When I am looking at Contemporary Art , I always ask myself two questions; 1. Does the artwork have art historical context?, and 2. Is the concept fully realized and does it engage multi-lateral thinking? Generally speaking, if the answers to both those questions are “yes”, then I enjoy the piece. Conversely, all of the old, art concepts, such as beauty, execution, style, and objecthood, are usually irrelevant, having been usurped by conceptualism during Post-Modernism. And, as Al Held once said, “All conceptual art is just pointing at things.” Nonetheless, this write-up is on American photographer, Bruce Yonemoto, whose current work easily surpasses even my strict criteria for what great art is.
Up now at the St. Louis Art Museum, as part of the Currents Series, Yonemoto has installed a video work, and two, photo-based series. I will concentrate on the two, photo-based collections, but the video is a compelling and controversial piece, which relates back to the two, photo series. The volume of thought, which all of this work comprises, is impressive, and I recommend that everyone who has access to the museum go and see it.
More after the jump:
The photographic works that Bruce presents have to do with issues of identity, and they are explored through the context of two civil wars, fought on opposite ends (of the physical world, of cultural hemispheres, etc.). The duality inherent between the American Civil War and the Vietnam War is not lost on Yonemoto, yet he chooses to present them in a way that emphasizes their symmetry, ie. a geographic North vs. South battle fought by characters originating in both the East and the West (the artist brings attention to the little recognized fact that a significant number of Chinese soldiers fought in the American Civil War). As an American of Japanese-descent, Yonemoto understands firsthand the complexity of identity that comes from living in a supposedly pluralistic society dominated by notions of what being a member of that society means, and who are the outsiders, etc., a dichotomy that this exhibition confronts acutely.
However, Bruce Yonemoto isn’t the first or only artist to raise this issue (Isamu Noguchi comes immediately to mind), and this is part of what I really enjoy about the exhibition; it extends a dialogue with art that has come before. In terms of photography, Bruce’s work melds the influences of Cindy Sherman and Nikki Lee (and a little of the big production values of Jeff Wall) into a new approach. In terms of Sherman, he borrows the principles of dress-up and elaborate staging, all executed within a carefully controlled environment, and from Lee, he incorporates her revolutionary investigations on Eastern and Western identity (Yonemoto has been doing work on ethnicity since before Lee emerged as an artist in her own right, but I think that Nikki’s work finds a lot of correlation in this exhibit). Russell Ferguson, in his write-up on Lee, accompanying the photo-book, “Nikki Lee’s Projects”, wrote, “Westerners, as [Lee] sees it, think of their identity as a unitary thing, ideally expressed through the manifestation of a single, authentic persona no matter the context.”(17) It would be very easy to apply this same notion to answer the questions of, “Why would Bruce Yonemoto stage photos of East Asian men in American, Civil War uniforms?”. The photos are presented to challenge that “single, authentic persona” that most Americans identify as the Civil War soldier. Yet, he doesn’t stop there, Bruce goes a step further and suggests Western history books don’t paint the full picture of the Vietnam War when they portray it as merely a Cold War battle fought between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. on someone else’s turf. It is bigger than peace signs and protests; it is to the Vietnamese what the American Civil War was to the United States. He chooses to express this by showing two photo groupings, both entitled, “Beyond South: Vietnam”. In one set, subtitled “(Caravaggio)”, which restages famous paintings by the master of chiaroscuro with East Asian actors, the artist shows what happened in terms of the historization of the war by the West. The battle became a projection of the West upon the East. In the other set, subtitled “(Assembled Found Photographs)”, Yonemoto attempts to correct the Western projection by showing snapshots of the Vietnamese soldiers who fought, not for a Cold War struggle of power, but for the honor of political, cultural and national values that they held dear. This series is essentially a comparison of what is commonly understood about the war, from the West, against what is generally understood about the war, from the East; in this way, it is also a criticism of textbook accounts of the past (in the sense that they generally only present the points of view of the dominant societies).
Conversely, in the other photo-series on display, “Untitled (NSEW)”, Yonemoto presents a concept that is essentially an Eastern projection on the West. In this series he challenges Americans’ ideas about what soldiers in their own Civil War looked like. In terms of Western Society, nothing looks more “Asian” than the portrait of an East-Asian person; this is evident in the fact that most Americans harbor rigid preconceptions about people of East-Asian descent, whether American-born or not. Some of these preconceptions include the idea that East-Asian Americans never “westernize” to the capacity that White or Black Americans do (ie. they retain thick accents, eat only foreign foods, associate only within their ethnic circles, etc.) Granted, these are not stereotypes exclusive to the ways many White or Black Americans see people of East-Asian descent, for example, people of Middle-Eastern, Indian, and, to an extent, Latin American descent receive similar treatment, but given the long history of immigration from people of the East to new locales in the West, and the significant roles that Asian people played in shaping American history, including fighting in the Civil War, it is strange that these misconceptions persist so strongly. By replacing the spot in a picture where most Americans expect to see a White man’s face with an East-Asian man’s face, Yonemoto creates an argument that challenges these conventions. The fact that the argument has basis in historical truth makes it all the more compelling. In these carte de visite imitations, the artist expands the scope of Asian-American identity and destroys the inaccuracies perpetuated by ethnic relativism hidden within the volumes upon volumes of history texts written since the age of the American Civil War.
It is important to note that Bruce Yonemoto does not just negate or challenge with these images, he also bridges. In these bodies of work, the artist seeks to illustrate the points where the East and West converge, and when he challenges convention, it is at only the points along that convergence which repel each other. He shows an interest in exploring people’s fascination with war, and with why people fight, but he shows no inclinations of pitting the East against the West. When he depicts a Vietcong soldier in uniform, it is not meant to be read as an affront against the U.S. anymore than a depiction of a Confederate soldier could be conceived to be. He is merely illustrating that both the east and west hemispheres have north and south poles, nothing more. When he challenges history, it is not to rewrite Western history, but to show the dangers in reading only one-sided views of history. In these two groupings of photographs, Bruce Yonemoto fills in the gaps of our understanding, but only to a point. For, as Jean-Luc Godard pointed out, “Photography is not a reflex of the real; it is the reality of the reflection.”
An interview with the artist: