiura Obata, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Yun Gee, Pan Yuliang, Zao Wouki, Ruth Asawa, or Theresa Hakkyung Cha? A few of them may sound familiar but most are perhaps unknown. Some of these artists were featured in The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989, which was held at the Guggenheim Museum in 2009. In the catalogue for the exhibition, one can find the critical impact of Asian art and philosophy on American artists from 1860 to 1989. Many artists in the 2009 exhibition were precursors of the ten artists featured in the current exhibition entitled the Time Zone Converter. These ten artists, five Chinese-born and five Korean-born, who all spent several decades in the United States, were selected for the China-Korea Exchange Exhibition organized by the Korean Cultural Center in Beijing.

These transplanted Asian artists lived and worked in their own imagined territory of home. Strangely, however, most of these artists were scattered in Florida, Utah, Denver, Washington, and Ohio—away from the cosmopolitan centers in California and New York areas more crowded with immigrants, including aspiring artists. Their disembodiment of cosmopolitanism, nationalism, American regionalism, and American isolationism intensified their grip on ethnic, cultural, and historical identities.

Most artists in the Time Zone Converter spent their youth or college years in their home countries of China and Korea. Some continued their studies in the US. Having various degrees of assimilation and acculturation, they all comment on their “migratory” status in this exhibition. They are not sure where they will end up in the next few decades. When they complete their careers fifty years from now, will they be remembered as American artists? Or Chinese artists? Or will these ten artists be embraced as national heroes, as was the case in which the Korean government “rediscovered” Nam June Paik and commemorated him proudly as the father of video art in the 1980s?

Artists in this exhibition posit similar questions with a twist. In the Scroll series, for example, Xi Zhang challenges the concepts of boundary and authorship. If a Caucasian child were born and raised in China, and never learned any other culture or language other than Chinese, would one identify him/her as an Asian or as a foreigner from the West? Xi Zhang’s hanging scroll on a gold background has Jackson Pollock-style abstract brush strokes. The hybrid combination of paper hanging scroll with acrylic paint in expressionistic color fields blurs a division between the ownership of cultural heritage and the appropriation of European modernism. If one does not see an artist’s name, is this scroll painting a work by the Caucasian child born and raised in China? Or is it by a Chinese artist educated abroad in the tradition of Eurocentric High Modernism?

Zhang Yuanfeng’s works present another form of hybridity. Zhang’s choice of medium, ink on silk painting, is a reference to Chinese heritage. However, a casual glance at the painting’s geometric lines, which resemble perhaps a spider’s web or a rendering of mathematical theories, reveals nothing Chinese. Both Zhang Yuanfeng and Xi Zhang, born in 1980s China, question the cultural authenticity and the hegemonic authorship of the conventional binary system of the Chinese and the non-Chinese.

One way of escaping these binary positions is to claim universality that could apply to all humankind and even to non-human realms. Joomi Chung, an immigrant Korean artist living in Ohio, tackles this with a three-dimensional structure called the Chromazome. The shape in her pictorial space is an abstract structure of the idea of gradually unfolding image-space, a visual field and physical site made of observed, remembered, and imagined realities. In her mind, this form grows out of two modes of representations: a map-landscape. Xi Zhang’s geometric intricacy of lines has a structural counterpart in Joomi Chung’s Chromazome. Chromazome is a metaphorical DNA component (a chromosome), a hybrid structure composed of pure colors (chroma) and roots (rhizome). What is ingrained on a DNA strand, such as racial or biological components, is adjusted and camouflaged in this environment. We see a landscape but do not necessarily recognize it on the map.

In the long tradition of landscape painting, Chinn Wang presents landscape-like photographic images of unknown yet vernacular spaces. In these works, juxtaposition of interrupted spaces is intentional. One also wonders whether these are purely landscape images. At a close glance, one can even detect presence of a person. These prints are, in fact, part of a series of photographs taken of the artist’s mother during her first years living in the United States after arriving from Hong Kong. Wang intended to show three areas where his mother had impact on as an immigrant woman with a career in science. Absence of her in the landscape emphasizes meager impact of her social status on the world she inhabited. Any immigrant woman in the United States can also relate herself to the social landscape of anonymity, discrimination, isolation, and prejudice.

The role as the mother was the locus of empowerment in the narrative of displacement. Sammy Lee’s Mammorial is an artist’s book about the physical and psychological shifts women experience through birthing and nursing. Mammorial comes with a CD recording of breast pump sound mixes and stories of concerned mothers that Lee pulled from the online breastfeeding support forum La Leche League International. In this arena of the motherhood, women of all nations and races get united and emanate solidarity. Likewise, Ian Kim pushes for a universal experience in his graphic images of figures. His Android (2017) depicts a robot-style standing figure of ambiguous biological characters as if it were a new species of the global diaspora. He argues the digital technology distorts normalcy in the perception of senses and scales. Motherhood and resuscitation of human senses, in spite of displacement and migration, connects people of various origins.

