Whitehot Magazine

Interview with Nina Kuo

Tang Bride, Clay Ladies, Smiling Cat, 2023. Montaged Tady Lady with Headdress with 2 Clay Tomb Ladies on Steps. Digital Print. 22 x 14 in. Photo courtesy of the artist.

By CLARE GEMIMA January 7, 2024 

Writer Clare Gemima engages in a compelling conversation with artist Nina Kuo about her current exhibition in the Chinese American Arts Council in New York, Mythical Mosaic. In this interview, Kuo explains her collaging of archetypal images in her efforts to uniquely represent the “Asian American” persona, and delves into the use of photographic montages that combine her curiosity for meditative spiritual realms and the significance of historical Asian figures like Maggie Cheung and Pvt. Danny Chen. Kuo is committed to documenting new beginnings for Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, and shares insights into her interdisciplinary approach that aims to confront feminist perspectives, and combat racism. Mythical Mosaic promises innovative material processes, both tangible and digital, and proudly reimagines current and bygone geographies. 

Clare Gemima: Nina, in Mythical Mosaic, how do you utilize archetypal images to create a distinctive representation of the Asian American persona, and how does it respond to the increasing expressive freedoms within Asiatic geographies?

Nina Kuo: I create surreal images that build new identities from older icons, which create windows into other semi-fictional worlds. I invent new strategies offering stylistic cultural motifs that conjoin with ritualistic practices. The surroundings take inspiration from traditional street goers, to many graffiti shrines or storefronts. I incorporate a multicultural twist on Asiatic Chinatown’s vernacular, and aim to capture the community’s multiple homages. These made-up photos are like cinematic murals that derive from memories of Chinese cafes, curio shops, and calligraphic signs, as well as kitschy and pop sub-cultures that stem from Chinatown’s nostalgia, and its misunderstood heritage.

Clare Gemima: Could you elaborate on how the photographic montages in your exhibit engage with meditative spiritual realms, and how these are brought to life through the performers, actors and residents you’ve photographed in New York’s Chinatown and its enclaves?

Nina Kuo: Actually many photos are from my repertoire of past recent years, sometimes re-created in my psyche. Other images are older with new versions of our slant  on community legends such as an old 1950’s montaged BW still from the defunct Sun Sing Theater which had newly found curiosity among cinema fans.

No Panic, 2023. Digital Photographs. 36 x 40 x 3 in. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Clare Gemima: What is the significance of the figures you've presented in the exhibit, such as Maggie Cheung, those during the early days of AAPI, and Pvt. Danny Chen who you have tributed. How do these figures contribute to the theme of new beginnings for the asian american and pacific island communities that you continue to document?  

Nina Kuo: Yes. These images are documented to show the strong yet subtle mannerisms of individuals that are huge heroes. I create prints that are multi-layered, made up of many people who are anchored in global ancient histories, and attempt to make abstract compositions worthy of their origins. As I explore the Asian and Chinatown communities, there is contact with the past (like lost ghostly ancestors seeking tunnels and ancestral homes). I sometimes create animated interiors despite gentrified buildings, but these elements demand fictional consideration and surprises. 

Nowadays, AAPI’s movements are slowly reclaiming street life with graffiti painted basements and gentrified buildings with pop, calligraphic, neon and soft lighting. In the 1990’s my Maggie Chung film stills shows her vulnerable side in a NYC feature film I worked on. I quickly observed that she transformed her persona in many unique ways.We become victims of makeup and theatrical pretense. All the while, there is an American fascination with the haunting stereotyped Chinatown and its realms. The invasion of my camera gave me back anachronistic peoples that were super-charged, even with the pandemic wearing us down.

Heroic Pvt.Danny Chen was hazed by the US anti-racist military in 2012, but my poster tribute shows him tough yet sensitive. I asked “How do our shared compassions help us transcend radically?” My tribute was a radical shake up on mainstream fashion ads that commonly omit Asian American models in the media. Now artists can freely redefine future community heroes that popularize our opinions constantly–it’s awesome! I feel like a anthropologist finding mega  legendary heroic residents and how they possess such strength is worth a lifetime of archiving!  

Clare Gemima: Given your background as a Chinese American photographer, painter, and video artist, how does your personal experience influence your approach to addressing feminist perspectives, Asian arts, and combating racism and social issues within your work?

Nina Kuo: Yes, “Casting Identities” was the theme of my past 90’s POC photo series that continues to this day. Art is about exposing the unpredictable. I am going to combine these poetic expressions with other media and make new visual banquets.

Girl Dot Punch Out, 2023. Photo assemblage with a newer spin on translation of  feminine identities. Photo, wood, plastic dots. 46 x 42 x 1 in. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

Clare Gemima: Your experimentation with new realities is notable, such as your use of digital intervention and caricaturization. How does your interdisciplinary photographic approach relate to the real life contradictions you experience while capturing Asian life in an American context?  

Nina Kuo: I occasionally use tomb sculptural forms in my aesthetic content, that are staged while  adapting to a self-defining network with global environs or dioramic scenes that question our culture. I can kick off Asian tangents with manga logos, private temples and traditional theatrical  performers to assure the images I montage additionally carry counter narratives, and  to preserve our contradictory life with artistic introspection.

Scholar Teapot, Street Cellar Door, 2023. Digital Photograph. Photo courtesy of the artist.  

Clare Gemima: As details for your upcoming show are yet to be announced, can you share any insights or hints about what we can expect, and, from building upon the experiences from previous exhibitions, what you’re anticipating your audience’s reception to be like?

Nina Kuo:  My only hope is that my audience maintains an open mind and rejoices in my artwork’s dynamics. Innovating my art, building new metaphorical environments and gaining exposure to alternative visual geographies is vital! Currently, I’m into drawing new images in a Dada-esque fashion, which feels extremely liberating. Time makes us curious about what art will eventually become, and we, as artists, need to think about how to master and combat today’s spiritual struggles through our work.

 

Nina Kuo’s Mythical Mosaic. December 29 - January 19, 2024. Gallery 456. Chinese American Arts Council, New York. WM

 

Clare Gemima

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.

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