Airplanes Over the Pacific: Christopher K. Ho in Conversation with Godfre Leung
For full interview, please visit http://yishu-online.com/browse-articles/?997

Christopher K. Ho began his career in New York twenty years ago as, in his own words, “an inheritor of the long tradition of institutional critique.” Born in Hong Kong, raised in California, and trained in New York, he currently finds himself in limbo between his longtime homes of New York and Telluride, Colorado, in the United States, and Hong Kong. His 2018 exhibition CX 888 at de Sarthe Gallery in Hong Kong narrated his anticipated homecoming, in medias res. The exhibition, named after Cathay Pacific’s daily Hong Kong–Vancouver–New York flight, centred around an installation that mimicked the interior of an airplane, with two bays of seats facing a pair of screens blinking the logo colours of Cathay Pacific and its subsidiary, Cathay Dragon, in the rhythm of The Odyssey, the ancient Greek epic poem of homecoming.

A series of stills depicting reconciliation between a father and son was interspersed with the flashing colours on
CX 888’s screens. This follows Christopher K. Ho’s earlier exhibition Grown Up Art, which looked to parenthood as a corrective to the critical art tradition that had been at the core of his training, from the European avant-garde to institutional critique. Looking back at Grown Up Art, he muses: “Can advanced political art practice remain available to those invested, through the accident of parenthood, in educational, social, healthcare, and legal systems? Can the pragmatics of parenthood be a viable paradigm for making art? Might institutional critique continue as a prospective institution building for future generations?”

Outside the purview of his US-based interlocutors, the key tensions that dominate Christopher K. Ho’s work appear quite different. In this conversation, the artist discusses the challenge posed to political art and its critical vocabularies when considering them from the opposite side of the Pacific. What do expertise, institutions, and infrastructure look like from a global Asian perspective? In this vein, and in the real and imagined community of fellow artists such as Patty Chang, Cindy Ji Hye Kim, Margaret Lee, Candice Lin, and Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin, he also reconsiders the terms of Asian-American diaspora, including multiculturalism, the model minority, the “bamboo ceiling,” and the phenomenon of reverse diaspora. At the centre of this shifting of terrain lies the motif of air travel as an allegory for global mobility, as seen in CX 888 and another recent exhibition, Aloha to the World at the Don Ho Terrace (Bronx Museum, New York, 2018), to be continued in an upcoming sequel, CX 889.

Godfre Leung: With half a decade’s distance from your 2013 exhibition Privileged White People, the world seems like a very different place. How would you reflect on that work and your theorizing of the “Clinton Crew”?

Christopher K. Ho: The Clinton Crew referred to a group of young artists, many friends and several former students, who were making modest abstract paintings in the first decade of the 2000s. I was steeped in the French critical theory that emerged around 1968, so their work befuddled me. It was neither political, in the manner of institutional critique, nor a rigorous return to formalism à la Clement Greenberg. I wondered: was political art, or, rather, the modes of political art that I was familiar with, outmoded? Painters like Joshua Abelow, Josh Smith, and Roger White didn’t seem intent on social transformation or involved with strident politics. Born during prolonged economic prosperity, well-educated, and relatively commercially successful, their practices were based on quiet virtuosity and collegial community building. Looking back, I think Privileged White People accurately registered a broad, generational shift from politics to ethics.

Godfre Leung: The exhibition and your accompanying essay, “The Clinton Crew: Privileged White Art,” were hopeful. You ended the essay: “The task remaining for the Clinton Crew is to motivate ethics into action, to self-diagnose and test its own strengths and weaknesses, and to prove its art is more than merely good. I believe it is up to the task.” Does this hopefulness—for younger artists, for art’s ability to meaningfully act in the world, for the United States—remain?

Christopher K. Ho: No, it doesn’t. Who would have thought that Bill Clinton’s presidency was America’s high noon, and that the era’s prosperity was really a note of deferment? We are currently repaying it. In retrospect, the Clinton Crew was complacent, and the United States’ apparent hegemony, hubris. This has manifested in art in various ways. At a time when China is economically ascendant and increasingly ideologically persuasive, what does it mean for artists as respected as Omer Fast and Kai Althoff, both backed by experienced gallerists no less, to stage ugly stereotypes of squalid Chinese retail, and traffic in the image of its imminent displacement? More broadly, artists’ collective responses to political turns have seemed ineffective and uncoordinated. Too few during the lull of the past two decades pushed the parameters of political art. As a result, our tools and tactics hearken from the 1960s and ’70s.

