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Words

Enacting Agency & Embodying Freedom : Hyde Park Art Center Ground Floor Catalog

Kat Liu’s video performance works confront the erasure and exploitation of Asian American women, reclaiming the body and mind through the assertive use of color and succinct movements. Color is a conceptual pivot for Liu, who complicates the interpretation of color as it moves through cultural contexts. In Yellow Fantasy (2018), Liu’s naked body, which is painted in yellow, stands in front of a yellow background, holding a large, fan with power, waves it softly, and closes it back up with determination. She repeats this action indefinitely since the video is on a continuous loop.

Historically, the color yellow has been negatively associated with Asians in the United States. Racist ideologies like the “Yellow Peril,” used as early as the late-19th century, perpetuated the idea that East Asian people were nefarious and, therefore, dangerous to the Western World. Another demeaning term, “Yellow Fever” is a sexual fetish for Asian people, which often specifically refers to Asian women as stereotypically submissive and hypersexual. While these stereotypes and xenophobic attitudes still exist, in recent generations, Asian Americans have been re-appropriating the word “yellow” as a term of empowerment and a political identity, such as the Yellow Power Movement of the 60s and 70s. Liu tackles racial and gender stereotypes in her work, confronting the viewer with the color yellow on her nude body, which they must contend with, while also signaling pride to fellow Asian American women.

The presence of Liu’s body in her videos is a reminder of the everyday survival women of color must endure where they are relentlessly consumed by the colonial male gaze. Except, Liu’s work is not for the gaze of the predominantly white contemporary art world: it rebels against being a teaching moment, or a translation. Vulnerable and enduring, her body claims and speaks unapologetically with other Asian American women and women of color.

Columbia College Chicago MFA Photography Thesis Exhibition Catalog

What does the raced, gendered body look like when under the alternating forces of care and objectification? The East Asian woman in America is familiar enough with both actions, which rub up against each other and even sometimes insidiously intertwine.

As an East Asian woman, sometimes it feels like everyone has a stake in your body. A proper female body is a family investment; for what return, it’s not always clear. In “Mom and I” (2018), when Kat Liu and her mother carefully apply each other’s bright, red lipstick, only to feed each other chicken feet and crab rangoon gleaming in oil and sauce, care becomes confusing, even counter-intuitive. That, the East Asian woman knows well—after all, it’s not implausible for the statements, “You’ve put on weight,” and, “Come, have a bit more rice,” to come simultaneously at the dinner table.

And yet, the act of eating in “Mom and I” still feels foreign. This isn’t the dinner table. The full-frontal gaze of the camera, a tool central to Liu’s practice, is defamiliarizing when it isn’t fetishizing. You can hardly eat chicken feet effectively or enjoyably with poise, but that is what the camera demands. Again: What does the raced, gendered body look like when under alternating forces of care and objectification? It looks, as the bodies in Liu’s work look, at the very least, uncomfortable. Rigid. There is nothing to do but take it.

 Liu stands ramrod straight in “Red” (2017), tolerating the white-seeming hands on her body that at first probe with chopsticks, then roam and grab. She stands in red lingerie, the beautiful red cape with Chinese floral patterns having been yanked off her body—she is being sexualized against her will, her fists balling up and then releasing in futility. Liu’s is a body under pressure, but not one that has capitulated to it. Ultimately, she’s had enough, seizing the hands and flinging them decisively away from her body. “Red” negotiates the very meaning of the color it’s named for: in America, the color is often shorthand for sex, and in Chinese culture, it is the unquestioned color of luck. Here, though, there is no sex, only abuse of power, and no element of chance, either: simply deliberate predation and the decisive exercise of agency.

 “Red” mostly follows a narrative; things happen, then things come to a head. But those roaming hands return, scaling down Liu’s legs like spiders. The threat of white violation can be foiled, but it always threatens to return. “Yellow Fantasy” (2018), too, is a repetitious piece, but to less deterministic ends. It certainly continues “Red”’s recasting of color: Liu’s naked body is amateurishly painted yellow, literalizing the often-crass American association of East Asians with the color: on Liu’s skin, the yellow is splotchy, somewhat odious. Liu languidly waves a fan, then snaps it upward to reveal her yellow-hued body, a product of the white American imagination but also a living breathing organism of its own. The tension between loose and taut, plump flesh and rigid body, reiterated over and over, pose the “Yellow Fantasy” as the subtly subversive foil to the more defiant and righteous “Red.”

 In her video-based practice, Liu is intensely engaged in questions of disclosure; on a formal level, that means what to let into frame, when to stop the shot, when to start the loop, what to present before the exposing lens. In “Red,” the cape is jerked off her body; in “Yellow Fantasy,” she snaps the fan upward herself. The different revelations in Liu’s work point to Liu’s awareness of the politics of a gaze and the extent to which her work is inextricable from the structures of power that surround them, no matter how personal they are.