Huidi Xiang: when held properly
Through May 14, 2023
By CLARE GEMIMA, April 2023
when held properly presents six new and zany concoctions which seek to synthesize Huidi Xiang’s interpretations of human assimilation and modern day survival strategies. Concerning broad notions of innate human powerlessness enforced by authoritative power structures, Xiang concertedly critiques the recursive nature of systemic injustices, and addresses the harm those seeking justice from the system face, while trapped within its insidious limitations.
Moving objects, shapely plastics and embedded video screens are only a few enticing visual aspects of Xiang’s assemblages which will occupy Tutu gallery until May 6. Intrigued initially by the exhibition’s installation measures, it was clear that this show involved a major collaborative effort. I really wanted to understand what that could have looked, or felt like - the dynamic between hungry artist, and their curator/director (not to mention the gallery’s live-in roommate). In support of artistic bonds, mutual aid, and the sustainability of alternative/artist-run spaces in New York (and of course beyond), I decided to interview both practitioners imperative to when held properly’s insanely sleek and successful realization.
Clare Gemima: Huidi! Congratulations on your first solo exhibition in New York, when held properly. I am curious to know how long you’ve been making sculptures that consider immigration assimilation, and how important this overarching concept is to your practice.
Huidi Xiang: Thank you, Clare! In my practice, I don’t really talk explicitly or specifically about immigration assimilation, but I indeed always think about the frictions, the unbridgeable gaps, the impossibility of translation, and the hidden power structure when navigating through different systems or ideologies in today’s world. So I think with my work, I am more asking what assimilation truly means these days to find survival strategies when trapped in a vicious cycle or a gap created by the larger system we exist under.
Clare Gemima: At which point did your research into assimilation meet with the aesthetics signature to animated games like Super Mario Bros?
Huidi Xiang: I always borrow visual elements from popular media, like video games and cartoon animations. These media works mirror our reality but with particular perspectives and interpretations. I am curious about how and why they work in the contexts they are situated in. By using these elements in my work, I am adopting these already loaded symbols and scenarios as my rhetoric and plot devices to respond to my own reality. On the other hand, by dragging these elements simulating reality back to the real world, I am reenacting the process of ideology construction that popular media is deploying.
This body of work actually starts with my interest in Shoe Goomba, a shoe-wearing, mushroom-shaped monster character in Super Mario Bros. Different from the regular Goomba, the Shoe Goomba can be defeated by the standard jump move or a stealth attack from below, which then grants Mario possession of A Goomba’s Shoe, allowing him to move through spiked grounds and monsters safely. I am fascinated by the idea of using the
opponent’s weapon to weaponize ourselves. It is a survival strategy to live in a system we are trying to fit into.
Clare Gemima: Were there any unexpected discoveries made while you explored the combination of these ideas, and did any predominantly influence this latest body of work?
Huidi Xiang: After I started to make works inspired by Shoe Goomba, I found myself thinking more and more about Audre Lorde’s statement about the master’s tools, where she states that “...the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Her words make me rethink my idea about using the tools within the system to fight against it. Do I really defeat Goomba by wearing the Shoe they give to me? Do I really become part of the structure? Is the power granted by the Shoe just an illusion that the system has imposed on me in order to trap me in this loop that is actually a vicious cycle? I think these are some questions I’ll be thinking about when reflecting on this body of work and when I’m making my next.
Clare Gemima: Does when held properly showcase the work you are most invested in creating long term, or are there other areas you want to explore? Where does this title come from by the way?
Huidi Xiang: This group of works is rooted in my long-term research on the constant translation between the virtual, simulated worlds and the physical worlds in today’s post-industrial, post-internet world. My work often reenacts forms and narratives of popular media with absurd means of reinterpretation to speculate the often invisible working mechanism hidden behind cultural facades. With a cute yet crude sculptural gesture, I intend to cultivate alternative narratives to convolute the singular storytelling in the mass media representations and challenge the power structure associated with the making of idolatry and ideology. In this group of work, I specifically look at the relationship between toys, tools, and weapons in cartoon animations and video games to talk about renewed labor structures, the politics of ‘care’, and the delicate balance between desire and violence.
