2016 "The tank, the poem, and the uniform." by Dina Al-Kassim
Exhibition essay, Malaspina Printmakers, 2016
2014 "David Khang’s Wrong Places Does Political Art Right." by Ashley Johnson
Canadian Art, June 12, 2014
2013 "Intimating Asias, Postcolonial Possibilities, and the Art of David Khang." by Christine Kim
Volume 15, Issue 1, pp.24-36, Interventions - International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 2013
2012 “Mashup Destinies.” by KJ Baysa
Exhibition essay, Grunt Gallery, 2012
2012 “Sound Waves, Microscopes Bring Science-Fair Feel to Grunt Gallery.” by Ashley McLellan
Canadian Art, October 4, 2012
2012 “David Khang bridges the gap between science and art.” by Robin Laurence
Georgia Straight, September 13, 2012
2008 “On Gesture and Becoming Animal” by Candice Hopkins
Exhibition Catalogue essay, Centre A, Vancouver, May 2008
2008 “Butterfly Prostheses and the Reproductive Mouth: Chains of Association and the
Problem of Asian Masculinity in David Khang’s Mediamorphosis” by Larissa Lai
Exhibition Catalogue essay, Centre A, Vancouver, May 2008
2006 “David Khang: the problemed body” by Ashok Mathur
Exhibition essay, Latitude 33, Edmonton, May 2006
2004 “Uncanny Orient: Writing Difference and Desire in Bodies and Bodies of Text”
Extended Thesis Abstract, by David Khang, University of California, Irvine
Nominee for Distinguished Masters Thesis, Western Association of Graduate Schools, USA
“The tank, the poem, and the uniform” by Dina Al-Kassim 2016
Baby blue and chalky pink underlay a copper sheen that by 2010 matures into a royal blue. So begins the end, which in 2012 finds the uniform in full manic display, a red, white, green and hard-edged blue of sovereign calm standing before the stele erected to the martyrs of Tlatelolco. The DMZ in Cyprus, MLK in Edmonton, Korean in Montréal, the poetry of Moon Ik-Hwan at La Plaza de las Tres Culturas: from place to language to poem, calculated displacement meets ritualized loss on the ground of a mutual unintelligibility. Here, missing understanding is formalized to return to us the colour of feeling. But where is here?
David Khang’s site-responsive series revisits transformative moments of what we might call the age of revolt: 1963 the year of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, 1968 the massacre of 300 unarmed students at UNAM by the national army and local police, 1970 the FLQ October Crisis when Trudeau enacted War Measures, 1973 the Chilean coup that resulted in Allende’s death. These dates mask another “K” series started in the 1970’s and which indexes the unwavering resistance of Korean dissidents against tyrannical rule in both North and South Korea. In 2007 Khang stood in Korean military uniform upon the Green Line dividing Cyprus and recited the poetry of his uncle, Moon Ik-Hwan, Presbyterian minister, poet, dissident and translator. Beginning with Cyprus, where the frontier of East and West is played out as the imaginary border between Christian and Muslim, we follow the path of these Koreas in the “West” to find that the “wrong places” hold within themselves the “same difference”. The “K” series is threaded through the performances from 2007-2012 as a sequence of translations that few citizens on-site in Nicosia, Edmonton, Santiago, Montréal or the DF can grasp.
From “March 1976 to December 1977, from October 1978 to December 1979, from May 1980 to December 1982 and from May 1986 to July 1987” Moon was imprisoned for crimes against the state that involved such acts as trying to buy a train ticket to Pyongyang to answer President Kim Il-sung’s invitation to discuss reunification. ¹In 1991 Moon was imprisoned for the fifth and last time. His crime:heading a funeral committee in response to the beating death by riot police of Kang Kung-dae, student protester. 2014 marks the twentieth anniversary of Moon’s death. From citizen to criminal to prisoner of conscience, these transformations from one condition to another suggest that Moon transfigured his life via a passion. Khang’s transfiguration of the symbols of sovereignty into the language of our mutual incomprehension materializes the common in this very predicament. So UN blue becomes baby pink, for “pinko” we are told, followed by the provincial colours of Quebec and the red and green of Mexico’s flag.
One bright spring day in April 2010 I saw for the first time bands of Korean enlisted men on holiday during the season of the Buddha’s birthday. Young men in their early twenties, all wearing the distinctive Korean camouflage with its flecks of bright chartreuse, green and burgundy, killed time as they served their compulsory 26 months of military service. So remote is the threat of actual combat that one can say their service like the uniform, is, in itself, a form of waiting or a ritualized representation, not of citizen-belonging but of the sovereign state which rules by force of law, even one that exiles its own, as does the internally dividing Korea. Except, of course, the 600 Korean UN peacekeeping forces, half of which are now in Lebanon, blue helmets among the red, white and green of local flags. The many transfigurations of Khang’s uniform trace the path of a passion played out within a folded map.
Moon Ik-hwan’s translation of the Old Testament is the standard text for Korean Christians, who, along with leftists of various stripes, have been the most steadfast critics of the oligarchs and of the division of the two Koreas, which sundered families with a border. Moving westward on the map and to another setting of red and green, blue and white, the poet Mahmoud Darwish expresses the passion of Palestinian exile in “Exodus no.3: Like a Hand Tattoo in the Jahili Poet’s Ode” (in Like the Almond Blossom or FartherFady Joudah, translator)
I said: where are you taking me?
He said: toward the beginning, where you were born
Right here, you and your name
no one told me this place is called a country,
and that behind the country there were borders, and behind
the borders a place called wandering and exile
for us. I wasn’t yet in need of identity…
but those who reached us aboard
their combat tanks were transferring the place
in truckloads swiftly away.
Place is the passion.”
Dispossession teaches new words: identity, country, border, exile and dispersion. It alienates the subject from his name and the place from its place by transmuting name and place into a foreignness that fails to distinguish between the birth of the name and that of its bearer. Name and place transferred in “truckloads swiftly away” leave the Korean-Canadian artist shuffling before Allende’s La Moneda, once the emblem of a people’s triumph, now the simulacrum of legitimate sovereignty, something like a bicycle powered paper tank. If Darwish must gather the traces of past presence into a national language that can be held in common though it does not yet exist in common, Khang’s performances exert a similar gravitational force on their disparate locales by knitting together the common dispossession in language, law and sovereign power. He does this by exposing the inhering violence of the ritualized speech of state in contrast with Moon Ik-hwan’s poetic example. The place may be the passion, as Tlatelolco haunted by uncounted bodies or the DMZ, barren of its previous life, but the performance communicates the breach with the result that the uniform is not uniform and the colours multiply before our eyes.
“On Gesture and Becoming Animal” by Candice Hopkins, May 2008
I want to look like something else in order to infiltrate, in order to function as a virus. The virus is our worst enemy, but should also be a model in terms of not being the opposition any more.
On May 16, 2008 David Khang will undertake his first collaboration with a horse. How to Feed a Piano is the final installment of a series of actions based on La Monte Young’s Compositions 1960 of which the earlier performances Speaking of Butterflies and Draw a Straight Line are also drawn. Like the others in the series, this composition by Young is instructive. Along with sound, it implies action:
Bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water onto the stage for the piano to eat and drink.
The performer may then feed the piano or leave it to eat by itself. If the former, the piece is over after the piano has been fed. If the latter, it is over after the piano eats or decides not to.
Young’s compositions from this period questioned both the nature and composition of music while stressing the elements of performance. They are characterized by their extremely long durations and slow tempo (in one composition the perfect fifth B#F is notated on a staff along with the words “to be held for a long time.”) For Khang, taking Young’s composition as the genesis for an action, becomes an exercise in “knowing something textually first and then visualizing from this textual language.” [i] It is the beginnings of a process that oscillates between translation, transformation and stasis.
Khang’s performative gestures actively create slippages of meaning, mistranslations, and mis-categorizations. This slippage is also found in the way in which the body is rendered in his performances. At once masculine and feminine, queer and straight, Asian and not, the body in Khang’s world is not so easily defined and any singular definition is immediately suspect. As the artist is aware, race is complicated as it is always already defined from the outset. These deliberate disjunctures are an attempt to create space, however modest, for new understanding. Purposefully mimicking the characteristics of Orientalism to allow for its inversion, to thereby expose its mechanics as a constituted identity, Khang’s performances create unexpected connections between the signifier and what is signified. His performances, as Rinaldo Walcott poignantly observed, create an “intimate distance.” The artist, following Freud, has described his experiences in enacting these performances as “un-heimlich.” Not quite one thing or the other, they are always already in-between.
Khang first learned of La Monte Young through the 1962 performance in Wiesbaden, Germany by Nam June Paik. Entitled Zen for Head, the actionconsisted of Paik dipping his head, hair, and hands into a mixture of ink and tomato juice, and crawling backwards on his hands and knees, dragging his head along a long scroll of paper to form a thick, jagged line. The impetus for Zen for Head was fellow Fluxus member La Monte Young’s composition, which instructed: “draw a straight line and follow it.” [ii] (Young dedicated this composition to the artist Robert Morris.) One of the founders of minimalist music, Young began writing these compositions when minimalism in relation to visual art was just being defined.
Also in 1960, at the same time as Young’s compositions and Paik’s enactment, Yves Klein performed Anthropométries de L’Epoque Bleue. In what is now an infamous gesture, Klein substituted his brush for the female body and quite literally used the body as a tool for painting. Collapsing the distance between the body and the canvas, and calling attention to the performance gesture inherent to painting, Klein used female models (they remain nameless in most of the texts I have read) as a tool to apply paint to a larger sheet of paper. In a bizarre enactment of a kind of intimate distance, Klein performed his first body painting to an audience of well-dressed bourgeoisie, and they witnessed him directing his silent, smiling, well-proportioned female performers as they covered their thighs, torsos, breasts and arms in blue paint and pressed their bodies against the large sheet of paper. In watching the documentation of the event, it is clear that their actions were rehearsed, and Klein both verbally directs and physically places the model’s bodies through the duration of the event. For Klein, the painting as the end result, was not where the artist placed importance. What he was attempting to achieve was something altogether different: a temporary stasis of motion and gesture. Instead, what Klein was seeking to capture was the marks of fleeting “states—moments of flesh.” [iii]
Klein’s Anthropométries were radically problematized, racialized, and rendered abject in a series of works by David Hammons, which would begin in 1963. Hammons had an entirely different approach to the body print. His prints were made using his own body covered, not in paint, but in materials associated with racialized depictions of African American bodies: oil and dark pigment. With his body fully greased, Hammons pressed it against paper to create imprints, which he then used as the basis for collages. Some of these included seemingly simple acts of reversal—in one instance the blue, white, and red of the American flag is substituted for black, gold, and green of the Jamaican flag. Unlike the traces left by Klein’s models, nearly all of Hammons’s prints predominantly feature his face. And while the prints often show the artist shirtless, he is never naked. His identity is fully inscribed and embodied, its mis-conceptions laid bare, even in its trace. As self-portraits they at once render “racial politics volatile and profound.”[iv]
On May 16, Khang, after climbing up onto a stage, “feeding” a piano hay and water, will have his naked body covered in blue paint, ala Klein, and will attach himself to a rope at the rear of the workhorse’s harness. At the culmination of the performance, with the horse acting as the drawing tool, his body will leave the trace of a perfect blue circle. All the while two pianists now on the stage will together reinterpret La Monte Young’s original composition. As is a part of Khang’s original idea, the horse will be handled and ridden by someone of First Nations descent—effectively, an Indian Cowboy. This gesture calls attention to Vancouver as a site of a sometimes forced coming together of Asian and Aboriginal peoples but also their shared history of otherness, one the subject of a global Diaspora and the other subject to the more regional displacement onto Indian Reserves and other inscribed territories. There are shared characteristics between these two figures, in their differentiated relationships to land, homeland, and displacement. In a useful analogy, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben draws on refugees, as occupying a space outside of the “old trinity of nation-state-territory” are are thus no longer “representable inside the nation-state.” The very existence of refugees, and I would argue, Indigenous self-governance, brings the “originary fiction of sovereignty into crisis” as they are people who can no longer be represented within the sovereign state.[v] In times of location and assimilation, Agamben observes that “the discourse of ‘race struggle’” calls attention to “the truth of politics and history in the everlasting subterranean war which takes place beneath the so-called peace.” [vi]
Khang’s performance also brings forth the seemingly schizophrenic identity implied by the figure of the “Indian Cowboy.” Confusing assumed categorical relationships the Indian Cowboy (or Indian/Cowboy) is a deliberate cannibalism of the colonizer by the colonized. It is a quite radical appropriation of the costume of the West—a constantly shifting site that like the Orient is largely a constructed fiction. With this, I am reminded of something Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham once relayed to me. An observer, in witnessing his apparent schism of Durham’s own identities (he too was once an Indian cowboy) posed the question, “What are you going to do now? Kill yourself?” To even further entangle the referents and their possible interpretations, that Indian Cowboy riding the horse will be me. This isn’t the first time that Khang has deliberately brought together different cultures, Asian and otherwise, to draw on their parallels and to their incongruencies. For Phalogocentrix (2007) with a large beef tongue protruding from his mouth, its end dipped with ink, he wrote in calligraphic strokes in Hebrew, Greek, Chinese, and Korean and English. Furthermore spoken word was performed in Hebrew, Korean and English. The performance is, in part, a reference to Babel and to the Pentecost and glossolalia—the place where “all” peoples could speak and (mis)understand one another. Khang maneuvered the unwieldy tongue to make surprisingly discernable words through a series of hybrid yogic and breakdance moves.
For the past five years Khang has undertook projects exaggerating his animal-ness. Zen for Mouth / Draw a Straight Line / (2003 & 2004) is the first performance in which the artist made use of the beef tongue as a prosthetic device. As in Phalogocentrix, here it is employed as a tool for both writing and mark making. In other performances, it is an object that is cut, sutured, and transformed, often with the addition of human teeth. The final Frankensteinian object creates an uncomfortable collapsing of the tools for both speech and consumption. Holding it in his mouth while performing, the beef tongue becomes a grotesque exaggeration of Khang’s own body. With this enlarged piece of flesh in his mouth, speech and the very possibility of speech, is rendered impossible. It is at once muted and irrational. In this partial metamorphosis the cow becomes part human, and Khang, in turn, becomes part animal. According to Deleuze, in this act of transformation, “Man becomes animal, but he does not become so without the animal simultaneously becoming spirit, the spirit of man, the physical spirit of man presented in the mirror as Eumenides or fate. This is never a combination of forms, it is rather a common fact: the common fact of man and animal.” [vii] What identites are produced when human and animal are intimately conjugated? Khang’s action reminds us that for many cultures, particularly those indigenous to British Columbia’s Northwest Coast, animals, rather than being “sub-human” are superior to humans in both intellect and strength. To take on their characteristics in ritual and ceremony is a way of elevating oneself spiritually—to become animal.
The tongue is a common signifier for Khang and is repurposed in the performances Bleeding Book / Linea Lingua (2004), Artifice or Sacrifice, and Phalogocentrix (2007). In Glossographia (2006) the cooked beef tongue, branded with the Hebrew verb vayomer meaning, “(and) to say,” is fed to audience members as an appetizer before and during the event. Vayomer, as Khang points out is the genesis act, when Yahweh/God said, “Let there be … and there was.” In Speaking of Butterflies (2004) and Mediamorphosis (2006),Khang substitutes the beef tongue for his own. Here, his tongue, which is pierced and sutured with thread, is gently tethered to the bodies of migratory monarch butterflies. When the thread is snipped, the butterflies are released unharmed into the air. But it was when they were momentarily tethered to the tongue, that there were their most poignant. In this instance, the butterflies had the potential to lift the device for speech, carry it away, and possibly lend it a new purpose altogether. It is near the culmination of Mediamorphosis that Khang takes this metaphorical relationship further and quite literally becomes butterfly. In the final moments, Khang is fully wrapped in white cotton and slowly suspended from the ceiling until he is still and cocoon-like, while simultaneously, his insect collaborators, the newly hatched monarchs were coming to life. [viii] In each of these performances, animals and humans are also referenced by the absence of their bodies, through their parts directly linked to speech and language: teeth and tongues.
