© susan pui san lok 2004. Full text version (without images), unpublished. Download PDF hereA shorter version can be found in Dennis Atkinson & Paul Dash eds. Social and Critical Practice in Art Education, 2004, pp.103-116.


… when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?

My silence was thickest – total – during the three years that I covered my school paintings with black paint. I painted layers of black over houses and flowers and suns, and when I drew on the blackboard I put a layer of chalk on top. I was making a stage curtain, and it was the moment before the curtain parted or rose.

(Maxine Hong Kingston)[1]

Cutting In

The scenery is shifting; glimpses beyond fabricated walls reveal the odd prop, accessories in the staging of a performance about to begin, in stasis perhaps, or over. Each figural look, photographic stance, and filmic gesture is at once purposeful, ambivalent, straight and ironic, practiced and off-hand, offset by mirrors, masks, seams, and frames that upset the appeal of the ‘real’. A foot casts off a shoe; a woman carries a screen; a face is half-hidden by an ape-like mask. Costumes consist of such simple accessories as a sarong, some sandals, catering wear and kung fu robes, sartorial shorthand for stereotypical and often vague cultural others.

Over-familiarity with visual narrative conventions of television, film, and their self-referential ‘uncut’ and ‘reality’ manifestations prompts my temptation to see these movements and moments in disparate art works as ‘outtakes’ of sorts: the preparatory gestures and expressions caught in the lead in-and-out time as the camera rolls, inhaling in anticipation of the call to scripted, directed ‘action’, or exhaling as the action is ‘cut’; those imperfect, extraneous shots, messed-up lines, and straight-to-camera asides that end up on the literal or virtual cutting room floor (undesirable, improper to the scene, character, or narrative drive), or moments of ‘naturalism’ staged for ‘behind the scenes’ or ‘making of’ movie documentaries. If ‘outtakes’ typically frame temporalities, spatialities, glances, words and gestures in excess of desired narratives, classifying and regulating that which falls out of, or reflects upon, favoured parameters and behaviours, that endangers the illusion and threatens to reveal the trickery behind the magic, such excised excesses may also paradoxically become covetable, reinforcing desired narratives when turned to the task of perpetuating a ‘real’ behind the fiction, foregrounding its fabrication, the choreographing of physical and virtual stunts, and promising insights (their exclusive value indicated by their ‘as yet unseen’ or ‘previously unavailable’ status) that encourage the conflation (a flattening) of actors and roles, locations and scenes, histories and fictions.

Dispensing with assumptions of authenticities and realities awaiting revelation, the notion may nevertheless become useful in positioning the sometimes seemingly ad hoc posturings and performativity of work by four artists discussed below, whose coincident and divergent thematic concerns may be seen to tactically coalesce in their invocation of spaces and subjectivities between and beyond discursive frames, in ambiguous and critical relation to the pervasive orientalism of cultural practices from the ‘fine’ and ‘high’ to the ‘low’ and popular. Reading certain gestures, postures and moments as ‘outtakes’, their ‘excess’ emerges through gently antagonistic relationships to the ‘scenes’ of dominant visual discursive narratives, playing on and replaying fictions behind fictions and ever-receding realities. Actions are performed and repeated out of context, to absurdity; sound and image perplex and frustrate out of linear sequence; tableaux in two, three and four dimensions present blanks, blank expressions, circular and inconclusive narratives.

Negotiating an array of orientalising, objectifying, idealising, and regulatory gazes, artists Lesley Sanderson, Erika Tan, Yeu Lai Mo and Mayling To invoke discourses ranging from the Western academy to video art, anthropological film to Hollywood movie-making, cult cartoons to martial arts, variously concerned to debunk and explore assumptions, constructions, expectations, and aspirations towards exotic, authentic ‘difference’. Sanderson becomes Conroy/Sanderson, progressively bared, concealed, doubled, multi-vocal and muffled, in often stripped back settings; Tan absents herself from successive scenes, complex set-ups that open up and unravel narratives of (missing) knowledge and plays of power; Mo play acts, playing up to mundane fantasies, serving up servitude; while To directs the elaborate charades of deluded, duplicitous subjects, sublimated into loved and loathed cartoon characters, in search of ‘true’ identities.

Subjectivities and identities move (sometimes literally) from centre to margin, from the singular to the hybrid and plural, from the ‘authentic’ autobiographical to explicitly inauthentic fictions, there/not there, reclaiming yet eschewing visibility. Reflecting shifts and strategies in political, theoretical and cultural thinking of the last three decades, these works begin to appear “at the end of a period in which deconstruction, psychoanalysis, and feminism have maintained hegemony, to a great or lesser extent, over intellectual culture”, when the spectre of “the Other” as a question or problem for “the white intelligentsia” (to be rejected, exploited, assimilated, segregrated) loomed large, galvanised by “the existence and continuing emergence of challenging work by artists of color and… the extraordinary influence [of] postcolonial studies”.[2] Coco Fusco notes the “sweeping changes in the approach to otherness” since the mid-1990s, stressing Kobena Mercer’s observation that “Difference is everywhere”; yet “symbolic visibility” is “no guarantee of political power”. The normalisation of diversity and prevailing “bureaucratic multiculturalism” (akin to Sarat Maharaj’s notion of “multicultural managerialism”, of which “systemic exclusions and blindspots” are symptomatic)[3] have come to privilege art and ‘others’ seen to promote ‘global postmodernism’, which as Stuart Hall has said, loves nothing better than a certain kind of difference:

a touch of ethnicity, a taste of the exotic, as we say in England, ‘a bit of the other’ (which in the United Kingdom has a sexual as well as ethnic connotation)”[4]

To which might be added Fusco assertion, that

global cultural consumerism and white desire play a far larger role in maintaining primitivist paradigms than any misidentification of subaltern artists, whose pervasive use of irony and parody with notions of the primitive is often a response to the naturalisation of the other.[5]


The problem of “symbolic visibility” as an effective or deceptive strategy is one that continues to be both debated and berated in Britain, its various monikers and unstable parameters (‘minority’, ‘ethnic’, ‘black’, ‘culturally diverse’) constituting bureaucratic categories that fail inevitably to reflect the range of contemporary postcolonial aesthetic practices in play.

Sanderson, Tan, Mo and To figure among younger generations of artists simultaneously informed by the legacies of Black art, cautious of the trans-Atlantic backlash against 1980s ‘identity art’ and the “emotional striptease” associated with it, witnesses to and occasional marginal players in the 1990s phenomenon of ‘Young British Art’ (not without its own varieties of striptease),[6] and situated in ambiguous relation to the concurrent rise of ‘contemporary (mainland) Chinese art’ on the international scene.[7] Where artworks are necessarily contingent to their historical and cultural contexts of dissemination and interpretation, the effectivity of fictitious ‘dropped frames’ or art-historical ‘outtakes’ in thwarting rather than reinforcing the unity and coherence of persistent orientalist narratives of gender and ethnicity may be slight and indeed questionable, given the ease with which tradition appears to assimilate and recuperate via minor revisions once oppositional strategies, reduced to a generalised litany of “muted and aestheticized” postmodern and postcolonial artistic moves.[8] Hence the necessity of reading across and locating within wider continua of critical practices constellations of provocative, politicised counterpoints to the bureaucratically and economically driven accounts and projects distinguished by “a global art marketplace” and naiveté or complacency in ‘poco-lite’ art, not least in the face of a burgeoning ‘diversity fatigue’.[9]

A notable if simplistic point of convergence in these practices lies in the gravitation towards video, a barely forty-year-old medium whose contested origins and ‘multiplicity’ confuses and antagonises those art histories still fixated on the singular and original.[10] The task of historicising its heterogeneous practices immediately presents a plurality of styles that defy easy categorisation, and a simultaneity of beginnings that could just as easily be traced through discourses of science, linguistics, technology, mass media, and politics, as through art. This heterogeneity and simultaneity is echoed across these works in terms of their wide-ranging media and discursive references. As such they invoke histories and practices of subversion in which video has, since its inception, been deployed as a means of adopting a critical distance from commercial television, film, and other forms of commodified culture, contesting mass media imagery and the very politics of representation, as well as the representation of politics. For artists already marginalised by gender, ‘race’, ethnicity or sexuality, video, whose “pedigree is anything but pure”,[11] continues to offer resonant visual, linguistic and spatial vernaculars for “signifyin(g) on” (to borrow Henry Louis Gates’ terms) the representation and commodification of ‘authentic’ cultural otherness.

