Culling from the exquisite regalia of Tang dynasty images of women with hair up-twisted and traditional frocks and the mundane relics of contemporary life – ” from cellphone calls to ironing – ” Nina Kuo’s images illustrate the complex narratives of her own reckoning with being a woman in a modern age.
Today, I’m not so sure that scholars are that able to adapt to the high tech world or the urban world, because there is just so much going on and we are just totally bombarded with.
Her paintings and multimedia installations often find these seemingly anachronistic images afloat in a lonely raging sea, or preciously perched on an alien land – ” lost in space. Coming from a family of artists, it was a natural path for Kuo to begin creating artwork as a student and then onto college and move to New York City. Both her father and mother were artists, her father teaching art in upstate New York, at a time when Asian American artists were few to practically none in art school campuses around the country.
In New York City, Kuo joined the Asian American arts & community group known as Basement Workshop. From there, she became one of the first artists in residence at the then newly created Asian American Arts Centre located on the Bowery in Chinatown, where she helped to spearhead the artist slide archive.
In the ’90s, Kuo worked on and off with Godzilla, a group of Asian American artists, writers and curators who would help reshape the landscape in which Asian American art would be shown and perceived in the mainstream. Kuo remembers the large-scale art shows, such as The Curio Shop, that the group would arrange as well as the slow dismantling of the group as artists’ careers began taking off.
Perhaps Kuo is less caught between worlds than suspended in a clash of worlds, intermixing with debris and logic colliding and intersecting. However described, she catches glimpses of a woman artist investigating herself, her life and her art. Asiance Magazine caught up with Kuo this spring when her work was at Flushing Town Hall exhibition “Between Two Worlds: Reflections of Contemporary Chinese Art.”
ASIANCE: What is it like working again with Zhang Hontu and Bing Lee from Godzilla?
Nina: Yeah. Oh it’s great ’cause, well, I guess I have their work, we exchange work. I’ve seen them both mature and I’ve seen them both doing work in Asia now and they are very committed to their own search for refining their work and they are so multi talented, you know. They do installation, you know, they do ongoing diaries. I think that they are very important peers for the Asian American Arts.
ASIANCE: With your own work too, I mean you seem to work in a million mediums as well.
ASIANCE: I was wondering. How do you transition between each medium and the next?
Nina: Well, I guess, I like doing art every day and then I build it up. I guess when I made my video and when I worked with Lorin Roser, my husband, we were doing this animation piece and then I was making clay Tang ladies made out of Terra cotta clay. I had them doing these kind of futuristic sort of meditative – ” you know, they had laptops and little cell phones and I use that in a way where I did stop action and they are like photographs, like stills and I put them together with the video and that was kind of like my own life, my own biography.
You know when you’re running around and we’re hopefully scholars and we are doing the mundane everyday transitional, you know, life. Today, I’m not so sure that scholars are that able to adapt to the high tech world or the urban world, because there is just so much going on and we are just totally bombarded with. So I guess that’s my statement too. And I know a lot of scholars, but they can’t even make their rent. You know and they study and they get their, like you, they work non-stop and they run around and their life is just intertwined by so many primitive things that they have to deal with and I guess it’s just a classical world, but it’s a post-modern world and how does the two fit together.
ASIANCE: You see that a lot in your work.
Nina: Yeah I think so. I mean I love to look at Chinese art history. I went to China with Bing and a small group of other artists. And I think that that really had an impact on me too, looking at the relics, you know the tombs. It’s very haunting to look at Chinese art. Because you feel that it’s kind of an oxymoron you know, people were telling me about Zen too. Zen is like the completion of a complete thought, but then Zen is found in everything, nature and empty space. Then here we are making more objects, but the objects are so important to us. Maybe we have to let it go. In art we can let it go to our audience. You know it’s not so sacred anymore because the experience is more important than ownership of the art or decorating your life with art. It’s really not supposed to be that way. It’s the opposite.
ASIANCE: It’s interesting how it’s become trendy to have Asian Artwork.
Nina: Yeah and the whole phenomenon, people will say I collect this and I want those Tang or Hang dynasty this. You know and I want to learn from them too. I want to learn from those objects, but that’s why I made those little girls because I want them to go into my tomb when I die. We’ll you’ll see, they’re in the video in the gallery. Or if you come over, you’ll see them. They have a life of their own.
ASIANCE: I saw your work at Plum Blossoms gallery.
Nina: Oh good.
ASIANCE: A lot of times you place women in space or in a big sea.
Nina: And it’s the turbulent sea. I don’t know if people understood that. It’s the rocky road, you know, to life. The floating bottle in the ocean and also being in a little bottle with a relationship between a man and a woman and it’s kind of like that their relationship is such an up and down kind of thing. It’s taken from that Lu Xian short story, “Storm in a Teacup”
ASIANCE: I don’t know that one.
Nina: Oh yeah it’s a wonderful little story. Again it’s really like you’re life looks so simple, but yet, you know, again so complicated. The quiet things – ” to sit under a tree, to experience nature – ” is so hard to do because we are so full of the 21st century. It’s so hard to escape from, the whole lifestyle that we are going through.
