Artificial Paradises or Home—Where?
Tiffany Chung’s productions lead to utopia/dystopia ( de )
Galerie Christian Hosp, Berlin, 2009-10-31 - 2009-12-12
Where everything is planned, there is no room for life. Tiffany Chung’s multimedia works—ranging from drawings and staged photographs to installations and performances—send the observer on an emotional rollercoaster ride. The pastels that dominate her palette, the floral patterns, cloud-like shapes and soft materials seem invitingly cosy at first glance, but a closer look often reveals that Chung’s artificial paradises are sterile and deceptive. In Chung’s most recent films, this critical basic tenor has been replaced by melancholy introspection. The exhibition Finding Galápagos: fish, pigs, youngsters, old folks, men, women and the Black Canals (not in any particular order) (2009) traces the artist’s journey along this route.
Born in Vietnam, Tiffany Chung immigrated to California with her family 20 years ago. She returned to Vietnam in 2000, and has since visited Japan, Thailand, Korea and China for numerous art projects. There she conducts field studies on the rapid pace of change in Asian megalopolises in the city where she currently lives, Ho Chi Minh City, and others. In Ho Chi Minh City and places like Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai, whole residential areas go from the drawing board to completion in a matter of months and garden plots spring up as a substitute for nature. Faceless cities born in the present moment with no sense of history: Welcome to utopia!—or is it dystopia?
To those not caught up in this tidal wave of change, Asian metropolises must seem like a film running in fast motion. While the colonial past, the Cultural Revolution and the Vietnam War were defining experiences for the older generation in Asia, there is little to remind younger city dwellers of these traumatic chapters in their countries’ histories. Urban planners have evidently not considered it their goal to give cities a distinctive face that incorporates the past into the present or to make urban spaces repositories of collective memory. But priorities are different in Asia: when raising the standard of living becomes a goal pursued so relentlessly, individuals must scramble to adapt.
Rapture in a frenzy of colour
“All Asian metropolises seem to share a lot in common at first glance,” says Tiffany Chung, summing up her experiences in cities like Fukuoka, Tokyo, Bangkok, Seoul, Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City. “Thanks to the internet, MTV, mobile phones, iPods and fresh-blood capitalism, we all share a homogenization of tastes in terms of music, fashion, lifestyles and youth culture. But beneath the surface, there are still differences between the more and less developed nations. In terms of fashion, for instance, young people in Vietnam are trying to catch up with their Japanese counterparts, they still look contriving when put on new looks that aren’t really theirs while young Japanese just look effortlessly fashionable.” (1)
Bursting with vitality and narcissism, celebrating the here and now as if there was no tomorrow, Chung captured the attitude of the generation born after 1980 in her exuberant music and dance performance Soft Air and Cotton Candy (opening event at The 3rd Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial 2005). The production, featuring a young Vietnamese singer and Japanese dancers in a shower of pink, bright red and grass-green lights, enchanted performers and audience alike. While the artist obviously sympathises with this creative manifestation of cultivated contemporary zeitgeist in Soft Air and Cotton Candy, the indoor playground Kids’ Corner (2005) in the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum has an oppressive feel to it. Layers of gentle pastel shades blanket the curved shapes of furniture and toys; floral patterns on the windowpanes soften the view of the austere surrounding buildings.
But wouldn’t one prefer to see the children out in the sunshine, playing in a sandpit or maybe even in the woods? In her Plastic Fantastic! flower box—part of the mixed media installation The Sponge City (2005)—Tiffany Chung puts this shift from natural experience to Second-Life virtuality in a nutshell. Fleeting beauty is replaced by artistic perfection—albeit an odourless, flavourless one. By transforming sweets into cuddly, yet inedible material objects, Chung removes the element of taste (Tutti-frutti pompons, 2005). The result is a sensory shunting yard.
While in her performance Soft Air and Cotton Candy Chung worked with young people from Japan and Vietnam, the protagonists in her most recent series of photographs Enokiberry Tree in Wonderland, Episode 3: another day another world (2008) are a group of young cosplay (2) actors from Shanghai These actors stage scenes from her science-fiction live-action series Enokiberry Tree in Wonderland.
