Opium, No Pun Intended,
2011 Digital print on plinth, 36" x 54
Image Courtesy Melissa Blackall Photography
It sounds like a karaoke bar, a din of voices carrying on private conversations while someone in the back sings one bad rendition of some poppy 80s hit song after another. The acoustics, audible from the doorway of the Boston Center for the Arts, transform the gallery into an all too appropriate venue for the show on view. It’s Me Love You Long Time, a group exhibition of over 50 Southeast Asian and Asian American artists, in the Mills Gallery now through April 7. Curator Edwin Ramoran traveled far and wide, scouring nightclubs and artists’ studios throughout Asia and North America, to bring together the diverse voices that comprise MLYLT. In a visual and aural cacophony of video, photography, installation and more, those artists tell us their stories of life lived in the interstices of sex work, the global sex trade, gender and sexuality, identity and sexploitation. MLYLT is a double-entendre exhibition of artwork, bodies, and sex, a "sexhibition," if you will, that takes sexploitation and sex work as its organizing themes without becoming exploitative itself in the process.
The politics of MLYLT are not simplistic, neither a moralizing condemnation nor a glossy glorification of sex work. Ramoran lets sex workers (and activists and artists) speak for themselves. They bare the seedy realities of sex trafficking, of gender, racial, and economic oppression, while retaining their humanity throughout. The artists in MLYLT never present as victimized tropes. While the issues they explore are often gravely serious--in one film, a brave former "comfort woman" tells her story of seeking legal redress for the crimes committed against her in Japanese military rape camps--just as often the artists employ humor to explore and even mock colonial, sexual, and gendered economies. One video of an immigrant nanny shows the exaggerated and absurd lengths to which she must go to make her body available to her employers as a domestic: she chews their cereal for them, brushes their teeth and hair, reads them Eric Mann bedtime stories, and mops the kitchen floor upside-down with her headdress, moving back and forth in an explicitly sexual way with her feet propped on the counter. Her employers are not only white, but both Asian American and African American, their privilege residing in their nationality. Meanwhile, a more somber approach is taken in the movie "Korean Bride," which couples racist and sexist comments posted online by yahoo users with photographs of a presumably mail-order bride in traditional ethnic costume posing beside different Americans, presumably buyers, in all 50 states.
The MLYLT artists express themselves best through video, all playing simultaneously in the gallery. A movie modeled after the silent film features an Asian bride of Frankenstein who chases the scientist angrily throughout the castle to the tune of I Hate Myself for Loving You. This kind of campy humor pervades the exhibition. Of course, there are straight photographs, too, portraits of strippers and prostitutes, some of ambiguous gender; while just across the room, fully-clothed portraits of women return the gaze of the viewer with faces comprised of disturbing assemblages of female genitals. Through digital manipulation (and sex work), their identities are erased, replaced by what the john sees when he looks at them, the prospect of endless, dehumanizing sex. Religion and sexuality are both in the mix. In one photograph by Anjali Bhargava in collaboration with Swati Khurana, a South Asian Pieta holds her handsome black "son" from behind a classical Christian altar, her arm outstretched like a Yogi, while a different series of fetishistic images reveal idealized (and sanitized) Asian women’s bodies, breasts big, waists small, wielding a riding crop in corset and knee-high patent leather boots or lace stockings and seven-inch heels. I’m not sure what to make of those glossy black & whites. Their style is commercial sex, their subject overly sexualized women’s bodies. But what they present (or at least try to present) is one sexy but dominant femme. Are they subversive, then, or not? That question could be asked of any of the works on view in MLYLT, and the answer never comes easy.
Despite the gravity of its subject matter, this is a fun exhibition, and it is clear that the artists themselves have been poking fun. Clifford Landon Pun's advertisement for Yves Saint Laurent "Opium" perfume features a feminized Asian model reclining suggestively, donning Indian jewelry, trinkets, and rubber flip-flops; he is clearly aware of the stereotypes infusing his image and is exaggerating them to full effect in a mockery of fashion and gender norms at once. Johanna Poethig's installation of toiletries with sexualized brand names, Lick Me Lather and Magic Muff Spray Mist, call to mind the stereotypes and often realities of massage parlors, while sports trophies from Bhargava and Khurana's series UnSuitable Girls direct our attention to sexist gender norms, racist typecasting, and the enforcement (and contingent awards) of cultural assimilation. Sometimes the fun might get out of hand, if only momentarily; I can’t be certain how the discourse around sex work is enhanced by a video of a man painting a canvas with an ejected enema or masturbating in a kitchen, humping the microwave forcefully (though I did laugh when I saw that). But, then again, I don’t really need to be certain. The appeal of MLYLT is the playful complexity of it all, the way in which it refuses to be reduced to banal certainties or coherence in its engagement of the senses and expression of lived realities.
So, while I might not catch all of the conversation, I am glad to hear all of it at once, resounding throughout the Mills Gallery. And I certainly don’t hate myself for loving Me Love You Long Time. I think you will, too.
Me Love You Long Time is on view until April 7, 2013 at Boston Center for the Arts' Mills Gallery.