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Regional Interests

At Chinese Culture Center, a Collective Experience Borne Out of Difference

In otherworldly utopias and sensitive documentary films, the works in WOMEN我們: From Her to Here at San Francisco’s Chinese Culture Center San Francisco explore queer and feminist lifeworlds from Asian and Asian American perspectives. The exhibition’s title draws on the Chinese word for “we,” 我們, which in Mandarin is homophonous to the English word “women.”

Propelled by a sense of togetherness invoked by the title, the exhibition, which is the third in the CCC’s WOMEN我們 series, creates a sense of unity within difference among artists who span generations and continents. Across a great variety of work the exhibition as a whole sings; its disparate parts come together in a harmony that is neither reductive nor strained.

WOMEN我們 is true to two aspects of the word “we”: there is a sense of belonging and collective experience—but one that is not borne out of sameness. A unifying factor among the artworks is how the past and future, along with play and sobriety, traverse each other’s boundaries. These works resist stabilization and didacticism, instead presenting the artist’s identities, and those of their subjects, as dynamic and ongoing creations.

Heesoo Kwon, ‘Leymusoom Bridge’ (installation view), 2021. (Courtesy of Chinese Culture Center)

Heesoo Kwon’s Leymusoom Bridge (2021) is a captivating video installation that continues the artist’s exploration of what she calls an “autobiographical feminist religion.” On one narrow wall, a digitally animated nude woman walks in place. With a determined facial expression and posture, the woman, whose skin bears a green tint, walks against a background that appears simultaneously cosmic and submarine. The woman walks continuously, with the background never receding, while events unfold on the adjacent wall.

At one point in the piece, a section of San Francisco’s Chinatown, seen as if from satellite, floats against a luminous celestial background. The Hilton hotel that houses the CCC stands out, along with the pedestrian bridge that connects the hotel to Portsmouth Square, a popular social space in the neighborhood. Eventually, water fills the streets and rises to subsume the bridge and then the rest of the Hilton. Organic matter covers the concrete surfaces and several women stand, swim and dance in this dreamy sea-space. Kwon’s utopia evokes both tradition—like the Korean shamanism she draws upon—and rebirth.

Taiwanese artist Huang Meng Wen similarly plays with history in her Suits and Corsages project (2015—present), which developed out of the artist’s desire to learn how queer people lived in Taiwan prior to an increased Western influence starting in the 1980s. The series of photographs of videos focuses on a group of women from the 1950s and 1960s who called themselves “women in pants,” a reference to their use of suits to express their gender identity and sexual orientation against prevailing social norms.

In her photographs, Huang recreates, re-lives and reimagines this history. In one golden-framed work that resembles a family portrait, a woman sits in a chair, flanked by family members, wearing leather oxfords and a black suit with the jacket resting on her shoulders. She sits in a cool, confident stance with a slight smirk. This smile seems to break the fourth wall, confiding in the viewer something mischievous about this moment in history and, correspondingly, these artworks.

Nicole Pun, ‘In & Out’ series, 2014-2018. (Courtesy of the artist)

Hong Kong artist Nicole Pun also subverts the traditional form of portrait photography in her In & Out Series (2014–2018). The photographs show hands set against stark black backgrounds, as one might see in glossy editorials. By employing the language of studio portraiture, the photographs simultaneously indicate portraiture while refusing its typical subject, the face.

Pun’s photographs emphasize the body as a carrier and a means of enacting one’s identity. She write of her project, “for lesbians, their hands have deeper and more personal meaning.” Specifically, the hands and the various gestures they make are representations of lesbian intimacy, drawn from interviews with community members in Hong Kong, Taiwanese and U.S. Though the hands may seem disembodied by conventional standards, the portraits locate personhood in limbs and extremities, insisting on the importance of the body and its agency to the self.

In each of these works and many others in the exhibition—such as Tina Takemoto’s abstract filmic exploration of queer desire refracted through the life of San Francisco physician Margaret Chung (1889–1959) and Chelsea Ryoko Wong’s vibrant paintings of historical sites of Asian queer culture in San Francisco—the artists’ playfulness and unrestraint continually seek to create new worlds. These worlds do not break with history but rather are shaped by past icons, queer histories and ancestors. In this sense, the “we” of the exhibition’s title extends not just across the artists but to those who came before, and those who follow, with whom they are in dialogue.

‘WOMEN我們: From Her to Here’ is on view at the Chinese Culture Center (750 Kearny St., 3rd Floor) and online through Aug. 28. Details here.

Copyright 2021 KQED