In a grainy video, a hand wraps around a crisp white-green leaf of a napa cabbage head, moving as if to peel and discard the outermost layers of the vegetable. Instead, however, the viewer witnesses an eerie creation story, with each move bringing in new leaves until the napa cabbage is fully materialized. “White Vegetable i” (2021), a video work by stephanie mei huang, is an examination of the transformative powers of grief, a proposition that by paying attention to one’s fixation on melancholy, one might be able to bring together what is lost altogether.
Exhibited at the Eli Klein Gallery until June 5, the work is part of with his voice, penetrate the soil of the earth, a collective exhibition organized in honor of Christina Yuna Lee. On February 13, Lee was followed to her Chinatown apartment and murdered. Although his murder has yet to be ruled a hate crime by authorities, his death follows a sharp rise in anti-Asian violence that has escalated since the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus.
After Lee’s passing, Eli Klein contacted Huang to organize an exhibition in memory of Lee, who worked at the gallery between 2010 and 2014.”[Christina’s death] was nearly impossible to process,” Klein told me. “I felt an obligation and a desire to honor Christina’s life and remember her for who she was beyond this incident. She was so amazing and talented, I hate that her name is almost synonymous of this act [of violence].”
In the wake of Lee’s death, the act of mourning itself has become barbed with instances of violence. The memorial outside her apartment has been repeatedly vandalized and Asian women have reported being harassed when visiting the site. For huang, one of the main motivations for organizing the exhibition was the desire to establish a safe space for mourning. “It was important to me that we didn’t cry in isolation,” they said in a recent phone conversation. During this conversation, huang points out that among the Asian diaspora, it is common to experience mourning in private, an experience of isolation caused by the geographic separation of individuals from their country of origin and rites and rituals. community. “I wanted to depathologize mourning and normalize prolonged mourning. In prolonged mourning, I think there is also an extended celebration of someone’s life, a way of prolonging the memory.
with his voice, penetrate the soil of the earth brings together the works of nine Asian American women artists – stephanie mei huang, Kelly Akashi, Patty Chang, Maia Ruth Lee, Candice Lin, Astria Suparak, Hồng-Ân Trương, Haena Yoo and Christina Yuna Lee herself – in order to commemorate and highlight highlights Lee’s life and work in the art world.
Despite Klein’s original intentions to unravel Lee’s legacy from the conditions of his death, the exhibition, which takes its name from Theresa Hak Kyung’s volume of poetry Cha dictation (1982), begins by mapping the course of gendered and racialized violence in the Asian woman’s experience. A 2017 photo series by Hồng-Ân Trương is inspired by stills from archival video footage shot by American and Australian soldiers in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s. racialized, each photograph suspends a moment in which the soldier wielding the camera has zoomed in on a woman wearing an aó dài, a traditional Vietnamese garment. By documenting these acts of voyeurism, Trương digs into the dynamics of the power of seeing and being seen, demonstrating how the pervasive surveillance of Asian corporeality can distort simple everyday actions like crossing the street or walking home. Haena Yoo’s “I Went Looking for America” (2021) attempts to ground a long history of racial violence against Asians in the United States in the present by commemorating the victims of the Atlanta spa shooting in 2021. The artwork includes two origami guns made from rice paper with newspaper headlines printed on the set. By coloring the brown rice paper with soy sauce, Yoo seeks to evoke the staining tears of the Orient, a representation of the reaction of East Asian communities around the world in response to the onslaught. anti-Asian violence in recent years.
The anchor of the exhibit is an altar where the majority of performing artists have contributed personal items in honor of Christina’s life and legacy. Offerings like a pinecone collected by Trương’s seven-year-old daughter, a jade bracelet that is the last of Patty Chang’s grandmother’s jewelry, and a gold leaf-embossed joss paper huang inspired by his grandfather’s favorite brand of cigarettes remind us that grieving is an ongoing process. and intergenerational inheritance.
In the center of the altar is Christina’s own painting, given as a gift to Klein at the end of her tenure as the gallery’s assistant director. Rendered in acrylic and gold leaf, the painting depicts a box of Golden Bridge cigarettes, an inside joke that originated when Lee found boxes of cigarettes, Klein’s favorite brand, hidden between books of books. ‘art.
In truth, grief is a messy and often contradictory take in the dark. Christina Yuna Lee was a 35-year-old Korean-American creative producer whose warmth, curiosity, and sense of humor made her irreplaceable to those closest to her and those privileged to meet her in life and work. Her killer, a young, homeless, mentally ill black man, complicates the racially based narrative that arose around her death by postulating that her murder may not have been just an act of racial violence, but a systemic failure of the state. In this context, with his name, penetrates the soil of the earth is at its deepest in works that are not diaspora-focused, such as that of Maia Ruth Lee language of mourning (2021) series. In these works, the artist deconstructs vintage sewing patterns, dipping skirt panels and trouser legs in Indian ink and rearranging them in striking patterns that recall the text as an offer for a new interpretation. Here, Lee augments the grief by recognizing that what is incomprehensible sometimes requires new vocabularies and relationships of understanding.
with his voice, penetrate the soil of the earth continues at Eli Klein Gallery (398 West Street, West Village, Manhattan) through June 5. The exhibition was curated by stephanie mei huang.