‘Scratching at the Moon’ Resists Codifying a Diasporic Experience

At ICA Los Angeles, a group exhibition centres relationships and community as cornerstones of what it might mean to be Asian American

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BY Vanessa Holyoak in Exhibition Reviews | 14 MAY 24

In Poetics of Relation (1990), Édouard Glissant writes that ‘relation struggles and states itself in opacity’. To lay the groundwork for an ethical way of relating across difference, we must first accept the opacity – the fundamental right to remain unknowable – of the other. This interplay is at work in ‘Scratching at the Moon’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, a group exhibition curated by Anna Sew Hoy and Anne Ellegood that brings together 13 contemporary Asian American artists with ties to the city. Spanning sculpture, photography, video, multimedia installation and performance, the exhibition moves beyond limiting categorizations of diverse identities and experiences, instead centring relationships and community as cornerstones of what it might mean to be Asian American. It presents a coming together of identities that are, by definition, diasporic, hybrid and mutable.

The works stage different forms of relationality: between humans and animals (Patty Chang’s We Are All Mothers, 2022), intergenerational family members (Amanda Ross-Ho’s Untitled Waste Image (Heavy Duty), 2023), artists and the ghosts of other artists (Na Mira’s Hotel, 2024) and diasporic domestic workers and employers (Simon Leung’s Act 2: An Opera by Luke Stoneham and Simon Leung, 2024).

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‘Scratching at the Moon’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: ICA LA; photograph: Jeff McLane

Infrastructural objects interact obliquely in Michelle Lopez’s hanging kinetic sculpture Correctional Lighting (2024), composed of a rotating, cast-iron industrial highway lamp held in precarious equilibrium with a crystal-clear, resin-cast cinderblock. The lamp shines a blinding beam onto the transparent block as the two spiral in gravity-defying orbit, the former casting a shadow that recalls the fragile opacity endangered by the bright lights of a society obsessed with surveillance, spectacle and hyper illumination.

Tucked into a dark corner of the museum, Miras Hotel consists of filmic dialogues with the late Korean American artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, known for reflecting on the aporia of language, identity and migration. Cha’s palimpsestic text Dictee (1982) explores unspoken resonances between figures ranging from Joan of Arc and Korean revolutionary Yu Gwan-sun to Cha’s mother and the artist herself. Mira’s work reactivates these transhistoric dialogues by engaging with Cha’s ghost, channelling connections of a spectral nature. Two mirrors placed on the wall and floor interact with multichannel video projections: one a film transfer bathed in red; another a video of a running figure circling downtown’s iconic Westin Bonaventure Hotel. The red tinge evokes a photographic darkroom, a place of low and indeterminate visibility. Words such as ‘telekinesis’, ‘hollow’ and ‘question’ appear fugitively in capital letters, while a radio emanates intermittent sound – instances of illegibility and fragmented audibility that speak to the communicative resistance of Miras conversation with Chas ghost.

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‘Scratching at the Moon’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: ICA LA; photograph: Jeff McLane

Changs We Are All Mothers is a mournful, 20-minute video installation depicting scientific research involving porpoise carcasses. In Changs pensive voice-over, she describes asking a scientist to photograph her gloved hand before performing a necropsy. As the resulting images, tender and reverential, cycle past, Chang asks: ‘What is a touch archive, if touching is what destroys the archive?’ If we are destroyed by touch, we are also built by and through it – in joyful contamination with others, we extend beyond the opacity of our individual containers. Chang reminds us: ‘Touch goes both ways.’

The artists in ‘Scratching at the Moon’ reach out to touch across distance and difference, again and again. The exhibition presents this portion of Los Angeles’s Asian American artist community as a collective, made legible not through a singular approach to content or form, but through their works’ willingness to espouse relation over identity in isolation. This gesture embraces the inherent opacity at the heart of identity, resisting attempts to codify the unruly, expansive and relational dynamics of diasporic Asian American experience that orbit, opaquely, around our city.

Scratching at the Moon’ is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, until 28 July

Main Image: ‘Scratching at the Moon’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: ICA LA; photograph: Jeff McLane

Vanessa Holyoak is an artist and writer.

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