Transnational identity: Korean-American Dana Weiser at Los Angeles’ Walter Maciel Gallery

Korean-born artist explores race, identity and adoption in first solo show at Walter Maciel Gallery in Los Angeles.

Through beauty and dark humor, Dana Weiser questions the dialogue on identity in the United States and dispels notions of borders, biases and being.

It’s Cyclical (Without You, I Couldn’t Be Me…), 2015, neon with plexiglass backing, 48” (d) x 3”. Image Courtesy of Walter Marciel Gallery.

Dana Weiser, ‘It’s Cyclical (Without You, I Couldn’t Be Me…)’, 2015, neon with plexiglass backing, 48 (diam) x 3 in. Image courtesy Walter Maciel Gallery.

Dana Weiser’s exhibition “Without you, I couldn’t be me…” at Walter Maciel Gallery in Los Angeles on view from 9 January to 27 February 2016, is emblematic of how identity is shaped through others, a theme Weiser explores in her work. The exhibition examines race, identity and adoption as it pertains not only to her own reconciliation of identity, but also to how her experiences reflect on and bring to focus contemporary observations of society at large. By weaving together personal narrative, academic research and art creation, Weiser creates a beautiful and compelling body of work that illuminates and dispels notions and histories of borders, biases and being.

We’re Adept at It, 2015, neon with plexiglass backing, 20” x 37” x 3”. Image Courtesy of Walter Maciel Gallery.

Dana Weiser, ‘We’re Adept at It’, 2015, neon with plexiglass backing, 20 x 37 x 3 in. Image courtesy Walter Maciel Gallery.

As a Korean-born adoptee raised in a Jewish-American family in a mid-western city, Weiser struggled with understanding her place as an outsider to groups and faiths she never felt a strong affiliation towards. Art was a way to speak, express and represent herself. She continued her exploration of self and received a BFA in Ceramics from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2003 and an MFA in Ceramics at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2007.

In 2014, Weiser began her second graduate degree in Asian American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her academic research in Korean transnational adoption reinforced her exploration of identity within society through art creation. She began melding her academic research with her own work to create art that not only discusses personal narratives, but also contextualises experiences as a part of a larger discourse of racism within American society.

I Don’t Mean to Sound Racist, but…, 2012, Swarovski pearl beads on antique lace with satin backing, 47” (d). Image Courtesy of Walter Maciel Gallery

Dana Weiser, ‘I Don’t Mean to Sound Racist, but…’, 2012, Swarovski pearl beads on antique lace with satin backing, 47 in (diam). Image courtesy Walter Maciel Gallery.

This is seen particularly in her ornate beaded lace tapestries where she combines subversive and insidious racism with her own aesthetic. These tapestries are emblematic of Weiser’s dark humor and desire to express societal woes through elegant and intricate detailed patterns. The combination of lace and pearls is regal and classic, and the script is equally fluid but calm. The tapestries hang organically, welcoming the folds of fabric as it subsumes into the walls. The colours are soft, and the words blend into the pattern seamlessly.

Dana Weiser, ‘I’m Not Racist or Anything, but…,’ 2012 Swarovski pearl beads on antique lace with satin backing 46” x 61”. Image Courtesy of Walter Maciel Gallery.

Dana Weiser, ‘I’m Not Racist or Anything, but…,’, 2012, Swarovski pearl beads on antique lace with satin backing 46 x 61 in. Image courtesy Walter Maciel Gallery.

The natural and familiar are what Weiser argues can be indicative of how a person of colour may experience racism everyday. She states that her work is an

[…] attempt to put the viewer in the same state of mind as a person of color might find herself as the victim of unintended stereotyping or racism. The simple and elegant patterns draw the viewer into a calm and familiar space.

In spite of the beauty, the words are biting and painful. The monotony of stitching the beads then becomes an exercise for Weiser to ruminate on the past and on current memories of everyday painful words and phrases.

