SJICA's 'City Beneath the City' Unearths Lost History
City Beneath the City at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art presents salvaged artifacts from the city's late 19th century Market Street Chinatown, one of the largest Chinese communities in the country at the time, second only to San Francisco. From the 1860s to its complete destruction by a single devastating instance of arson in 1887, this densely populated neighborhood was a defining characteristic of San Jose. Much of its legacy was lost until nearly a century later, in the mid 1980s, when the area was redeveloped and these objects, among many, were excavated at the site that now hosts the Fairmont Hotel. To date, nearly 7,000 objects and more than 26,000 fragments from this discovery have been cataloged by Stanford University, accounting for less than half of what is now known as the Market Street Chinatown Archaeological Project. For this exhibition, artist Rene Yung mined this historic collection to create a subtly poignant installation that complicates our sense of place through an understanding of lost and rediscovered history.
San Francisco-based Rene Yung, an artist whose work traverses public art and design, explores narrative and its relationship to cultural memory through socially engaged projects. Chinese Whispers, an ongoing project since 2007, is a community-based storytelling project that explores the memories of Chinese immigrants who helped build the transcontinental railroad and the American West. Other recent works include a studied examination of gentrification in San Francisco's Mission District with Southern Exposure and a public art project in East Oakland with a participatory web archive of local history. Seemingly at the core of Yung's practice is a desire to recognize the numerous truths and histories embedded in place, giving each strand of memory its own integrity even when all that remains are fragments.
Photo: David Pace, courtesy SJICA
The significance of the objects in City Beneath the City is lost without a larger context -- to fully appreciate the installation, read the short text in the gallery. Organized to symbolically reflect on traditional Chinese homes, quotidian objects are presented on pedestals arranged systematically in the space. Cultural specificity aside, the ubiquity of these items illuminates commonalities across different cultures throughout history. One encounters building materials, house wares, personal effects, and, lastly, an extensive display of rice bowls. A sound installation in the vicinity of the rice bowls -- the volume too subtle to be heard by most -- emits a number of different voices asking, "Have you eaten rice yet?" Intended as a salutation, this phrase equates wellbeing with access to sustenance and references the famine that forced many to leave China in the late 1800s.
Photo: David Pace, courtesy SJICA
Fragments from windows, brick and wood speak to an architectural history, while spare objects such as toothbrushes, buttons, and a forlorn porcelain doll leg allude to the everyday aspects of domestic life in Market Street Chinatown. Further a mix of Euro-American and "chinoiserie" dishware exemplifies the adaptive life of immigrants. Chinoiserie, a European aesthetic dating from the 17th century, is a style of ornamentation intended to appear Chinese, absent of any real cultural significance. For a Western audience, it is, in effect, Chinese-like without being authentic. The use of these objects within the Chinese American community reflects a weary allowance for this ignorance in the face of practical concerns, including acclimation and survival amidst racial bias, and echoes the nuanced existence of otherness within native and adopted identities. In an essay written for the exhibition, art historian Dr. Jordana Moore Saggese notes that these objects, alongside imported European whiteware, "point to the impossibility of a singular identity or meaning in the context of migration."
Photo: David Pace, courtesy SJICA
This impossibility is at the core of Yung's investigations. City Beneath the City was created in response to the forthcoming ZERO1 art and technology biennial and its exploration of the area before it was known as Silicon Valley. Despite an accepted linear understanding of the past, this theme anticipates the wealth of layered narratives that shape our understanding of place. Unearthing even a small shard from a by-gone era can lead to a broad investigation of the past and its relationship to the present. Understanding the larger context of history is a form of consciousness -- like technology, once considered it should only advance. Mining the legacy of where we stand is, perhaps, the way forward in a country still reconciling its relationship to immigrants, a pressing social issue beyond the revelations of even the most advanced technology.
City Beneath the City is on view at San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art through September 16, 2012. For more information visit sjica.org.
More on Visual Arts
The Bay Bridged | Jun 19, 2013
Listen to the Bay Bridged mix of bands performing at this year's Phono del Sol festival, including: Thee Oh Sees, Social Studies, Radiation City, Cool Ghouls, K. Flay and more.
Art Review | Jun 18, 2013
A giant pink inflatable elephant, a yeti hugging a unicorn, and a big blue head -- what could be better? By Kristin Farr
Noise Pop | Jun 18, 2013
Listen to the Noise Pop Podcast previewing some of the acts that will be performing at the Treasure Island Music Festival including: Animal Collective, Disclosure, James Blake, Phantogram, Sleigh Bells and more.
Event | Jun 17, 2013
Last Saturday, awards were given for best videos produced in 48 hours by Bay Area bands and filmmakers. Even without a red carpet or paparazzi, the event was truly special, bringing together two vibrant artistic communities. By Amanda Roscoe Mayo
Theater Review | Jun 17, 2013
Playing Dance Dance Revolution in the Chinese Land of the Dead is par for the course in Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's play 410[GONE]. By Sam Hurwitt
Art & Design
Claes Oldenburg is one of the best-known American pop artists. Critic Lloyd Schwartz found himself not alone in enjoying the current Oldenburg exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, which continues through Aug. 5.
The city of London boasts centuries of architectural history. But a building boom is threatening the city's traditionally low-rise aesthetic and the views of some of that history. Critics — including UNESCO — are very worried about London's changing skyline.
For women on city streets, unwanted attention from men often comes in the form of cat calls, whistles and roving eyes. New York artist Tatayana Fazlalizadeh says she's had enough and is taking her art to the streets.
Psychologist Nancy Etcoff explains why beauty inspires and motivates us. Etcoff says our response to beauty is visceral.
Also on KQED.org this week ...
"The Bay Bridged" Music for June
Listen the The Bay Bridged mix of bands performing live in the Bay Area this month, including The Mantles, Cold Cave, The Spyrals, Blitzen Trapper, Monster Rally, and more. Enjoy the podcast and then go see some concerts!
Obamacare Explained: A Guide for Californians
Starting Jan 1, 2014, most Americans will be required to have health insurance or pay a fine. KQED has created a simple guide to explain how the health law affects you, your family or your small business, here in California.