By DONOVAN IRVEN, December 2020
Chinatown, San Francisco is iconic. Founded around 1848, the district has become the largest enclave of Chinese people and culture outside of Asia. It serves as a model for Chinatowns all across North America and is, according to the San Francisco Planning Department, the most densely populated urban area west of Manhattan. It is fitting, then, that about a year ago organizers began to lay the groundwork to have San Francisco’s Chinatown designated as an official cultural district. Artist Christine Wong Yap and curator Hoi Leung of the Chinese Culture Center have made art central to this civic project.
I was introduced to Wong Yap’s public art during a webinar hosted by the Armory Show back in June of 2020. She had just finished designing public installations that thanked New York City’s medical workers for their commitment and sacrifice throughout the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Thank You for Your Courage, Commitment, Sacrifice was launched on July 13 and ran across several venues until the end of August 2020. It was a joint project commissioned by Times Square Arts with For Freedoms, Poster House, and PRINT Magazine that prominently featured the portraits of real New York City medical workers in highly visible displays around town.
The idea of the three parts – courage, commitment, and sacrifice – was to stage public messages of gratitude featuring front line workers from the FDNY, nurses organizing for adequate personal protective equipment, and an emergency room doctor from Queens who had voluntarily left his home in order to protect his wife and baby from exposure to the virus. The installations were a grand gesture of recognition that worked in multiple directions. Of course, the medical workers were themselves recognized and recognizable in the artwork, but it also raised awareness and allowed viewers themselves to recognize the gravity of a situation we all face together as parts of a collective.
Philosophers since at least Hegel have taken up the act of recognition as a fundamental ethical category and even a foundational act of personhood itself. Indeed, Hegel seems to argue that self-consciousness can only be realized through acts of mutual recognition between myself and others. I require the other to recognize me and establish me in the social world as a person worthy of ethical consideration just as the other needs me.
This underlying ethical dimension makes public artworks especially interesting as sites of meaning and significance, because they structure and map the meanings people navigate with and between one another as they go about their business. The Chinatown project also involves a thoroughgoing process of mutual recognition. We might suggest that recognition serves as an overarching theme of Wong Yap’s body of work.
I had asked a question during the Armory Show webinar that the panel was unable to address during the time provided for Q & A. Shortly after the close of the webinar, I received an email from Wong Yap – an initial act of recognition.
My question concerned a possible tension when spaces that are normally reserved for advertising purposes, such as billboards and urban signage, are appropriated for civic messaging like those in the Times Square project calling for the recognition of and gratitude toward medical workers for their courage, commitment, and sacrifice. In my own philosophical work on the ontology of place, I have drawn extensively from theories developed by contemporary philosopher Edward Casey. Going back to existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, it is acknowledged that the world we encounter is one that was set up before us by historical people who lived their lives, engaged in their collective projects, and who left a world of meaning and significance for us that we ourselves did not have a hand in making. In is landmark book, Getting Back Into Place, Casey shows how this pre-formed meaning is embedded in and expressed through the places we inhabit, which always have a history and provide for us a context in which we engage our own projects.
The history of billboards is one immersed in and inseparable from commerce and advertising. There is a potential risk, then, that artworks without a commercial message could be subverted by the demands of business. Of course, it can also go the other way – that art could be used to infiltrate those spaces and subvert the discourse of commerce that typically dominates.
Wong Yap was sensitive to this concern and readily admitted that public works, specifically the NYC project, relied on corporations to donate or rent the space. This may have been made easier during the pandemic, when there were fewer sponsors placing ads because conditions under quarantine meant significantly reduced foot traffic through urban centers. However, her immediate interest was directed to the interconnectedness that became unavoidable as the reach of the pandemic spread and so many people began to realize – to recognize – the danger that healthcare workers were facing every day. So many people knew or were themselves healthcare workers that the designation was cutting across the many dividing lines of race, class, gender, and so on.
It is this interdependence that can drive community organizing with a focus on the arts and serves as a centerpiece to the work Wong Yap is doing in San Francisco’s Chinatown alongside Hoi Leung.
As a curator, it can be tempting to identify a theme or concept with which you would like to work and then implement that vision, organizing a collection of art around the unifying idea, imposing a plan on the work from a top-down position. When it comes to public art, Leung takes a very different approach. We might contrast the top-down model sketched above with Leung’s bottom-up approach. Rather than bringing a preconceived idea to an exhibition, Leung begins by asking what the community needs and going from there. This requires an openness to the perspective of others and a willingness to adapt on the fly that is not always present in the attitudes of curators. In short, it requires many acts of recognition along the way.
As they began to work on what would become Art, Culture, and Belonging in S. F. Chinatown, neither Leung nor Wong Yap knew exactly what forms the project might take. They began by collecting stories from people who lived and worked in Chinatown. Stories were prompted by questions like “What makes you feel, ‘I belong’?”, and “How do arts and culture contribute to your sense of belonging in Chinatown?” Using a questionnaire to collect stories with the theme of “belonging” Wong Yap and Leung began to brainstorm how those stories might be brought together in a public works project and how the work could be presented to and shared with an audience. The information gathered and the artworks produced could also be useful when it came to getting Chinatown designated as an official cultural district.
