In conjunction with our exhibition Collecting Dissonance we are sharing newly commissioned text works by an international group of artists, writers and academics expanding on the themes of labour, value and identity. This week, we’re pleased to share a newly commissioned text by writer and lecturer Hentyle Yapp.
Vaguely, Authentically, and Ubiquitously Asian
When I was a dancer in my twenties, I dreaded the moment when we would set costumes for an upcoming production. Most pieces of clothing seemed to amplify my race, particularly for those works considered avant-garde or postmodern (in other words, racially coded as white). There would often be items that looked amazing on my non-Asian (usually white) colleagues but often made me appear to be a martial arts master or waiter at some sort of Asian restaurant – any sort of Asian restaurant. I or the clothes became ‘vaguely Asian’. This incident occurred uncannily during most productions, and I learned to laugh about it with many colleagues. Those who were too polite or didn’t know me would simply ask me to try another costume, but I could always tell what they were thinking. They often had a physical response that communicated that I just looked “too Asian.” But those close to me would often comment on and joke about the vague Asianness that seemed to arise with almost any set of clothes. Being read as vaguely Asian was an inescapable condition. Thus, rather than refute it and humanise myself, I have worked to understand the histories and structures that have produced this condition for myself and many others.
I, of course, don’t share this story to distance myself from certain forms of work; I have performed many kinds of labour to support myself, including that in food service. I share this story because there was something my body activated that made most clothing become ‘vaguely Asian’. The clothes were never explicitly or ‘authentically’ Asian in the sense that I was donning a qipao or Mao collar. It just seemed that my body rendered the clothing to resemble something Asian, which then became associated with specific pornotropes, to use Hortense Spillers’ term, like a martial artist or restaurant worker. These tropes enframe Asian subjects within limited understandings. These associations certainly indicate ideas of race, class, gender, and labour. However, they also direct us to the racial aesthetic of ‘vaguely’, which CFGNY has sought to unpack, consider, and aestheticise.
The aesthetic of ‘vaguely Asian’ seems to work against what we might consider to be authentically Asian. CFGNY’s work, which focuses on overlaps across the art and fashion worlds, plays with the vague in order to question the limits of the authentic. And I see this sort of aesthetic of the vaguely Asian across a variety of consume(r/d) products: from fashion to fashionable mochi donuts, and from minimalist design and architecture to skin care products. The aesthetic of vaguely Asian feels so right because it names not simply an aesthetic of fusion or hybridity; rather, it names an aesthetic that works with and against the authentic. Vaguely Asian doesn’t maintain a standard of authenticity that becomes diluted, which notions like fusion often presume. Instead, vaguely Asian refutes the wholeness of the authentic.
The authentic governs and delimits what we consider to be properly and legibly Asian, whereby those that don’t live up to the standard aren’t considered Asian enough. Meanwhile, vaguely Asian opens up Asianness for its porosity. In other words, vaguely Asian does not name the nation-state as a central locus for the authentic. Instead, vaguely Asian displaces the nation-state as the organising principle for the authentic. I, for example, would try on a costume which made me a martial arts master of any kind of genre or some general food service worker at some generically Asian restaurant. I was never read to be an authentic representation of a specific country, like China or Thailand. The aesthetic of the vague names a racialised condition that displaces both the authentic and the nation-state as organising principles for race.
In this sense, vaguely Asian not only names the limits of the authentic, but also produces a mode of relation across those subjects that don’t fit under the authentic and/or those who might be interpellated within the racial. This mode of relation, a vagueness in relation, allows us to connect to others around a shared mode that might inspire laughter, exhaustion, and/or rage. Regardless, it becomes a shared modality in which to create momentary connection. It allows us to briefly attach to others. In this way, CFGNY’s vaguely Asian aesthetic produces a political mode of relationality.
But what is the purpose of this shared relation today, amidst what many call ‘the rise of Asia’? The rise of Asia notes changes in where and how capital accumulates. Scholars have discussed the shift from the American century into the Asian one, as it becomes centred around China.
How do we take vaguely Asian when Asia has become ubiquitous?
What do we do with the category of ubiquitously Asian?
If Asian capital is on the rise, does the vaguely and its political project of relationality offer enough to consider this larger condition? What political project then might attend to the aesthetics of the ever-increasing ubiquity of Asia?
In discussing the ubiquity of Asia, I am not only naming how capital accumulation occurs and consumption has increased across Asia. The ubiquity of Asia also names the fact that the labour, the work, the (often women’s) hands, the sweat, and the extraction occurs across this, amongst other, spaces. Ubiquitously Asian names a late capitalist condition, whereby the centre of accumulation/consumption expands in the same region as the center of labour.
Vaguely Asian and ubiquitously Asian together name the international (gendered) division of labour, which Gayatri Spivak, Lisa Lowe, Minh-Ha T. Pham, Heijin Lee, Sarah Haley, and Thuy Linh Tu, amongst others, have been describing for some time. By doing so, they further a relational project that considers questions around gender, race, and sexuality as always imbricated with racial capital. I offer here the category of ubiquitously Asian to further such a project and to think with CFGNY’s vaguely Asian. I consider their projects as toggling across vaguely and ubiquitously Asian, as they explore different ways to engage Asia as a site of labour, production, and consumption. There are also the many sites/regions across the Asias that these artists engage. As such, in addition to their exploration of vaguely Asian, I offer the aesthetic of ubiquitously Asian to amplify their established relational political project towards a further consideration of consumption, transnational divisions, and race – all aspects embedded in the very fabrics, materials, and structures these artists gather.
Hentyle Yapp is an assistant professor at NYU in the Department of Art & Public Policy and is affiliated faculty with the Departments of Performance Studies and Comparative Literature, Center for Disability Studies, and Asian/Pacific/American Institute. His research engages China, law, disability, and queer theory. His book, Minor China: Method, Materialisms, and the Aesthetic, was recently published by Duke University Press. He has also co-edited with C. Riley Snorton Saturation: Race, Art and the Circulation of Value, which is on race and the art world. He has published articles in American Quarterly, GLQ, Journal of Visual Culture, and Verge: Studies in Global Asias, amongst other venues.