In Khang’s performances there is a generative entanglement between race and mis-recognition, language and its mistranslation. His performances are heavy-laden with symbols but this doesn’t render them indecipherable, rather they are rich with reference and with gesture and gesture’s symbolic import. Agamben has defined gesture as that which “opens the sphere of ethos as the more proper sphere of that which is human” and in relation to politics, or political life, “the sphere of pure means.” For Agamben, gesture is the “exhibition of mediality: it is the process of making a means visible as such.” Further to this:
In an age that has lost its gestures is, for that very reason, obsessed with them. For human beings who have lost every sense of naturalness, each single gesture becomes a destiny. And the more gestures lose their ease … the more life becomes indecipherable. [ix]
The gesture, particularly as Khang uses it, exists in a space of potentiality—it capitalizes on its simultaneous loss and obsession to provoke a possible rearticulation of ideology around race and representation. Instead of being reductive this re-articulation is continually expansive.
i Khang, Unpublished Masters Thesis. The University of California, Irvine, 2003.
ii Khang would also produce three works based on this composition. Zen for Mouth / Draw a Straight Line, Bleeding Book / Linea Lingua, and Walk a Straight Line.
iii Yves Klein archive, accessed May, 2008 www.yveskleinarchives.org/.
iv Holland Cotter, Art Review: “L.A. Object and David Hammons Body Prints: Reading Fragments From an Incendiary Time” Published: November 14, 2006, The New York Times. For further reading on Hammons’s body prints see David Hammons: Rousing the Rubble, exhibition catalogue (New York:P.S.1 Museum, 1991).
v Giorgio Agamben “Notes on Gesture” in Infancy and History: Essays on The Destruction of Experience (London: Verso, 2003).
vii Gilles Deleuze, “The Body, the Meat and the Spirit: Becoming Animal” in Tracy Warr (ed.) The Artist's Body, Translated by Liz Heron, Phaidon Press (London 2000), 197.
viii After witnessing Mediamorphosis, I went out on the deck behind the stage to watch the multitudes of butterflies as they came into being for the second time. It was the ones still soaking from the plasma of the cocoon—caught in the temporary stasis between one being and another— which held my eyes. This was the first time I had witnessed not just birth, but rebirth. Others, farther along in their transformation were unfolding their legs, long tongues, and flexing their strange new wings.
ix Agamben, “Notes on Gesture.”
"Butterfly Prostheses and the Reproductive Mouth: Chains of Association and the Problem of Asian Masculinity in David Khang’s Mediamorphosis”An Essay Pome in Two Voices
by Larissa Lai, May 2008
asian man beef tongue pupa phallus tongue hatch wing speak flutter flutter
David Khang’s Mediamorphosis, which took place at the Western Front in Vancouver (2006), samples from his own prior work while referencing that of earlier artists, particularly La Monte Young and Shigeko Kubota. Khang’s departure point is Young’s Composition 1960 #5, in which Young proposes the release of a butterfly into the performance space. Duration and additional activity are not specified. The composition ends when the butterfly flies away.
While Young’s work, engaged as it is in the Fluxus movement, attempts to break away from the regularized strictures of meaning and form (in his case, that of music), Khang’s piece returns us to meaning. His is not the Oedipal meaning of distinct racial difference and heterosexual social order. Khang’s piece plays on a linked chain of paradoxical associations that unsettle the signification of Asian male bodies and their capacity to speak and self-represent through theoretical, performance-based and visual discourses, which are themselves disturbed and rearranged by Khang’s work.
The piece is formally structured in three discernible ways: temporally, spatially and conceptually. First, because it is a performance, it is time-based. Draped in a swath of white fabric, Khang enters the performance space, tends three stations, pierces his tongue in order to attach it by a thread to a live monarch butterfly, and then hangs upside-down from the ceiling by his gauzy swathing, like an oversized, unhatched pupa.
The piece is also organized in layers of mediatized relation to the action of the performance in such a way that we question the “reality” of the action, particularly as the structural frames interfere with one another, and we are drawn into Chuang Tse’s famous commentary on his butterfly dream: “Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man?” The layers of media are spatialized. At the front of the room at the first and most proximate layer of interaction, video monitors and a projection screen are arranged to hide a performance area inside a cage made of mosquito netting. Randomly switching output locations, several video channels run footage from Khang’s prior performances. On one channel he places a long, grotesque, disembodied beef tongue in his mouth and uses it as a “brush” to mark a scroll of paper unfurled along a gallery floor; on another a circle is slowly painted without the appearance of the painter’s hand; in a third, he slits a giant beef tongue open, inserts a calligraphy brush into the slit, and sutures it shut. On the remaining monitor-switching channels in that proximate layer of address real time video of the action behind the monitors is displayed. “Reality” is obscured by mediatized “dream.”
This, then, is the second layer, which we, as audience, cannot see directly. On the monitors we observe the performer, draped in white cloth, tending a case of chrysalides, some in the process of hatching into live, adult butterflies. In another lies an enormous beef tongue, embedded with human teeth. In a third sits a book. We see Khang pierce his tongue with a suturing needle, and run thread through it. The thread is carefully connected to the thorax of a live adult monarch, revealed from beneath the cover of a book. The book is hollow. Inside lies a fluttering nest of monarchs, their wings flapping gracefully page-like.
The third layer, interpenetrated by the other two, is composed of a chain of associations, more properly metonymic than metaphoric, and indeed, paradoxically so.
egg hatch egg speak flutter tongue wing speak man stand no speak tongue write beef tongue phallus write gram
On its first pass, the piece clearly addresses the fraught site of Asian masculinity. References to both the Puccini opera, Madama Butterfly, and the David Henry Hwang revision, M. Butterfly, are made through the presence of the monarchs, and through a range of phallic elements—the beef tongue, the calligraphy brush, and even the strangely penis-like butterfly pupae. As these elements are drawn in, the fixity of the phallic symbol is called into question. The slit in the beef tongue is strangely vaginal; the pupae are also egg-like in that they hatch living things. The goo and the horror of the performance are in fact predicated on a kind of gender indeterminacy. To pierce one’s tongue is at once a macho act, and an act of (feminized) self-effacement. There is a kind of queerness at work here, or a kinship with queerness in the oscillation “between” gender extremes. But as the work is intensely, and often violently, gendered, it is not so much about sex as a practice, as it is about gendered—and raced— ontologies. I would suggest there is a kind of hermaphroditism at work in the brush-embedded beef tongue, or the fertile pupae. This performed hermaphroditism moves through gendered materiality, not resting in any kind of fixity.
Through the insertion into the beef tongue, we read again the play of linguistically materialized excess and insufficiency engaged in various forms through Khang’s work. Here, the insufficiency of the Asian tongue/phallus and the excess of the bull’s are drawn together. There is a visceral recognition of the violence in closing the gap between the “too large” and the “too small” -- media and experience. The brush in the beef tongue suggests a kind of hope for closing the gap between speech and writing, but the horror of such an act is palpable.
To embed this prior work into the project of the present moment parallels the embedding of teeth in beef tongue, and recognizes tongue, teeth and video as, in a sense, all equally prosthethic.
monk robe robe hatch man flutter tongue speak man write asian phallus flutter tongue butter fly gender differ race tongue
gender speak phallus hatch egg write pupa write beef tongue gender fly man race asian egg flutter hatch monk dream
As the pupae are penis-like, they are also tooth-like. There are intentionally thirty-two teeth embedded in the beef tongue, to echo the thirty-two teeth in a normal human mouth. The mouth, in Khang’s work, is a strange site of birthing—it gives way to tongue, speech, writing and blood (when it is pierced). What if the thirty-two teeth in our mouths could hatch (Asian) men instead of butterflies? Or butterflies dreaming they are men? What if, instead of teeth, pupae hung in our mouths? What if they were to break open, and butterflies were to flutter out—like tongues, like pages, like text—instead of speech? If the word/God that lies at the centre of Western metaphysics is primary in its spoken form, then in that Western metaphysical order there is a sense in which we could understand the word of the Asian man/God as lesser, as derivative— like text (and like butterflies). The “speaking” of text and the coincidence with text places the performer in an uncomfortable relationship with meaning. To paint with a prosthetic tongue of unnatural size is to speak and write at once, not with one’s own tongue, but with that of a much larger animal. Derrida’s distinction between speech and writing ceases to matter. And yet at the same time, to hold a beef tongue in one’s mouth is also to be gagged.
dream egg flutter phallus butter differ race pierce thread wing blood tongue animal speak animal egg blood fly man stand man i asian tongue butter language pupa pierce man flutter man tongue tooth man pupa count 32 and 32
The gagging of the mouth and the piercing of the tongue are part of a continuum of other self-injuring practices, that are concomitantly a strident, and perhaps despairing refusal of the textual impositions of Western metaphysics that Khang has explored in other works, most notably (vag)Anal Painting and M Butterfly (after Shigeko Kubota). In the former, referenced in the latter, Khang paints a circle on a large piece of paper using a calligraphy brush gripped by his anus. This may be read as continuous with a kind of “butterfly complex,” but an agented one, in which the mapping of Eurocentric expectations of Asian masculinity are internalized, inverted, and turned back on the viewer. What Judith Butler has called “the discursive site of injury” is materialized through these performances. Yet through all the layers of cultural meaning, the unclosed brushstroke circle still gestures towards its traditional (Taoist or Zen) reading as completion, balance and wholeness.
man monk dream fly fly i dream martyr dream sigh martyr man
dream christ blood hand tooth eye christ i god write father’s word dream egg asian man butter fly phallus flutter egg write
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the hero Cadmus slays a serpent. On the advice of his patron goddess, Pallas Athena, he plants the teeth in the earth. They sprout into an army of men. Though Cadmus is afraid they might, the teeth men don’t attack him—they fall murderously upon one another until only five are left. These go with Cadmus to found the city of Thebes.
