Ha-Li Bo and the Banana Philosopher’s Tone
By Alfonse Chiu
It is hard to decide whether Christine Tien Wang, painter, teacher, analogue meme archivist, is in fact also a troll. In her recent paintings, most of which faithfully transfer memes from the internet into the real world via pigments on canvases, she has depicted, disgusted, dissuaded, dissed, discussed a rich vein of themes plaguing the current American—and the world’s by digital proxy—psyche: racism, sexism, climate crisis, and good old despair in late capitalism. Wang’s paintings, which magnify the usual thumb- to page-sized meme graphics consumed voraciously on digital screens to meter-long rectangles, are meticulously replicated appropriations presented without contexts and contextualisations. With her jarring shifts in scale and materiality for her subject-matters, Wang gets at a central absurdity within our hyper-mediated and -connected collective consciousness, and spotlights aphoristic moments of lucidity. More, by eschewing the didacticism or the garish early web era aesthetics that usually accompany contemporary works ruminating about the ever presence and ever annoyance of the digital world, Wang’s rigorous paintings thus come across as both sardonically trollish and painfully sincere, much like a natural grimace captured accidentally in a group portrait.
In BANANA PHILOSOPHY, Wang’s natural wit is tempered by a more intimate reflection on her personal experiences as an American-born Chinese woman engaging with the complex legacy of her Chinese heritage within the larger environment of American racial politics. Over a suite of eight paintings, most of which depict a well-known Chinese woman accompanied by a short caption which Wang paints directly onto each portrait, she complicates the self-contained narrativity of her usual found image routine with a more cohesive modulation that underscores her characteristic humour with a more articulated mood that ranges from pensive to almost wistful. For paintings such as ‘Michelle Kwan’ (2022, oil on canvas) and ‘Lucy Liu’ (2022, acrylic on canvas), the phrase mei’guo’ren, or American as written in the traditional Chinese characters, are painted next to the profiles of the eponymous figures, the base images being cropped from larger original publicity stills. Leveraging on the emotional intensities captured on the faces of her subject to resonate with the viewer, Wang evokes the inner lives of her subjects as figures whose bodies and labours are affected by not just the commodifying forces of mass reproduction and circulation, but also the complicated and frequently objectifying and discriminatory logics present within American society that continue to other and undermine the identity of Chinese Americans under the broader schema of anti-Asian racism.
Beyond probing at the social conditionings of the Chinese American imaginary, Wang also touches on the historical formation of the Chinese identity, its discontinuities, and her own negotiations. For example, ‘Banana in Chinese’ (2022, oil on canvas) and ‘Banana in English’ (same) are two identical paintings of the same bunch of banana distinguished by one difference: the former has the Chinese phrase for banana painted on in the traditional Chinese reading order of top-down, while the latter has the English description “yellow on the outside white on the inside” painted on in the standard left-right reading order and alignment. A play on the Chinese pejorative for west-raised and westernised Chinese youths that older folks use to describe as having failed in their duties to understand and espouse Chinese traditions, language, culture, and value, the banana is simultaneously a mark of shame and badge of honour for supposedly successful assimilations into a socio-economically mobile and syntactically white American middle class. When viewed alongside ‘Self Portrait’ (2022), where Wang paints the phrase “Wang Tien, Illiterate” in traditional Chinese characters over her self-portrait, the tenor of her Banana Philosophy suddenly becomes clear: to be both yellow and white is to be adequate and inadequate in equal measures, laughing at what one’s has lost and changed from where one has gained something new, something shiny, and finally, become someone different.
Alfonse Chiu is a writer, artist, and curator working between text, space, and the moving image. Their practice investigates imaginaries of capital and ideologies as shaped by media infrastructures and networked economies to contemplate possible futures for bodies, society, and the environment. They are the founder and director of the Centre for Urban Mythologies (CUM), and the current programme director of SeaShorts Film Festival. They were the fall 2021 e-flux journal fellow and a finalist of the Young Climate Prize 2023 organised by The World Around.