BY Paul Myoda in Reviews | 03 SEP 96
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Issue 27

Alexander Ku

BY Paul Myoda in Reviews | 03 SEP 96

There is a shorthand way of speaking about artists. Some artists fit better into shorthand than others; some even pre-abbreviate for you (anticipating their blurb in the Encyclopaedia of Significant Art). Others wilfully resist being generalised ­ you know, the type of artists that try to wilfully resist being generalised. Here are a few tried and tested strategies for categorisation: (1) a notorious event, through which everything else can be interpreted ­ he's the artist who had himself shot in the arm; (2) repetition of the same, with a difference ­ she's the artist who set the table with all those pussy plates; (3) a lifestyle considered trangressive by the status quo ­ he's the artist who preached sexual freedom and got thrown into jail for having a child with his daughter; (4) a life called 'other' by those whose words are the most expensive, whose actions are the most powerful ­ i.e. they are an artist from another gene pool, or calendar, or fucking planet.

I had never seen any of Alexander Ku's work before, but it came to me in this form, through chatter in the streets and a couple of articles. For his first show, a couple of years ago, Ku was the artist who: (1) crawled on hands and knees around New York's Chinatown; (2) exhibited several pairs of his torn chino pants fastened on painting stretchers in a gallery; and (3) a video documenting people's startled responses to this activity, which were different ­ culturally, contextually, meaningfully different ­ from the few official press reviews which went: (4) we know this young Chinese-American guy is from another gene pool (that's why we're writing about him) but is he also from another fucking planet?

Get it? I thought I did ­ bubble gum martyrdom, Asian-flavoured. There were other works along the same lines in various group exhibitions, but with his most recent show, 'The Mission' (all works 1995), it gets more elaborate, which is both the excitement of watching a young artist progress and the biggest shortcoming of shorthand thought. Now, Ku wants to be from another species. Or, to be more precise, a chimera: the dog-man. Eleven formal portrait photographs show the heads of various pedigree dogs seamlessly superimposed on Ku's strangely dignified body. Printed under each image is a different Chinese character indicating the various parts of a chrysalis, further emphasising the tension of being in a state of becoming. The same dogs appear in a video, made just prior to the opening of the exhibition itself. Outfitted in clumsily tailored black jackets (like the one 'Ku-dog' wears in the photos), the dogs are shown milling about a long dinner table placed in the gallery. Wine, hamburger buns and lamb and rice dog food are on the table, while a voice-over drones for the guests to be patient, and announces that the dinner will begin shortly. In the haphazardly edited video, Ku acts the part of MC, but cannot seem to control, or even care to control, the restless dogs, who knock the victuals and drink around, staining the large white tablecloth. Though the perfect antithesis of William Wegman's command of dog discipline, Ku's directional laissez-faire somehow affects a similarly unsettling humour. The ten minute tape ends with satisfaction deferred ­ both for the viewers, who wait for the dogs to be told to eat, and the dogs themselves, who never really get to eat. In the gallery, the stained tablecloth is mounted on a large wood panel like a relic of sacrilege (the work is titled Shroud), and each of the dogs' hair, dandruff and soil besmirched jackets are displayed on hangers (titled Fit), as if awaiting a trip to the laundry.

Knowing full well that racial stereotypes make for loose, not to say perpetually damning metaphors, Ku's modus operandi so far has been to set them off against indexical signs. The objects which are affected by his orchestrated activities are shown as evidence testifying to the truthfulness of the activity, for they bear an indexical mark. The activities themselves are metaphors, or fictions, for very general themes: alienation through difference, degradation through assimilation ­ in China foreigners are often derisively referred to as dogs, while in America dogs are often given more respect than foreigners. Ku's tactical cleverness is to remind us gently that these themes, in as much as they impact on people's lives, including his own, are also inarguably factual ­ you just can't see the tears, rips or stains. As the subject of his own art, Ku is free to exploit, indulge, embarrass, or even harm himself ­ taking this power away from others and into his own hands. While this might provide thrifty self-therapy, with his new exhibition, Ku seems to say that taken too far, or done too often, it leads to the powerlessness of self-victimisation, and other people's injurious pity. For, as a light-hearted and humorous Master of Ceremonies overseeing how truth and fiction get along, Ku gets meaning off the ground and onto its own two feet... or four, as it were.