The fertility of language is such that it can make (Asian) men as text in the biblical sense—the word is made flesh to produce a figure of sacrifice, but also rage (for the social necessity of sacrifice). If to revitalize myth is also to bring it life in the present moment, we might equally read the teeth of Cadmus having the same kind of (re)productivity as Khang’s man/butterfly-making tongue.
a call to arms beef snake snake teeth teeth plant hatch teeth teeth speak armed man blood tongue blood man
The ancient precedent associates teeth with men, but men grown as plants, not men born from women. And not sprung from pupae either. Cadmus’s teeth men, further, have a capacity for both war and cosmopolitanism! Khang’s work seems to suggest an alternate associative/affective/reproductive lineage for those of us who belong to Western culture differently, a lineage that does not call us into the Oedipal order of gender (or race). There is a mythos in the making here—not the kind that Barthes so adamantly denigrates but rather a mythos with soft bones, a mythos with an exoskeleton, one that transforms and transmutes on the power of articulation, writing and representation, and also surgery and biological enhancement.
The power of the word, and of ideal forms, in the Platonic sense, translates into the realm of the material with a peculiar kind of violence which permeates Khang’s work. The performance is haunted by the lack of access to (white) speech—an agonized relationship to language which manifests as almost and excessively textual. There is beauty in the ink marks, insects, and blood that comes from the mouth, that expresses differently from either speech or writing. To materialize language within a Western metaphysical idiom is to engage in both self-effacing and self-producing violence. (One might even read a kind of self-birthing.) This is violence that inverts the ritual suicide of Puccini’s Butterfly by making another kind of (Asian) self.
The Puccini opera gives us its Japan as a fairy place—a place of play and artifice. The mediatized site of Mediamorphosis is likewise a location of play—the endless play of signifiers that never lead to a transcendental signified. The drive towards the moment of signification is further thwarted by the fact—or rather textuality—of the performer’s Asianness. The work is whimsical, but also strangely agonized. Its whimsy juxtaposes bloodily with the actuality of the body—the humanness that has been denied at the site of Asianness. Because the body of the performer as well as the bodies of the butterflies and beef tongue are “real” in their biological materiality, the tension between signifier and referent becomes bloodily self-evident. The gore of that proximity is the gore of daily life insofar as the racialized body is a walking text. While Puccini’s Butterfly is sacrificed for white heterosexuality and Hwang’s is replaced by the white fantasist, Khang’s Butterfly enters another temporality, in which the linear unfolding of tragedy becomes instead an interaction of body and text. In his strange temporality, Western metaphysical oppositions are sutured together in a mediatized play—neither and both man and insect, body and text, speech and writing. It is a time of continuous transformation when we are not freed from the violence of language, nor are we beholden to its fixities.
David Khang, hung upside down in his chrysalis, enters into this state of becoming. As long as he does not hatch, he remains in the transformative state which could produce man or could produce butterfly. In a sense, he is both man and butterfly, dreaming of entry into either subjectivity, or both. To be pupae is to be in-between, to be both and neither, and thus pure potential. To hang upside down, suspended in mid-air, hidden from direct view can be imagined as a kind of freedom in becoming, the time/place of the not-yet-arrived where we have not yet made a mark (I am) or been marked (other).
write me blood man dream gender egg race pupa hatch man fly speak fly speak i
Thanks to David Khang for support and critical feedback. Thanks to Sonnet L’Abbé for recent discussions on plant and human interaction.
1. Particularly in Mediamorphosis, there is a continuity between marginalized race and gender as subject positions and as they are interpellated into language. For this reason, when I am talking about the deployment of “Asianness” in the western metaphysical order, I am also talking about femininity; or rather, I am talking about racialization and feminization together, as tropes that bleed into one another. In the course of this essay, there is never a moment when I mean “Asian,” “woman,” “man,” “masculine,” or “feminine” as natural or essential categories. What is interesting about Khang’s work, however, is that it skirts (so to speak) these ways of understanding identity positions without ever fully inhabiting them.
2. Again, I am not suggesting any natural or essential “insufficiency” here, but rather one which is culturally produced, received, inhabited, refused and recirculated at varying intensities of textuality.
Braidotti, Rosi. Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics. Cambridge: Polity, 2006.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Spivak. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1976.
Ebrey, Patricia. Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook. New York: Free Press, 1993.
Grosz, Elizabeth. Becomings: Explorations in Time, Memory, and Futures. Ithaca:
Cornell UP, 1999.
Hwang, David Henry. M. Butterfly. New York: Penguin, 1989.
Khang, David. Zen for Mouth. Track 16 Gallery, Los Angeles. 16 Apr. 2003.
---. Bleeding Book/Linea Lingua. Room Gallery, Irvine. 7 – 28 May 2004.
---. Speaking of Butterflies. Track 16 Gallery, Los Angeles. 13 Oct. 2004.
---. M Butterfly (After Shigeko Kubota). NYU, New York City. 10 Nov. 2007.
---. Phalogocentrix. Music Gallery/ St. George-the-Martyr Church, Toronto. 17 Mar. 2007.
King James Bible. John 1.
Kubota, Shigeko. Vagina Painting. 1965.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Mary M. Innes. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955.
Puccini, Giacomo. Madama Butterfly. Perf. Maria Callas. EMI, 1987.
Young, La Monte. Compositions. 1960.
"Intimate Distances" by Rinaldo Walcott May 2007
On March 17 2007 David Khang performed with a beef tongue in his mouth, perhaps for the last time.(1) The performance, titled Phalogocentrix , was an experimental and experiential panoply of bodies, identities, histories and narratives - without voice - meant to evoke Relation. All the bodies belonged to Khang. I capitalize Relation following Édouard Glissant, the French-Caribbean writer and philosopher whose Poetics of Relation seeks to demonstrate human relation as always constituting both subject and object in an effort to forge a history of the subaltern that might produce a transformed reality of the past and the future. A past and a future that might impact new global orders of human life, transforming them even, in ways that we have not yet thought or imagined. Khang's performance bears many connections to Glissant's insistences on the means and the needs for transformative languages of our future, embedded in our past but not trapped by the past.
Phalogocentrix makes use of the body as a linguistic device and thus offers a language of unspoken histories, new vocabularies, and a re-verbing of the word and world to bring into conversation cross-cultural and cross-racial poetics. The performance attempts to manifest a kind of a creole language, more accurate of human contact than we sometimes are capable of acknowledging. While Khang dramatically re-languages the tongue by both making a beef tongue into a prosthetic extension of his own, he also highlights the human as animal and re-centers the body in a cross-cultural language of cross-species survival. Through his use of a beef tongue, which lacks the capacity of (human) speech, Khang articulates the ways in which conduct and fashioning of the body constitute language. In this sense, Khang calls to attention the ways in which language and linguistics are not just cultural differences, but mechanisms of both distance and intimacy. The ability to learn the language of another, to perform it through speech, is in fact the learning of another's cultural secrets - ethnicity then as a human invention is something that produces Relation in its distance and its intimacy. In Khang's performance the body speaks a cross-cultural and cross-species language, which produces an intimate distance. This intimate distance is the lens through which cross-cultural and cross-racial identifications occur; and it conveys the power of a "strategic universalism" (Gilroy) to open a different kind of conversation about histories, genders, sexes, races, and so on - what we might call the categories of the human.
