The American Dream
A Solo Exhibition by Artist
Jul 9 – Aug 22, 2015
Opening: Jul 9, Thurs, 5-7 pm at t A d
(courtesy of the bowllery)
. . .
A 3-episode Series
Episode 1: Jul 9-16 | Episode 2: Jul 20-Aug 1 | Episode 3: Aug 3-Aug 22
The American Dream is an awards-winning work by artist Bin Feng. Feng’s cinematic photographs concoct the ideology of the American dream with those things made for the ideal middle-class life — the dream home and the white picket fence, the lavish birthday party and the Thanksgiving family dinner, the esteemed professional career and the good-nature Golden Retriever. The contents are scripted as screenplays, and the visual depictions are haunting. They evoke a space in-between fiction and reality. And their gloomy undertones smolder with critical reflections toward such popularized belief in the dream and its actuality. In many ways, The American Dream is a spectacle of cinematic constructions, drawing attention to the ‘intertextual’ relationships between image, persona, self and identity. The gaze is ironically on the artist himself; he is not merely the protagonist in this spectacle, but Chinese American. Cultural representations of race and ethnicity in media, particularly in the Hollywood cinemas, are therefore playfully yet critically brought under the spotlight. This makes The American Dream, at once, a kind of metacinema and a parody. Or, as Bin Feng describes, “a cinematic simulacrum.”
Hollywood Is America
by araya vivorakij, curator
The American Dream, the photographic series by artist Bin Feng, beautifully mocks the genre of gothic fiction films in which horror and romance are consummated in Hollywood style. Presented in a large-scale format, the total of twelve images in the series are impeccably stylized and staged. Unmissable is their dark undercurrent of tension and apprehension which brings to mind those classic psychological thrillers, from Hitchcock’s Psycho to Park Chan-wook’s Stoker, in which the terror lives inside the house and within one’s own psyche.
Feng’s conspicuous title boldly embraces the American dream which we commonly know as the ideals of freedom, equality, and mobility. What plausibly constitutes the most powerful strand of the work is his opting to represent this lofty and orthodox set of American ideals in gothic film genre, while presenting that in the language of visual arts instead of films. In so doing, he grasps the various discrete sets of ideas, conventions, and formal elements that belong specifically to certain discourses, and trans-contextualizes them among one another. Such complex textual, conceptual, and visual intentionality that Feng has achieved is unmistakably a parody — the type of “modern parody,” as Linda Hitcheon calls it, that has played a crucial role across various art forms since the last century.1
The American dream — as we know it — is a horror fiction: This visual-to-text translation, however risks oversimplifying, speaks for an ironic inversion embedded in Feng’s parody.2 The ironic inversion, in this case, playfully brings out the artist’s ambivalence about the ideology versus the functionality of the Amercian dream, questioning whether the Americans simply believe in this dream as an ideal — if not as a reality. Such textual and conceptual reading would have taken center stage and prevailed over other aspects, particularly when this is a work that engages a dialogue in visual arts as opposed to films. Yet any cultural critique as such would unfortunately recede to the background when the protagonist in this photographic series is “not” American but Chinese American. At this point, another layer of ironic inversion in Feng’s work presents itself, as the cultural parody invariably turns into a self-parody. It calls attention to the artist’s own identity.
Bin Feng, the artist himself, is the protagonist in The American Dream. But he is no John Cusack or even Matthew Goode (who is British) in Hollywood’s gothic films. Neither can Bin Feng play nor his character be comparable to the charming Uncle Charlie in Stoker. The character Uncle Charlie is an individual whose troubled inner psyche creeps into the story near the end. In contrast, Feng’s protagonist is seen not as an individual in itself but Chinese American. His racialized body is sufficient as a signifier to stigmatize him as alien to his environment. This supposedly gothic film of Feng’s is, in fact, something akin to those scary movies where the villains or predators are instantly identifiable by their not-quite-human features. The “terror” in The American Dream is Bin Feng himself. His assumed “model minority” stature could do no more than to affirm him as “whiter than white” — a misfit who threatens and misconstrues the value of American ideals.
As the multilayers of ironic inversion continue to unroll, we may realize that The American Dream is not a Chinese American nightmare (or fiction), but a metacinematic parody that puts Hollywood’s reality under the spotlight. American identities (include the constructs of femininity, masculinity, heterosexuality, homosexuality, White Americans, Black Americans, Asian Americans, and so on) are essentially represented and produced in the Hollywood movies. Film critics and such have not shied away from condemning the industry for the under-representation of Chinese (and Asian) Americans in Hollywood films. Nonetheless, the more challenging factor is the intractable problem of misrepresentation, as Hollywood consistently refuses to grant Chinese (and Asian) Americans a subjectivity beyond stereotype. Whether they are the senseless gooks or the violent gangsters, Chinese (and Asian) Americans always occupy the ambiguous and undesirable space of Otherness in the Hollywood movies.
This is, however, a conundrum. Though it may feel like an impasse. In part, it’s because all media and forms of communications involve a dialogue that is interrelational in nature and interdependent in the co-production of meaning. Merely unintentional yet not surprising, my own narrow and one-sided interpretation of Feng’s work in itself exemplifies this conundrum. Regardless of what the original intent of the artist (or the movie writer/director/actor) is — it may well be a subject far from race or racial identities — there’s always a tendency for the audience to zoom in on the ethnic tag and to frame meaning based on difference rather than similarity. Even a conscious attempt to grant Chinese (or Asian) Americans a non-stereotypical place in Hollywood cinemas could end up being misread as mimicry, plagiarism, misappropriation, or parody. In other words, to strip away the stereotype is to make Chinese (or Asian) Americans look “inauthentic,” white but not quite.
For all intents and purposes, Hollywood is not entirely to blame. The cultural hegemony in America has made it difficult, as if almost impossible, for us as the audience to see beyond our own socio-cultural construct and discourse. After all let’s not forget — Hollywood is America.
1. Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parady: The Teachings of Twentieth Century Art Forms (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000).
2. Ibid, p.6., Linda Hutcheon describes modern parody as a form of imitation characterized by ironic inversion.