NICOLE WON HEE MALOOF / TAMMY NGUYEN / JOHN YAU
November 3, 2018
Nicole Won Hee Maloof and Tammy Nguyen’s two-women exhibition, One Blue Eye, Two Servings, weaves fictional and biographical references to the banana into a complex socio-cultural matrix. Maloof’s video, What Color is a Banana? (2017) cleverly considers the multi-dimensional nature of this fruit, an ostensibly benign object of nutrition, and a food whose production process requires human intervention and has been perilous for its laborers. Simultaneously exploring theories around sight, color, race, and language, the artist also analyzes the term banana as a racially-charged slur for Asian Americans. Her meticulous etchings serve as stills, freezing the moving image to create moments of pause amongst a dense, engrossing web of political and ontological associations. Nguyen’s paintings, which take Book 9 of “The Odyssey” as their departure point, juxtapose Maloof’s network of thinking, expanding the well-known story’s narrative into personal and contemporary terrain. Her paintings consider the banana as a weapon and a tool of seduction, incorporating references ranging from America’s military presence in Vietnam to the chaos of natural disasters in the global South. Painted on stretched paper instead of canvas, Nguyen’s works are formal and conceptual experiments into flatness and opacity — echoing the thick humidity of the environments she represents and the colonial power structures that have attempt cultural erasure there. Inspired by poet and critic John Yau’s ability to complicate tropes of language and painting as they relate to race and American culture, the artists invited him to engage in the following conversation.
Following is an excerpt of a conversation between Maloof, Nguyen and Yau moderated by Alison Karasyk. For the full transcript, please follow this link. This conversation was held in conjunction with the exhibition One Blue Eye, Two Servings.
Alison Karasyk: In thinking about the collapse of space, I’m made to think about the use of the term “two servings” in the exhibition title and and the concept of reflection as well. There’s the mirrored aviator motif occurring in many of your paintings, Tammy, and the use of the split screen throughout much of your video, Nicole. Can you both speak a bit about the role of distortion and what it means to look in and out at the same time?
Nicole Won Hee Maloof: Yeah I think that’s another strong connection between our work. The video is sort of looking at how things are presented in popular culture and our everyday world, and then there’s a kind of behind-the-scenes narrative that’s happening simultaneously. So the video goes into the process of production in terms of how bananas come into being. At the same time, it addresses how they’re sort of consumed through the idea of nutrition -- they’re healthy -- but there’s a really bloody history behind how bananas even came to be popular here in the U.S. If you think about it, it’s really strange that a banana is familiar to everyone in this room. They don’t grow here and they’re cheaper than apples, yet apples are grown locally, apples are much hardier than bananas. So how is it that that came to be? There’s the appearance, or the form in which you take them in, and then there’s the actual way in which they come into being. So there’s this ongoing double-ness that happens in my video. And I also really loved that you had the same kind of logic happening with your figures and the aviator glasses.
Tammy Nguyen: I’m always thinking about the blaze of history and the blaze of war. I’ve always really liked using glasses and eyes and items that are reflective in painting as a formal way to create another opportunity. A formal way to create a reflection or something you see through or some method of distortion. When I was thinking about creating these Cyclops women, I was thinking about the aviator glasses which are so signature of American soldiers in the global south. When you think of Joe, Joe wears aviators. So I thought what if I just broke that in half and welded it together then like an aviator monocle for a Cyclops. And so when you think about these women, they’re wearing this thing that Joe wears, Joe the soldier. And as they wear the aviator monocle, the things that are reflected in them are the things that Joe brings to them, and so slowly, they start to see through the eyes of the American soldier.
John Yau: Of the oppressor?
TN: Of the oppressor.
JY: But we were talking about W.E.B Dubois double consciousness being something that we kind of all live in all the time. It’s kind of something you need to read and that double-ness, I mean there’s a part in your video when Beam Crosby sings “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” and I remember seeing that when I was a kid and instantly thinking, what does he mean by white Christmas and then thinking later, where does that thought go at ten years old? I mean it doesn’t just disappear, it kind of comes back and you’re always aware of that use of language having a double edge in many ways. What does it mean?
NM: In the video it’s juxtaposed with a movie about Malcolm X and he’s reading from the dictionary about the definition of white, and so, he goes through the definition and is like wait a second, this was written by white people, wasn’t it? And it’s in the dictionary and so the way in which language presents a natural narrative for how our social order is, and again, why things are told in certain ways that again appear to be natural, just as the fact that a banana is commonplace should appear strange to everyone in this room is not recognized. Just as the same stories that get told over and over again by those in power don’t appear strange when you don’t sense that disconnect. To many in this country, you do sense it and it’s very clear that there is a double-sided-ness and so I feel that in both of our bodies of work, we’re sort of pointing to that idea through what is deeply familiarized and sort of twisted so that it can become clearer to people who are viewing the work. So that even if it’s not your personal experience, one can actually look at the work and start to draw these connections. Through both storytelling and formal composition -- I think that we both believe it’s important that this be recognized.
JY: What should be recognized?
NM: The idea that there are stories that proliferate that appear to be natural, universal, when they’re not. They benefit maybe one particular group of people but not everyone and maybe it’s not the universal.
JY: Or even the categories may have been lying from the beginning, right? That separating everything into these quote “categories,” Aristotle – it’s like the wrong idea to begin with. Some would say but they were just white guys, well I’m not afraid to say that. I mean I was thinking about when you told the story of being in the taxi in Korea, and the cab driver’s response, this kind of double-ness that happens everywhere, not just here. That he would have a particular view of you having not seen you that you spoke English so perfectly. And then realizing why?
TN: When you were in Beijing did people know you were from America?
JY: Absolutely, by the way I looked. My father was half English, and so whenever I went to a place where they checked your passport, the guard usually just stared at me and then would talk with my wife or the person I was with, and they would have a two minute conversation while the line would be getting longer and longer, and then they’d be kind of laughing about it and then I’d be let through and it was always the same response: He’s Chinese, but he’s not Chinese. And they didn’t quite know what to do with that. Then she would explain “his father was half Chinese, half English” and they would just look at us as if to say, that’s not possible. That does not happen. Particularly because it happened in 1919. They were just perplexed because the Chinese are not known for the their interracial marriages in China.
NM: What about when you were in Vietnam? Because you were there for three years?
TN: I was there for four years. It became less and less obvious by year number four. I was actually thinking about Vietnam a lot this morning before our talk and at the beginning, I was talking lacquer painting at the university in Ho Chi Mihn and we would hang out in the studios all the time. And I remember one night at the beginning of my time there a lot of people wanted to talk about the way I looked. I don’t know, I don’t think I have particularly bigger eyes than other Vietnamese but it was just something that people liked talking about. And somebody just slammed their beer down and was like, “well you know, when you grow a banana tree in Vietnam and then you take that banana and you plant it in America, it’s gonna taste different!” And I remember thinking that just summed it up in a nutshell.