News coverage for Present Tense Biennial by San Francisco Examiner

Chinese Cultural Center and Kearny Street Workshop: Present Tense Biennial

Vibrant, political, poetic, and challenging,the Present Tense Biennial, coordinated by the Chinese Cultural Center and the Kearny Street Workshop, speaks volumes about contemporary Asian/American identity. Curated by Kevin B. Chen with Abby Chen and Ellen Oh, this exhibition assembles work by thirty-one artists from the bay area and abroad in response to contemporary Chinese Culture. After viewing several bay area exhibitions of work by native Chinese artists (major shows at SFMOMA and BAMPFA), I was pleased to behold an Asian American response to the challenges of identity and shifiting political currents as it relates to cultural heritage at the Present Tense Biennial.

Cui Fei is a Chinese artist that exhibits actively in the United States. Pictured above is a detail from a large wall installation, Manuscript of Nature V. From afar, the installation has the appearance of a calligraphic manuscript with its stroke-like sense of movement. Upon closer examination however, one realizes that each “character” is a unique sculpture informed by the natural formation of twigs. Language and its conventional, evolving nature is a running theme in this show and Cui Fei’s lyrical installation poignantly explores the illusory and mutable qualities of written word in relation to the timeless structure of nature.

Tamara Albaitis adds a sonic dimension to Cui Fei’s dialogue on language through her interactive installation consisting of two hanging grids of speakers–each mini-speaker emitting an element of speech (a vowel, a consonant, a dipthong). Not only does the grid format allude to the way we attempt to structure our thoughts through language and the lined formatting of written compositions, it also (through the collective, babel-esque sounds of this piece) deconstructs the conventions and notions of power attached to language/speech.

(Image: Cui Fei, Manuscript of Nature V. Image via Chinese Cultural Center Online Gallery)

Thomas Chang’s series of photographs taken from Splendid China Theme Park in Orlando, Florida reframe the meta-Chinese Monuments (see the architectural wonders of China at 1/10th the size!) such that the images take on a surreal appearance of both authenticity and artifice. In this way, Chang’s photography incisively highlights the disjunction between cultural legacy and historical tourism and the resultingly muddled messages this sends to the public.

(Thomas L. Chang,

Great Wall

. Image via: Chinese Cultural Center Online Gallery)

The tension between artifice, material production, and cultural/personal perception is another running theme in the show. In Lucy Kalyani Lin’s The Yangtze, a neon light that mimics the curves of the Yangtze river; mounted upon a series of mirrored cubes–evoking visions of the China’s neon-lit urban centers (Shanghai immediately comes to mind) and the notion of the river as a symbol of economic livelihood. Zachary Reyer Scholz’s work adapts a similar theme: by mounting cubic forms on flat mirrored surfaces (milk cartons, cinder blocks), these mundane forms take on the illusion of increased depth and formal complexity–the multiplied grid-like images suggest construction foundations and the steel frames of industrial growth. Other highlights include Indigo Som’s wall installation of Chinese restaurant menus <1% and Charlene Tan’s black and white, paper cornucopia overflowing with photo-copies of fast-food containers from China, entitled The Good Life.

I enjoyed each and every piece of this exhibition so thoroughly that I visited twice–I also recommend checking out Imin Yeh’s patterned appliances installed in storefronts at 710 Kearny St. and taking a close look at Liang Liting’s surreal ink paintings.

I leave you with this haunting photograph by Maleonn. The piece pictured above is entitled Nostalgia #4. His poetic statement about his series on view at the CCC is both enigmatic and profoundly revealing–and I think, a fitting way in which to grasp the wealth of exciting work in this exhibition:

Then, the pure smile of the leaving youth, the lost and broken love, the way that cannot back down, and the lonely hurricane, the nights and the desolate dream, the endless distance, and the weak house of ideals, will finally be mercilessly shattered by time, and grinded into smoke and ashes. In the most private corner of everyone’s heart, it gradually piles up to the secret pain permeated into the deepest feelings, and one hears nostalgia

Indeed, the works produced here by artists young and old, of various ethnic backgrounds, conjure up a sense of collective nostalgia, of loss, of disjunction–however, that an exhibition like this exists and opens itself up to public discussion lends the work in this show an over arching bid for hope and critical engagement.

Go see this show!!!

Chinese Cultural Center; 750 Geary (in the Hilton, 3rd floor). Gallery Hours: Tuesdays – Saturdays 10 am to 4 pm
Sundays 12 noon to 4 pm. FREE ADMISSION.