100% Authentic: Interview with Imin Yeh
Imin Yeh is a printmaker and recent graduate of the MFA Department at the California College of the Arts. Her practice deflates cultural stereotypes and addresses issues of labor and consumerism through a critical and humorous lens. Yeh’s piece “Everybody Loves a Skinny, White Boyfriend” was included in the exhibition For Lovers and Fighters that I curated at The Spare Room Project in February 2009. We sat down at a coffee-shop together last Friday and talked about her recent projects, her relationship to local art institutions, and the politics and negotiation inherent in making work that is deeply rooted in one’s own experience and identity. Yeh was a recipient of the 2009 Barclay Simpson award. Her piece “Good Imports” is featured in the Chinese Cultural Center’s Present Tense Biennial 2009 and in a satellite installation in nearby storefront at 710 Kearny Street until August 23rd. Her work will also be included in Intersection for the Arts Benefit Auction on June 13th.
Adrienne Skye Roberts: I thought we could start by talking about your two recent projects in the MFA exhibition at the California College of the Arts (CCA) and the Present Tense Biennale at the Chinese Cultural Center.
Imin Yeh: I graduated with two succinct but related bodies of work: one is lovingly titled “Good Imports” and is a part of the Chinese Cultural Center’s Present Tense Biennale and the other project is “The Legend of the Power Animals” and was my MFA exhibition at CCA. Both projects have to do with the things we buy being the focal point of what we know about other cultures. Every object we have has a dual story of who made it and who ultimately consumes it.
ASR: Can you describe the installation “Good Imports”?
IY: There are a few pieces in the gallery at the Chinese Cultural Center and I was also given a storefront in Chinatown to do whatever I wanted—which is a perfect place for “Good Imports.” The installation consists of objects—laptops, televisions, children’s toys—that were all made in China and either found or donated to me. They are installed in an excessive pile and each object is individually covered in hand-printed fabric. The pattern of the fabric is taken from the boxes that souvenirs from China are shipped in. I work at the museum store at the Asian Art Museum and our back storeroom is filled with these boxes. I always loved these boxes growing up and when I would go back and forth to Taiwan or China as a child I would keep these boxes much longer than whatever came inside them. At the museum gift shop, whenever someone buys a $20 tea pot or whatever and I bring out the box to put it in and they are always so excited because they feel like they are buying an authentic object. The pattern of the boxes becomes a superficial identification of something Asian or something that is Chinese.
ASR: So to the consumer, the box becomes a symbol of authenticity.
IY: Right. If it comes in the box it is a “good import.” It is something we want from China, whereas a lot of other things we don’t want. There is a lot of anxiety about imports from China. Ten years ago it was Taiwan, thirty years ago it was Japan; it will always change when different countries come into power. There are a lot of racially charged comments made at the museum. People assume that if the products sold in the museum store are cheap then they must have been made in China. The problem is that the idea of what China is and what makes a “good Chinese import” is caught in a really exotic, ancient, static idea of Chinese myths. “Good Imports” is about expanding upon that idea and the idea that something is safe to consume because it looks different to you when we’re not all that different and we’re intertwined.
ASR: It also speaks to the contradictions in the search for authenticity, in general.
IY: Yeah, my work pokes holes at the myth that is authenticity. The idea that there is even something authentic to search for when buying things is what I consider a contemporary myth. It is totally made up.
ASR: How have people responded to the storefront?
IY: The response has been great. It has been written up in a couple newspapers and I was asked to do an interview in Chinese about the installation, which may kill my parents! What was really rewarding was after I installed the work there were all these smiling, older Asian women that had this look on their faces like they got it or they appreciated it. It was great since they aren’t people who frequent galleries and probably haven’t been to art school and yet, they understood the work in a totally different context.
ASR: I’m interested in how your work has changed through your relationship to the institutions, the Asian Art Museum and CCA. Let’s start with the museum, were you making work about the politics of labor and identity before you started working at the museum?
IY: Yes, I was making similar work. I applied to the job at the Asian Art Museum with a sort of secret identity because I knew working there would fuel my practice. A few things about my practice have changed a lot due to both the museum and graduate school. I used to try to reappropriate stereotypes very obviously. I realized that no matter how much I try, people are always going to read things the way that they want to read them, so if you try to reappropriate something and think that you are being so smart and subtle and that clearly your work is a joke or a political move and then it continues to be consumed as an “Asian thing,” it is really frustrating. There is almost no way around it.
ASR: How do you negotiate this?
IY: I’m trying two different techniques-one is abstracting things as in “Good Imports” where I focus really closely on one thing like the pattern of the boxes without trying to be preachy or didactic, but really getting so far into the pattern that it abstracts everything else. In the other project, “The Legend of the Power Animals” I’m working with cultural invention as a more productive way to be political. Instead of just talking about those problems and getting angry, the project is rooted in being whimsical and poking fun at the greater systems that operate.
ASR: Which is different than trying to somehow undercut an existing stereotype.
IY: Right, by making up your own stereotype that is so much bigger than the ones that are already out there it sheds light on the absurdity of the stereotype that does exist. It gives people the license to laugh at something.
ASR: …and then be uncomfortable and question why it is that they are laughing.
IY: Right, which is very different than just lecturing people.
ASR: I think that strategy that was successful in your piece “Everybody Loves a Skinny White Boyfriend” because it invited gallery visitors to play and interact with your homemade skinny, white boyfriend pillows. There was an opportunity to reflect on the commodification of identities. There is an immediate playfulness that bridges that gap between the piece, its message, and the viewers.
IY: The playful approach has been a lot more positive and fruitful. It opens the work up to a lot more people. There are a lot of layers to it. It is funny that you can get a whole group of people to be like “Yeah, a skinny white guy!” which is the one group of people that no one ever talks about in art school because they are the norm. When really it is political to even say the phrase: white man. There are a lot of misreadings of my work because of my name. If you have a name like Imin Yeh, people are always getting the ethnicity wrong or the gender wrong, or you know contemporary Asian art is so hot right now that they are trying to read or impose that story on me, which isn’t my story, so what do you do when you have an object like a skinny white boyfriend pillow and you figure the artist is an Asian woman, an identity that is constantly fetishized. Instead of continuing to make things that repeat the stereotype, like the Urban Outfitter’s merchandise line “Everyone Loves an Asian Girl,” which the piece is based on, I’m trying to point out this stuff.
ASR: Your work often involves institutional critique. When I was at the Asian Art Museum recently I was struck by the description of “What is Asia?” and was actually pleased that it was more comprehensive than I was expecting. It spoke about Asia in relationship to specific geographical histories and colonialism. It made me wonder if that questioning is ever inherent in the exhibitions themselves versus just the rhetoric surrounding them. Do you think there is a space for institutional critique within the Asian Art Museum?
IY: My experience with the museum is that the store is really great. My co-workers and boss are supportive of the work I do outside of the store. But there is very little interest in expanding the idea of Asia beyond the past. There are a lot of reasons for that, a lot has to do with endowments and the history of the collection. The story of non-Western art in the United States and how it was acquired is complicated. These things were stolen. It would take years and a lot of money and interest to have show that goes beyond just what the collection has. It is like an uphill battle with every institution to do something that is more relevant. The Present Tense Biennale is the first show where they have reached out to include Asian American kids and contemporary Chinese artists abroad and non-Chinese artists and it has been an astounding success. The Chinese Cultural Center is smaller than the Asian Art Museum and they were finally able to mobilize this one show in the city of San Francisco. We’re not taking about the Asian Art Museum at Wisconsin-Madison, we’re talking about San Francisco, a city with a Chinese Cultural Center in the larger Chinatown in America, for God’s sake! The Asian Art Museum is still worlds behind in ever doing that. If the museum is suppose to be a place to educate and empower, you would think there would be a place to empower people who have a history and relationship to this history and language.
ASR: Let’s shift to your MFA work and experience in graduate school. Can you describe your “The Legends of the Power Animal” project?
