Curators Hera Chan and David Xu Borgonjon explore the unlikely relationship between Chinese diaspora queer subjectivities and the infrastructure of the beauty pageant.
The group exhibition “In search of Miss Ruthless” includes the work of 23 artists, on display at Hong Kong’s Para Site until the 10 September 2017.
“In search of Miss Ruthless” is a group exhibition curated by Hera Chan and David Xu Borgonjon at Para Site in Hong Kong. The exhibition departs from research into the media infractructures of the Chinese and Chinese diaspora beauty pageant contests. Their research included revising media coverage of the pageants across the world to actually participating in a contest (Hera Chan was a Miss Chinese Montreal finalist in 2017).
The process led the curators to construct an exhibition around the fictional (and utopian) figure of a beauty pageant contest participant named “Miss Ruthless”. The exhibition – selected from an open call programme for young curators at Hong Kong’s Para Site – weaves archival material pertinent to particularly contested case studies in the history of the beauty pageant. The show features 23 newly commissioned works by artists whose practices explore specific genealogies of race and sex-gender systems from critical and diasporic perspectives. As stated in the exhibition press release, the exhibition asks:
Perhaps a pageant infrastructure that searches for a Miss Ruthless can also hold space for queer life and illuminate histories of invisible labour.
The artists participating in the exhibition and public programme are: Amna Asghar, Doreen Chan, Viola Chen, Dachal Choi, COME INSIDE, Eternal Dragonz, Jes Fan, Christopher K. Ho, Eisa Jocson, Linda C.H. Lai, Fiona Lee, Ma Qiusha, Hương Ngô, Ngoc Nau, Xiaoshi Vivian Vivian Qin, Renee So, Salote Tawale, Hiram To, Ka-Man Tse, Wong Kit Yi, Kristina Wong, Xiyadie, Yu Shuk Pui Bobby.
Art Radar talks to Hera Chan (HC) and David Xu Borgonjon (DB) about the exhibition and who Miss Ruthless is.
Could you tell us about when and how you began to work together?
HC: This exhibition references various elements of the Miss Chinese pageant infrastructure – from historical case studies in which participants in the competition both in China and abroad either take advantage of their platform for making critiques of sexualisation and racialisation at home and abroad or are criticised (as is the case with Miss Chinatown in the 1960s) of reproducing orientalist stereotypes.
DB: When we met I was working in New York on organising a support group of arts administrators ( www.admin.network ), and Hera was working in Montreal on this project called Atelier Celadon. I was inspired by the collaborative principles and radical politics of that space, and as we started talking, we found we shared other interests too. We were both especially keen on researching and engaging with the cultural practices of people who are thought of as Chinese as they move around the world.
How did your research into these case studies structure or inform the exhibition?
DB: We found we shared an interest in presenting diasporic Chinese culture via arts programming. Hera had a strong sense that the phenomenon of Miss Chinatown pageants would allow us to take a fresh look at subjects that mattered to us, such as diaspora, feminism and media; the more we delved into the history, the more excited we grew, since we are lucky that several scholars and artists have already devoted time to the matter.
We are most interested in the structure, rather than the image, of pageants, if one could make such a separation. Better yet, we’re interested in pageants as media infrastructure: they produce and distribute images, because they are based on the performance of contestants. Many pageants began as fundraisers for public services within marginalised communities; for example, in the case of Vancouver, as early as 1954, Chinese-Americans organised a school fundraiser around the search for the “Queen of Cathay”, the contestant who sold the most tickets. (Although it was the men in community associations who were the primary salespeople: “He did all the talking and then I just wrote down the names of the ticket buyers for him.”)
Years later, in 1977, the completely unrelated pageant Miss Vancouver Chinatown was founded, inspired not by local histories but by Honolulu’s Chinese-American communities; twenty years later, it was taken over by TVB and integrated into the media empire of Miss Chinese International. These many rebirths suggest how diasporic forms have evolved, from informal fundraisers to neighborhood celebrations to media enterprises. Many of the artists are engaged with this history. Kristina Wong’s art practice has for decades deconstructed this idea of Miss Chinatown. A comedian by trade, she dons the persona Fannie Wong (“Miss Chinatown 2nd Runner Up”) to satirise the tension between community expectations of Chinese femininity and aspirations towards self-determination. She often shows up unannounced at pageants for photo ops with the current court, and is sometimes welcomed and sometimes chased away. There are all these stock photos and newswire images of her circulating as the real deal.
Not only does the “queen” selected in the pageant represent her community aesthetically, by looking the way the community aspires to look; she also acts as an “ambassador” to other parts of the world, even if they’re just across the street. Pageants don’t just represent a community’s sense of self; they actively create it. We’re including her performance in this exhibition, and by housing it as an archival project, it’s being written into a strand of history as well.