Each ‘outtake’ decelerates and derails the ‘main’ action, disrupting the narrative flow and demanding pause, stepping back and aside into a meta-discursive space, gesturing against a global cultural consumerist grain which desires ‘otherness’ as de-politicised novelty, or palatable, digestible chunks of novelty politics. Engaging yet refusing ‘identity’, attempting to steer courses that traverse mainstream and ghettoized practices without losing sight of the histories deemed distasteful or unfashionable by those set on ‘international’ success (where “a touch of the local” will suffice),[12] wry interruptions to prevalent debates around ‘Britishness’, ‘Chineseness’, nationality, ethnicity and ‘hybridity’, are often knowingly accompanied by heavy doses of irony and parody, humour, self-deprecation, and stubborn ambiguity. ‘Difference’ is progressively de-naturalised, displaced via “a hall of mirrors”, multiple re-imaginings of colonial pasts and postcolonial futures creating “a noisy disturbance in silence”, as subjects return to perform and perplex in other guises.[13]


If looks can kill, a glance might cut. Deflecting the glare of exoticising gazes, the artist defies mortification, dares to look back, and takes off with another (same and other), relenting to be seen yet unseen. After her early confrontational self-portraits, Lesley Sanderson’s work through the late 1980s and early 1990s offer a progressive deconstruction of Western art-historical narratives of orientalised, objectified female bodies, consistently exploiting the tensions between figure, frame and gaze. Drawing, “a precarious object” traditionally ranked as a working, in-process, anticipatory precursor to a ‘final work’ of art, continues to be mobilised within Sanderson’s progressively object-based, interventionist and installation works for its “peculiar attributes” of “transience, incompleteness, contingency”, against notions of originality, uniqueness, and authenticity.[14] From Negative (1988) [Fig.46] to Self Portrait – Larger than Life (1990) [Fig.45], Reproductions (1991) [Fig.47] and These Colours Run (1994) [Fig.48], imaged subjects, image planes, imaginary and actual frames (including those of the gallery), are subjected to persistent fragmentation and multiplication.[15] Looming large, looking back with several eyes, now masked, now screened, dispersing and disappearing between borders, the staging of subjectivities and identities via a series of literal and metaphorical unframings augments in scale and complexity, invoking painting, photography, curatorial conventions of re/presentation, and the orientalist paraphernalia that accompany the intertwined visual narratives of Western art history and contemporary popular tourism. As evidenced in such pieces as He Took Fabulous Trips (1990) and Can’t See the Wood for the Trees (1992) [Fig.49], Sanderson’s “bold omissions and minute depictions” gently displace the whole.[16] Props and accessories from sarongs to sandals, masks to shoes, seals to screens, hint inconclusively at ‘other’ visual and spatial narratives of culture and identity, evoking clichés of the exotic, primitive East or the modern progressive West, yet withholds the possibility of a behind-the-scenes-real; instead, Sanderson unfolds a succession of ‘de-mises en scènes’ adrift with blankness – a signifier of silence, potential, absence and erasure, or “an invisible and ubiquitous technological presence” – interrupted.[17]

Subjects slip out of view, evasive, gestures and poses ambiguous. Later, expansive landscapes of flesh invite scrutiny without mastery, their proximity and boundlessness deferring the delimiting of ‘I’, an envelope opened out. Disembodied and indeterminate in intimate monochrome, skin comes up close, a surface of feathery granite, the grain of a voice, ventriloquised.[18] Fabrication and Reality (1998) [Figs.50-52] finds this porous, elusive landscape locked into a dyad with miniaturised twin towers, schematically delineated on carbon copy paper.[19] A cheap wardrobe-husk braces the body-fragment, a strange, dense expanse dwarfing a duplicate double icon of identity, power, and birth-place. An emblematic home: Asia-as-landmark, Malaysia made toy-like and flimsy, diminished in ambiguous relation to an incorporated yet segregated subject. An eye-hole punctures the boxed body shells, summoning voyeurs to peer into the blue: the substance of daydream, inside and out.

The de-centralised, ex-centricity of Sanderson’s own body, combined with her tactical use of the nude or exposed flesh, suggest an affinity with performance art, her ‘performances’ mediated through drawing as the medium of documentation, whose constructed-ness levers control over the spectacle, and distances the aura of ‘authenticity’ about imaginary encounters. As Fusco has noted of the practices of contemporary black American artists, a context with which Sanderson’s has been broadly aligned, bodies are continuously returned to historical scenes (partially emptied, necessarily incomplete), demonstrating their imbrication in contemporary racial and cultural consciousness, whilst their increasing occupation of a muted “fantasmatic realm of intertwined fear and desire” mirrors a paradigmatic shift in the 1990s away from emphases on “the indexicality of images of racism”.[20]

If Lorna Simpson established a “zero degree” in the late 1980 and early 1990s for rethinking the representation, exhibition and subversion of iconic black female bodies, particularly via the photographic image, some of her tactics are echoed in Sanderson’s practice: bodies slip in and out of frame, partially blocked, the relationship between subject and historical and socio-cultural context destabilised. The use of ‘props’ by Simpson and Lyle Ashton Harris, to signify the constructed-ness of femininity, masculinity, Afrocentricity or African-ness, serve a similar function in Sanderson’s work, theatricalising the coding and performance of gendered ethnicity, ‘British Chinese-ness’ and cultural otherness.[21] Paraphrasing Fusco, the shift might be elaborated as a move away from representing the ‘oriental’, to representing what it means to be orientalised, by offering and refusing the artists’ own bodies as subjects and objects, or in Stuart Hall’s terms, effecting a shift “from a struggle over the relations of representation to a politics of representation itself.”[22] The intimation of unbounded, indeterminable bodies in Sanderson’s later pieces, made in collaboration with the artist Neil Conroy, hints furthermore at the possibility of a new humanism unhindered by ‘race’; contradicting the “triumphal tones of the anthropological discourses that were enthusiastically supportive of race-thinking in earlier, imperial times… conceived explicitly as a response to the sufferings that raciology has wrought”, Paul Gilroy expounds a “universality” where the constraints of bodily existence (being in the world) are admitted and even welcomed, though there is a strong inducement to see and value them differently as sources of identification and empathy. The recurrence of pain, disease, humiliation and loss of dignity, grief, and care for those one loves can all contribute to an abstract sense of a human similarity powerful enough to make solidarities based on cultural particularity appear suddenly trivial.[23]

Having worked informally with Conroy over a number of years, Fabrication and Reality marked the beginning of Conroy/Sanderson’s formal collaborative practice, a splitting and doubling and further multiplication of hybrid positionings projected symbolised by the stylised form of the double image of Kuala Lumpar’s landmark Petronas Twin Towers, further twinned with a meticulously rendered yet indeterminate expanse of skin. Their dual agency and authorship foreground the mutual, historical, ideological, and cultural imbrication of gendered and ethnicised cultural identities, whose ambiguity complicate the binary opposition of dominant/marginal, male/female, white/black, same/other positionings, histories and genealogies. This intricacy is intimated in He Took Fabulous Trips, and most explicitly in Fabrication (1998) [Figs.53,54], where both artists and their respective parents are nominally represented in primarily blank full length ‘portraits’ depicting only the foreheads of their subjects.[24] Each panel is scanned by a red light, at the same time ‘underscored’ by a blue neon strip, which pulses to the accompanying sound of lifts ascending and descending. Bodies are suspended, near-evaporated, made similar by the dissolution of physiognomic references to race and gender, eluding regulatory frames and electronic eyes.

Conroy/Sanderson’s recent ‘self-portraits’ effect a shift in tone and an abrupt return to physical, sensory bodies, focusing with dry humour on the intense alliance and antagonism that might arise in a partnership where identities and positionings are explicitly contingent. In so doing, they also respond to a fascination with culturally and ethnically ‘mixed’ relationships by performatively offering and denying themselves as spectacle. Here We Are (2003) [Fig.55], a series of photogaphic light boxes, finds Conroy/Sanderson variously concealed or muffled; doubled up in ‘double happiness’ (the doubling of a Chinese character symbolising marital bliss), s/he’s captured, enraptured, enraged.[25] Wrapped up, in arms, their faces-for-hands are tied. They become singular, a two-headed monster, an everyday abnormality staring out from pretty coloured strings, now mummified, now bandaged, or blind and mute behind cartoon mouths and eyes. Bandages suggest wounds in need of covering, broken skin, disfigurations; or indeed, deployed to such excess, they become a cover for invisibility, an ‘aide memoire et voir.’ Literally clipped by the ears for ‘wrong-doings’, conjoined by choice and reparation, internalising the playground rhymes and jibes that normalise and racialise same/other bodies, the double-dealing, double-faced, double-hearted, double-tongued speak from the belly, venter loqui:

chinese japanese dirty knees what are these / heads shoulders knees and toes knees and toes / chinese japanese / heads shoulders / dirty knees what are these / knees and toes knees and toes[26]


Acting Out

… mimicry represents an ironic compromise… mimicry emerges as the representation of a difference that is itself a process of disavowel.