Godfre Leung: It’s interesting that you mention institutional critique of the 1960s and ’70s generation. I’m completely unfamiliar with the painters that you mention, partially because in grad school I was—I’m exaggerating only slightly—doctrinally prevented from knowing about them. I bring this up because in her recent article on your work in Frieze, Hera Chan goes out of her way to mention that you were a student of Hal Foster’s, then Rosalind Krauss’s.

Christopher K. Ho: At Cornell University in the ’90s, where Foster led revelatory seminars, I was pointed in the direction of the then-still radical—that is, not yet commodified—practice of site-specificity, posed against the strawman of painting. Ironically, I later taught in multiple painting departments. My undergraduate majors, in architecture and in the history of architecture and urbanism, facilitated this trajectory. The bias against commercial galleries at that time inhibited me (and possibly an entire generation of artists) from having a robust, sustainable career. Without later pushback from my own students, who rightfully demanded I take their diverse studio work seriously, I undoubtedly would have remained ignorant of myriad emergent practices and still be producing post-minimalist, neo-conceptual, site-specific work.

Godfre Leung: In your 2010 exhibition Regional Painting, you upend your relationship to that theoretical and pedagogical legacy by way of painting and fiction. You absconded to a small mountain town to become a regional painter, fictionally chronicled in a novella published with the exhibition, Hirsch E. P. Rothko by Hirsch E. P. Rothko, in which a disillusioned conceptual artist who shows in single-iteration Asian biennials and no commercial galleries has his earlier love of painting resuscitated by local ski bums, hippies, and artists. Was fiction necessary as a support, given that there is a critical-turned-art historical universe where the kind of ruling class art that you mention—what we now might call Zombie Formalism—doesn’t even exist?

Christopher K. Ho: Regional Painting rebelled against my own education, and was done in sympathy with my students’ work, which from one perspective seemed self-indulgent and apolitical. So, yes, the exhibition imagines a world untarnished by critical theory, or at least one in which the gloss of critical theory peels away. Fiction also functioned as a bulwark against regionalism’s pitfall: myopia. The exhibition’s backdrop was the Great Recession. It was a period of slow food, tiny houses, and emphasis on the local. Its state-sponsored extreme, unfolding today, is protectionism. Fiction, in contrast, seemed complex, expansive, and ambitious. Of course, at that time, I couldn’t have predicted that fiction would devolve into “fake news” and that regionalism was an advance-guard of nativism.

Godfre Leung: There seems to be a clear arc here, from the practices that in Regional Painting you call “seemingly self-indulgent and apolitical” to your optimism in Privileged White People that that kind of art can meaningfully act, and to your 2016 exhibition Grown Up Art, which shifts the tone from optimistic to pragmatic. Grown Up Art also marks the point in the arc where Asian-American identity becomes a foregrounded part of the work, as opposed to being an unspoken term opposite white privilege—I think there were just two passing mentions in Hirsch E. P. Rothko of its protagonist being Asian. In Hyperallergic, you described “grown-up art” as “the art of the B+ student who falls between the genius’ A and the gentleman’s C. It is effortful and determined. Or, more poignantly, it is the art of an immigrant like me, for whom B+ is the highest grade achievable, having never been bestowed the code to success nor felt privileged enough not to care.”

Christopher K. Ho: I remember thinking in high school that I was not particularly smart, especially compared to those who knew how to study, and how to act. I compensated by working harder, and have done so since. Grown Up Art presented diligence as a positive value, and as an alternative to the effortlessness that culture takes as indicative of genius. As an adult, I have come to recognize that “not particularly smart” is also structural and contextual. The recent lawsuit accusing Harvard’s admissions process of penalizing Asian-Americans for indefinable reasons dramatizes this point, and I look forward to addressing it—and similar incidents involving other elite Northeastern institutions—in future projects.