“I was fascinated by the cosplay phenomenon in Vietnam,” she says. “I wanted to understand their thinking and psychological manifestations when they slip into an alternate persona. This was the inspiration for my live-action series, which examines the slippages between past wartime rhetoric and the present-day shift towards consumer culture. This shift is especially noticeable in the way that today’s pop-culture-obsessed youths favour über-slick manga and anime characters to the working-class and war heroes in communist propaganda. I merge these two visual rhetorics in my photo series.”
Political Pop and Mao-Pop are good examples of art that plays with political connotations in China. Against the backdrop of the traumatic experiences of the Cultural Revolution, artists who were born in the 1950s and 60s employ irony to liberate art from the grasp of political propaganda. The younger cosplayers, however, are mainly interested in the fun factor. Enokiberry Tree in Wonderland, Episode 3: another day another world strikes an ambivalent note with regard to this generational divide. One could benevolently interpret the combination of fantasy costumes and propaganda as a political stance, in the sense that it expresses a utopian no to any form of political appropriation. However, there is a feeling that cosplay reduces political icons to mere decoration and removes any provocative power they may have had. The best Western example of such decontextualisation is Andy Warhol’s Mao (1973), which, as a poster and a Tshirt print, casts the famous leader in the role of a pop star.
In the ongoing Map series that Chung began working on in 2007, she superimposes both present-day and historical urban planning charts from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), as well as undergroundrailway maps from Tokyo and Seoul, which she then overlays with oil paint and Copic markers to create layered images reminiscent of palimpsests (3). In the 20th century, the palimpsest became a central metaphor in literature, philosophy and art, used to describe the dichotomy between present information readily accessible to our consciousness and older layers of forgotten and/or repressed information – or in the case of painting – images that have been painted over.
While in the classical palimpsest the overlapping layers are an obstacle to be overcome, Chung employs techniques of superimposing and overlaying to, for example, bring to mind memories that our collective consciousness has suppressed. By fusing realised blueprints and obsolete city abstractions with everyday guides, such as underground railway maps, and by decoratively reworking the results, she makes the documents entirely useless in practical terms. What once served as an aid to orientation becomes a merely decorative pattern. The intended artistic statement is only revealed through close analysis of the individual layers and their symbiotic relationships. Chung’s maps reject the original medium’s professed claims to objectivity and the truth.
The cost of a globalised modernity
Tiffany Chung has chosen to name her current multimedia exhibition Finding Galápagos: fish, pigs, youngsters, old folks, men, women and the Black Canals (not in any particular order) (2009). In it she brings drawing, photography, video and sculpture together in a thematic installation that casts a darkly ironic eye on the future of her home town, Ho Chi Minh City. Kurt Vonnegut’s 1985 novel Galápagos served as the inspiration for Chung’s associative overlay of a map of the Vietnamese metropolis that looks ahead to the year 2020.
Vonnegut’s satirical critique of civilisation uses a group of shipwrecked characters to question modern Western perceptions of evolution as a gradual, progressive advancement. Fleeing a war in South America, a group of people of various nationalities end up stranded on an uninhabited Galápagos island. The hierarchies of Western society lose all meaning under the new conditions that now define the group’s way of life. The English and Japanese languages, for example, are forgotten over time, while Kanka-bono, spoken by natives of an Amazonian tribe who are among the shipwrecked, becomes the lingua franca of the islanders.
Chung’s 1°40’N 1°36’S 89°16’E 92° 01’W (2009), a city map painted over in a deceptively decorative way, expresses her bleak outlook for the future of her current home town Ho Chi Minh City, despite Vietnam’s fast-paced development in recent decades. An expanse of lichen represents the fallacious promise that indiscriminately advancing towards a global standard of living will automatically result in improved quality of life. Chung shows that this rampant, faceless and ahistorical process is not unique to Asia by pairing this work with another cartographical drawing (34°03’N 118° 15’W—1934, 2009)—this time on a 1934 map of Los Angeles and its surroundings. The work’s message becomes clear when viewed in conjunction with the video Land of Ahhs (2009), in which the artist traces the history of Los Angeles back to its founding year of 1781.
From a global perspective, there is a real feeling of déjà-vu to the speed with which Asian cities are seeking to adopt Western standards when it comes to both business practices and aesthetics. The problems and opportunities of a burgeoning urban area—the divisions between town, suburbia and country, the gap between rich and poor, and rising crime rates—develop differently in each city, but certain common denominators remain.
