Inscrutable Surface

Java – Topeng: Ken Angrok.: Wayang Topeng play “Ken Angrok” performance at Java Institute, Jogjakarta [Yogyakarta]. Photo: NYPL/ Claire Holt

Vivian Huang’s first book, Surface Relations: Queer Forms of Asian American Inscrutability, examines the ways in which Asian and Asian American artists have advantageously reconfigured the erstwhile detrimental stereotype of inscrutability as “a dynamic antiracist, feminist and queer form of resistance.” Following scenes of inscrutability in literature, visual culture and performance art since 1965, Huang articulates how Asian American artists take up “invisibility, silence, unreliability, flatness and withholding”—to express Asian American life. While the focus is on the aesthetics in visual and performance cultures, an understanding of an often contested Asian system of values is inevitably linked to economic conditions. This tenuous relationship is the locus from which Huang’s challenges arise against neoliberal narratives of assimilation that erase Asianness. She approaches the question of Asia in art and performance like a landscape and traces its construction and deconstruction, as an object of reflection on societal changes, the marks of time, the complexities and transmutations of inscrutability. We see the fine details of appropriated forms such as Baseera Khan’s performance piece, Acoustic Sound Blankets. From exposing the transformation of codes of performance and beauty and how they celebrate racial identifiers, Huang scans for counterpoints to these seemingly positive clichés. Her introduction to the book reminds us that if the victors are the ones who write history, they are also the one who write desire.

More issues stem from her deep engagement with aesthetic forms that says a lot about the blind spots of racism and racialization. When thinking about aestheticization, Huang also talks about the politicization of artworks and performance. Huang’s ambition is to identify the part of the aesthetic and political activity that would belong exclusively to Asian culture. This becomes problematic as Asian Art is often distinguished by its differences to perceived mainstream or Western qualities and therefore is commonly thought not to possess an intrinsic aesthetic or politics. This the allure of reading Inscrutable Surfaces: it probes the slippages between practices of art and those of political action, on the grounds that the one and the other cannot be judged according to the same criteria.

Huang articulates the potential transformative aspirations of artistic performance by emphasizing the gap that may exist between their intentions and the real effectiveness of the works. Jacques Ranciere offers a proper reflection in the precautionary principle he stated in The Emancipated Spectator: before hoping that a film or for a play to succeed in changing the world, it is important to recognize that “words are just words and performances are performances only”. Rancière’s target is first of all the naivety of certain creators and commentators eager to see in art the noblest political gesture there is. Nevertheless, this caution is not without effect on Huang’s theory. One can indeed wonder about the functioning of this “politics of aesthetics” in the Asian context whose emancipatory effects act “independently of the wishes that artists may have to serve such and such a cause”. It is true that it is always works that are seen, commented on, judged, and not intentions. But does this mean that the intentions of artists have nothing to do with the political power of art? For Rancière, not only is the contribution of art to political action not given in the form of a “calculable” effectiveness, but it is irrelevant that the work obeys any project of questioning the existing order. The politics of art “precede the politics of artists”.