The bodily linguistics and language of Khang's performance draw on what Glissant calls "ambiguous archives" (p.65) to produce moments of cross-cultural resonances meant to open a non-verbal conversation about our human connected-ness. Martial arts, break-dancing and yoga movements do not unfold as fully formed cultural entities, mystifying and closed as the sole property of various sanctioned ethnic groups. Instead such moves unfold and collide in partial performance providing a glimpse into our connected-ness and thus revealing and commenting on our investments in ethnic and cultural secrets meant to ordain our difference from one to another. Khang seeks to give us a bodily language of identification that can engage the difficult histories and knowledges of our present human terms of contact and conduct. Contrary to what might be assumed, that his performance is the failure of language, I would suggest that it is the exact opposite. The accomplishment of Khang's bodily-language-linguistics is its ability to move us towards a confrontation with the modes of bodily conduct, that prohibit us from verbalizing our Relation, one to another on terms outside a history of inequality and injustice. Khang allows us to see and thus speak our Relation.
Khang's performance is not a humanist performance under the terms of a European Enlightenment and modernity, which operationalized various categories of the human according to races and cultures and thus instated a practice of ethnicity as a vault of identity practice - as separation and thus a failed language of humanity which must be over-come for identification to happen. Khang's performance refuses the discourse of mastery and domination, opting instead for what Houston Baker's writing of the Blues calls the "deformation of mastery" (Baker). This different take on humanity or rather the species is only possible through an active and robust engagement with mastering form so that it might be deformed in ways that point to different points of view which are often neither heard nor seen. Phalogocentrix brings sight to the workings of writing and language that render cross-racial, cross-cultural and cross-species identifications difficult. The performance highlights the ways in which struggles to define a different conception of the human and thus the species require a fuller encounter with a wider range of peoples, bodies, histories. Khang's performances thus signal a moment for the contemplation of a different conception of what it might mean to be human.
In Monolingualism of the Other or The Prosthesis of Origin , Jacques Derrida attends to the complications of language across a range of "performative contradiction[s]" (p.3). These performative contradictions, which can be most pronounced in the colonial setting, point to how speech acts are freighted with a history violence that imposes categories of difference that label the colonized as sub-human. Incidentally, Derrida dedicates Monolingualism to Glissant. Taken with Glissant's Poetics of Relation , the two texts offer a way of understanding Khang's attempts at a non-verbal language scripted through music and body as sites for both escaping and referencing history, re-tooling a dreadful and violent past into terms that might be transformative of human potentiality to live differently. Khang, influenced by Derrida (while studying under Derrida at UC Irvine), eschews the mother tongue for a beef tongue, rejoining the animal-human link and its unspeakability. At the same time, he forces his viewers to identify with his efforts at the basest element of what it means to be human - which is what it means to be animal. In this way Khang is able to insert difficult histories for contemplation without immediately producing disagreement. The poetics of unspeakability, of the illegible scribblings and the kinetic moves of the body, produce a language that draws viewers in as it sets us up for a critique concerning, race, gender and sex.
The mother tongue is the problem that Derrida confronts in Monolingualism of the Other . In the colonial setting the language of the mother (or father) tongue carries the history of its imposition and its attempt to render the self unintelligible to the self and to others. And, yet the mother tongue becomes exactly that - a mother tongue. Such a tongue is always in tension with ones sense of self, both aiding in the production of subjecthood and always producing the self as object. Thus the mother tongue becomes something that must be deformed, reformed and transformed. It becomes a language that one can only be in proximity to. It is in fact the notion of proximity that Khang makes excellent use of in his performance. Thus Derrida, writing of proximity in a slightly different implication states: "This gives rise to strange ceremonies, secret and shameful celebrations. Therefore to encrypted operations, to some words under seal circulating in everyone's language" (p33). I would argue that Khang achieves Derrida's insights through his bodily language-linguistic performative speech acts.
Watching Khang perform Phalogocentrix in its kinetic expressions is to see and enter a dialogue concerned with how subalterns might speak to and with each other. But most significantly, to desire such a conversation is not to leave others behind. The brilliance of Khang's performance is its interpellative call on the grounds of gender and sex to render those terms, and indeed their practices, strangely (un)familiar and in need of a serious engagement from a different place through another language. The unmaking of masculinity in Khang's performance is one that draws on the ambiguous archives of race, sex and gender. In Khang's re-working, masculinity is unmade, race is complicated in its history present and future, and sex is problematicised as a desire usually restrained, disciplined and normalized as other to genuine human intentions. The undisciplined disciplinarity of Khang's performance points to the ways in which the human body performs conduct and is conducted based upon scripts invented and practiced even before our birth. How does Khang do all this?
The importance of Khang's performance lies not in its overall narrative, but rather in the points of access and various pushbacks that open spaces or crevices for thought to occur among viewers. These crevices constitute the spaces of cross-cultural and cross-racial non-verbal speech acts. In those speech acts histories, bodies, races, sexes, sexualities among others are revealed as the sites and sources of possible and impossible conversations. The soundtrack made by Jason de Couto for the performance does a great bit of this work articulating histories of "black, white, yellow" and others, nation-bound and simultaneously pushing beyond such boundaries. The performance opens up viewers for individual and collective dialogues about our own situatedness in the dynamics of a conversation without words, as Khang's body directs us to engage the accompanying collage soundscape/music. The gaps between performing body and soundscape invite contemplation of self and other constituted in histories but with an opening to a different kind of present and even future. It is in this light that I suggest that Khang's performance is about the unfolding of a humanism not bounded to the Enlightenment project, but one that deforms such a project, recognizing its sometimes dreadful imposition on many others, in aid of pushing us toward better (yes better!) inventions of what the species might be.
Given that Khang's Asian masculinity is always a suspect, lesser-than masculinity in Western conceptions of such categories, his invitation to dialogue about human categories is one of the ways in which he explicitly brings histories to his performance. The story of colonialism and continuing practices of coloniality loom large in the performance. To identify or disindentify with Asian masculinity is to engage in the process of what I have been calling intimate distances. The work of engagement or refusal is an acknowledgement of our Relation. In this instance the language of the body produces a linguistics of identity, which requires active engagement with the archive of masculinities, gendered understanding and performances that we draw on to make sense of and to perform and to recognize various masculinities. Khang' body-language-linguistics brings history into the equation. In this particular instance the Asian-Canadian body speaks a history of racism - head tax, internment, labor exploitation. The body requires us to communicate with it through sight and sound drawing us in and repelling us even when we must disidentify but still remain in Relation.
In one of the most systematic readings of kung fu and its circulation as an art form, especially in relation to cinema of the 1970s, May Joseph points to the frugality of the form. The body is the central element of kung fu's practice of the self. Significantly, kung fu became popular as a global cultural style in the 1970s, especially in the former colonial world (for example Africa and the Caribbean) and among subaltern populations in the West like African Americans and First Nations/Aboriginals. Kung fu's resonances can still be seen in the moves of break-dancers and in the names of many rap groups (Wu Tan Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, Dream Warriors, one could go on). This cross-cultural sharing and borrowing points to the ways in which cultural difference always references an Other, is indebted to an Other and is thus always constitutive of Self and Other. The inheritances of coloniality allows us to both recognize such sharing and borrowing, as well as bury or ignore it in service of a cultural vault mentality. Khang's performance unlocks the vault forcing us to grapple with the inheritances concealed but simultaneously poking out, but often not adequately dealt with as an element of the Self. Such an acknowledgement would be to articulate our Relation. I am suggesting that Khang's performance takes us there - to our Relation.
The merging of kung fu, break-dancing and yoga movements points to languages of bodily practice that evoke Relation. These moves in Khang's performance open the possibility of practicing the life of the species differently. Recognition of ones self as continually engaged in a practice and performance of citation - one that might not always be legible - shifts how conversations might occur. For example, the calligraphic references in Khang's performance to Shigeko Kubota points to both gender and history. Khang's performance from 2005, (vag)Anal Painting , addresses a "language" of femininity and masculinity not to make them unquestioned but to open up the conversation about the ways in which our practice and conduct of gender shapes our histories of community-making. What is significantly highlighted by Khang's performance and citation of Kubota is that community only comes into being through citation and reference, whether amicable or antagonistic. Khang's performance draws on a history of feminized Asian masculinity in a manner that does not acquiesce nor refuse such a designation but rather "re-languages" gender and the body by displaying or performing "the economy of stereotype" (Morrison) in a move to spectacularise it and thus invert, if not overturn its implications. This difficult task produces a kind of gendered-non-gender - Khang stops being a category for a while.