Dana Weiser, ‘Enacting My Koreanness (self-portrait performance) in Black,’ 2015, digital photograph, unique, 30” x 30”. ‘Enacting My Koreanness (self-portrait performance) in Red’, 2015, digital photograph, unique, 30” x 30”. ‘Enacting My Koreanness (self-portrait performance) in White,’ 2015, digital, photograph, unique, 30” x 30”. Image Courtesy of Walter Maciel Gallery.

Left to right: Dana Weiser, ‘Enacting My Koreanness (self-portrait performance) in Black’, 2015, digital photograph, unique, 30 x 30 in; ‘Enacting My Koreanness (self-portrait performance) in Red’, 2015, digital photograph, unique, 30 x 30 in; ‘Enacting My Koreanness (self-portrait performance) in White’, 2015, digital, photograph, unique, 30 x 30 in. Image courtesy Walter Maciel Gallery.

The triptych of photographs entitled Enacting my Koreanness is what Weiser describes as “self-portrait performances”. Her aesthetically pleasing, dark humor is captured in her images, which discuss United States imperialism through the adoption of Koreans. She is seen in these photographs wearing traditional Korean masks worn during performances of folklore tales with her face painted in traditional designs. For the American viewer, these designs and accouterments are authentic Korean aesthetics.

However, these masks have been co-opted as tourist tchotchkes consumed and exported transnationally. The performance within these pictures is not only a perceived notion of authentically Korean, but also the performance of consumerism, adoption and exportation. This performance, however, also acknowledges that in spite of her Korean features, she cannot participate in this play due to her history of adoption. The donning of these masks then becomes an awkward play of confusion, loss and ignorance where she is “enacting something I don’t know”.

The spellbinding Ombre Chinoises (Canon in D) is a multi-sensory experience. Weiser combines visual and audio with movement in a beautifully crafted box of memories. The original ombres chinoises was a French mimicry of Chinese shadow puppets fused with a music box. The historical object holds memories of transnational ties, appropriation and orientalisation, which Weiser uses to discuss how her identity formed under the same forces decades later.

Her music box is larger in scale and displayed on a wall with images of what she constitutes home, identity and belonging. Symbols such as the Minnesotan state flower, adoption photos and a copy of the letter from her Korean orphanage written by Weiser to her biological mother are all displayed in the moving scroll, screen and frame of the box. A particular image of a helicopter best exemplifies the confluence that becomes a metaphor for Weiser’s identity. She narrates:

When I was a child I had an imaginary family. They were Korean. And I had a brother instead of a sister cause at that time I didn’t like her very much. And I thought they lived in a yellow helicopter. So my mom bought me a PlaySchool helicopter toy and I was obsessed with it. And I have the helicopter image tattooed on my arm; it’s in other work and other images. And so as Jews we cut off our tattoos before we get buried in certain cemeteries. And so if I were to keep one tattoo or one image it would be my helicopter.

Dana Weiser, ‘Just a Little Validation,’ 2014-15, stoneware, car paint, 38” x 28” x 6” and 19” x 15” x 9”. Image Courtesy of Walter Maciel Gallery.

Dana Weiser, ‘Just a Little Validation,’ 2014-2015, stoneware, car paint, 38 x 28 x 6 in and 19 x 15 x 9 in. Image courtesy Walter Maciel Gallery.

The helicopter is also seen in her tombstone, an homage to a theme represented in all of her work: the agency to voice one’s own transnational and varied identity. The tombstone is a way for Weiser to get recognition not only in the past when conceptualising and creating the work, or the present when visitors come to the gallery to see the artwork, but also in the future, when time and nature has graced mortality on her and her family members.

The placement of the helicopter on her tombstone is a call to acknowledge how she wants to construct her identity alongside the past events that continue to shape her future, but also how she transgresses the politics of that imagery. The tombstone is littered with other metaphors alongside her helicopter that represent the complexity of her identity. The intricacies of the helicopter for Weiser is indicative of her definition of art:

I hope that my art encourages viewers to explore their use of stereotypes and offensive behaviors and encourages a more enlightened dialogue regarding the social integration of our very complex and varied society.

Christina Ayson

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Related Topics: Korean artists, American artists, art about family, globalisation, identity art, nationalism in art, political art, art about society, events in Los Angeles, gallery shows

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