Li Jia | Diagonal

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Text: LI JIA

Published on ArtAsiaPacific Issue 120


“Diagonal,” curated by Leo Li Chen, opened at Magician Space amid the aftershocks of another wave of Covid-19 cases in Beijing. Exploring the performance of identity through the video works of eight artists in East and Southeast Asia, the show also inadvertently exemplified the fragility of identification via the gallery experience: identity became a literal question as mask-wearing visitors struggled to recognize their acquaintances. Against the backdrop of a pandemic that has abruptly shifted our experience and understanding of isolation and connectedness, how might we re-examine and re-imagine the boundary between self and other? How might we advance toward new solidarities that transcend the deep social, geographical, and ideological divisions of the present? Most of the works were positioned in subtle pairs to highlight associations and resonances between them. For instance, Avita Jinhong Guo’s essay film Towards the Darkest Direction of Inner Mind(2020) was placed in dialogue with Wuji Ye’s My Friend (Central Asia Journal Phase III) (2017–18), installed opposite. The former is an elegy to the disappearing Tibetan and Hui cultures in Guo’s hometown, Xining, on the edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, where rapid urbanization and forced assimilation have completely changed the minorities’ neighborhoods and ways of life. Guo revisited the spots that appear in her childhood photos, collating footage of these transformed places with poetic long shots of country roads down to the foggy plateau. Meanwhile, Ye’s video focuses on a YouTuber, played by the artist himself, who livestreams his memories of his imaginary Uighur friend, Abliz, and also discusses his interests in the religious and regional culture of Central Asia. The playfulness of Ye’s video, a visual feast of emoji and memes, contrasted with the more serious and nostalgic mood of Guo’s work, but the installation brought out their similarities. Both juxtapose images from different times and places, intertwining memories and imaginings of ethnic-minority areas. Through idiosyncratic first-person narratives, the works also convey the protagonists’ feelings of frustration at their inability to access the past, in Guo’s film, or a mysterious other, in the story of Abliz. Another effective pairing was Yu Guo’s Long-focus Videographer (2017) and Liu Zhangbolong’s Disneyland is too far, come to Shijingshan (2016–19), which were screened on different sides of the same wall. For Long-focus Videographer, Yu filmed people on the street from afar through a telephoto lens at 8,000 mm zoom. In a voiceover, the artist discusses how physical and metaphorical distance influence our perception and understanding of people, resonating with our current mask-wearing, socially limited reality. Whereas Yu considers estranged identity, Liu’s documentary engages with false identity through a comparison of amusement parks in China and Disney theme parks in the United States. Liu discovers, for example, that a park in Beijing holds a parade of costumed, knock-off Disney characters; only the names have been changed. As the title suggested, “Diagonal” was characterized by curatorial attempts to connect opposite vertices, to destabilize and cut across established binaries. Two standout works reflected this sensibility in their respective explorations of cultural exchange and genderfluidity. In FAMEME (2019), Yu Cheng-Ta plays a wealthy Taiwanese farmer who tries to peddle the notoriously odorous durian to American consumers as a social media influencer, posing with the fruit in flamboyant outfits and producing promotional videos. In the work’s climax, Fameme and his back-up dancers give a live performance in New York’s Times Square. Wearing a red suit and sunglasses reminiscent of Korean celebrity Psy, Fameme sings a catchy song promoting the fruit as crowds gather to take selfies with him. Watermelon Love (2017), starring Yu and his collaborator, Ming Wong, as the“Watermelon Sisters,” follows a pair of queer sisters who want to help humankind twerk its way to sexual liberation. These two works added a humorous and celebratory tone to the exhibition, which affirmed the importance of creative and unexpected perspectives on identity and difference.