(Homi Bhabha)[27]

Sanderson’s Time for a Change (1988) [Fig.56], an early painting within a painting which comments on configurations of ‘oriental femininity’, is recalled by Yeu Lai Mo’s Geisha (1994) [Fig.57] and the later Spitting (1997), in a body of work that similarly features self-portraiture as a central device for negotiating dual positions as “subject of the artist’s self-reflexive gaze and object of the viewer’s gaze.”[28] In Time for a Change, the gaze of the artist-as-nude interrupts and returns by proxy that directed to the young, passive East Asian woman with downcast eyes depicted behind her, “an Orientalist painting of a Malay or Chinese woman (or, more accurately, a popular reproduction of an orientalist painting) reproduced by the artist within the frame of her own work.”[29] Geisha, meanwhile, finds Mo clad in Japanese hostess/prostitute’s robes, accessorised with palette and paintbrushes, a conflation of exotic images: the sexually available oriental woman whose impassive demeanour is supplemented by tools evoking the modern, romantic, virile masculine ideal of uninhibited artistic self-expression; or the cross-cultural dressing western artist-outsider who swaps gender and paint-covered smock for the restrictive robes of a mysterious eastern muse.[30]

Geisha also shares commonalities with the work of a number of Asian American artists since the 1970s, touching on the complexities of Yasumasa Morimura’s and Tiana Thi Thanh Nga’s art historical and Hollywood ‘drag’, by which the mythologised heroes and heroines of the Western high art canon and popular cinema are impersonated and Asianized, refurnished with orientalised and transgendered Mona Lisas, Manets and Marilyns, and their accompanying bit-players – from ‘high-kicking vice cops’ to ‘dragon ladys’ to ‘war brides’ – reframed. [Figs.58-60][31] Mo, in turn, echoes earlier endeavours to claim the right to representation by imitation and usurpation, performing a double ‘cultural drag’ (Chinese as Japanese, muse as maker), playing to the tendency to see all Asian cultures as interchangeable, and foregrounding the fiction of an authentic, ethnic ‘self’.

Turning to a particular contemporary image of young Chinese women, Service, Licking, Kissing (1997) [Fig.36] looks at the politics and economics of the Chinese takeaway as a public site of sexualised labour and cultural exchange.[32] The artist films herself mouthing and repeating words of welcome, accommodation and gratitude, each miming denaturalising the utterance, the stance, the subject. Bending to kiss and lick the counter over which she smilingly presides, she translates her attitude of servitude and compliance from the verbal to the physical. This ‘semiotics of the takeaway’ invokes video as a historical means of staging, documenting and extending the impact of performance, especially for feminist art practices of the 1970s that sought “a challenge to formalism… to negate the division between art and life, to explore relational dynamics between artist and audience and to understand art as social and experiential”.[33] Indeed, Service is reminiscent of several pieces by Martha Rosler, in particular Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) [Fig.61], Service: A Trilogy on Colonization (1978), and The East is Red and the West is Bending (1977).[34] Echoing Rosler’s deadpan, absurd, yet politicised works dealing with class, gender and race-inflected relationships between women, food, labour, class, and power (food-production as a means of domestic entrapment and drudgery, economic independence or exploitation; and in its exotic ‘gourmet’ form, as a vehicle of cosmopolitan self-improvement and transformation into imperialist connoisseur of the other), Mo inhabits and oversees the public space of ‘foreign’ exchange, the ‘exotic’ accentuated as a metaphor for sexual and cultural consumption, served up in convenient packages for the alleviation and enhancement of contemporary lifestyles.

Centre-frame, centre-stage, eyes meeting the direct gaze of the lens, Service revisits the practical limitations of early video technology, aesthetically typified by “long takes, little or no editing, little or no camera movement, and direct address of the viewer”.[35] If such traits led Rosalind Krauss to argue in the late 1970s that video art is in essence narcissistic, the ‘camera-as-mirror’ a metaphor for the artist’s self-reflection or self-expression, the notion has since been complicated by psychoanalytic formulations of subjectivity and mis-recognition, and film theory.[36] The cumulative absurdity of Mo’s behaviour serves to distance the artist from her performing self, not a ‘true’, narcissistic expression of authentic subjecthood, but an emphatically performative fiction whose parodic mimicry of feminine and ethnic ‘types’ hints at agency by appropriating, distinguishing and exceeding the limits of pervasive images. Just as Sanderson’s ‘self-portraits’ are representations or articulations that mirror not the artist’s self, but wider networks of relationships of looking and power in which audiences are implicated, so video is frequently deployed to ‘mirror’ back audiences’ misidentifications and misrecognitions.

Shown in a number of combinations and contexts, including an installation called Yeu Lai’s House (1997) (which included part of a mocked up takeaway in a gallery space complete with lino floor, formica counter, and back-lit photographs of sample dishes on a fictitious menu), a key thematic emerges through the figure of ‘Yeu Lai’, a literal fabrication whose ‘inauthenticity’ or ‘staged-ness’ (like Thi Thanh Nga’s various personae) is accentuated in degrees: by the monitor as a frame within the frame or stage-set of the inauthentic takeaway, in turn framed by the gallery. The anticipated frisson of a live encounter with the eponymous hostess is diffused: look closely, and the figure standing behind the counter, mirroring the character on screen, is no more real – a mere colour copy cut-out, the artist duplicated and duplicitous.[37]

The monitor is a familiar object in the takeaway, operating, as its name suggests, as a means of surveillance,[38] as well as a medium of display for the broadcasting of satellite TV for satellite cultures, that is, for the conspicuous consumption of the takeaway’s workers rather than for its clientele (though the latter might expect and enjoy it as an element of authenticity, along with Chinese figurines, bamboo and a fish tank). In Service, Licking, Kissing, the segregration of circuits of spectatorship and consumption is collapsed, the sole spectacle being the takeaway employee performing her compliance and conforming to type for both employer and client, made complicit through the act of looking. This act is later facilitated by the magnification of the subject/object under observation: “Yeu Lai”, in a catering pinafore, smiles down from a hanging scroll dominating a gallery wall. Scale monumentalises the mundane and otherwise unseen, yet also underscores the unreality, the fiction of the representation. Displacing mountain-water scenes or images of Chinese and East Asian landmarks with a latter day calendar-girl, the picture of contemporary ‘British Chinese’ femininity revisits with irony Cultural Revolution representations of industrious, unself-conscious young women, in contrast to their frivolous, pleasure seeking, Westernised forerunners.[39] Elsewhere, the notion of surveillance is picked up through the tapping of brief telephone encounters, in which appetites are divulged and assured imminent satisfaction, and banal utterances are given disembodied voice.[40]

Mo’s own “lexicon of rage and frustration” is alluded to in a photographic triptych, Pointing, Service, and Spitting (1997) [Fig.62],[41] in which a smiling still from Service, Licking, Kissing is flanked by images of aggression and desire. In Pointing, artificial strip lights are supplanted by natural sunlight and catering clothes are ditched for the uniform of Western casual attire, a denim jacket; the artist, as the title suggests, points into the camera. In Spitting, she is seated, her head thrown back as globules of saliva arc towards the lens, arms held out as if bracing against the exertion. The frame crops another, that of a poster behind her revealing the curves of a ‘beach babe’ (Pamela Anderson?), a tanned (decapitated) blonde fantasy body in front of which Mo’s spitting reads as an emulated ejaculation. Beyond the confines of the takeaway, despite ‘reality effects’, Mo’s persona is no more real; “Yeu Lai’ mimes another stereotype, that of the young yobbish English other, hateful and lustful. Though her gesturing and posturing might also be interpreted as the dissent of a hidden ‘yellow, perilous’ force, plotting in bedrooms, spilling onto the streets, Mo’s serial mimicry forcefully demonstrates the entwining of deep-seated fears and desires perpetuating tired fictions, her replication and inversion of perceptions suggesting the preclusion of easy escape.


Setting Up

Where Mo takes the role of performer for herself, Erika Tan’s audiences are subtly cajoled into role-play. Reflecting a background in anthropology and filmmaking, Tan’s wide-ranging practice explores the discursive generation and dissemination of knowledges and/as information, and attendant, reflexive plays of power. Tan’s early video and installation pieces, like those of Susan Hiller (an obvious anthropologist-turned-artist predecessor), reflect an interest in systems of classification and categorisation, particularly as they relate to colonial and imperialist gazes bound up with Victorian anthropological and ethno-documentary visual constructions of ‘oriental’ ethnicities and cultures, and their alternately derogatory and sublime invocations within hierarchical formations.

