Leaving my country was not a simple task. I now realize that I never really left nor really arrived.
- Young Kim
The politics and ideology of identity investigation have emerged as part of an expansive discourse central to recent art. This arena of exploration is particularly relevant and powerful for artists who are immigrants to the United States, as the inherent dualities of living cross-cultural lives naturally informs their creative vision. The 11 artists included in "Tracing Cultures," curated by Friends of Photography director Andy Grundberg, offer a poignant view of the immigration experience. Their highly individual contextualizations of the photographic image address a full range of personal and political issues surrounding the contemporary experience of expatriation.
In order to fully comprehend the vanguard aesthetic stance taken by the artists represented in the exhibition, it is meaningful to consider their subjective approach to self-representation and its interwoven relationship with materials. Unlike "straight" documentary photographers who focus their lenses on the breadth of human dignity and suffering inherent in passage to and settlement in a new land, these individuals are involved with a language of conceptual and pictorial metaphor that informs and contextualizes their images. Central to these practices is the juxtaposition or incorporation of photographs with three-dimensional elements. Such tangible appositions create new associative relationships, infusing the photographic image with potential connotations that might otherwise remain hidden. The photograph becomes a site for consideration, in which meaning is informed by its strategically chosen setting.
The quintessential expression of such polysemous conceptual art practice is embodied in the work of Albert Chong. In a series of constructed images intended as an ongoing dialogue with the spirits of his ancestors, the artist fuses the practices inherent in his cosmological belief system with the processes of art making. Family portraits and objects - cowrie shells, fruit, flowers, bird talons and hair - become offerings that venerate his Chinese, African and Jamaican ancestry. The ethereal qualities created by a layered spatial image/object dynamic in works like What Will be Your Next Incarnation? (1990-94) and Aunt Winnie's Story (1994), imbue them with transcendent physical presence and a sense of spirituality and magic. They function as offerings to as well as dialogues with his forebears. The writing of personal narratives onto the copper frames of many pieces enables Chong's cultural and familial past to remain alive within the gestalt of his American present.
The intimate, biographical nature of Chong's work is a form shared by other artists, including Gavin Lee, Young Kim and Kim Yasuda. Lee's recent work, Concerning George: The Reading Room (1994), is an installation stimulated by the artist's recent discovery that his great-grandfather, George Lim Fong, attempted to assassinate a visiting Chinese government official in 1910, and was subsequently incarcerated in San Quentin Prison. To represent the event, Lee has embedded newspaper clippings, mug shots, court documents and penitentiary records into a nine-foot long library table. The prison-like austerity of the table is heightened by its stark lighting and three chairs that suggest but do not invite intended use. Lee's powerful synthesis of materials, form and content that pertain to investigative research also reveal the personal process he underwent to uncover this powerful piece of political information buried in the annals of his family's past.
In diametric contrast to Lee's detailed and well-documented unveiling of his personal heritage, Kim and Yasuda's explorations of family history and cultural origin purposefully allude to an absence of the past. In Kim's series "Distances" (1992), this sensibility is created by aged black and white family photographs seen through openings cut in wood panels that evoke windows to viewing distant recollections, enhanced by inscribed text. …