You mention in the curatorial text the notion of Chinese diaspora as an important theme in the exhibition. Could you tell us about how you are studying diaspora through the lens of the pageant infrastructure? What artists in the exhibition are particularly focused on this?
HC: Diaspora is a condition, a relationship to language and thought. Even Hong Kong’s relationship to the diaspora is very complex, and mediated by pageantry. For example, Miss Chinese International was a way of connecting to the diaspora, but also situating Hong Kong as the centre of the Cold War Sinoverse. It’s interesting because Hong Kong itself has (and arguably always has had) a tenuous geopolitical position that is both marginal and central.
People in diaspora are often worried about losing their culture. Because of their distance from wherever the homeland, real or imagined, might be, they are also the best preservers of that heritage. A pageant is a way to train young people in traditional forms of language and movement, and showing them with pride to the world. Most diasporic pageants, whether Pakistani or Chinese or Latin-American, require or encourage contestants to speak the national language and practice forms of national dance. In “Queen of the Chinese Colonies”, a pageant for Chinese-Latinos in Central America, there are reports of people writing phonetically their Cantonese speeches on their fans. Everybody wants to believe that their community is beautiful; beauty contests are a way to express that desire, but we’re more interested in problematising it.
DB: This exhibition focuses on recovering and foregrounding the ruthlessness (无情) that is inherent in the sentimentality (感情) of popular Sinophone culture; we think these themes are visible in highest relief in diaspora. Sentimentality can be described as “the Great Chinese theme”, not only as a form of unrequited love, but as “a form of thinking and living, that is the opposite of nomadism”. It’s a romantic attachment that is premised on adaption and resilience, mobilising the tremendous powers of “staying, enduring, of holding (things and people) together”, which is why it paradoxically required ruthless determination and strategic thought. (Rey Chow, Sentimental Fabulations). We are tempted to draw a distinction between leftist melancholia (Wendy Brown’s coinage) and radical sentimentality, within an alternative history of politics and governance that centres on the margins of China.
I think of the work of Viola Chen, a mediator, student and artist based in Tio’tia:ke. Her thoughts and works circulate around the idea of missing something, and she is currently developing a months-long image project on Instagram that is worth mentioning in this respect, too: Miss Ruthless Intl. examines the gendered life courses, emotional identities, and racialised surfaces of Miss Ruthless. She places fragmented prayers from her family on top of the seams of her qipao and then touches herself on the pile. Being Ruthless is a cultural thing. Her one flaw is that she wants to be post- but still posts on…[social media].
Hera Chan, in 2017 2016 you were a finalist in Miss Chinese Montreal. What was your experience of the competition and how did this form part of your research for the exhibition?
Last October 2016, I was one of eight finalists participating in the Miss Chinese Montreal pageant, which feeds into TVB’s Miss Chinese International. At the time, I was looking into the history of Montreal’s Chinatown with my collaborators from artist organisation Atelier Céladon. We kept seeing the posters advertising the pageant everywhere. Initially, a few of us were going to try to be a part of the competition, using that opportunity to meet other Chinese people we wouldn’t meet through university or art-related social circles. I ended up being the only contestant due to logistical reasons. As a contestant, I trained with the other women for about six weeks.
We were taught how to walk like you would in a pageant – or in the style of a 1990s runway, to do a choreographed fan dance together, and other sequences as well. In summation, the performances and walks we learned were exercises in how to be Chinese. Leading up to the event itself, my experience was characterised by female friendship. At the event itself, it was clear that a beauty pageant could not be recuperated from its anti-feminist project. Competing in Miss Chinese Montreal was my first public performance. Being a contestant in Miss Chinese Montreal informed the research for this exhibition.
Could you tell us a bit about the figure of Miss Ruthless?
HC: Miss Ruthless is not a real person but she is a real title. We think of this project as the start of a search for contestants in this alternative pageant infrastructure, hence the show title. In drawing from the depths of diasporic souls, while taking pageantry as a method, we seek to find a Miss Ruthless that will pursue her freedom to survive the harsh conditions of her environment.
The exhibition is filled with newly commissioned work. How big of a role did you both play in the development of the work exhibited?
DB: Almost all of the artwork comes out of extended conversations we have had with the artists. It’s been energising to see them share articles, images and research with each other in the Facebook and Wechat groups that we’ve set up for collaborators, since it’s a kind of archive.
Actually, one of the artworks can serve as a meditation on the process of commissioning an artwork: Christopher Ho’s I personally believe (2017) consists of 10 sculptures cast using paper from different pads of drawing paper, the kind common in art school. These sculptures represent the ten “finalist” ideas for artworks arrayed and presented together in a staggered lineup of slim, tall plinths. Below the sculptures are framed covers of the corresponding pads, matted to include the technically proficient and conceptually mediocre cover art (determined through an annual contest). On a number of levels, this work reflects the pervasiveness of pageant-like modes of thought in everyday life; both in the way that ideas for a sculpture compete with each other, and in the way that the drawings are based on public competitions, and in the para-competitive tone of a group exhibition.