IY: The “Legend of the Power Animal” mimics the Chinese zodiac but the whole thing is functioning from a merchandise point backwards. I started with placemats and I’m fleshing out the story of the zodiac more and more, claiming that there were these weird beasts and auspicious jewels. I rip off a lot of cultural Asian myths where everything has a meaning and is authentic. It is interesting because the Chinese zodiac is such an enabler of ethnic kitsch consumption, people buy their zodiac animal year and all the sudden they have a collection of pig stuff or rat stuff. It is just so consumable.
ASR: At the MFA show opening your work was installed as though it were a shop and items were for sale.
IY: Yeah and it was crazy because even then people really wanted a pin of their zodiac animal and I tried to make it obvious that the whole thing is made up and if you want to be Blue Footed Boobie, even if it’s not “your year,” you should just go for it! Why should you adhere to anything because a placemat told you to! My point is that the animals and zodiac have already been through so many turbulent re-mythifications, they have been re-established again and again, mostly with a commercial motivation but people still see it a Chinese thing! Even though it is all a ploy to make things cost more.
ASR: How has the Chinese zodiac already been re-invented?
IY: In San Francisco, during the Cold War, the celebration of the Chinese New Year was exaggerated. Community leaders made a decision to exaggerate the traditional Chinese stories as a way to improve the ghetto that was Chinatown. Some statistics show that since embracing the older tradition in an American format such as the street parade, shops and restaurants in Chinatown did 3-5 times better. That has been super interesting to me. These Chinese holidays were Westernized. So I thought I’m going to make up my own zodiac animals with the coolest things I can think of. It isn’t such a political move, its functioning in the same system.
ASR: But it is meant to throw a wrench in what we think are stable categories.
IY: Yeah, when I introduced the idea originally there was a lot of concern that it was going to be offensive. Heaven forbid I have the subjectivity to make up something and have fun with my own culture and inherited history. People were reading it as, “how dare you do this.” It’s hard to work in an institution set up to fear work that is political or personal with people thinking I am so lucky that I can “fall back” on talking about my own identity, as if that is a choice. I don’t think it is. It was rewarding because the project just made people happy even if I lost a little bit of the criticality of it, I don’t have the extra burden of putting something in the world that is full of anger or ignorance. I’m trying to hit that balance of playfulness and criticality.
ASR: Can you describe the brand you developed that accompanies a lot of your work?
IY: I’ve been working with the “Iron Chink” brands for a while. The Iron Chink was a machine used at the turn of the century in Northwest America. During this time the salmon industry wanted a lot of cheap labor, so they brought Chinese laborers to skin and can the fish until they developed a machine to do this that they called the “Iron Chink” machine. The laborers could go back to China because, you know, the machine, didn’t get tired! I had the unfortunate experience of going on an Alaskan cruise with my family and as part of a tour we saw this machine. We were the only Chinese family there and we took the awkward photo in front of the Iron Chink machine.
ASR: So you have now appropriated this name as your own “brand?”
IY: Yeah, I like the brand name being on everything because I think it is a site of criticality. It is a site where I am mediating these things and saying although these objects are so consumable, the brand exists to mess with you. But I’m at a point where its like an inside joke with myself and I’m concerned that the brand doesn’t mean anything and people might think, “Oh if she is Chinese and she says Chink, than it’s all good.” And there is no energy or power behind that brand anymore.
ASR: It goes back to what you were saying about the double bind of reclaiming or reusing stereotypes that already exist in our culture. I see the same thing happen with offensive terms being reclaimed in queer communities. It brings up the questions of who has license to say it and at what point are you just contributing to the same thing that you’re trying to critique.
IY: Absolutely. It is a tiring project. But at the same time it has to be there.
ASR: How did you navigate an institution with the climate that you just described?
IY: I wonder how well I did, actually. I came to San Francisco to go to art school and I didn’t think I would be the only Chinese-American person in my program, but I was. This is city that is what, twenty or thirty percent Chinese-American? And it’s not just the institution.
ASR: …although it is indicative of the institutions’ lack of diversity, in general.
IY: It is indicative of any master’s program, of private institutions, and the art world, in general. It is indicative of a community that is very anxious to embrace any of their people who pursue art. I’m the only artist in my family and that is a story you see reiterated in bad television shows and Joy Luck Club like things and it is true. In a lot of cases we are a new group of people. It is a scary thing for a new group to embrace, so its indicative of a lot of different institutional things. Plus, I was one of the only people at CCA working with printmaking. There is an anxiety about people who are doing feminist art or as a person of color, there is a concern that you’re just falling back on some personal story. The decision to do politically minded work or identity-based work is an organic one. There is a lot of pressure to shut up, but then there are students every year that come to the same conclusions and try to talk about the same things and if an institution refuses to acknowledge that history and refuses to talk about it than that work is going to get worse.
ASR: What do you mean by worse?
IY: If strategies for making political work aren’t being taught then it takes longer for people to make critically engaging work. There is a way of saying, “identity politics only happened in the 1980s.” People want to say that we are post-racial and that feminism is dead. As much as it might be considered a trend, it’s not. So you might as well teach the strategies that make it a successful practice. I think that is my biggest frustration.
ASR: Yes. I think a lot about how art history curriculum’s are taught in general, and also particular to private institution and one that lacks racial diversity. I wonder about how we can dislodge the term “identity politics” from being a bad word regulated to the 1980s.
IY: What makes me sad is that when I went to graduate school was the same time I learned that identity politics was a thing and not just a weird quirk of my personality and one day later I found out that it would be a horrible way to describe my work, and it would pigeonhole me. It was like falling in love and then getting dumped within 24 hours.
ASR: Do you think that is because using the term “identity politics” is so heavily associated with the controversial work of the 1980s or is it the content of the work itself that illicits that reaction? We give names to things and they become the only way that we know how to describe them and then those names become passe and take on all these negative connotations, maybe we need a new language.
IY: I think it’s both. I agree that when words are associated with an era or a past thing, a static thing, they aren’t allowed to evolve. You say a phrase and people have an idea of what they think it means based on the past.
ASR: Right, which may be a similar reason as to why some people don’t want to identify as feminist because of what that word meant during a particular time period to a particular group of people.
IY: Right, at the same time I don’t think the work being made today is all that similar to the work from the 1980s. There should be room for all these different subtleties, every strategy and technique is so different.
ASR: I always think of the phrase from creative writing classes “write what you know” and if what you know are these experiences of yourself in the world, then it is frustrating to then be pigenholed.
IY: Yes. What happens if my day to day experience continues to reaffirm these experiences and my conversations with like minded people are fantastic because this is an interesting issue that affects a lot of people and is super relevant outside the art institution, how do you turn around and say, thanks for saying that I’m passe when every day I’m re-energized to make the kind of work I do.
ASR: Where do you see your work going now that you have graduated with an MFA? Any upcoming projects?
IY: I’m interested in doing a whole installation of all the computers. So many of our laptops get shipped all the way back to China to get recycled at a great envrionmental and physical cost to the people who do it, the country, and the land. Computers are such a luxury item at the time they are bought. Especially Apple computers, they are at the height of the design of our generation and at the moment you buy a computer it is already worth less that what you bought it for, they loose value immediately and are only built to last a couple years. I figure every computer that is taken out of that cycle of being shipped across the country and is made permanent in a sculpture or installation could stop that cycle.
ASR: And make that cycle of consumption visible.
IY: Yeah. It could also add more value to through more labor and creating a mass produced luxury item into a unique art object. I’m trying to meditate more on the computer and its meanings, it being subject to all the design and fashion trends, technological trends.
ASR: I’ve thought similar issues with the US/Mexico border, in respect to what can cross between the border. When objects come to the United States we don’t see the labor that is attached to them and when they leave the United States we don’t see the way that they are disposed off.
IY: We are completely removed from it and yet, computers are such an integral part of what we consider work. We all sit behind computers. Computers are the center of how we communicate and access information. It is a privilege and a luxury that so many American college students have a computer. Everyone can check out all the stuff they want from all over the world, whereas the people who are making the computer are still in a country that is highly censored. It is like this informational, one-way tunnel. You know, we don’t think where the end of the life of our objects are. All these objects were made in China and there is a good chance that they will return there. I think it is a really interesting object.