Godfre Leung: In Privileged White People, you seem to use the character Dawson from the TV show Dawson’s Creek as an avatar for a vision of the world ruled by one-dimensional white decency. With the film Crazy Rich Asians out recently, and potentially a very different image of privilege (and power) entering North American pop culture, is Dawson now dead?

Christopher K. Ho: In the United States, not only is ethnicity pitched, but class-consciousness also becomes class-self-consciousness. The latter ranges from manic (the Vanderbilts during the Gilded Age or the Kardashians today) to depressive (the New England puritanism at the heart of the Clinton Crew). In the world of Crazy Rich Asians—in Singapore, Hong Kong, and proxies like Vancouver and Sydney—everyone wears their yellow skin comfortably, and those who come from such means do so with refreshing, and possibly instructive, ease. Taking a cue, can artists of privilege, in whatever economic, ethnic, and educational combination, be easeful with that privilege and make socially progressive art?

To put it in Marx and Engels’s terms rather than Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan and director Jon M. Chu’s: “the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” If we take Marx and Engels at face value, the intelligentsia—and in this privileged status class I include many artists—would be irretrievably complicit with capitalism. Rather than optimistically fighting for or claiming affinity with the proletariat and its correlates, might the task of contemporary artists be to make political art realistically, as leftist members of the ruling class?

Godfre Leung: This loops back to where we began, with your diagnosis that certain strands of politically engaged art haven’t been updated in decades. What might be interesting, though, is to look back at that classic Whitney Independent Study Program and October generation that came up in the late 1980s and ’90s, and the way that they reformulated institutional critique after they “grew up.” Those artists and scholars largely came to acknowledge their positions of power and privilege as a key part of their practice, whether it’s Andrea Fraser writing in Artforum in 2005 “We are the institution,” or T. J. Demos playing himself in the context of Renzo Martens’s Institute for Human Activities in 2012.

Here is a recent exchange between Helen Molesworth and Andrea Fraser, discussing Fraser’s project to track the political campaign donations of American museum board members:

Molesworth: [The] identification between the moneyed class and everyday people has been one of the biggest challenges for me. I am still struggling to counter the charges of elitism that are being levied against those who stand up for and lay claim to their (or my!) expertise.

Fraser: That’s how the right won the election. They identified elitism and class power with expertise and education—with cultural capital rather than economic capital—and mobilized economically precarious whites against cosmopolitan liberals. . . . The left failed to recognize cultural capital as a real form of power that produces real forms of domination—and not just in its colonial, patriarchal, heteronormative, or white-supremacist forms. We’ve also failed to defend expertise and competence as a broadly shared social value rather than a form of power.

I’m intrigued to hear where you think privilege could be mobilized to productive political-artistic ends, given that the scale of plutocracy and wealth inequality now feels so enormous that even artists of the millionaire class have no truck with the kinds of people who sit on museum boards or who determine who gets a fair shake at the Democratic National Convention.

Christopher K. Ho: In 2016, a paramount capitalist ran for the US presidency as a populist (the proletarian’s right-wing American cousin), and accused the left of elitism. It’s an odd turn that Molesworth and Fraser register astutely, if belatedly (as I also did).

But their exchange misses the mark for me. The 2016 election was not just about “economically precarious whites against cosmopolitan liberals.” It concerned immigrants of all stripes, for whom American exceptionalism long presented a bridge and beacon. Hadn’t my parents moved because the US granted freedoms that were in doubt after the 1997 Hong Kong handover, and because it is a decent, moderately taxed place to accumulate capital? By studying and getting into good schools, and joining the professional classes, the myth goes, immigrants could assimilate and participate in the American dream. But Trump’s unwelcoming of immigrants foreclosed this option. The right lurched towards white nationalism, exacerbating the parallel rise among immigrants or even second and third generation US-born citizens of “long-distance nationalism,” which is Benedict Anderson’s term for members of a diaspora feeling more, say, Chinese than American.

Godfre Leung: …which brings us to your recent exhibition CX 888 and your planned return to Hong Kong.

Christopher K. Ho: My goal in CX 888 was to explore alternatives to both white and long-distance nationalism.......

[For second half of interview, please visit http://yishu-online.com/browse-articles/?997]