The collective CFGNY continuously turns to the term “Vaguely Asian,” a concept existing within a matrix of shared material migration histories, racialized associations, and asynchronous points of connection. In part, “Vaguely Asian” is an ongoing, nebulous, and far-reaching project that spills from the space between policy and everyday lived experience. Winnowing out immutable kernels of authenticity, singular origins, and complete knowability are antithetical to the idea of “Vaguely Asian.” At its core, CFGNY is a collaborative project that encourages the acknowledgement of existing and potential pluralities.
Japan Society, throughout its 115 year history, has been deeply invested in producing a living epistemology of Japan that is formed through the country’s relationship to the US. By exploring elements of Japan Society’s archive, which spans across high society luncheon and dinner menus, cultural lectures, news bulletins, travel brochures, architectural plans, and other memorabilia, CFGNY came to see parallels between Japan Society and itself through a shared interest in the production of “Asianness.” While the versions of constituencies produced by CFGNY and Japan Society differ greatly along class and racial lines, the use of organized events to form a loose social network with a shared vision of cultural production resonates within both projects as forms of uniting people under the expansive umbrella of the “Vaguely Asian.”
Prior to its current home, the Japan House, which was designed by architect Junzo Yoshimura and intended to distill an essential and timeless Japanese-ness, Japan Society existed between various office buildings in Midtown Manhattan. The cardboard fragments scattered throughout the exhibition directly reference architectural elements of these New York City buildings where specific narratives of Japan gestated over half a century. By inserting these referential architectural fragments into Junzo Yoshimura’s Japan House building, CFGNY highlights a fundamental Americanness that continues to shape our perceptions of Asia. Cardboard initially appeared in CFGNY’s work as a reference to the cardboard boxes comprising passengers’ check-in luggage on flights leaving and going to Southeast Asia. A ubiquitous and inexpensive material, cardboard is a universal transport element for global trade items, traveling alongside the spillage of associations, policy, and materials housed within its packaging.
Like cardboard, both garments and porcelain become a skin onto which meaning is imparted from their surroundings. When perceiving another person, style and clothing are taken into account in a similar way that other identifiers such as race and gender are assessed. CFGNY uses fashion as a vehicle to probe affect and signifiers of social belonging through materials such as people, ideas, and aesthetics. Mirroring this relationality, the porcelain works displayed on dining room tables are created by casting the negative space between found objects that have been abutted together, carrying the ghostly imprints of the conditions that initially formed their bounds. Metaphorically, they embody the space between CFGNY members who physically worked in concert to create the forms.
A long sought after trade object, exported porcelain at one point symbolized the desire for direct market access to China. The conceptualization of China as an elusive yet nearly graspable market to exploit, from which marvelous commodities could be obtained, has fueled a protracted American fantasy, to the extent of becoming a cornerstone of American identity. The mentions of China in the Japan Society’s archive rival almost that of Japan itself: Japan is positioned as both a competitor for and potential entry point into the Chinese economy. From early documents, it becomes clear that Japan and China have existed as twined entities in the US imagination: a gateway to be sculpted, and a goal to be exploited. The video opening this installation juxtaposes footage of Japan Society’s document archive with borescope footage gliding over and within CFGNY’s porcelain forms. In this examination, the relational construction of the ideas of nation, states of knowledge, foreignness, and diplomacy materializes; a shape takes its form when contrasted with another.