Tan’s Passing — slipping between the boundaries unnoticed (1995) [Figs.63,64] finds non-linear, multiple-layered video and sound narratives converging and diverging across three screens, registering the impact of Trinh T. Minh-ha’s critiques as a cultural theorist and filmmaker on the disciplines and practices of traditional Western anthropology and film,[42] bringing to mind Nam June Paik’s early emulations of the bombardment of imagery in mass broadcast media, as well as Keith Piper’s use of collage, multimedia and digital technologies exploring constructions of racialised otherness.[43] In Passing, images and texts flicker confrontationally and distractingly, evoking pejorative historical and contemporary definitions and formations of ‘Chinese identity’, ‘reassemblaged’ and flattened to repetitive, nonsensical and destabilising effect.[44] In addition, the title remembers another, Adrian Piper’s ‘Passing for White, Passing for Black’ (1992), an essay on the presumptions and projections of ‘race’ as easily detected and categorized, her wider work on the history of miscegenation illuminating the slippage between ethnic boundaries of subjects – like Tan, of mixed Chinese/English parentage – simultaneously identified, misidentified, interpellated or erased by such fixed discursive constructions.[45]

The invocation of an absent/present ‘missing’ subject between discursive positionings and temporal and spatial frames is embodied by Tan herself in Travels with Pup (1996) [Figs.65,66].[46] Dislocated from yet tied to historical and contemporary narratives as a guest and ghost from the future, Tan montages her image into a number of photographs of her father in various locations in Britain, their forged encounters and proximity articulating distances, disparities, and empathetic disjunctures, parallel migrations and arrivals. The later Guarded Proximity (1997) [Figs.67,68] invites audiences into a darkened room, their cautious movements triggering projections of groups of Chinese photographed in Beijing, backs to the camera, conversations in Mandarin relayed through speakers.[47] Audiences are literally ‘in the dark’, stumbling upon unfamiliar territory, their inquisition allied with a touristic gaze disorientated and rejected by physical exclusion from the social and linguistic exchange. Again, title and tactics seem to echo those of another, Lorna Simpson’s Guarded Conditions (1989) [Fig.69],[48] “in which a brown-skinned woman in a shapeless white shift is shot from behind – with every aspect of subjectivity both bodily and facial is occluded, except the need to cover itself up – and then multiplied”.[49] In Guarded Proximity, the solitary viewer is confronted with a multiplicity of anonymous subjects, shot from behind, the confrontation abrupt yet oblique. Where Simpson’s incorporation of text (repetitive captions alternating between ‘SEX ATTACKS’, SKIN ATTACKS’) state the brutal fact of sexual and racial violence and its perpetration upon black female bodies, Tan’s use is less direct, the recorded spoken exchanges situating audiences as both onlookers and eavesdroppers, at once centre-stage and peripheral, seeking to identify with, yet intruding upon, scenes of cultural otherness.

Tan’s consistent concern to elaborate spaces and parameters of encounter as both artist and curator is evidenced across a number of projects that engage notions of the ‘site-specific’ and ‘public’, where art works are staged as games / scenes / sets for the imaginary and physical enactment of intervention and exchange. The installation Chintz (1997), later elaborated into From China to Chintz (1999) [Figs.70-73], a response to and transformation of the drawing room of a Victorian manor, whose wallpaper demonstrated the prevailing taste for chinoiserie in the period, embroiled in histories of imperialism. Conjuring scenes of economic and cultural trade and negotiation through the juxtaposition of tea-chests, birdcages and birdsong, the exoticisation and desire for, or ‘captivation’ of and by, an ‘other’, are fixed in fanciful flight.[50] Other pieces deploy games as a framework and modality for interaction, from an alternative set of Rubik’s cubes and floorgame that comprised part of Sites of Construction (1996) [Fig.74-76] to the eponymous Boat Race (1998-2000) [Figs.77,78]. Audiences become the voluntary players / actors / pawns in the artwork-as-game, in (a) minimally scripted play. Revisiting the use of the iconography of the grid and colour-coding to demonstrate collective compulsions to construct, systematise, hierarchise and measure difference, ‘interactive’ participants are directly implicated in plays of power and meaning, re-arranging coloured counters and racing paper boats, acting out and upon impulses to invent and enforce rules for the identification and regulation of difference.[51]

The former included a single projection, evoking voyeuristic and proprietorial desire via the imaging of an elusive and ambiguous subject. Green luminescent gridlines undulate subtly as a computerised eye scans and produces the bare contours of a landscape. The occasional curve eventually suggests a female body, whose bland indeterminacy echoes and inverts the opacities that figure in Sanderson’s richly textured renderings of indeterminate areas of skin. Closely observed yet concealed by scale and proximity, the body represented eludes and exceeds the limits of display, de-coded of colour, hence race and physiognomy, invisible in its entirety. Now and again broken by lines whose insistence and regularity evoke the compulsion of a latter day ethno-scientific gaze seeking to mark and delimit unknown territory, the minimal, digitalised form also points to the translation of individuals into electronic data, and the consumption and transaction of bodies over virtual space.

Tan’s interest in and use of moving image technologies, from analogue video to digital web-streaming, in such internet works as Saving Face (2001) and RE-FRESH (2002),[52] reflects wider developments over the last ten to fifteen years. As hardware and software have become cheaper, and digital video is increasingly accepted as a film format, artistic appropriation of internet technologies further complicate audience/user relationships to notions of the ‘real’, the ‘original’, the ‘fiction’ and the ‘copy’, temporality, spatiality and narrativity, authorship, authenticity, and dissemination. If the ‘truth’ of digital materials lies in part in the potential for ‘falsification’ or corruptibility, this adds a pertinent twist to the ‘naturalisation’ of subjects and others within and beyond supposedly discrete contemporary art ‘scenes’; expectations of ‘finality’ are met with recalcitrance, as ‘objects’ become infinitely imitable, variable, and downloadable, often dependent on perpetual activation and reconfiguration.[53]


Making Of

… popular culture, commodified and stereotyped as it often is, is not at all, as we sometimes think of it, the arena where we find who we really are, the truth of our experience. It is an arena that is profoundly mythic. It is a theatre of popular desires, a theatre of popular fantasies. It is where we discover and play with the identifications of ourselves, where we are imagined, where we are represented, not only to the audiences out there who do not get the message, but to ourselves for the first time.)[54]

Another set up; the staging of a crime scene redolent of 1970s American TV detective shows, with the requisite array of clues to be deciphered: a hand-made Hong Kong Phooey lies trussed up on the rug; nearby, a glass has been knocked over, leaving a stain on the swirly, brown-patterned carpet; an open suitcase reveals bundles of ‘heaven/hell-money’; photographs – from a holiday? – lie scattered; there is a Bruce Lee poster on the MDF wall, while a book of his fighting methods rests on the side of an armchair. In a corner, a TV has been left on, quietly transmitting noise, the broadcast long over.[55] Across the room, sleep and needles pin a prostrate, soft-sculptured dog to a foam-topped, glass-encased plinth. The artist sews and stuffs the look-alike-imposter for a second time, a cult cartoon character from another era, an animation made inanimate, a fabrication made material.

Doubling the double, a celluloid fiction aspires to fiction: ‘Penry’ by day, a mild-mannered dog-janitor, and ‘Hong Kong Phooey’ by night, a would-be kung-fu-kicking superhero, his crime-fighting success sealed by the surreptitious interventions of a feline side-kick, ‘Spot’.[56] The fur-deep hybrid of dubious heritage (a martial-arts craze influenced, orientalist US invention) dreams Chinese-Black-American dreams, lovable and laughable for his impotent pretensions. His comic value derives from his status as the unknowing the butt of the joke: haha, there is no real you. The pleasure and pain-staked hero and nemesis is a copy, a dummy, another addition to the tradition of ‘Ching Chong Chinamen’ buffoons littering the galleries of Western popular culture, an idiot and surrogate victim/hero for the aggressions/ affections of the artist as victim/bully. Eyes closed, blacked out in black, she lays him to rest, an injurous love/hate dying, awaiting a fairytale truth.

