At the Wing Luke Museum, up the first flight of skylit stairs, turning right into the George Tsutakawa Art Gallery, one finds beauty and inspiration in Constructs, a remarkable and evocative series of installations by Asian Pacific American women artists, on display until April 17. This exhibit consists of five installations by Lynne Yamamoto, Terry Acebo Davis, Tamiko Thiel and Midori Kono Thiel, Yong Soon Min, and Kaili Chun, each from diverse ethnic backgrounds, exploring and in conversation with different narratives, identities, and personal and cultural histories.
This is the first time the Wing Luke Museum has featured an all-women exhibit. Since its opening in May 2015, Constructs has been a very intimate and personal exhibit for everyone involved. Unlike other art exhibits, the Constructs artists have been very present and engaged with the process all along, from installing the exhibit in the beginning to giving presentations and tours throughout the year. Moreover, Constructs is different in that the audience can touch and interact with various pieces of each installation, thus, bringing their own experiences to the art and coming away with a unique experience.
At the heart of Constructs, one finds a wondrous sense of home and peace. In each room, the movement between them, it feels like a homecoming into the familiar and very human experience. There is every kind of emotion present and humming through this transformed space. Most striking, perhaps, is the sense of intimacy, care, and profound quiet. Indeed, the space invites time and contemplation: the process of immersion into the exhibit is slow, deliberate, and profoundly rewarding. Constructs is definitely worth a visit, and there is nothing quite like experiencing it in-person.
In the first room of the gallery towers Lynne Yamamoto’s Whither House (2015), a reconstruction of a Japanese American farming tent house inspired by a haunting image in Wapato from Issei: A History of Japanese Immigrants in North America by Kazuo Ito. More of a re-imagination, the tent house of Whither House soars tall, so tall one has to crane his or her head back to see the whole house nearly touching the ceiling, lit by skylight. Stretched over its exact wooden skeleton billows bright white habotai silk that quivers with the slightest movement, kimono-like, edged at the bottom in fading flowery vintage futon. The house rests balanced on wheels of pine logs, the peeling bark, which then rest on salvaged, paint-splattered hardwood floor.
Altogether, Yamamoto speaks to “a condition in which one cannot settle or feel rooted in a permanent home” and the contradictory and complicated history of Japanese American farmers. Due to the anti-Japanese Alien Land Law of 1921, Japanese American farmers could not own the land they tilled and had to resort to living in transitory tent houses. For Yamamoto, Whither House is meant to represent “the kind of hope for the future that must have sustained farmers through their extraordinary labor and difficult choices.”
The most poignant of the installations is Terry Acebo Davis’ Her House … Tahanan … Her Room (2015) in the next little corridor of the gallery. Her House is both celebratory and heartrending: Davis replicates her mother’s tiny bedroom and home in a nursing facility, which has almost the same dimensions. Yet, as this piece is Davis’ response to the challenge of accepting and realizing her mother’s diagnosis of dementia and aging process, Her House is a haunting collage of memories and possessions, whittled down very much like in actuality. The room, as a result, is tender, almost frightening, familiar, and welcoming in its rich detail. One sits on the little cot with vintage flowery sheets or on a wooden stool and considers: charcoal sketches on Tyvek, old magazines, brassy big band love songs seeping from the telephone, nail polish and crochet, rosary, wooden treasures of caribou and spoon, photographs of Davis’ mother at different ages, and many other belongings. There is so much sorrow and sweetness in such a small space.
To create this piece, Davis set up the exact gallery space in her own studio. “I would actually lay on the bed in my studio to think through how the space felt and make decisions on my artistic process,” she says. “I seem to always be re-defining ‘home’ in my work.”
With Her House, Davis also strives to break open the silence clouding dementia and personal history and traumas in the Asian American community to reach for open dialogue. “I hope we can make some positive differences here,” she says.
