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10.29.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Bob Hsiang
RELATIONS: Flo Oy Wong explores her family's journey in the mixed-media piece 'My Sister: Li Hong.'

Family Baggage

Flo Oy Wong's show in Mountain View gives voice to those who could not speak

By Ben Marks

FOR MOST ARTISTS, the issue of "who we are" is often treated metaphorically, couched in political terms or limited to an exploration of one's cultural origins. For Flo Oy Wong, whose exhibition "Raising the Voices" is now at the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View, the question of identity is all those things, as well as a query to be taken literally.

Wong's work is part historical archive, part assemblage art, part documentary. I suppose you could call her a sculptor, but that art-world label feels thin compared to the significance of the stories she tells about her family and the people for whom she has developed an affinity. In many cases, these people went through great portions of their lives forced to hide their true identities, lest they be sent back to China due to racist laws that remained on the books until the middle of the last century. Through her art, Wong gives us a small, unnerving taste of what it must have been like to go through life living a lie.

The show begins in the school's Mohr Gallery, which doubles as a waiting area for parents and kids. To the right and down a long hallway is a second part of the exhibition, which is where I began my visit. Along 100 feet of one hallway wall runs a series of 10 framed U.S. flags, collectively titled "made in usa: Angel Island Shhh."

Each flag is mostly covered by a flattened rice sack and on each sack are multicolored embroidery, shiny sequins and stenciled capital letters bearing the name of a Chinese immigrant, the year of their birth and the words "interrogate—to ask questions, esp to seek answers which the person questioned considers personal or secret."

This dictionary definition is followed by the lie that each flag's subject told officials on Angel Island in order to gain admittance to the United States: "he claimed his father's first wife as his mother"; "she claimed her brother as her son"; etc. The reason for this subterfuge was those two laws mentioned earlier. They effectively forced people of Chinese origin who wished to live in the United States, including the artist's mother and older siblings, to begin their lives in the land of the free with a lie and to continue the lie for decades for fear of deportation.

By combining that staple of American patriotism, the Stars and Stripes, with a second piece of cloth that represents the staple of the Chinese diet, and then adding just the barest amount of text, Wong creates portraits that are both efficient and surprisingly intimate.

Back in the main gallery are four more works, including a new multimedia installation called My Sister: Li Hong and a piece from 2003 titled 1942: Luggage From Home to Camp. The title of another installation, Gold Mountain, refers to the Gold Rush–era name Chinese immigrants gave to the United States. It features portraits of four Chinese-Americans who made a difference to their communities, from a restaurateur and a barber to a physician and a war hero.

Each found-object assemblage is lovely to look at, but Gold Mountain's implicit message is its most important attribute. Had these individuals or their parents not lied to gain entry to this country, America would be poorer for the absence of their contributions.

For me the highlight of the exhibition is Wong's most visually modest piece, a set of six suitcases called My Mother's Baggage: Paper Sister/Paper Aunt/Paper Wife. Inside each case, Wong has collaged cutout letters from magazines (like a ransom note) to tell the story of her mother's lie upon entering the United States in 1933. Traveling with the artist's three older sisters, Wong's mother gained entry by claiming to be her husband's sister. It took 36 years before she felt confident enough to reveal the truth to the greater community. If you are looking for the motivation behind Wong's truth-telling art, you probably need look no further.


RAISING THE VOICES shows through Nov. 26 at the Community School of Music and Arts, 230 San Antonio Circle, Mountain View. Monday–Friday, 9am–7pm, and Saturday, 9am–3pm. Free. (650.917.6800, www.arts4all.org)

 

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