By Shauna Yuan

Some Asian American artists break down the assumption that objectivity and subjectivity are two distinct concepts. These Asian American artists explore ideas about convention, representation, and identity using their own bodies as the medium. Self-reflective art allows these artists to meditate upon their own situation and its relation to a larger reality. By placing the self in the work, the artist becomes both the subject, the one creating the work, and the object, the person or thing being looked at, questioning the common belief that the self and the other must be two separate entities. Authorship, in this case, is understood as a plural site in which “one exists simultaneously with the work; one is only this empty vehicle through which the work is taking shape.” Presuming both roles of spectator and participant, these Asian American artists depict their encounters with reality to transform consciousness and to suggest a new way of seeing the known world.


Lihua Lei

Lihua Lei (b. 1966)
Phantom Pain
cloth and wire armature, glass, plexi, sound, video

Lihua Lei is an artist who contemplates disability and transformation in her work. Lei constructed Phantom Pain, a three part installation that included a set of large butterfly wings and a glass cast of her own legs in order to re-narrate disability. When Lei was five months old, she contracted polio, hindering her ability to walk. The glass cast of her handicapped legs shows how one leg is longer and thicker and the other is shorter and thinner. This piece speaks to how “disability is a culturally fabricated narrative of the body, similar to what we understand as the fictions of race and gender.” By re-creating her own body in this work, Lei makes her disability available and generates the dynamic of staring, a constitution of disability identity in the social realm. Lei’s work, however, protests cultural images of disabled people by asking what is the truth of the body. The butterfly wings made of white cloth stretched over large wire frames are twisted and vibrating, asymmetrically disposed. The sense of movement and energy through flight reveals Lei’s transcendence beyond the physical limitations of her disability. Imperfection becomes something organic, dynamic and beautiful. This autobiographical form disconcerts cultural assumptions about disability and the self.

Tehching Hsieh

Tehching Hsieh
Time Piece

Between 1978 and 1986, Tehching Hsieh performed a series of five One Year Performances in New York. In Time Piece (1980-81), Hsieh punched a time clock on the hour every hour, twenty-four hours a day, for 365 days (he missed 134 out of the 8,760 hours). Hsieh’s life is the medium of his art. As both the object and facilitator of this piece, Hsieh questions the line between an artist and his art. Hsieh arrived in the United States as an illegal alien from Taiwan in 1974 before receiving amnesty in 1988. His experience as an illegal alien is crucial to the structure and meaning of the One Year Performances. Hsieh comments on his experience in the mid-1970s saying he was “frustrated and depressed.” Not only was his English minimal, but he was also hiding from the government. He once described his work as “a way for making a form for how I felt.” The intensity of his work emphasizes the liminal and harsh character of his illegal status. Generating the most deliberate documentation in Time Piece, Hsieh exaggerates strict bureaucratic demands for documented information and evidence. Hsieh’s life becomes his own object of study in his exploration of the United States and immigration.


Kip Fulbeck

Kip Fulbeck (b.)
Banana Split

Kip Fulbeck’s Banana Split is a short experimental film that explores identity and biracial ethnicity issues. Having been raised by a Chinese American mother and a European American father, Fulbeck focuses on his parents’ relationship with each other and the interplay between cultures in their household. Interweaving narrative and media clips, Fulbeck directs the viewer’s attention to ethnic dating patterns and stereotypes of Asian American men. In an interview, Fulbeck addresses his experience when he was younger with his Hapa identity, or mixed ethnic heritage identity, “It’s like I didn’t really have a place to fit in anywhere… I didn’t know a single other Hapa. I think that’s why even now identity figures so prominently in my work.” This video essay depicts Fulbeck’s personal story as someone who is not entirely Chinese nor completely American and how his experience reflects upon a larger truth about the circumstances of American society. By means of seemingly fragmented images and storytelling, Banana Split breaks away from the conventional idea in film-making that an all-encompassing truth can be filmed or produced. The montage effect emphasizes the complexity of identity, encouraging a subversion of western categorization in order to promote space for the expression of those who do not fit into one category.


Nikki S. Lee

Nikki S. Lee (b. )
Elders Project  

Nikki S. Lee is a conceptualist who illustrates ideas about social identity through photography. Lee approaches various social groups and asks them to cooperate and collaborate in transforming herself into becoming a temporary member of each group. In her series of photographs, we spot Lee as a yuppie stockbroker, drag queen, senior citizen, and swing dancer among many other transformations. Her convincing performances highlight the debate over assimilation and “passing.” Usually these terms describe how immigrants or members of other marginalized groups strive to enter mainstream culture. Nevertheless, Lee assimilates into both mainstream and marginal cultures with ease, drawing attention to the visual markings and social functions of cultural boundaries. Her successful transformations elucidates the idea that the cultural group one is born into is more socially fluid and self-subscribing than one assumes. Lee unsettles preconceived notions of belonging to reveal how physical attributes such as clothing, hairstyle, as well as facial features and skin color command our perception of social identity. Her visual blending into divergent subcultures invites the viewer to reconsider the influence of surface markings on our definition of the self and the other.



Van Dienderen, An. “Indirect Flow Through Passages: Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Art Practice.” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context, and Enquiry 23 (2010): 90-97. 

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. “Staring Back: Self-Representations of Disabled Performance Artists.” American Quarterly 52.2 (2000): 334-38.

Ward, Frazer. “Alien Duration: Tehching Hsieh, 1978-99.” Art Journal 65.3 (2006): 6-19.

“100% Hapa: An interview with Kip Fulbeck,” in Kina and Dartiotis, eds., War Baby / Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 2013), 149-153.

Dalton, Jennifer. “Look at Me: Self-portrait Photography After Cindy Sherman.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 22.3 (2000): 47-56.