As the stories came in, the pair began to realize the centrality that culture would play over anything that might be explicitly thought of as “art” within the art world itself. The importance of food, parades, procession, tradition all began to shine through the narratives that would eventually become a comic book illustrated by Wong Yap called Alive & Present. It was these community events and annual rituals that began to give Chinatown a shape and identity that could be expressed through works of art.
The anxieties of those living in Chinatown were also highlighted in the statements they were receiving. Concerns over gentrification in the San Francisco area, now one of the most expensive metropolitan areas in the country, as well as the generational concerns of an aging population were frequently expressed in the testimonials.
Funding for the arts had receded as necessary services took the fore in an economy that struggled to recover after the 2008 recession and still serves a predominantly elderly population, according to Leung. Funding opportunities, like those through the historic Neighborhood Arts Program, can be slim as many projects vie for a piece of the pie. However, Wong Yap was quick to remind me, Chinatown is rich in resources when it comes to mutual support.
Representing this cultural dynamic became a focal point for the project. In Leung’s mind, they were less centered on education – less “learn about the culture of Chinatown” – and more focused on civic engagement. This meant amplifying voices, creating partnerships, and organizing, especially as the pandemic wore on. One of the successful parallels to the Belonging project involved creating and distributing take-out meals for seniors. The dialogue that is exemplified in the public art projects is a pro-social dialogue.
Perhaps these associations are not so surprising in Chinatown. Given the profound cultural influence of Confucianism on Chinese thought, we might expect emphasis on public rituals and tradition to manifest in one form or another. Kongzi (called “Confucius” in many English-language contexts) was an advocate of “ritual.” Sometimes, Confucian rituals can take a form that might be familiar to Christians in the United States because they look and feel like a variety of religious practice. However, “ritual” carries a much broader connotation in the philosophy of Kongzi and his followers, extending into everyday life and helping to structure the interactions between people in the public sphere. Here, think more about holding the door open, tipping a hat to your neighbor, or giving up a seat on the bus to an elderly rider. These types of daily interactions form the glue that bonds a community together and in which recognition, dignity, and respect manifest.
It is the loss of these small, daily rituals that people feel most acutely as community breaks down – and we all feel this breakdown in different ways as the Covid pandemic stretches into a new year. It is these practices, the things that people do together habitually in community with one another, that become repeated and emphasized again and again in the stories told across the Belonging project. These are the things that make us feel like we belong somewhere, the little acts done with familiarity, out of courtesy, respect, and mutual recognition of one another.
In Earth-Mapping: Artists Reshaping Landscape, Edward Casey outlines four ways artists can map a place. There is plain old cartography, a “mapping of” something in an effort to capture its exact geography. Wong Yap has done a version of this by making a map to accompany a walking tour of Chinatown’s cultural sites. Then, there is “mapping for” where a map is made for some expressed purpose, again, such as a walking tour. The map is not merely cartological, but is a map made for certain ends. In the case of Wong Yap’s map, this is to inform, to forge connections, and help build community along the way.
The third way of mapping breaks with the indicative, sign-posting use of maps discussed in the first two ways above. The third way is “mapping with/in.” This way of mapping addresses how we experience a particular place and relate to that locale. The comic book augments the cartographical map, providing a text to share the experiences connected to and rooted in a certain place – Chinatown, in this case. But Wong Yap’s map also allows us to experience the place along a certain trajectory, forging our own experiential connection to the neighborhood. In this relation the boundaries between one’s self and place are porous, and we become a part of the landscape as it is a part of us.
This subject-forming dimension brings us to Casey’s fourth way of mapping – “mapping out.” In mapping out, we feel our belonging to and in a place. Here we find the ultimate goal and expression of Leung and Wong Yap’s Chinatown project across its several manifestations. To map something out means to translate our experience of belonging in place into a medium that sufficiently conveys our feelings of belonging to another. Mapping out means sharing how we are constituted by the places we live while our living there helps to constitute the place. It is to communicate and recognize the mutual formation of people and places.
Here, we encounter the “pro-social” element of the Art, Culture, and Belonging in S. F. Chinatown project. To promote the community and help continue it, help to shape it, and discover, as Leung explained to me, the appropriate visual language by which to communicate this belonging to place, but also how places belong to people. This type of belonging is not a relation of property, a sense of “ownership,” but is rather a sense of mutual identity, of being a part of a place that is, in its turn, a part of us.
It is this sense of belonging in place that is fostered by all the little daily rituals in which we partake, in which we recognize one another, and the loss of which we feel most preciously. As daily life continues to be disrupted, we can begin to appreciate again the need for recognition that places afford. The art produced by Wong Yap and her collaborators, curated by Leung, reminds us of the role that art plays in the formation of place, our identity within it, and our need to recognize and communicate this belonging between us. Places are dynamic, as people are, full of tensions, contradictions, scenes of joy as well as despair. We are all touched by the places we belong and, by belonging to them, are able to become who we are. There, in the places we belong, we might come to recognize one another again. WM
Filo Sofi Arts Disclosures is a series of philosophical reflections on art and its place in the world. It has grown out of owner Gabrielle Aruta's progressive mission to bring art and philosophy together in thoughtful public engagement.
Donovan Irven is a philosopher, essayist, and writer of fiction currently serving as the Director of Philosophical Praxis for Filo Sofi Arts. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @donovanirven.view all articles from this author