(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1992)
Rene Yung is like a poor magician whose extraordinary effects are attributable more to her sincerity than her sleights of hand. Everything in her installations seems immediately obvious. Worn but polished shoes, a single plank bed, chicken stewing in a pot. But the visual clues and personalized texts unveil invisible things that are deeply ingrained. Moral Tales, her latest installation, is an elegant social sculpture about how culture codifies values and boundaries onto the individual in Chinese society.
The introductory pieces depict four basic needs of the citizens of a good society, as well as the four characteristics of a balanced person, presumably in a China after Mao. Hung like wall scrolls, elementary school texts are inscribed on palimpsests – overlays that peel back to reveal the blocked out image of the artist as an infant underneath. On top of these “lessons,” miniatures extend beyond the wall to represent clothing, food, shelter and transportation. These are the things the state provides so the populace is content. This is a picture of how personality, morality and the social system are hierarchically layered.
Wall texts in another tableau ask, Do you know how to judge a person’s character? Let me tell you a story … The tale is of a suitor’s character tested according to how respectfully he sits during visits to his potential bride’s parents.
Do you know how the parents could really tell about him? Beforehand they sprinkled flour on the floor under the table around the chair where he sat. Each time, after he left, there was only one single clear set of footprints in the white powder around the chair where he sat. He sat each time through the whole evening still and erect, without fidgeting an inch. They knew then that he was a true gentleman …
This morality tale indicates how to read the limits of good character – a much subtler trait than outward appearances or social behavior. The external accounting of mores provided in these stories map a system of internalized self-surveillance. Here the individual can learn how to measure himself against any given social goo. The sculpture in this vignette is key to the entire show. Footprints are visible on the floor, the opposite chair has legs contained within little tea cups, and the balance seat of filial authority is suspended overhead, looking down.
Yung performs cross references of text to object like this throughout the whole installation. A huge blanket of Chinese encyclopedia pages quilts together sentimental phrases and snapshots, but immerses them into a strange sea of terms from a childhood reference book. This particular piece turns the room into an index of odd categorizations of knowledge about the world.
At eye level (for me) the entries ranged anywhere from “pre-school education, econ mic theory (sic), generative grammar, pedestrian segration (sic), red army, pale face, demonstration paradox, rem sleep” to terms like “acid fa scism (sic), personalism, mind-body problem, catholicism, custard pie, keys tone (sic), psychosis, national debt.”
Reading any cultures references about another culture that is different is unsettling when so many terms are worthy of critique by both. Yung’s sensitivity to reading and projected values onto others relates to the fact that she grew up in Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Bay Area. Her personal history includes the experience of a lived intertextuality.
However, Moral Tales goes deeper than the symbolic space between texts and objects. Screens that mask the visible, perform important theatrical functions in the show. Behind a bamboo curtain, backing the courtship tableau, is a “preparation” area where wall texts are covered in reed-patterned cloth. You practically have to smooth out the surface of this material to be able to read the recollections of a little girl’s afternoon lunches. The food cooking in this screened-in nook affects the entire installation. The sense of smell triggers the kinds of memories that collapse space and time, and it permeates the perception of everything around you.
These simple devices are cumulative. By the time you get to this point in the installation, you’ve already walked around the ambiguous perimeters and unspoken borders that extend around many of the pieces. Each section of the room possesses a distinct sense of humility and personal space. We don’t step on art, we examine it – even though this morality is suspended by the hide and seek tracings of footprints as an object on display.
The artist cleverly enlists you to participate. In order to read several of the wall texts in the show, for example, Yung has subtly arranged things so her audience needs to pass in between different parts of these sculptures – to insert themselves into the landscape. We thereby help the magician with the delicate balancing act, the translation trick of revealing both less, and more than the obvious.