To stop being a category might be the most utopic goal of a post-modern sensibility that seeks to unwrite the highly regulated system of human classifications across race, gender and sex. The transcendentalism that is implicit in moving beyond a category seems to suggest a certain kind of privilege to leave history behind. Khang's performance is deeply indebted to histories of the specific and histories of the universal. The priestly atmosphere of Phalogocentrix (staged and performed in a church) might suggest transcendence of the religious kind. But I would suggest that Khang's performance is entirely outside of the realm of religious transcendentalism. The reading of scripture (in Hebrew, Korean, and English), the Eastern religious references, the pagan references all point to other languages, other forms of conduct, other ways of practicing the body - or embodiment. Khang's donning of the Religious in the performance acts as a kind of moment of not just communion, but rather communality from which collective contemplation might be possible. Thus religion is a kind of alibi for a better conversation to occur. The baptism enacted in the performance is thus the opening of the conversation rather than an end in itself. This inversion of religious practice and Khang's syncretization of it across cultures again signals Relation.
Ultimately, David Khang's Phalogocentrix performs the re-languaging of human selves or the species in an effort for us to offer ourselves a better account of the world we presently inhabit. The role that scribal figures, mostly men have played in creating and propagating languages, especially written as sacred texts of human expression and thus the rules and the law of human life is re-ordained in Khang's performance. This re-ordination by Khang is meant to complicate and render less harmful the categories to which we currently confine human life and the species. Khang's beef-tongue prosthetic wants to tell us a story of ourselves that we cannot yet speak but need to hear. This story is one of our Relation.
6. (This last section of the essay was written as a kind of liturgy by Walcott for the performance in Toronto. It was an improvised response, a collaboration with Khang. It is added here as both a post-script and a signal of the beginning of my engagement with his art.)
The Beginning and The End
Dearly Beloved , We are gathered here tonight to bear witness...to share in the performative trace and impression of cross-cultural and thus human and universal re-making. We are here to share in intimate distances. We are called to bear witness to a performative otherness that requires we rethink our encounter with such otherness differently every time. In this encounter the performing body transforms both us and itself to reveal or rather to provoke in us the scripting and sculpting of the body, its legibility, its intelligibility, it many languages. This body will perform for us tonight both its re-writing and its writing, its interpellation, its refusal and its re-statement. This body will offer up as sacrifice, sacrament and history of scaring the scripting of and thus the unwriting of modes of reading that disturb and disrupt but do not close down nor inhibit conversation. Rather conversational kinetic proliferations will be provoked. This body will... (the conversation cannot be predicted in advance of the encounter)
The kinetics of the Brazilian martial art and dance form capoeira has resonances with many Asian martial arts. The cross-resonances of caperaria and Asian marital arts might at first glance act as an appetizer into a full menu of Black and Asian cross-cultural resonances and historical sharing. But it would be too easy to pinpoint the marital art dances of both cultures as the ground of common and thus shared cultural understandings, histories and even meanings. The seduction of similarity, even familiarity makes cultural sharing a canard of cross-cultural identification. Instead we might look for something else. What that something else might be is a legibility, a scripting of cross-cultural resonances which collapse, indeed morph into and secrete bodily effusions which in turn script and write narratives of togetherness and desire. Bodily excretions, which bind and unite. "Blood is thicker than water" but blood and water remain sources of immense cultural identification and disidentification. Blood and water are but tropes towards the rituals of life - everyday and fantastic, religious and profane.
David Khang offers us the body as a script, his body as a script. A script that writes and unwrites the self in and on his writing body, his excreting body. His body is the canvas and the ink that calls to attention the writing and unwriting that makes intelligible the deep resonances of things that work to create intimate distances. These intimate distances are not the markers and signs of otherness but rather the mirrored reflections of self merging into self. For the viewer the looking becomes a deformed mirror, cracked and piece together as yet another and different language. The fluid and liquid traces and impressions of blood, water, ink - marks left begging for language, for resaying and rewriting. These fluids do not offer the promise and the prospect of mimetic representation, but instead those fluids bind us in difference, yet uttering desires for coming together. The blood of this body...
Bodies, other bodies can spectacularize histories in their performance. The spectacularized black phallus makes sense in light of the missing Asian penis. While phallus and penis are not always the same for othered racialized bodies the non-relation of their relation provokes conversation. It is in fact the space in-between, the space between the move and its pause, the break but not the separation that in which the trace and the impression, the cross-cultural resonances, the production of language(s) and the communion of Afro-Asian dialogue begins. It begins not as antagonisms, as a looking over the shoulder but as a mutual desire to live beyond the too easy intelligibilities and legibilities of narrative being written, unwritten - languages spoken and muted - bodies marked and unmarked and the too easy assertions of recognizable similarity and familiarity.
David Khang remakes and rewrites, Khang opens up the space of his body to allow for the utterance of common feeling, scripted or written as a the intimate distances of human and cross-cultural resonances made unfamiliarly strangely familiar.
(1) Beef tongue was used for the first time by Khang in 2003/4, in the pair of performances Zen for Mouth (Track 16 Gallery, Los Angeles / Kezai University, Tokyo); in it, he executed LaMonte Young's Composition 1960 #10 to Bob Morris by "drawing a straight line and following it" with the beef tongue as a prosthetic paint brush. Since then, the tongue has been a recurring motif in several of Khang's works, including: Linea Lingua (2004), Glossographia (2006), and Artifice of Sacrifice (2006).
Baker, H (1984). Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Derrida, J (1998). Monolingualism of the Other Or The Prosthesis of Origin . P. Mensah (trans.). Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Gilroy, Paul (2000). Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line . Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Glissant, É (1997). Poetics of Relation . B. Wing (trans.). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Joseph, M (1999). Nomadic Subjects: The Performance of Citizenship . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Morrison, T (1992). Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination . Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Rinaldo Walcott is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Canada Research Chair of Social Justice and Cultural Studies at OISE of the University of Toronto. He does research on the social relations of cultural production.
"David Khang: the problemed body." by Ashok Mathur, June 20, 2006.
While performance regularly draws a viewer's attention to the body within time and space, David Khang's work tends to accentuate this gaze, to use a type of radical simplicity to complicate corporeal relationships. The images from his performative corpus are almost static - the denuded male, asian body; the singular prosthetic prop, perhaps a cow's tongue, perhaps a paintbrush; the inscription of a circle - but their clean articulation points to a complex notion of the body, how it is read, how it is inscribed.
Thus, the body per se is not presented as a 'problem' in the context of race, gender, or sexuality, but the performative and minimalist actions of Khang create a problemed body. The viewer is faced with a series of vignettes that accrete into a rather substantial commentary on contemporary cultural politics. We might trace Khang's performative gestures through a number of theoretical lenses, complementary and contradictory, since no uniform position can encompass the breadth of this work. Yes, there is a hint of Said and his critique of the racialized/orientalized male body being constructed as feminine; but there is also the sensibility of Abdel-Shehid and his critique of masculist inabilities to theorize desire which, in turn, give in to heterosexist and racist paradigms. And if Khang's work recalls critically important work of race/gender theorists such as Mercer and Fung, it also brings into play Derrida and Spivak and their close attention to the act of writing and inscription of the "Other." Yet the viewer need not either bring to the performance space a thorough theoretical grounding nor race out to explore its theoretical underpinnings in order to do justice to the work - Khang's performance connects with the viewer in a visceral manner, allowing for direct (if uncomfortable) access to the body and its various methods of "writing itself" across a particularized space.
In essence, his performances and concomitant video-documentaries create for an entry point to the problemed body, a way for viewers both to gain access to a difficult space (the sometimes discomfited naked body) and to explore this space within their own histories and socio-economic backgrounds. Thus, the viewer who inhabits a brown, queer, and male space might develop readings far different, though not necessarily more important, than those of a viewer who comes from a straight, working-class, female background. This is not to cast a narrow identity-politics frame around Khang's performance, but to recognize the legacy and continuing validity of socio-political economies and the constantly restructuring of identity in a current reality. His work, then, is about race and sexuality just as much as it is about the act of writing and the relationship between art and language. His performance interrogates cultural history and representation as much as it comments upon the loss of history and cultural misrepresentation. And the relationship to the viewer will inevitably invoke theories of difference, subalterneity, and sexual ambiguity as much as it will encourage a reflexive investigation of the problemed body.
Abdel-Shehid, Gamal. Who da man?: black masculinities and sporting cultures. Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press, 2005.