In Death of Hong Kong (1998) [Figs.79-81] and A Cute Puncture (1998) [Fig.82],[57] Mayling To’s painstaking recreations play on an ambivalent relationship to a character at once sympathetic (as a ‘second-generation immigrant’ of confused heritage) and loathsome (a fool, for the very same reason, with pretensions to compensate). Its materialisation alludes to tangible and intangible forms of cultural and ideological consumption, the ‘copy’ covetable as an ‘original’ in place of one that never was, a doubling that pays homage to an absence, yet makes present a substitute upon which aggressions as well as affections can be played out. The monitor provides an “anti-TV” moment, highlighting an historically tense relationship between video and television, and an ambiguous distinction between illusion and reality.[58] Hong Kong Phooey’s fate here also serves as an idiosyncratic symbol of, and allegory for, the fortunes of its territorial namesake, Hong Kong, whose return to Chinese sovereignty displaces already displaced notions of ‘origins’, and familiar ‘East/West’ formulations of hybridity and ‘in-between-ness’. In the one scenario, the Hong Kong Phooey-copy lies dead or hurt; nearby, he reappears in another guise, an array of acupuncture needles applied through black, traditional Chinese attire, an attempt to revive or curse, to further a metaphorical cultural return, or eternal banishment. What afterlife is there for this ambiguous entity, neither one nor other, here nor there?

To’s transitions between printmaking, soft-sculpture, installation, photography and most recently video, exemplify a formal and conceptual interest in multiplicity and ‘susceptibility to the copy’. Via frequently ironic, comedic and combative strategies, To sets up scenes for exploring the pervasive cultural tourism and consumption across ‘high’ and ‘low’ art forms of popular cultural representations of the ‘oriental’ in the West, or indeed, ‘the oriental in the West’, seizing in particular on the imaging of ‘martial’ arts in television and film, and the knowing citations and cross-overs between film and television, mutually reinvented through re-makes of the other. Early prints coalesce gendered clichés, placing muscular warrior bodies in cheongsam, their anonymity and ambiguity assured behind Chinese opera masks. Such titles as Hollywood Dress, I’d like to thank… (1995) directly implicate the movie-making machine and its role in the construction and perpetuation of orientalist representations, from the mysterious martial arts hero to the emasculated ‘Chinaman’, and the seductive dragon/temptress. Punchbag (1995) [Fig.84] again conflates types, inviting or articulating aggressions upon cinematic images of oriental femininity, invoking myths of masculine prowess alongside those of female submission.[59]

Widely understood as systems of combat or self-defence developed in China and East Asia (with particular philosophical underpinnings), ‘martial arts’ are often practiced as sport and recognised as a popular movie genre (or subgenres of ‘action’ or ‘epic historical drama’, depending on cultural vantage point). Materialising cartoon abstractions and conjuring unlikely urban migrant mascots, To explores the fascination and emulation of martial arts in the West (her Repertoire Dog (1999) [Fig.83] referencing film[60]), often through ambiguous hero-figures. Reinvented as uneasy embodiments of masculinity, with uncertain cultural affinities, To stages and directs displays of anxiety and fixation that not only question and deflate the lure of heroic martial arts mythologies, but also comment implicitly on cultures of copying, recycling and remaking.[61] If the ‘making-of’ a movie points to the idea of a ‘reality’ behind the ‘fiction’, a reality that precedes fabrication, it is in itself a strange fiction – a construction of a ‘reality’ based often on the juxtaposition of actors speaking ‘as themselves’ and performing ‘in role’, that is just as likely to have been ‘made after’. Promising glimpses into the workings of the movie-machine whilst functioning as both publicity mechanism and money-making spin-off, the ‘making of’ responds to desires to see more, to get closer, to get to the reality behind the fiction. How close is close enough for the fiction to be ‘true’?[62]

The pairing of Making Of and Fight Sequence (2001) [Figs.87,88], two short looped video pieces, deconstructs the opposition of ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’, referencing the common practice in martial arts films of playing outtakes alongside the end credits, showing stunts going wrong and actors ‘corpsing’ (breaking with their character, for example, into laughter – an interesting metaphor for the collapse of an illusive reality), in some instances almost literally (when stunts prove near-fatal).[63] Making Of and Fight Sequence comprise the same shots, differently edited. One includes off-camera noises and remarks, that draw attention to the technical apparatus and wider context beyond the prescribed ‘action’, the other cuts these out. Convention encourages us to read the latter as more ‘finished’ than the former, yet expectations of a forward-moving, plot-driving linearity are displaced by the juxtaposition and repetition of relatively long takes, the similarities and differences between the frames and angles of a single ‘action’, as well as the question of the would-be actor/stuntman’s purpose.

The domestic, prosaic nature of the ‘fight sequence’ throws into relief the normalisation of high-cost spectacle, and the degree to which audiences expect to be wowed by cinematic thrills, especially with the onset of digital technology (the latter spilling open different cans of real and fictional worms), in a language of fast edits and jump-cuts that stress action and gesture over dialogue. As two young anonymous non-Chinese men perform and play to unspecified demographics, acting out pale and comparatively clumsy low-budget imitations of onscreen action hero-fictions, it is perhaps not so much the iconology of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or Jet Li that is invoked, but television and filmic traditions of ‘wannabes’, pretenders and admirers (among them, Hong Kong Phooey). Their willing participation in the staging of physical combat raises questions of identification with, desire for, and the performativity of a masculinity and ethnicity bound up in stylised violence, caught in a plot-less loop.

Three further filmic works introduce another character to To’s cast of martial arts anti-heroes, first appearing as a diminutive sculpture, later carried off as an ill-fitting disguise on an unidentified man. Pandemonium (1998) sets a small stuffed panda upon a shallow brick plinth, adopting a combative, mock kung-fu stance, in defence of a country/side under siege, or a newly claimed urban territory. In Learn How to be Hard Mutha (1998), its pose is repeated in bill posters pasted on an external gallery wall, offering lessons in the fictitious ‘Bamboo Forest Fist (Southern style)’ from a ‘Master Pang Dah’.[64] Some respond territorially to the perceived act of trespass and vandalism by tearing the posters down, while others signal their approval with comments in graffiti (“cool”). Taken at face value, one passer-by asks if it is a man in a panda-suit; interestingly, he doesn’t ask why.

From fictitious martial arts lessons to home enlightenment (or enlight-entertainment?), the panda grimacing in the posters rematerialises as the panda-suited-man-without-a-name, the protagonist of Living (2001), Being (2001) and The Stranger (2002) [Figs.90,91].[65] Whereas “Hong Kong Phooey is an animal with a human personality… Panda is already a human; it jars to know that it’s a man inside the costume.”[66] The costume makes literal the masquerading of cultural identity as neither authentic nor fixed, but performed and fictive, the character’s misidentification and misrecognition encapsulated in a moment before a full-length mirror, reflecting back a fake-furred, fake-skinned self-constructed or externally imposed artifice. The less than unconvincing home-made suit reveals the distance between the subject and his ambiguous object of identification. If the panda serves as a symbol of China, its re-presentation and adoption in the form of a (bad) costume makes literal a comically excessive and impossible desire for identification and unification with a displaced cultural, philosophical and physical other.

Living sees the pantomime panda making his way into a flat, and setting down a pint of milk and a roll of black tape. Carefully customising a white stick, he performs a series of martial arts moves in various small, awkward spaces between furniture and walls, with similarly improvised weaponry. Afterwards he sits on the side of a bed, silent and solitary. Living suggests the mundaneity, interiority, and solitude required of martial arts practice, questioning its function and motivation. By contrast, Being touches on the fantastic, exploring the desire for otherness in an existential, other-worldly frame. Turning to a ‘Teach Yourself Meditation’ manual, the character takes a by-the-book approach to his search for enlightenment, a quest which takes him to an English garden with oriental pretensions (it features a pagoda) and, via a dream-sequence (a familiar filmic trope of interiority), to a literally higher plane. The sequence ends abruptly as he lands with a thud, taking his frustrations out on a tree. Finally, The Stranger finds the panda perusing shop windows, collecting stuffed toys in his own untrue image – idols in miniature, endangered nation-symbols, preserved. Back in his flat, he caresses and assaults, cutting and mutilating, pulling synthetic insides out. Unknown and unknowable, least of all to himself, he projects his self-love and loathing, desire, revulsion and regret.

In contrast to Making Of and Fight Sequence (which point to a meta-discursive space between ostensible narratives) and Living (which offers no punch-line by way of closure), Being and Stranger operate within story-telling and editing conventions, with narratives driven by predictable ‘jokes’ or ‘twists’, the former accompanied in part by an immersive soundtrack, the latter developed from a storyboard, suggestive of the possibilities as well as constraints of higher production values. In the wider context of To’s work, these may be read as ‘signifying on’ television and filmic genres and specific orientalist tropes, imitating the stylistic models and conventions that “call for the very rote actions… that fix their characters in a state of being rather than becoming”.[67] Being in particular might be read in a similar light to Tan’s Travels with Pup, Guarded Proximity, and From China to Chintz, insofar as they might all be considered in relation to an Asian American film and video tradition of the ”counter-travelogue” (narratives of the attempted ‘return’ and ‘recovery’ of a real or imaginary ‘China’ as a lost or displaced heritage and homeland). Sign-posting a culturally pre-fabricated ‘China’, in turn equated with ‘Chinese-ness’ as a trans-historical, transcendental, fixed identity or state of being, which “gives the lie to one-way cultural flow”, To’s work is littered with parodic references to the journeys made by martial arts protagonists on various roads to enlightenment and the discovery of their ‘true’ power or calling – their ‘place’ in the world.