In the next room, mother-daughter duo Midori Kono Thiel and Tamiko Thiel arrest the eye with their multigenre Brush the Sky (2015), which was recently nominated for the prestigious prize, the Ars Electronica STARTS prize in Linz, Austria. With their partnership, the installation takes on a dual form, creating layers of meaning.
First, the physical in the Wing Luke: Midori’s giant sumi ink calligraphy characters painted in different layers on rippling clear sheets of mylar. Depending on which angle one views the sheets, the juxtaposed characters of opposites cohere or deconstruct themselves, warping intricately in shadow and dark cloudy strokes.
Second, the abstract: using geolocative augmented reality (AR) to create virtual artwork installed in specific physical locations that can be viewed using smartphones and tablets, Tamiko takes Midori’s calligraphy beyond Wing Luke to encompass all of Seattle. That is, with the free AR viewer Layar, one can explore different sites in Seattle, from Uwajimaya to Pike Place Market to the former House of Rice, and see Midori’s calligraphy lit up in gold leaf hovering over the site. Each site has its own significance to Midori and Tamiko, whether connected to a personal story or to a moment in Japanese American history in Seattle.
Taken together, these elements of Brush the Sky form “a way to inscribe an alternative voice on the history of Seattle into the fabric of the city itself,” as Tamiko says.
This was not the first time Midori and Tamiko have collaborated on a piece as equal professional artists to become a team, “a 50-50 collaboration with the tug and pull of somewhat different esthetics, expectations and goals.” In fact, the idea for Brush the Sky emerged from a different collaboration and Tamiko’s desire to learn more about Japanese calligraphy and the various forms and their cultural connotations. For Tamiko who has been away from Seattle for a long time, “The process of visiting many sites was a chance to connect back into the Japanese American community for me, as Mom knew everybody everywhere, and I got to experience her web of connections in a deeper way than before.”
In the fourth room, Yong Soon Min LIGHT / AS / IF (2015) captures all of the senses in its simplicity to speak on the journey of recovering from wounds and trauma. On three clean cut mahogany pedestals rest a digitally carved rounded and “seductive” magnolia branch scar, a tablet of Braille, and a ceramic bowl filled with water slowly evaporating with time. Each of these pieces speaks to the different stages and languages of healing over time. Weaving through the pedestals rolls the fourth element of the series, a papier-mâché inflated ball covered in arcing lines of Min’s poetry. Each of the poetry lines is poignant and interesting, and rolling the ball to read the lines gives a sense of migration and energy in tension with the static quietude of the other pieces. Consequently, LIGHT / AS / IF evokes the audience to participate and touch and consider their own stories on healing.
On why Braille, Min explains, “I used this language that I don’t know because I wanted to feel completely lost and alienated. The Braille piece speaks about wounds and I can see the elaborate arrangements of bumps but I might as well be blind when it comes to deciphering the dots/mounds.”
In the last room, one encounters Kaili Chun’s Janus (2010), a series of nearly identical metal cages mounted to the white walls. Each cage, reminiscent of an old payphone booth in both size and height, is all thick straight lines struck through with shadows at different angles. Although the cages are locked with heavy-duty padlocks, the keys dangle from a chain. So the installation beckons.
It takes work: one has to maneuver with the keys and locks to develop a process to get each door open. Inside, from the tiny speaker, a treasure escapes. Whether the sound is birdsong or mechanical whirring or a jazzy song, the sounds are fleeting and soft, and visitors have to lean in close to catch it. One really does get the concept behind installation art here: Janus is not complete without the audience’s interaction.
For Chun, Janus speaks to the experience of trying to understand the Other, in particular, Native Americans: we cannot put people into boxes. There is so much life, sound, and color that simply cannot be captured or even understood, but we can certainly make the effort to begin to.
Constructs will be featured at the Wing Luke Museum’s George Tsutakawa Art Gallery through April 17. For more information on the exhibit, visit www.wingluke.org.