REVIEW: SPECTROSYNTHESIS EXHIBITION: IS THIS LGBTQ RAINBOW FRAGMENTED?
November 2017. Originally published by The News Lens.
There were lots of ethnic Chinese penises on display at “Spectrosynthesis - Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now.”
I didn’t mind that at all — at first.
The exhibit was framed as the first show to exhibit queer Asian art. Curated by Sean C.S Hu (胡朝聖) and backed by Hong Kong collector Patrick Sun and his Sunpride Foundation, Spectrosynthesis coincided with Art Taipei (Oct. 20-23), Asia’s oldest art fair. The show, which ran from Sept. 9 to Nov. 5, aimed to be a timely presentation of LGBTQ art reflective of Taiwan’s progressive values.
The title of the show employs a merging of the the theme of a “spectrum of light” and light as a necessary and “everlasting source of energy” for survival.
Spectrosynthesis was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). This choice was political: Hu was well aware that by exhibiting at a government-run museum like MOCA Taipei, it would mirror the legislature's attitude towards the LGBTQIA community and its issues.
“In our mind, we hope to push the Taiwanese government to protect equal rights for the LGBTQ community through this show,” said Hu in an interview with Ketagalan Media.
The title – “Asian LGBTQ Issues” – is misleading; this show only addresses the ethnic Chinese LGBTQ community. Hu maintains that since Asia is so large, limitations on who to show had to be set. They decided to only include ethnic-Chinese artists from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the international diaspora. The language, culture and history of the artists are similar, but nowhere near representative of Asian queer art as a whole. Why does Spectrosynthesis purportedly represent Asian LGBTQIA issues but only use ethnic Chinese artists to do so? Perhaps it’s because “Ethnic Chinese LGBTQ Issues” doesn't have the same ring.
It took three years to garner artists for this exhibition. Around half of the works that were on display at Spectrosynthesis are from Sunpride’s collection. “It is not easy to look for artists or artworks that deal with this LGBTQ issue in Asia,” Hu told The Art Newspaper in September, “We spent time doing field research, artist studio visits, and talking to artists’ agents.”
They found over 60 artists they wanted to show but had to cull to 22 as Hu didn’t want to “push [anyone] to come out in the exhibition.”
Given certain “laws and taboos” there was a scarcity of available and willing artists. Hu notes that you have to ask the artists “if they feel comfortable” having their work included in an exhibition of this nature.
This is a valid concern as many countries in Asia are still slow in their recognition of LGBTQ rights: China has banned depictions of gay relationships on media, while in South Korea, Christian groups have intensified campaigns against homosexuality, and earlier this year a Korean army captain was sentenced to six months in jail for having sex with men. Could these limitations have had an impact on the kind of art that was on display? If Hu and Sun had to get approval from the artists, could it just be that mostly gay men acquiesced?
When looking at an exhibition it is always important to think about whose voices are being represented and whose are absent. Only ethnic Chinese artists are on the bill, but is anything else lacking?
The sexuality and sexual orientation of the artists aren’t specified. This makes sense. Gender is a spectrum, and all sexualities are points on this continuum. However, of the 22 artists showcased, only three identified as female, and one is openly trans. Is this lack of representation inequality masked as inclusivity? Should this be addressed?
Many complaints regarding representations of LGBTQ in media and art have been about the exclusive focus on the concerns of those who are primarily male, decidedly white, and overwhelmingly middle class. Abbie E. Goldberg, editor of The SAGE Encyclopedia of LGBTQ Studies notes this trend, as does Megan E Springate, editor of LGBTQ America. I am certainly not trying to hold anyone accountable to a specific sexual orientation, but it still niggles me – are there other voices that can be added to this conversation? I can mostly see gay males sharing their experiences. Why is there only one artist on the bill who openly identifies as transsexual? What about more female-oriented views?
While this decision to use only ethnic Chinese artists is a tightening of the lens, the works in this show are far from homogenous. Hu wanted Spectrosynthesis to open up dialogues that give the public a greater understanding of the various issues the LGBTQIA community faces. The works are unified by one broad theme: the spectrum of light.
There is no lack of variety in the subjects addressed, and in the curatorial statement, Hu sweepingly affirms the art covers topics like “identity, equality, exploitation by mass media, social predicaments, comments on individuals/groups, human desire, as well as life and death.”
Whoa. That’s everything.
The artworks are certainly multifaceted; but with only ethnic Chinese representation of LGBTQ issues — manifested in lots of penises — and not enough inclusivity, perhaps this spectrum of light fragments in parts.
A selection of works
Throughout the show there is a fair amount of referencing and contextualization. This could be from a desire to firmly ground Asian LGBTQ art in the canon of western art, but it is also the age-old practice of remixing and appropriation. The most obvious example of this referencing is also one of the first images on display at Spectrosynthesis. Tzeng Yi-Hsin’s (曾怡馨) “Olympia” is a large photographic print whose title alone contextualizes and grounds the viewer. Tzeng’s “Olympia” shows a nude young man in the famous reclining pose with his housemates arranged around him.
Some of the artists on display are open about their sexuality, and use it as a springboard for their work. One of the best examples of this is in Wen Hsin’s (溫馨) “Half” series that was inspired by a mastectomy she underwent in 2013. She is quoted in the exhibition catalogue as questioning whether when “I remove everything that makes me look like a woman, am I a man, then?” The deconstruction of gender duality is explored, and the participants involved in the series open up to the camera and share their stories.
Xi Ya Die (西亞蝶) shares his personal story through his autobiographical paper cutouts. He is a gay married father living in Beijing who makes his living as a farmer. His large colorful cuttings depict joyful copulation and the purity and pleasure of sexuality, camouflaged by innocent color tints. There is a guilelessness apparent in the flowers, birds and traditional symbols he uses. His work is openly gay and honestly defiant of the censorship regarding LGBTQ issues in China. Xi Yadie told The Advocate, “Sometimes people like to fight with nature. Sometimes you have to work with it."
Samson Young’s (楊嘉輝) gorgeous aural piece “Muted Situations #5: Muted Chorus” beckons you throatily from across the top floor gallery. I was so intrigued by the sound of it that I actually missed Hou Chun-Ming’s (侯俊明) “Man Hole,” which takes up an entire room. I returned, twice, to make up for this glaring error. Young represented Hong Kong at this year’s Venice Biennale. “Muted Chorus” doesn’t directly address sexuality but the work rings clean and sharp on the suppression of certain voices in media and society. The musical notes are suppressed so the only conspicuously audible sounds are the singer’s inhalations and movements, and the rattling of musical scores.
“Man Hole” is a daring body of work by Taiwanese artist Hou Chun-Ming (侯俊明). Started in 2014, “Man Hole” is formed by large hanging scroll-like body images of 13 Taiwanese LGBTQ interviewees. Each hanging has two sides. The white sides reveal the self-analyses of the interviewees, drawn while naked and crouched over the paper. The black side shows Hou Chun-Ming’s interpretation of their self-portrait and includes details from their stories in the interviews. Visitors can weave their way through the hanging forest of scrolls.