Without character or plot exposition – the unanswered questions, what happened to the Hong Kong Phooey-look-alike? Who is he? Who and why is the man in a panda-suit? – To’s anti-heroes are fixed in the present (though fixated on an imaginary past), unable to move forwards or backwards. Despite action-flick gestures, their fundamental immobility is conveyed through troubled identifications with two-dimensional cartoon characters and cartoon-ish cultural symbols. Nameless (titles are borrowed or unspecified) and speechless (as subjects that are passively spoken rather than actively speaking), each character exists in a state of isolated staticity, foreign-ness, or briefly literal suspension; a momentary defiance of gravity and comical return to earth, indicative of fascinations with and desires for an elsewhere, beyond the pathos of placelessness.[68]


Martial Art

The ‘outtake’ is sometimes indulged as a marginal space in which to fool or ‘monkey around’, puncturing the ‘proper’ narrative with humour and laughter. The primitivist figure of the de-sexualised buck-toothed buffoon (and other variations of the compliant ‘Ching-Chong China(wo)man’) in historical and contemporary representations of the ‘oriental’ in the West complicate this potential.[69] Sanderson appropriates and alludes to such images by donning a monkey-mask in an early piece, Accessories (1988) [Fig.92];[70] Mo’s silent servility mimics ‘model’ behaviour, while hints at the sexual and illicit hark back to late nineteenth-century US presumptions of Chinese and Japanese women as being of “bad character and immoral purpose”;[71] To’s sub/human protagonists figure as impotent fools, harmless despite their inability to assimilate, their nostalgia and aspirations fixed instead on ‘return’; Tan latterly shifts register to stage her ‘self’ as straight/comic ventriloquist/dummy in Me and My Dummy (2003).[72]

‘Monkeying’ may have primitive and childish associations, yet it also resonates here with the mythological persona of the ‘Monkey King’ of classic Chinese legend, Journey to the West (Xiyouji).[73] Made familiar to audiences in the West via an acclaimed 1960s animation from China, and later by a 1970s Japanese television adaptation (dubbed into a much-emulated ‘Chinese-accented’ English for UK broadcast),[74] the legendary figure of the Monkey King displays extraordinary prowess, performs supernatural feats, acquires immortality and wisdom, and, with his “sarcasm, humour, wit and exuberance,” embodies above all rebellion.[75] In a short film, Monkey King Creates Havoc in the Heavenly Palace (2004), artists Cai Yuan and JJ Xin make themselves up as the eponymous hero to cause havoc in the ‘heavenly palace’ of the British Museum.[76] As the institution closes its doors, two flies buzz their way in, entering a silent, empty ‘after hours’ zone; an ‘outtake’ from its official activities unfolds: the flies morph into two monkey king-look-alikes, two pretenders to the pretender to the thrones of multiple kingdoms. They climb and muse over relics, and improvise a re-enactment of the monkey king’s consumption of the celestial peaches of immortality, and inebriation on celestial wine. Reeling, the artist-monkeys happen across their mirror images, their already doubled amateurish play re-doubled: laughing lengthily, they roll about the floor, amused by their own antics (an ambiguous joke – stony statues serve as straight men), before mutating once more and departing in the guise of flies.

From studied prankster-ism and embodied “replication” to disembodied “rebuttal,”[77] Sanderson, Mo, Tan, and To may also be seen to steal upon and ‘trip’ on discursive spaces,[78] doubling, tripling and multiplying armies of selves against ideological and cultural rule(s). Yet they posit no easy exuberance or affiliation with the non-Western (male) heroic figure, no alternative grand narratives. Complicit and subversive,[79] they cut into the action, ‘act out’ to ‘act up’; scenes are usurped and sets rearranged, Monkey’s aria echoing: “I. I. I. I. I. I. I. I. I.”[80]





[1] Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior (London: Picador, 1981) pp.13 & 149. First published in 1976.

[2] Coco Fusco, ‘Fantasies of Oppositionality,’ in Grant H. Kester ed., Art, Activism, & Oppositionality: Essays from Afterimage (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998) pp.60-75. Fusco, writing in 1988, cites the influence of postcolonial studies alongside the “new ethnography” and black literary studies in the U.S. academy.

[3] Sarat Maharaj, ‘Introduction,’ in Gilane Tawadros and Victoria Clarke eds., Annotations 5: Run through the Jungle: Selected Writings by Eddie Chambers (London: inIVA, 1999). pp. 4-8.

[4] Stuart Hall, ‘What is this ‘black’ in black popular culture,’ in Gina Dent ed., Black Popular Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1992), reprinted in David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen eds., Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (London and New York: Routledge, 1996) pp.465-475, p.467.

[5] Coco Fusco, The Bodies That Were Not Ours (London: inIVA, 2001), pp.xv-xvi.

[6] Lesley Sanderson showed in the ‘British Art Show,’ 1990, McLellan Gallery, Glasgow, and touring; Mayling To featured in ‘Fun de Siecle: Irony Parody and Humour in Contemporary Art,’ 1998-9, Walsall Museum and Art Gallery, and touring, which included work by Damien Hirst and Cornelia Parker.

[7] Part of this rise has been charted and promoted on www.chinese-art.com, a website founded by Beijing based US art publisher and collector, Robert Bernell. Collections of the site’s prolific articles, interviews and reviews can be found in John Clark ed., Chinese Art at the End of the Millenium: Chinese-art.com 1998-1999 (Hong Kong: New Art Media, 2000) and Wu Hung ed., Chinese Art at the Crossroads: between Past and Future, Between East and West (London: inIVA and Hong Kong: New Art Media, 2001).

[8] Referring specifically to Cuban art, Fusco suggests that “postcolonial chic” is characterised by “muted and aestheticized references to the local,” dubbing “the style of choice” for those who want to take part in “biennials and other blockbuster exhibitions” as “Havana-lite.” Fusco, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ op.cit., pp.154.162

[9] Again, I refer both to Fusco’s “Havana-lite” and Julian Stallabrass’ High Art Lite (London and New York: Verso, 1999). I suggest the incipience of ‘diversity fatigue’ in Britain in a paper, ‘Teach Yourself Chinglish (Exercises in Rudimentary Britishness),’ presented as part of a panel on ‘Multiculturalism and the Arts in the Colonial/Postcolonial Age,’ at the CAA 91st annual conference, February 19-22, 2003, New York City.

[10] Susan Hiller argues that video can be considered a kind of printmaking, where “printmaking… added something to the traditional practices, the idea of multiplicity,” from which “can be derived the legitimacy of a range of other things… it seems to me that it’s logical to understand that not only photography as an art practice, but all the things that come out of that, videotapes, etc. need to be seen as extensions of the theory of printmaking.” Susan Hiller, ‘The Idea of Multiplicity in Art,’ in Barbara Einzig ed., Thinking About Art: Conversations with Susan Hiller (Manchester University Press, 1996), pp.159-165.

[11] Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer, ‘Introduction: Complexities of an Art Form,’ in Hall and Fifer eds., Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art (New York: Aperture in association with Bay Area Video Coalition, 1990), p.14.

[12] Fusco, ‘Hustling for Dollars,’ op.cit., pp.137-153.

[13] Henry Louis Gates, ‘The Signifying Monkey and the Language of Signifyin(g): Rhetorical Difference and the Orders of Meaning,’ in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp.44-88.

[14] Gilane Tawadros, ‘Working Drawings,’ in These Colours Run (Eddie Chambers/Wrexham Library Arts Centre, 1994), exhibition catalogue, pp.20-28.

[15] Lesley Sanderson, Negative (1988), pencil on paper, laser copies, red signature stamp; Self Portrait – Larger than Life (1990), pencil on paper; Reproductions (1991), mixed media; These Colours Run (1994), mixed media.

[16] Trinh T. Minh-ha, ‘Bold Omissions and Minute Depictions,’ in Trinh, When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics (New York and London: Routledge, 1991) pp.155-166. Lesley Sanderson, He Took Fabulous Trips (1990), pencil and acrylic on paper; Can’t See the Wood for the Trees (1992), pencil on board, monoprints.

[17] Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, ‘Blankness as a Signifier,’ in Gilbert-Rolfe, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime (New York: Allworth Press, 1999) pp.109-123.

[18] “The ‘grain’ is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs…” Roland Barthes, ‘The Grain of the Voice,’ in Barthes, trans. Stephen Heath, Image, Music, Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), p.188.

[19] Neil Conroy/Lesley Sanderson. Fabrication and Reality (1998), pencil on paper, carbon copy paper, light, viewing device (lens), timber.

[20] Fusco, op.cit., pp. 8-9. Sanderson’s work has been included in ‘Black Art: Plotting the Course,’ 1988, Oldham Art Gallery and touring, ‘Four x 4,’ 1991, Harris Museum, Preston, ‘History and Identity: Seven Painters’ (1991), Norwich Gallery and touring. and ‘Transforming the Crown: African, Asian and Caribbean Artists in Britain,’ The Bronx Museum and Studio Museum, New York, 1997-1998.


[22] Fusco, op.cit., pp.14-16; Stuart Hall, ‘New Ethnicities,’ in Kobena Mercer ed., ICA Documents 7: Black Film, British Cinema (London: ICA, 1989), reprinted in Morley and Chen eds., op.cit. pp.441-449, p.442.

[23] Paul Gilroy, Between Camps: Nations, Cultures and the Allure of Race (London: Penguin, 2000) pp.17-18.

[24] Conroy/Sanderson, Fabrication (1998), pencil on paper, timber wedge constructions, neon lights, speakers.

[25] Conroy/Sanderson, Doctored (2003), photo light boxes.

[26] Conroy/Sanderson, work in progress (2003), video.

[27] Homi Bhabha, ‘Of Mimicry and Man,’ in Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994) pp.85-92.

[28] Tawadros, op.cit. Lesley Sanderson, Time for a Change (1988), oil on canvas; Yeu Lai Mo, Geisha (1994), colour cibachrome print.

[29] Tawadros, ibid. p22.

[30] See for example the essay, ‘God’s Little Artist’ in Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women Art and Ideology (London: Pandora, 1981) pp.82-113 and Carol Duncan, ‘Virility and Domination in Early 20th-Century Vanguard Painting,”’Artforum, December 1973, pp. 30-39.

[31] Yasumasa Morimura’s digitally manipulated photographs, such as the Self Portrait As Art History series, have been exhibited widely, including solo shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1992), the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, Jouy-en-Josas, France (1993), the Hara Art Museum, Hara, Japan (1994), and the Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama, Japan (1996), and the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne (1996). Tiana Thi Thanh Nga dir. From Hollywood to Hanoi (US, 1993), film, colour, 78 minutes, incorporates clips from Tiana Thi Thanh Nga’s acting career under the name ‘Tiana Alexandra.’ Peter X Feng, Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video (Duke UP, 2002) pp.128-147.

[32] Yeu Lai Mo, Service, Licking, Kissing (1997), video.

[33] Maria Troy, ‘I Say I Am: Women’s Performance Video from the 1970s,’ also the title to a collection of “early feminist tapes” curated by Troy as Associate Curator of Media at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio. The title refers to Chris Straayer’s essay, ‘I Say I Am: Feminist Performance Video in the ’70s,’ Afterimage, November 1985, pp. 8-12. http://www.vdb.org/resources/resourceframe.html April 7, 2004.

[34] Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen (US, 1975), video, b&w, sound, length given as 5:25, 5:30, 6:00, 6:09 and 7:00 minutes by various online distributors, including Video Data Bank www.vdb.org and Electronic Arts Intermix www.eai.org; Service: A Trilogy on Colonization (New York: Printed Matter, 1978); The East is Red and the West is Bending (US, 1977), video, b&w, sound, 20 minutes. Semiotics “‘shows and tells’ the ingredients of the housewife’s day, the ABCs of kitchen gadgets, with movements more samurai-like than suburban,” (Troy, op.cit.) a demonstration of “gourmet cooking utensils within a lexicon of rage and frustration.’ Service comprises a series of postcard novels, ‘A Budding Gourmet,’ about “a middle class housewife who takes a gourmet cooking class because she feels it will enhance [her] as a human being’),” ‘McTowers Maid,’ which centres on “a woman employee who organises the workers in a fast-food chain,” and ‘Tijuana Maid,’ about “a Mexican woman who comes to San Diego to work as a maid in a middle class household.” Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker eds., Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1970-1985 (London; Pandora, 1987), p.318. The East is Red returns to the format of the amateur cooking demo, with Rosler reading from the instruction booklet for the latest consumer kitchen appliance, a West Bend electric wok. A Budding Gourmet is also the title to a 1974 video piece by Rosler, which “explores the ideological processes through which food preparation comes to be seen as ‘cuisine,’ a product of national culture. Accompanied by the strains of a violin concerto, Rosler’s deadpan narrator explains her reasons for wanting to become a gourmet. Photographs from food and travel magazines alternate as Rosler’s narrator discusses food as a key to refinement, breeding, and, in the case of ‘Eastern’ cuisines, spirituality…” http://www.eai.org/eai/tape.jsp?itemID=2547

[35] Straayer, op.cit., p.8, cited in Troy, op.cit.

[36] “Even if the artist is narcissistically performing for the video-mirror, the spectator of the image of this behaviour is not. Conversely, if the spectator is performing for the mirror in a video installation, then the artist is not himself or herself seeking narcissistic gratification nor is the nature of the spectator’s interaction with the installation necessarily narcissistic. Nor are all artists who appear in their own tapes simply seeking the self-affirmation of a narcissistic involvement…” Maureen Turim, ‘The Cultural Logic of Video,’ Illuminating Video op.cit., pp.331-342.

[37] Service, Licking, Kissing was shown as part of solo exhibition, ‘Yeu Lai’s House’ (1997), named after the installation on show, at the Gallerette, London and Quay Art Gallery, Kingston upon Hull (2000); in a group show, ‘Number Six’ (1998), TS2K, London; and in a two-person show, ‘Licked’ (2000), Gasworks, London.

[38] Dan Graham notes the presence of video as a means of surveillance in private and public spaces in his essay, ‘Video in Relation to Architecture,’in Illuminating Video, op.cit., pp. 168-188.

[39] Ellen Johnston Liang, ‘The People’s Republic of China and the 1930s Advertisement Calender Poster Artists,’ paper presented at the symposium, ‘On Contemporary Chinese Visual Culture,’ University of Westminster, 6 February 2004, convened by Dr Katie Hill.

[40] Yeu Lai Mo, Service, 1, 2, 3 (1997/2001), inkjet, mixed media and Untitled (Sound Piece) were shown in the exhibition, ‘Ten Thousand Li’ (2002), Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool and touring.

[41] Yeu Lai Mo, Pointing, Service, and Spitting (1997), cibachrome photographs.

[42] See for example Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman Native Other (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), Trinh dir. Reassemblage (US, 1982), colour, 40 minutes and Naked Spaces – Living is Round (US, 1985), colour, 135 mins.

[43] For example Keith Piper’s Surveillances: Tagging The Other (1994), four monitor, four, tape source computer animation/video installation with projected slide, and the later mixed media exhibition, website and CD rom project, Relocating the Remains (1997-2000).

[44] Erika Tan, Passing — slipping between the boundaries unnoticed (1995), installation with three monitors, Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, and as part of the exhibition, ‘Half the Sky’ (1997), Museum of London.

[45] Adrian Piper, ‘Passing for White, Passing for Black,’ Transition 58 (1992), pp.4-32.

[46] Erika Tan, Travels with Pup (1996), series of photographic prints.

[47] Erika Tan, Guarded Proximity (1997), slide projection and sound.

[48] Lorna Simpson, Guarded Conditions (1989) colour Polaroids, plastic plaques, plastic letters.

[49] Lorraine O’Grady, ‘Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming black female subjectivity.’ in Art, Activism, and Oppositionality, op.cit., pp.286-286.

[50] Erika Tan, Chintz (1997) and From China to Chintz (1999), installations with sound, video, lighting, wallpaper, tea chests, tea, lavender essence, P.I.R detectors, bird cages, the latter part of the group exhibition ‘Empire & I’, Pitshanger Manor Museum and Gallery, London; also reconfigured as East, in ‘East International’ (2000), Norwich Gallery.

[51] Erika Tan, Sites of Construction – Rubik’s Cubes / The Body / Floorgame (1996), Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne; Boatrace (1998-2000), installation and event, CAS, Osaka, Japan and East International, Norwich, in which audiences were invited to make red, yellow, white, black, and brown paper boats which where later ‘raced’ on a nearby river.

[52] Erika Tan, Saving Face (2001) at www.slipstream.net.uk, and RE-FRESH: circumstance/choice/chance (2002), at www.identinet.net; series of digital customised screensavers.