Fung, Richard. "Looking for my penis: the eroticized Asian in gay video porn." Q & A: Queer in Asian America . Eng. David L, and Hom, Alice Y, ed. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1998.
Ashok Mathur is the Canada Research Chair in Cultural and Artistic Inquiry, and Director of the Centre for Innovation in Culture and the Arts in Canada, Thompson River University.
brunt magazine: Interview with David Khang by Glen Alteen
GA: I look at your work and especially the work Linea Lingua and your desire to explore Otherness through the tropes of language and I marvel at how many levels of these tropes you have referenced here: the beef tongue, calligraphy, your identity as a North American Asian man. They all resonate back and forth on one another. Also of course the gender and sexual implications of a naked man with a huge tongue in his mouth on his hands and knees making scatological marks on the floor just overflows with so much information at once one hardly knows where to start. But let ' s start with race and the writing of race and this is a huge and well traversed territory. Is this about the idea of cultural memory? How does Linea Lingua fit into the large mass of work on the writing of race?
DK: Perhaps one good place to begin is your lead question on cultural memory. Cultural memory, on some level, is intertwined with cultural amnesia as well as nostalgia (which I like to define as 'remembering things as they never were'). What is forgotten and remembered always changes the past and its trajectory into the future. The resulting slippages make artistic renewal possible for me. In the art context, the way I remember and reference the Fluxus era of artistic production (Paik, Kubota, Young) is not an attempt to recover and pay homage to some gloriously experimental moment in art history, but rather re-imagining politics and poetics today, tempered by the gravity of more recent histories. Linea Lingua began as a visual and visceral response to the events and milieu after 9/11, when I began my graduate studies at UCIrvine, and culminated in its inclusion in my thesis project. As part of my thesis writing, I relied significantly on the works of Said, Spivak, and Derrida; all three, in person and in writing, exhibits resolute and unmitigated concern for the Other. Taking the works of these authors together, one cannot look at race by itself; the writing of race is inextricably complicated by the matrix of sex, gender, and class. So race becomes one component of Linea Lingua . Yet it is not, in my process and in intent, a one-to-one transcribing of theory into praxis. If that were so, there would be no risk-taking, no renewal in and through art.
GA: I think it's interesting you said class because class is an area that hasn ' t been evoked in the post 9/11 scenario. And I think class, as an issue has faded from view while race, sex and gender just seem to get more and more complex. Notions of The Other which is so front and centre in these ideas has very different implications when you talk about class.
DK: Thank you for pointing out the issue of class. As artists, we often do not foreground our own profoundly privileged class status. While the issue of class is talked of less, of course the effects of class structures continue to persist: as in who are killed in the Iraq War - the Iraqis, of course, and the American poor who enlist in the military (black, hispanic, but also the white poor, thus cutting across racial grain), or the demographics of global travelers - not only the cosmopolitan corporate sector of all nationalities but also the migrant worker from underdeveloped regions ... all of which makes talking about race much more messy and tricky to navigate. Etienne Balibar speaks of a new "racism" that encompasses all of these categories - of race, sex, gender, and class. While I feel that his use of the term is somehow imperfect, the spirit of its usage - that attempts to capture the complexity of this matrix - is significant. For a long time now, we have known that we cannot talk about just one of these categories alone. Class is the difference that can slip quietly into the background, an assumed privilege that often goes unnoticed because of the foregrounding of the other categories, intentionally or not.
GA: I understand what you are saying about cultural amnesia and I think also there ' s the redefining each generation takes to identity. Your new work seems to push that envelope further into cultural and sexual stereotypes. You make the queer reference within the paradigm of an asian man, an attractive and hairless asian man in this anal pose with a paintbrush but to me the reference reads much more scatological than queer. Mainly because of the ink, I suppose. I mean there are precursors to this: performances of Ron Athey, Bob Flannagan, and Matthew Barney ' s Vaseline works. But it's interesting to note that only one of these artists is queer. And Athey ' s working out of a sense of the AIDS crisis which has another, earlier read on the anus. I think this image has the power to confuse people.
DK: Yes, identity does get redefined with time , yet there are many competing definitions too . I want to make clear that I do not ascribe to notions of post -identity, as in a sequential reading. Identity politics may be considered a thing of the past , but politics of identity remains vital. Any claim that suggests that we are "beyond" identity is, I feel, either prematurely celebratory or calculatingly disingenuous. If one reading of my work suggests a direction into cultural/sexual stereotypes, then my work intentionally involves a deception that may result in, as you suggest, confusion or complication - by seemingly furthering stereotypes, then ultimately challenging the subconscious ly-situated stereotypes and fixed readings of identities : such as, "Asian men - gay or straight - are more docile, less masculine, more patriarchal, etc. And of course the straight white male is the normative contradistinction. But this isn't about vilifying any one social group, for these groups always overlap in messy ways. For example, Catherine Lord critiques the word queer , as it is genderless and thus has the potential of erasing the lesbian while reinscribing the privilege of (white) gay men. I want to avoid this kind of trapping by using instead the descriptive homoerotic , which is how some viewers read my work, and more specifically, my body in my work. I don't feel that my own gender identification is as important here as how my body is received, how identity is a lready projected onto it . I don't want to be prescriptive about my intent, but rather, remain open to all kinds of interpretations, whether they are, in this case, scatological or homoerotic. Neither readings were originally intended - at least on a conscious level, but came about through varied reception of the work, and subsequently reflected on and re-worked to allow for multiple readings, without foregrounding one reading over another.
Athey, Flannagan, and Barney are all good reference points to reflect on convergent and divergent readings. There are two axes at work here: if only one of these artists is queer, I would add that none of these artists is Asian. As noted , Nam June Paik and Shigeko Kubota are other references that I draw on more directly. Last year, my friend Nguyen Tan Hoang introduced me to an ad in Detail Magazine featuring an asian male model, the headline of which read: "Gay OR Asian?" My work , in part, addresses the stereotypical conflation of these two racial and gender categories as well as challenging the viewers' gaze, whether it be hetero- or homoerotic, to ask : "what is the projection that might be involved here?" Am I performing a gender or a race, or both? My intention is not to reclaim a lost masculinity for Asian men, but rather to ask questions around the construction and performativity of race and gender. As for the scatological reading, I think about the title for the exhibition. "Oral - Fecal" is a medical term to describe a mode of infectious transmission, usually in kids who experiment with their poo, then... well, you get the picture. Kids of all ages, of course, play with these two area s of the body, far past the oral and anal stages of childhood development . It is a pairing that elicits at once disgust and pleasure. If Kubota challenged the works of male artists like Pollock, Klein, and Paik - by counterposing the female body's productivity to the masculine painterly gestures loaded with phallic symbolism, I want my work to be read against two forces. First , East Asian calligraphy. Many practitioners believe in a link between male virility and the strength of his brush stroke, the brush tip standing in for the erect phallus. Through scatological markmaking , I aim to 'pollute' this phallogocentrism . S econd, I want to interrogate the white gaze, and how the Asian body, or for that matter, Asia as a body, is feminized (read Said ) . And, of course, I do hope that there are other readings of my work as yet unnamed. I look forward to them.
Glenn Alteen is a Vancouver-based curator and writer, and the director of the grunt gallery, Vancouver.
"David Khang: Eviscerating the Visceral" by Carrie Paterson
David Khang is a hack and he knows it. While he’s tried for years to master calligraphy, all he can manage are basic lines and circles. Secondly, if Khang is an authentic imitator of some derivative Derridian logic, he is a bad one, for a closed system of high theory leaves little room for the uncontrollable utterances of disgust, despair, choking, gagging, bursts of air-laughter, sighs, or breathless pauses that are likely experienced by his audience.
By steeping his (e)masculated 'Asian' performances and their subsequent documentation in mystique, silence and self-reflexivity, he is splitting hairs - between the identifications into which his audience might fall too easily and the identifications he resists.
Khang's simple gestures—a line in space, a miraculously perfect circle of ten foot diameter—throw meaning and interpretation outside the frame, activating an internal language for the viewer. As his bare prosthetic tongue scrapes across the dry paper stage, the visceral itself is eviscerated and meaning left hanging in the air like a translucent skin. The rest of the work drips in motor oil.
This well-lubricated system continues to inscribe Khang's naked body with racialized and excessive markers, a hyperbole that tends toward the burlesque.