The title comes from The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction written by Ursula K. Le Guin, in which she retells the story of human origin by proposing that the earliest human tool is actually a carrier bag rather than a weapon of domination like the spear, shifting a narrative of conquest to one of gathering, holding, and sharing. I greatly admire this theory, yet I also believe a bag is not merely a receptacle. When held properly, a bag can also be used as a weapon for protection and resistance as well.
Clare Gemima: Can you please walk us through the making process of my favorite work in the show, timbering the dream house?
Huidi Xiang: I started this work simply with the idea that I wanted to make a shovel with a monitor embedded in it, like making a shovel TV for myself. And you can tell, timbering the dream house is indeed a shovel-shaped TV. As for what’s on the screen, I have been thinking about how to introduce the video game references used in my work to the audience. So I made this slideshow-glossary-flash-card-like video with my collection of online GIFs to give some basic information about two games I am referring to, Animal Crossing and Super Smash Bros., with the focus on illustrating how the Villager, (a caretaker who uses all sorts of domestic tools to take care of their world in Animal Crossing), becomes a fighter in the crossover game Super Smash Bros., and uses the same sets of tools as weapons to fight and smash their opponents.
Clare Gemima: What are these works actually made of, and how do you make them?
Huidi Xiang: I often combine digital fabrication techniques, found objects, low-tech machines, real-time media, and techniques from online DIY culture in my work. For this show, I mainly used 3D-printed polylactic acid (PLA) with different kinds of finish, like cement, resin, or flocking fibers. All the concrete-like objects I make are always plastic, wood, foam, or other materials covered with concrete. I am interested in the idea of fake materiality or surface-level materiality, like what we usually do when making props. I printed my work with the small 3D printer I have at home. Thus I usually need to divide or slice my models into small components first to fit on the print bed, print each individual part, and then assemble them together. I also used found plastic objects like the red basin in the flower needs no water, and the snow shovel in timbering the dream house. I altered these found plastics and mixed them with the plastic objects I made.
Clare Gemima: Having established a relationship with Tutu before exhibiting there, how did you approach the gallery space when it came to your installation methods and executions?
Huidi Xiang: Tutu Gallery is not a white box, which is exciting yet challenging for putting up an all-sculpture exhibition. The space has a powerful personality, with many objects originally belonging to it. So when creating and installing the works for Tutu, I always kept in mind that I wanted to create an exhibition where each sculpture maintains its agency while respecting the space and the objects already in the space. When I planned the installation, I made a digital 3D model for the space and put the digital models of my sculptures in the model to play with different layouts. But, despite the help of the digital model, April and I still needed to improvise once all of the work was on-site, so we could ensure everything vibed.
Clare Gemima: April, from your curatorial perspective, what did you anticipate the gallery looking like for when held properly, and how involved were you in the exhibition installation?
April Z: I visualized it to be sort of a surreal living space, one that looks like a playroom, but there’s something unsettling about it. For this exhibition specifically, I played more of a backup role, speckling walls, spot painting, cooking dinner, and giving minor inputs since some of Huidi’s sculptures are fragile and I’m particularly clumsy. Huidi actually carried each sculpture and walked them over from her studio.
Clare Gemima: For Huidi’s first exhibition in New York, how do you feel Tutu is supportive in extending the audience’s dialogue about the work? What sort of conversations are you hearing your visitors have?
April Z: I am proud of the press release, and think it acts as a starting point to understand the work. On the administrative side, we tried establishing contacts beneficial for the artist’s potential career objectives, and on the curatorial side, we invited people who have enjoyed our programs or Huidi’s work to have one on one conversations. I really appreciated a comment that a mentor made: “It is smart and provocative and engaging work, even for a nonSuperMario fan, nongamer. I see how it all ties in with society at large (and also see connections to the themes explored in Everything Everywhere All At Once).”
