Yellow Peril; The Celestial Elements
Description of exhibit:
“Yellow Peril; The Celestial Elements” is a visual art exhibit inspired by the Chinese Five Elemental forces, seized by the urgent tensions between Queer Chinese diasporic identities. A collection of multichannel installations, visual and sculptural activations provoke a cosmic encounter of our living past and present as we ‘race’ towards a healing future. These elemental activations attempt to collapse the linear temporality to dislodge an emotional, spiritual, cosmological, and metaphysical enunciation of our Queer ‘Chineseness’. Rather than focus on the trauma that queer people of colour face, this project is fundamentally an invitation to an exuberant celebration of queerness that is unabashedly Chinese.
We invite you to celebrate with us.
Yellow Peril; The Celestial Elements
February 1 – April 18, 2020
Queer Arts Festival x Sum Gallery
425 – 268 Keefer St. Vancouver
Channelling the Elements; an encounter of time/space
This video installation employs the metaphor of the Chinese Five Elements to explore the discursive formation of queer Chinese diasporic identity. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Five Elemental forces provide many applications to understanding daily life, identity, relationships, in addition to physical, mental, and emotional health. The elements help to approach and understand ways of “being” through principles of metaphysics and temporalities. We invoke these five elements in this channel installation as a conduit to understanding queer East Asian cultural formations, as not an intellectual delineation, but a way to interpret our own embodiment of queer Chinese, diasporic identities.
We performed an ancestral veneration ceremony at Larwill Park in Vancouver, which was the gathering site of the 1907 anti-Oriental riots, as a way to mark an image of the temporal relationship that this exhibit’s source project, Yellow Peril: Queer Destiny has within a history of anti-Asian racism in Canada. This is an offering for our ancestors, to recognize and honour the impact this history has on our own identities today, as racialized, queer subjects.
The Wall of Healing; a ‘Race’ Towards a Cosmic Future
In Chinese cosmology, the world emerges from yin/yang, activated by the primordial powers found in Five Elements: Wood > Fire > Earth > Metal > Water. From the micro to macro, intimate to distant, land to table, we cycle through the synergistic and generative processes of these elemental forces: Wood feeds Fire, Fire creates Earth, Earth bears Metal, Metal collects Water, Water nourishes Wood, and so begins/ends/regenerates a beginning to an end.
‘Wall of Healing’ employs these relational approaches of the elements to understand Queer Chinese diasporic expressions of race and gender; in an attempt to dislodge our mortal timestamp from Western linearity, and reimagine our living past/present as we “race” towards a cosmic future.
Inspired by the pictographic roots of the Chinese language as well as our own diasporic enmeshment as queers-of-colour, we imagined a Chinese “character” with the metaphysical and emotive properties of “queer” that are important to us, in an attempt at materializing our Queer diasporic ‘Chineseness’ through a made-up character that isn’t a Western derivative. The “emerging” sculpture that stretches our imaginations from the ground up, is our personified imagination of what this character might look like. Who are they? What are they? When are they? Where are they? Why are they? Queerness to us necessitates temporal transformation – it’s daring, it’s verbal, it’s spiritual, it’s elemental, it’s revolutionizing.
The character was created to be deliberately and linguistically confounding/ illegible, which painfully mirrors our own desires as queer Asians in the diaspora, yearning for our cultures and lateral community acceptance that are often held at a distance from us – largely due to genealogical ruptures, and displacement. This piece speaks to our anxieties within racialized diasporic communities around “who has the right?” to culture, and “who is doing ‘culture’ right?”; and reclaims a space for those who, like this character that breaks all the rules, are rendered unrigorous, illegible, and unaccepted.
We ‘character’ize this piece as an intervention on the tension between “nation” and diaspora – a reclamation of our who, what, when, where, why in our self-determination.
“Audrey 1 (PJÄTTERYD)” and “Audrey 2 (PJÄTTERYD)”
“Audrey 1 (PJÄTTERYD)” and “Audrey 2 (PJÄTTERYD)” are a reclamation of Asian identity and pop art. These portraits depict Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in the 1961 film, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. The film has been received as a classic, deemed culturally significant by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. However, it has a character performed in yellowface, Holly’s landlord Mr. Yunioshi, which is played by white actor Mickey Rooney. In the film, Rooney wears make-up prosthetics to make him look like an orientalized caricature of Asian people from WWII propaganda posters. A deviation from the intersectional character from Truman Capote’s novella upon which “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is based, the film version of Mr. Yunioshi is a stereotype. speaks in a barely coherent accent referring to Holly as “Ms. Gorightry”. His sole purpose in the film is to emphasize the white actors as part of the trendy, mainstream social scene of New York City. While he is the landlord of the Upper East Side brownstone in which Holly resides, his apartment is decorated with Japanese decor, portraying his lifestyle as decidedly “other”.
An overt display of racism in a film so widely celebrated, this illustrates the silent trauma that is specifically endured by the Asian community. Purchased at IKEA for $40 each, I’ve taken these factory-produced celebrity portraits and transformed them into one-of-a-kind works of art. As a young person consuming mainstream white media, I mentally catalogued any Asian person I saw in roles spanning from background characters, supporting players, to the rare starring role. I’ve paid homage to many of them here: Lucy Lui, Jet Li and Sandra Oh to name a few. It should be noted that of these representations, most are straight and all are cis-gendered.
In 2019, we produced Yellow Peril: Queer Destiny – an experimental documentary film that follows the story of Vancouver-based drag artist, Maiden China (Kendell Yan), and her explorations of racial, cultural, diasporic, sexual, and gender identity. In the development of this film, we wanted to experiment with imagery that reflected the spiritual, metaphysical, cosmic, interpersonal, relational experiences of our queer and cultural identities. As a filmmaking methodology, we employed the metaphor of the “Five Elements” in Chinese culture to explore the discursive formation of queer Chinese diasporic identity. The “Five Elements” also have many different applications to understanding life, identity, relationships, health (relationships between organs); they’re also known as the Five Phases, the Five Agents, the Five Movements, Five Processes, the Five Steps/Stages and the Five Planets; each element is related to a sensory organ, to taste, and to smell. The elements also have numerous approaches to understanding ways of “being”; they also have principles of metaphysics, and temporalities. We invoked these five elements through the cinematography, as a conduit to understanding queer East Asian cultural formations, as not an intellectual delineation, but a way to investigate the embodiment of queer Chinese, diasporic identity.