Watching Khang we might consider the Duchampian concept of the 'infra-thin' - where some hint of the past taints the present like the warmth that lingers on a seat. For Khang this residue is the coextensive meaning found between his performed, expected identity and the body of his text. But in layering these supposedly sincere gestures, he also performs a sleight of hand. So the question remains: how does the trick unhand the magician? In this effort, Khang is master again over himself.
But language? Leave that to the French.
Carrie Paterson is an artist, writer, and educator based in Los Angeles. She holds a BA in English Literature from Yale University, and MFA in Studio Art from the University of California, Irvine.
MFA THESIS EXTENDED ABSTRACT
University of California, Irvine
Distinguished Masters Thesis Competition,
Western Association of Graduate Schools, USA
“Uncanny Orient: Writing Difference and Desire in Bodies and Bodies of Text”
Department of Studio Art
University of California, Irvine
Table of Contents
Chapter One. In Other Words: Rethinking Language
Section I. In Other Words: Art and Language
Section II. Rethinking Ideographs
Section III. Writing and Righting Difference
Chapter Two. Judging a Book by its Cover: Representations in Orientalist Texts
Section I. The Imagined Orient
Section II. Re-presenting Orientalist Texts
Chapter Three. Performing Language, Race and Gender
Section I. POST-identity and post-IDENTITY Politics
Section II. Zen for Mouth: Re-cognizing Orientalism
Section III. Zen Offering: Multi-lingual Communion
Section IV. Bleeding Book: Pollution of Purity
Section V. Linea Lingua: Projections, Reflections & Mirroring
List of Works
Shanta Nag, who came from a generation of middle-class women whose mothers were already educated, tells the story of how shelearned to read the alphabet. It was sometime around the turn of the century. Her mother would sit across the table teaching herelder brother and she would stand [nearby] silently watching the proceedings. In a few months, without anybody suspecting it, shehad learned to read the first two books of the Bengali primer! The only difficulty, however, was that in order for her to read, she had to hold the book upside down. -Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments (1993).
I begin with the above epigraph, taken from Partha Chatterjee's The Nation and Its Fragments (1993). The story of Shanta Nag, as well as making me laugh out loud, struck a deep personal chord: my grandmother, while growing up as a Korean girl in Manchuria at the turn of the century, also learned to read and write in secrecy. Every day, she would wait by the road to meet her younger brother on his way back home from school, to find out what he had learned that day.
Her brother, though usually mischievous, shared his books and notes with her the right side up . This story at once illustrates empowerment through knowledge, as well as the relationship between knowledge and power: who has knowledge-power and is (or is not) willing to share it. Given that so much of culture is delivered, filtered, and received through language, it is hardly surprising that histories and other stories from Bengal, Manchuria and elsewhere, are interconnected through linguistic exchanges. Throughout this process, the fabric of language becomes embedded with issues of race, gender, nations, and their fragments. In my art practice,
I have preoccupied myself with fragments of languages - visual, written, and spoken. By examining transformations in language across times and cultures, I investigate issues of cultural erasure and (mis)translation, and search for productive fissures in which may take root alternate voices, writings, and imaginations.
In this paper I will reflect on my ongoing research - both theoretical and practical. This will unfold in three steps, a chapter devoted to each.
Chapter 1 . In Other Words: Rethinking Language
... that the sign, phonic as well as graphic, is a structure of difference,Derrida suggests that what opens the possibility of thought is not merely the question of being, but also the never-annulled difference from "the completely other." - Gayatri Spivak, Preface to Of Grammatology , xvii.
What is the relationship between art and language? How have writers and artists explored and negotiated the different genres and media available to them? This chapter begins with examples of experiments that pushed the envelope of traditional disciplinary thinking, and sets the context for my interdisciplinary art practice. Central to my artistic fascination with languages is calligraphy--as an ideal nexus between image and text. As such, calligraphy is often both the form as well as the content of my investigation. I start with the ideographic and pictographic characteristics traditionally (and stereotypically) assigned to Chinese calligraphy. From this layer I develop a more textured and complex picture of the relationships between writing and image-making, and between "East" and "West." I focus in on cultural mis-recognition and linguistic mis-translation that occur between these categories, and use these fissures to interrogate the notion of difference . This furtive site is used to rethink the following question: against desires to locate, mark, and fix differences in identity, how can fluid resistance be maintained and essentializing of differences deferred ?
Chapter 2. Judging a Book by its Cover: Representations in Orientalist Texts
"The real issue is whether indeed there can be a true representation of anything, or whether any and all representations, because they are representations, are embedded first in the language and then in the culture, institutions, and political ambience of the representer. " - Edward Said, Orientalism, 272.
In establishing that the difference in languages is also the difference of the Other, I will turn to Edward Said's Orientalism (1979) as my primary text source. In Chapter Two, I will further expand on how the "East" came to be in the Western imagination, and continue to be shaped and influenced through Orientalist authors and texts. To the extent that Orientalist authors throughout history relied on written bodies of text to negotiate their understanding of the Orient, I seek to utilize the internal constraints of texts, not as unilaterally inhibiting, but rather, to undertake productive and generative alternatives to Orientalism. While acknowledging some of the shortcomings of Said's project, I will illustrate how both linguistic as well as visual processes have been and continue to be central to issues of identity, and more specifically, to the framing and cognition of race. Said's critical stance--of eschewing essentialized identity in favor of contingent and self-reflexive understanding of identity--forms the fundamental base from which I engage in my theoretical research and art practice.
Chapter 3 . Performing Language, Race & Gender
My hands guide the raw fleshy mass towards my open mouth. The bovine tongue nestles against my own tongue, awakening sensations unknown (or perhaps suppressed) that only now--in and through the act of writing-I begin to consciously remember: this smell, this taste, and above all, this texture.... It seems to squirm to life as it presses against my throat, separated by a slim sheath of saliva. My teeth sink deeper into the flesh, not quite biting through: a muted violence, like the gag reflex, just held back. Getting down on my hands and feet like a beast, I dip the tongue in ink. I draw a straight line with the tongue and follow it, again and again, crawling until my body is exhausted. - Reflections on Zen for Mouth, performed at Track 16 Gallery, Los Angeles, 04.18.04
The methodology that I have followed thus far becomes self-evident in the third and final chapter, as the first two chapters help to situate my art practice in a specific context. In Chapter Three, I reveal through my writing how theory inhabits my body, and vice versa; by embodying theory, I hope to make inter-textual connections between bodies and bodies of text. For my most recent performance and video works, I clench in my mouth a large, severed cow tongue, as a prosthetic device to "perform" language that is neither spoken nor written, or perhaps at once both. The tongue--as an organ of articulate speech, sex, and digestion, among other functions in humans-- functions in my performances as an avatar for logocentric and phallocentric violence (see Footnote). The use of the tongue also enacts a search for a voice more resonant than rational, articulate speech. As such, it begs more questions than it can answer: If a dismembered organ is re-membered prosthetically, what entity is created when human and animal are intimately conjugated? What is this experience for the animal or the Other? Impossibly imbedded into my work is my own gendered and racialized body: If I am male, what am I asked to perform? If I am Asian, what am I asked to write? My body and theory embody one another, as I make links between Orientalism and feminized (and other minoritized) masculinities. To this end, Judith Halberstam's Female Masculinity (1998) has been an invaluable resource material.
Finally, the Freudian notion of unheimlich ("uncanny" or "unhomely")--through Julia Kristeva's writing--will bring us home. In and through my search for alternate and minoritized voices, I re-imagine and negotiate--through words and images--cultural and linguistic otherness. The impossibility of stabilizing identity is my unheimlich , never-quite-home, foreign to the East as well as the West, distanced from the homeland, while remaining un(der)assimilated in foreign land(s). As I can never truly graft the animal tongue onto my own, my split existence is always with both the Self and the Other, both embodied within as reflections of each other. If I write, I write against the trajectory of the straight line drawn, suspending the impossibility of written words to adequately describe experience. I continue to write and draw a series of vanishing images and morphing figures--figures imaginable through the categories of race, gender, and class, and lastly, through the naming of categories yet to be imagined.
When we mention the body, we are naming the body of language and writing, as well as what makes them a thing of the body. -Jacques Derrida , Monolingualism and the Other (1998), 27.
I am especially grateful to Professor Jacques Derrida for his insights offered on his idea of "differance" as well as the notion of "phallogocentricity" in his graduate seminar at UC Irvine, titled "The Beast and The Sovereign," Spring Quarter, 2002.