Clare Gemima: How has your perspective of Huidi’s work changed now that you are showing it, and which of her works would you keep forever if you could?
April Z: I have heard more about how the works are made and how the process coincides with the concept of these works, and am amazed that with limited technological resources, Huidi is able to make sculptures at this scale with such a sleek presentation. It’s DIY, but hardcore. I would keep power-up take-out, it contains a funny memory of how we made the curatorial decision on that one.
Clare Gemima: Between your relationship as curator and artist, what have you each learnt throughout this particular experience that you’ll forever adopt moving forward?
Huidi Xiang: One thing I learned from making this exhibition happen is that things will happen when you put enough care into the artwork and trust in the space you are working with. Always bring good energy to the studio and the exhibition space. Take good care of everyone involved in a show. I want to thank April for all the work and meals she cooked for me during the installation period! Always remember to feed the artists!
April Z: I too learnt to have trust in the process and hope for the unfolding. But the most important thing I learned is that I should take dating advice that Huidi gives me. I think from working with artists in an intimate space like this, they have a first-hand observation on the inner monologue I would have if I were here alone, and they see things I have a hard time admitting to myself.
Clare Gemima: What are the biggest challenges facing alternative spaces today, and how can the wider community help support Tutu and their artists?
April Z: My challenge right now is to keep the operation lean, limiting the crowd so that people who come here have a more relaxed experience, but also to reach collectors or change up the model of the space. I’m having a slightly hard time with finances, as I am sure most alternative space organizers do, but I believe it will work out. I have to say that I already feel very supported, people who visit often bring me food and drinks and it’s a huge cut in expenses. And everybody helps with cleaning, offers moral support, or shares their skills with me. As for the artists I’m working with, I am hoping that the wider art community could extend more respect and recognition to their talent and hard work, and understand that some
of their life experiences and the way they are treated can hinder creativity severely. And they are expressing their perspectives despite any of this.
Huidi Xiang: I want to echo what April said about extending more recognition to independent alternative art spaces like Tutu and the artists working within these places. Art spaces and artists are constantly constructing alternative narratives to the so-called art world that expand our imagination of what art can be and do. Isn't that exciting? I am thrilled to work with Tutu to pave one forking path together this time. From the artist's perspective, one of the biggest challenges of showing in artist-run spaces is securing funding for production and exhibition costs. I hope the arts community can be more present for these spaces and artists, and can find ways to support them emotionally and financially.
Clare Gemima: when held properly is a tough show to follow, but the work obviously never stops! What are each of you focusing on right now, and what are you next looking forward to the most?
Huidi Xiang: I will take a short break first. I need some time to stay alone, reflect, and absorb new stuff to further push this body of work later. Recently, I got super excited about soft sculptures. My previous and current works are all very sharp, hard-edged, and stubborn, in many ways. So maybe it could be nice to soften them as well as myself a little bit, blurring or feathering (Photoshop terms) the boundaries. I have hardly sewn anything before, so I look forward to learning more techniques for making soft sculptures.
April Z: I still don’t have any idea what the next exhibition here is going to be, perhaps an open call since Tutu is celebrating 4 years of operation soon. Currently, I am trying to prioritize fun, rest, and friendships instead of work. My video gameplay is getting stale, it’s alarming. I am also looking forward to the Spring, and cross-pollinating with people.
when held properly will run at Tutu Gallery until May 14th, 2023. For more information about how to get to the show, please visit:
Clare Gemima contributes art criticism to The Brooklyn Rail, Contemporary HUM, and other international art journals with a particular focus on immigrant painters and sculptors who have moved their practice to New York. She is currently a visual artist mentee in the New York Foundation of Art’s 2023 Immigrant mentorship program.view all articles from this author