ASIANCE: You seem to also bring in a lot of what you were saying about tradition and statues, but also with women’s clothing. Is that just something close to you because it’s something that seems to represent Asians in pop culture?
Nina: Well, yeah it is a kind of a pop cultural statement. I always liked qi paos you know and then I got a bunch of books on them. You know a qi pao is a “banner dress,” originally it’s called banner because it’s long because they wore them all the way down to the floor.
ASIANCE: I didn’t know they called them the banner dress. That’s interesting.
Nina: Yeah that’s what it meant and then what I wanted to do was to recreate it. Because I did a piece at the New Museum where a women’s holding up a banner dress because she doesn’t have anything on and I put all these pop foods around her head. Like potato chips and cheese doodles. Floating snack icons and what I wanted to say was that women are supposed to be like a you know hua ping, the body of a “flower vase,” but you know as they evolved, they’re not this picture-perfect person and they have this kind of evolution I guess too, when they have to see themselves and the dress mirrors their early life.
Like my mom collected all her old clothes and we kept them in a suitcase and she still has it and she won’t let go of them because it’s all about her past from China and she came here with that little suitcase. It was sort of sad in a lot of ways because she wouldn’t wear them. For many decades, Chinese-American women wouldn’t wear them here because they thought of them as too peasant like or too old world, that kind of look. So I guess now it’s coming back into fashion, but for a long time people kind of looked down on that. Even during Mao’s period, you know, you weren’t allowed to wear a qi pao. That was considered, you know taboo, they’d probably arrest you, unless of course you were a movie star or you know a singer or something. But ordinary people couldn’t wear them. They would burn them.
So when I went back to China, they were starting to come back into fashion so I wanted to say something about that, ’cause it’s sort of the curvaceous, you know and everything. And then I put the photographs on the dress and I painted them too, because I wanted people to experience the delight, it’s like a little TV set, you know that a light was going on inside of the dress.
ASIANCE: You seem to be working in installation, you had one piece that you did that was the qi pao that had the image on top of it. Did you feel, because you were working in photography before, that you need to push to more 3D or was it just that you wanted to show in a different way?
Nina: Yeah, I love experimenting with medium, you know, I do sewing. I work with cloth now, I wax the cloth with the drawing and I love doing drawings. I put like cement on top and I layer the paint and I’ve got these terracotta ladies with makeup, you know lipstick and powder. I guess I want to see how much of a tug of war I can utilize with the past and the present, flip flopping the cultures. I guess I did that when I went back to China. I had to bring back, you know my cousin wanted bras and batteries and you know medicine and you know – ”Western things. Actually now the Western isn’t so Western. It’s kind of like international and even Chinese ideas are more international, they’re not as inherently Chinese. I guess I question the boundaries of what Chinese is and what it can allow.
ASIANCE: So I was wondering about the Flushing Town Hall show. I mean it seems to talk pretty close to that, about being between worlds?
ASIANCE: Is it between worlds or is it the colliding of the worlds maybe?
Nina: Yes, probably. It’s funny, because a lot of Chinese audiences, you know people from China, they may look at my work and they think it’s really strange. ‘Cause if I had the pigtail couple, some of them feel embarrassed. You know, people said to me, “Oh, why do you have those little bien zhi,” you know “pigtail,” and you know I tell them, well, because that’s such a beautiful image.
ASIANCE: You’ve moved into video and installation. What are you currently working on? Are you working on more video?
Nina: Yeah, well, Lorin, everyday he works on his pieces and we’re going to do a series of the Tang ladies where she’s out sort of searching. We have a piece where she’s in this plant-like environment. We want to do things like a storyboard where she has more relationships to nature and she’s working with a little dog character. We figure people can relate to this cartoon dog animation, but he’s more like a Zen dog. He does action painting.
Nina: You know, he does things that are hopefully, something that are soothing and restful and not jarring, like the kind of video games that you see or the movies that you see. It’s not so much a story, but it’s kind of a Zen narrative. We do want to make an installation where the clay ladies and the installation work together and do a projection on cloth you know and that sort of thing. More monument pieces or pieces that require a bigger space.
ASIANCE: What is it like working with your husband?
Nina: Well, you know, it’s tough because he has his own ideas about how to manipulate the characters. It’ like a stage, we try to think of it like a stage with characters and you know how they move and he loves certain types of, well, he creates the music and we have a lot of differences on the types of music we’re going to use.
He’s doing research on Asian instruments with say a pop or an experiment beat to it and he can only speak for himself, because he spends a lot of time on his music and he loves to do sampling and research different music, whether it’s ethnic or the avant garde. He likes to swing it both ways like me. I’ll put my Tang ladies and see how they respond to bubble heads and I put wind up turn keys on their heads. You know, it’s kind of like the robotic life that we live. You plug yourself in and you know, you’ve got to do. I have them doing ironing on an ironing board or I have them with the shopping cart, but I want to make them classical and not so funky.