Even so, the memories of displacement and migration are, of course, painful. Julia Kim Smith, who grew up in Indiana, has clear memories of encountering racist harassment and verbal insults. It was very painful for her to witness her immigrant parents also be subjected to harassment. Her hanging scroll includes calligraphic slurs of “Ching Chong” and “Chinx.” As is seen in Xi Zhang and Zhang Yuanfeng’s scroll paintings, Smith presents a dignified format of ancient calligraphic art adorned with contrasting elements, in this case, American profanity and popular culture.

A historical origin of these racial affronts is traced in Zhi Lin’s installation, Chinaman’s Chance. He rediscovered the names of Chinese workers presented at The Golden Spike Ceremony, an 1869 celebration of the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad, held in Promontory Point, Utah. Andrew J. Russell captured the event in his iconic photograph known as the “champagne photo.” In this photograph, none of the Chinese workers, who built the most difficult portion of the Transcontinental Railroad, were included. For his installation, Lin wrote the names of these Chinese workers in red, as if they were carved on the rock in the manner of ancient Chinese inscriptions. In this vein, Kirk Ke Wang’s video work entitled Bloody Dumplings also refers to cultural clashes and misunderstandings. Broken pieces of dumplings are visual representations of the vulnerability of Asian Americans’ identities and social statuses. Having spent three decades in the United States, Wang has been a sensitive witness to racial injustice towards Asians and other minority citizens. He solicits for sublime pursuit of formalism in harmony with social justice concerns and other humanitarian affairs. He calls this type of socially-responsible abstract art “Social Abstract”—an antithesis to social realism of communist countries in the 1980s.

A current status of migratory experience and fluid identity is well summarized in Joo Woo’s Gyopo Portraits. The white paper with embossed images of people in action is a deliberately-chosen medium. Woo uses embossing to emphasize the potential of ambivalent or adaptable identities among people affected by memories of voluntary or involuntary displacement. Woo collected these images of immigrants from Korean-language ethnic newspapers. Like fossils of their native country, these images of taekwondo players display a range of stereotypes embraced by the immigrant citizens regarding their cultural heritage, nostalgia for the homeland, national pride, and socio-economic standing in their adopted country.

Imagined homeland is a familiar theme for most contemporary artists after WWII. Abrupt displacement from the homeland and subsequent nostalgia for homeland is a universal experience in Asian countries. For Korean people, the division between the South and North Korea in 1945 was a distinct rupture. In 1949, Taiwan separated from the Chinese mainland.

By contrast, most artists in Time Zone Converter, were born decades after these events, in the 1970s and 1980s. Their migration stories to North America are not uniform. Some came to the United States with immigrating parents while other deliberately chose the US as a place of professional training. Most of them are bilingual, feeling comfortable in both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Nonetheless, their arrival in the US flows along a different timeline than their lives in China or Korea did. While they believe they are familiar with the cultural heritage and ethnic authenticity of their homelands, they are no longer part of the temporal existence of Korea or China. Time in these still-rapidly-developing countries flows much faster and more bluntly than it does in Utah or Ohio.

It is interesting that some artists are still bound by “stereotypical” images of Korea or China, such as Woo’s Korean immigrant practitioners of martial arts or Yuanfeng’s installation of hanging scrolls. Xi Zhang and Julia Kim Smith also convey inferential semiotics of the creators being Asian. However, their livelihoods and careers in the United States facilitated them to contemplate harder on their placement in their new homes. These works were made for the audience in their adopted country to solicit a better understanding of themselves. A binary condition of “American meaning non-Asian” is no longer valid. If colonial mimicry comes from the appropriation of the Other, postmodern mimicry of immigrant artists appears when displaced souls realize a cacophony of conflicting values and cultural hegemonies. Their outcries should serve as threats to “normalized” knowledges and disciplinary authorities in their homeland, innate and acquired. In another three decades, one will see mimicry of their disciples as they perceive these artists as the authoritative discourse of migratory visuality.


Kyunghee Pyun is an Assistant Professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York. Her scholarship focuses on history of collecting, reception of Asian art, diaspora of Asian artists, and Asian American visual culture. She was a Leon Levy fellow in the Center for the History of Collecting at the Frick Collection and works on a book project entitled Discerning Languages for Exotic: Collecting Asian Art. Her forthcoming book, Fashion, Identity, Power in Modern Asia focuses on modernized dress in the early 20th-century Asia and will be published by the Palgrave Macmillan in 2018.

As an independent curator, she has collaborated with Asian American artists in New York since 2013. Her trilogy featuring Korean American artists are Coloring Time: An Exhibition from the Archive of Korean-American Artists, Part One 1950–1990 (2013): Shades of Time: An Exhibition from the Archive of Korean-American Artists, Part Two 1989–2001 (2014); and Weaving Time: An Exhibition from the Archive of Korean Artists in America, Part Three: 2001–2013 (2015), held at the Korean Cultural Center New York and Queens Museum. Her upcoming curatorial project is the Violated Bodies: New Languages for Justice and Humanity to be held at The Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York in the spring 2018.






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