Could you give us an insight into one or two of the works that most closely explore the exhibition’s themes?
HC: She dances for desire (2017) by Ngoc Nau is a hologram depicting the performance of the Len Dong ritual, part of a mother goddess religion. Mischievously dancing in traditional Vietnamese clothing, this figure is as part of a long term research project centered on Ngoc Nau’s home in Thái Nguyên, a province in the northeast region of Vietnam. Created by the Kinect for DepthKit software, the hologram draws from old forms of media illusions such as Pepper’s Ghost in mapping the process of industrialisation in her hometown, where there is now a shift from an agricultural village life to becoming a destination for foreign electronics manufacturing plants. The playful goddess ghost dances a ritual in response to the governing forces of home.
The exhibition text suggests that the “pageant infrastructure can also hold space for queer life and illuminate histories of invisible labour.” Could you unpack these ideas a bit? Which artists in the exhibition are actively exploring this terrain?
HC: Linda Lai’s work could be an illuminating example, since she is interested in showing how the performances that go into Chinese femininity are not recognised as a process of laborious self-construction and social maintenance. She traces it back specifically to the Shanghai modernity of the 1930s. In Blasting Modernities 1930: Confessions and the Dramatic Linda C.H. Lai draws from a panoply of movie ads, newspaper columns, celebrity posters, calendar illustrations and film fragments, to investigate the year 1934. It was a moment of temporary peace and recovery in pre-war Hong Kong, before Japanese aggravation became acutely felt in 1937.
Modernity ‘blossomed’ in the quotidian, on the street, in confessional writings in newspapers, within entertainment and consumer cultures, in girl’s schools, on beaches and artificial swimming facilities. Thick discourses circulated, interpellating women as at once morality-obliged subjects, active consumers, tested citizens of progress, corrupting agents of traditional virtues and transformable individuals for western, modern ideals. This ensemble of stills, sketches and moving images draw on 1930s Shanghai modern femininity to highlight daily confessions and played-up dramaticity in the domain of leisure. It is an assemblage of looks, personas, objects and confessions, forming a mind-map, which takes on Bruno Latour’s idea of “actantiality”, to envision a world in which things and humans are co-agencies of equal status.
DB: I think that Jes Fan’s work would also be worth looking into. Fan’s sculptural and performance work explores gender as a material process. Their installation Disposed to Add speculates on the relationship between bodybuilding culture and queer self-definition. It includes a set of barbells made of testosterone-based soaps (because testosterone dissolves in lipids, it’s easy to put into soap); like weight training, washing with these objects becomes a means of self-transformation. And for Fan it’s always a social, relational process: it also includes a set of soft silicone barbells that hang on the wall like tired limbs, which get activated in performances where two masculine dancers pull, tie, stretch and twist the two ends of the barbell until it snaps. Fan is also working with Mary Maggic on a programme in August, which plays with the idea of hormone exchange; if I consume the estrogen of your mother and integrate it into my body, how might it change our relationship? In a city like Hong Kong, where medical access to hormones is difficult and traumatic for transgender people (you have to be diagnosed with a disorder), pursuing the musculature that you want is one form of liberation.
This exhibition project was itself selected from a competition of proposals through Para Site’s Emerging Curators programme. Most working artist and curators are now well conditioned by the proliferation of open call modes of working, a structure that could perhaps be likened to the pageant competitions you are exploring. How do you see the question of labour here? Can competitions such as pageants (and open calls) really be recuperated as a politicised mode of thinking and working?
DB: Open calls are vexed because they are the art world’s default means of involving a wider public in creating programming. The problem is that the open call as a form doesn’t just reach a public by magic, it relies on the existing networks that an organisation has cultivated. In that respect, Para Site has been committed to creating a public that this call could activate, through this programme as well as professional development programmes for curators and arts workers.
For me the tension between competition and collaboration is very important; just looking at pageants, the difference between the sisterhood that the arduous, long training encourages and the enmity that the winner-takes-most contest demands is something we’ve focused on. One of the artworks, Ka-Man Tse’s Embrace, deals with capturing the big hug that happens right after the winner is announced, together with all the conflicting emotions that the moment brings up.
HC: How do you suspend the result, and extend this process for longer? How do you stay in the contest, in other words, and take it seriously. Pageants are one of the few spaces where a sociality between women is encouraged and cultivated, even as it’s also destroyed by a competitive framework where men are usually the owners, managers and judges. I think we can consider, however, taking categories like Miss Friendship and Miss Congeniality at face value, and think about recuperating a structure which rewards collaboration and mutual aid; in this context, winning might be an afterthought to competing.
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