“Of course, modern-day Vietnam has achieved much that it can be proud of,” says Chung, “but this is far out-weighed by the stories of brutality and corruption. If your home has just been torn down in the name of modernity, why would you care about fashion, MTV or iPhones?”
Displaying a distinctly critical stance towards globalisation, Chung covers her Maps with pastel pointillist shapes whose close resemblance to sprawling fungal growths is no coincidence. Fungal spores are parasites, encroaching upon and living off other organisms. Expanding cities demonstrate similar behaviour by swallowing up suburbs and the surrounding land and thus destroying established social structures.
As early as 1979, French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (1924 –1998), in his essay The Postmodern Condition, declared the age of the “metanarrative” as over. He believed that knowledge of the world beyond our own experiences had become too complex to sustain universal concepts of what makes us human and of what makes the world what it is. Global history has therefore become a simultaneity of the non-simultaneous, a plurality of values. An attitude that had previously defined itself as modern and adopted a linear concept of evolution now became suspected of being merely postcolonial arrogance and was rejected as old-fashioned. Translated to the emerging face of a city, this idea would mean that Ho Chi Minh City, Tokyo or Shanghai could actually develop a form of modern architecture that properly reflects its own history—but the speed that has been set for the course of modernisation leaves little room for the reflection necessary to do this.
Home—where? Land of Ahhs and across the sea of dust
Chung’s 2009 videos, Land of Ahhs and across the sea of dust, mark an aesthetic break in the artist’s work. In a somewhat melancholy mood, she moves away from the observer perspective that dominates her previous works.
Asked how she sees her artistic development over recent years, Chung answers: “To be honest, I’ve closed the chapter on the work I produced in Japan in 2005. Now I’m more interested in the psychosis of contemporary culture and what goes on inside people. I used to concentrate on the aesthetics of pop culture, on the appearance of cities and on the consumerism of their populations. As my work has become darker conceptually, it has also toned down visually. The work is now more rooted in history as a reactionary gesture towards the young generation’s near amnesiac knowledge of the city and its social history.”
Land of Ahhs is just under ten minutes long and is shot in the style of a road movie. Accompanied by catchy music, a young woman recounts the history of Los Angeles from a moving car. She looks back to the city’s early Spanish and later Mexican roots, before describing the rapid growth it has undergone over the past century. As houses, streets and eventually the beach roll past the car window, the narrator speaks of her own life in Gardena, a suburb in Los Angeles County. It is clear from her accent that she is not originally from the US.
“We all had our dream houses along the beach. Although we loved Gardena, we dreamed that someday we’d live in Manhattan or Redondo. And no matter where in the world we now live, our dream is still to move back and to own one of the beach houses of our childhood.”
Land of Ahhs does not, therefore, necessarily define home in terms of nationality. The feeling of belonging, as Chung addresses it in this film, is tied up with the memories of our youth. The people, streets, buildings—and in this case, the beach and the ocean—as well as the history of a place are what create a sense of identity.
across the sea of dust also addresses the issue of what is home. A young woman returning to Japan looks out of a train window and describes the joy of seeing the familiar houses and streets of her country after a period of absence. As in Land of Ahhs, Chung has chosen an inner monologue to allow viewers to empathise with the protagonist. Chung uses a dance performance to visualise feelings of belonging and security—a group of young people carrying open umbrellas move together in a well-choreographed rhythmic sequence. Once again, it is the sea that lends the scene its melancholy mood.
Memory, sleep and dreaming are inextricably linked. As the story unfolds in across the sea of dust we meet a young man sprawled on a bed. A dream sequence takes us back to his childhood, and the gestures he makes in his sleep imply experiences fraught with trauma. We see him lay flowers by a tree in memory of his father. Is this merely a dream or is it reality? In films like Land of Ahhs or across the sea of dust art becomes a decelerating factor.
1 This and all other quotes by Tiffany Chung are taken from an interview with the artist by Ulrike Münter conducted on 19 September 2009.
2 The term cosplay originated in Japan and is an abbreviation of costume play. In cosplay, participants attempt to portray a character as realistically as possible through costume and actions. Favourite character sources are manga, anime, video games and live-action series.
3 A palimpsest (Greek, meaning scraped and used again) is the result of a medieval technique whereby the original writing on a document was scraped off to allow the costly papyrus or parchment to be used again. The older text can be made visible again using fluorescence imaging.