[53] The notion of an artistic project’s (lack of) ‘finality’ being a particular prerogative and difficulty for arts institutions accustomed to dealing and thinking in terms finite, discrete objects, even where these might have a time-based element, a point stressed recently by Sarah Cook, postdoctoral curator and researcher at the University of Sunderland, Gateshead, UK, at the one-day conference British New Media Art, Tate Britain, April 3, 2004.

[54] Stuart Hall, ‘What is this ‘black’ in black popular culture,’ op.cit., p.474.

[55] Mayling To, Death of Hong Kong (1998), installation with MDF, carpet, rug, TV, lamp, suitcase, books, ornaments, paper, photographs, wire, fabric, polyester, foam.

[56] Hong Kong Phooey, a Hanna-Barbera creation, first aired in 1974 at the height of the popularity of martial arts in the film, television and comic industries. A brief 2001 revival saw the character buffed up by Time Warner Company’s Cartoon Network, which produced an updated online adventure featuring a muscular, werewolf-like Hong Kong Phooey and Manga/animé styled martial arts action. http://www.cartoonnetwork.com/watch/web_shows/hkp/

[57] Mayling To, A Cute Puncture (1998), wood, foam, fabric, polyester, acupuncture needles.

[58] “… video is unique in its evolution out of the most advanced apparatus of mass culture, the most commercial and/or state-power-controlled instrument to date, television. Video comes after television, taking its hardware, but more or less abandoning its vocation as commercial mass communicator.” Turim, op.cit., p.335.

[59] Mayling To, Hollywood Dress, I’d like to thank… (1995), print on paper; Punchbag (1996-7), mixed media. Punchbag added further complexities to questions of raced, gendered and cultural identities raised by Glenn Ligon’s Skin Tight: Muhammed Ali Text (1995) [Figs.85-86], a punchbag and text piece which specifically sought to address “how black men have used boxing to confront issues of black American identity” and “the construction of masculinity in relation to questions of violence, the commodification of black subjects, sexuality and resistance.” Glenn Ligon, ‘Skin Tight,’ in David Chandler, John Gill, Tania Guha and Gilane Tawadros eds., Boxer: An Anthology of Writings on Boxing and Visual Culture (London: Institute of international Visual Arts, 1996), p. 59.

[60] Hong Kong Phooey returns in Mayling To’s Repertoire Dog (1999), fabric, polyester, plastic guns, the title a pun on Quentin Tarantino’s film, Reservoir Dogs (US, 1992), colour, 99 minutes.

[61] The last three decades have seen the successes (to varying critical and commercial degrees) of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, all of whom found fame in Hong Kong before making an impact in Hollywood. The influence of Hong Kong action and martial arts film-making in terms of stylistics and aesthetics (from John Woo’s ‘balletic’ gun play to the use of wires in martial arts fight sequences) is perhaps most evident in such projects as the Warshowski Brothers’ The Matrix Trilogy (US, 1999-2003), and Quentin Tarantino’s homage to several genres, Kill Bill: Vols. 1 & 2 (US, 2003-4).

[62] Richard Shiff, ‘Closeness,’ in Naomi Salaman and Ronnie Simpson eds., Postcards on Photography: The Handmade Copy in Reproduction (Cambridge Darkroom Gallery, 1998) pp.11-36.

[63] Mayling To, Making Of and Fight Sequence (2001), video, colour, 1 min 20 sec loop each. Jackie Chan in particular has made such outtakes something of a signature. As is widely known, the martial arts-skilled actor performs all his stunts himself; if errors of judgement reveal that his vulnerability after all, they also paradoxically accentuate his ‘superhuman’ feats. Outtakes also figure in the end credits of Chan’s long-time collaborator Samo Hung’s Martial Law, a Chinese-in-America US TV cop drama that follows both in the fish-out-of-cultural-water tradition, as well as that of the comic, cod-philosophizing (pun unintended), de-sexualised, law-abiding ‘oriental,’ epitomised by his character’s fictional detective predecessor, Charlie Chan.

[64] Mayling To, Pandemonium (1998), bricks, imitation grass, clay, aluminium, fabric, polyester; Learn How to be a Hard Mutha (1998), digital prints.

[65] Mayling To, Living (2001), Being (2001), The Stranger (2002), video, colour, respectively 8 mins 20 secs; 3 mins 45 secs; 11 min 25 secs.

[66] Mayling To in conversation with Melanie Keen (2002) http://www.iniva.org/archive/resource/2255.

[67] Feng, op.cit., p.155.

[68] The levitation recalls the characterisation of mobile diasporic Chinese between residences in Hong Kong and abroad as ‘astronauts families’ and ‘satellite kids.’ See Aihwa Ong, ‘On the Edge of Empires: Flexible Citizenship Among Chinese in Diaspora,’ in Positions, 1993, v.3 part 1, pp.745-778. The moment is also redolent of a fantasy sequence in Isaac Julien’s Baltimore (2003), a three screen DVD projection with sound, which sees a be-wigged female character leap vertically to an impossible height, and hover, before landing precisely on her stiletto heels; a lower budget variation on a narrative of fleeting (failed?) transcendence?

[69] Robert G. Lee dubs the portrayal of “buck-toothed, squinty-eyed and pigtailed” Chinese wearing straw ‘coolie’ hats as “yellowface”. “Yellow face exaggerates “racial” features that have been designated “Oriental,” such as “slanted” eyes, overbite, and mustard-yellow skin colour. Only the racialized Oriental is yellow. Asians are not.” Lee, Orientals: Asian American in Popular Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999) pp.1-2.

[70] Lesley Sanderson, Accessories (1988), pencil on paper.

[71] Thousands were brought into the US and coerced into prostitution in the mid and late nineteenth century. Subsequently sensationalised as figures of pollution and social decay, the 1870 Page Act prohibited “Chinese, Japanese, and Mongolian women” from being brought into or entering the United States to “engage in immoral or licentious activities”. Lee, op.ciy., p.89.

[72] Erika Tan, Me and My Dummy (2003), DVD, 15 minutes.

[73] The epic Chinese classical novel Journey to the West (Xiyouji) is attributed to Wu Ch’eng-en (c.1500-1582). Born from a stone egg. “Monkey… progresses from becoming the King of the Monkeys on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, to achieving supernatural Daoist skills. Bounding through the skies on clouds, he creates havoc on his visits to heaven in the vain hope of achieving ever higher celestial office. Having eaten the peaches of immortality specially grown for the banquet to be held by the Heavenly Queen Mother of the West, and upset the Jade Emperor and other deities, he is finally incarcerated beneath the Mountain of the Five Elements by the Buddha. Released to accompany the monk Xuanzang on his quest to obtain the holy Buddhist scriptures from India, these two, and three other pilgrims – Pigsy, Monk Sha and the dragon horse – overcome 81 calamities and confrontations in the form of supernatural phenomena and monsters before reaching their goal and returning to China with the texts.” The Mythical Quests: In Search of Adventure, Romance and Enlightenment, exhibition notes, The British Library, London (1997). http://www.bl.uk/whatson/exhibitions/mythical.html

[74] Wan Laiming dir. Uproar in Heaven (Da’nao Tiangong), also known as Havoc in Heaven (China, 1961, 1964), animation, colour. The Japanese television series, Monkey, first aired in the UK in 1979.

[75] The Mythical Quests, op.cit.

[76] Cai Yuan and JJ Xin’s often irreverent, performative interventions pointedly challenge the hegemonic values of the contemporary Western art world and its institutions. They are perhaps best known for jumping on Tracey Emin’s Turner Prize-winning exhibit, My Bed, at Tate Britain (1999), and for urinating at Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain in Tate Modern (2000).

[77] Feng describes Tiana Alexandra’s representations of Vietnam as “replications, elaborations and rebuttals of U.S. imagery.” Op.cit., p.130. A comparative study of the mythical ‘monkey king’ of Chinese literature and the ‘signifying monkey’ of African-American vernacular oral as prankster or ‘trickster’ figures, is, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this essay.

[78] I refer here to Wittman Ah Sing, the Chinese-American protagonist of Maxine Hong Kingston, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (New York: Knopf, 1989).

[79] Some “Asian subjects selectively participate in Orientalist formulations as they negotiate shifting discursive terrains in the world economy,” via a strategic “complicity and subversion of these constructions.” Aihwa Ong, ‘On the Edge of Empire: Flexible Citizenship Among Chinese in Diaspora,’ Positions, 1993, vol. 3, part 1, pp.745-778, pp.746-7.

[80] Monkey’s aria from The Journey to the West, cited in Kingston, op.cit.