I met Imin Yeh during an artist residency in upstate New York last December. When she wasn’t carving away at pieces of wood she found around the cabin, she was busy preparing a paper installation. Inspired by the Alabama’s horrible immigration law, which required people to present their papers just to have access to basic water services, Imin created replicas of light and water fixtures ironically made out of paper.
Irony and dark humor are abundant in Imin’s work. During her Nianhua Workshop at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, visitors were invited to “join an assembly line of production, helping to make affordable, hand-colored woodblock prints of newly-created urban gods.” More recently, she created the Juan-Ton 2012 interactive project, which was commissioned by the San Jose Museum of Art as part of their Renegade Humor exhibition. The project was inspired by a real design commission she was offered for a political campaign that aimed to appeal both Latino and Asian voters. A political strategy, according to the person who contacted Imin, that has “never been done.”
I recently visited Imin’s studio in San Francisco to interview her about her piece for the JustSeeds immigrant portfolio. Unfortunately, I lost the interview. Fortunately she was nice enough to answer the questions once again via e-mail. Below is the edited correspondence.
Julio Salgado/CultureStrike: Talk about how you became involved in this project?
Imin Yeh: I was on a panel discussion with Favianna at the Mission Cultural Center for an exhibition entitled “En Papel: A Contemporary Look at Latino Printmakers in the US.” From there she invited me to participate in a focus residency at Blue Mountain Center on Race, Immigration, and Nativism and where I met more culture strike artists and activists.
JS: How does your work try to challenge stereotypical portrayals of immigrants in the media—whether positive or negative–while at the same time humanizing this struggle?
IY: For me, I try to be very conscious of my privilege, my identity in how I am approaching this opportunity o participate in this print portfolio exchange. It is a complicated relationship and I’m still trying to find the right intersections to be a vocal ally. The result is work that may not undercut conventions, or feed into more popular polticial/activist imagery, but what I hope is paired with a thoughtful and personal approach, one that is carried with me as a visual artist in exhibitions at Museums and Galleries, and becomes apparent in public lecures and opportunities to discuss the real root of my work.
This is tricky for me because I am Chinese-American, a member of the so called “model minority,” shown as a version of a “good” immigrant. Even within that community, there can be feelings that we immigrated the “right” way, the legal way, and a lack of identification with the immigrant movements and struggles today. At the same time, I am seeing more and more wonderful, powerful, humorous, and brave graphic work bubbling out of these pro-migrant movements and I want that voice to come strongly from people directly in those communities. Somehow I would feel that it was not as genuine to be coming from my hands, I have taken another strategy to discuss these issues that may not look political, and therefore may be subversive in another way.
JS: Talk about the imagery you chose to symbolize and suggest the trauma of separation–whether its between people, between communities, or between countries. How did you use symbols that are familiar in pop culture to present that sense of dissonance and jar people’s consciousness?
In this piece I made a decision not to use the same imagery that many participants may have used. This is not a critique of those powerful motifs, but an honest statement that is not where I am coming from. My piece does illustrate three generations of my family and their migration all over the world, from refugees of war, to students pursuing higher education, and ultimately the choice and desire to be near family. By doing the research on my family and understanding all of the decisions to travel and move in the pursuit of prosperity and family. That those freedoms are actively being denied to a huge group of people sends shivers down my spine.
JS: Can you talk a little bit about the different styles and techniques you draw on for these posters? Did you make conscious choices or did it happen organically?
IY: Most of my work is screenprinted or wood block prints. They tend to be colorful, humorous, graphic, and much less subtle. This portfolio piece is pretty different from me. I honestly don’t’ know where the inspiration for the work, but did feel strongly that it was an image I wanted to make and it is one that I knew would not necessarily fit into the rest of the portfolio.
JS: What kinds of viewers are you aiming for with these posters?
IY:I hope it may be an image that starts conversations and that could find itself with an audience that might not be familiar with immigration issues at all. I want it to be a visual starting-off point to at least talk about what I do know about being a child of an immigrant, of aligning myself and empowering myself with a pro-migrant movement because everything in my life in this country is owed to the courage of my parents and family. I don’t want to forget our joint struggles, and shared discriminations, but I also don’t want to pretend like just because I am a Person of Color, that I could possibly understand what it is like to be an undocumented person.
JS: How do you seek to draw connections between different social issues in your art?
IY: Not necessarily in this print, but my art practice often investigate Americaness through the consumption of cheap and disposable stuff, often through the invisible labor at the hands of marginalized groups both locally and globally. I try to complicate the often flippant use of “made-in-China” as an analogy for “not good”, and “not American,” as a reminder to myself that our culture and economy still finds its foot-hold in the exploitation of immigrant labor.
A lot of my projects try to implicate people into that economy, for instance, by engaging in little assembly lines to produce Good, Hand-Made, 100% American made products.
JS: Often in the mainstream media, the debate on immigration gets boiled down to simple soundbytes and one-dimensional portrayals of immigrants, generally either as model Americans or threats to national security. What can art, particularly the print medium, do to deepen the debate, in ways that news reports and other conventional media cannot?
IY: I think as an artist you can find a lot of different strategies to make socially engaged artwork. One piece entitled Paper Power was developed a lot at Blue Mountain Center and discussions about Arizona’s SB 1070 law and Alabama’s HB 56. The idea that something as ephemeral and worthless as “Paper” can be the difference between being considered a human and receiving aid, a place to live, water and utilities.
This installation is a series of white paper electrical conduits, outlets and plugs in an all white gallery in the Mission District in San Francisco. Similar inspiration from learning these anti-immigrant laws, is the idea of how inhospitable places can hybridized into a place of production, work, and even exhibition by these sort of external wirings of electricity. These spaces resonate with these earlier notions of race/class and the unequal distribution of resources. The gallery the work was in, Incline Gallery, is a tiny space behind a building and was useless until the Mission gentrified a lot more and it was painted all white and than turned into a gallery.
The curator of the exhibition mentioned to me Vijay Prashad’s book, The Darker Nations, in which the author writes, “the invisible hand is white.” This piece is in the visual art world, and may not look directly political, but carries with it that intent, those beginnings, and also that consciousness that follows me when I discuss the work publicly.
JS: What other projects are you working on?
IY: Currently I am showing a collaborative project on Angel Island in San Francisco with Jesús Iñiguez from DreamersAdrift , a collective of undocumented artists who create multi-media work around the undocumented experience, (For more information see this review in Art Practical.) A hundred years ago, thousands of immigrants entered the United States through the Immigration Station located on Angel Island. The walls of the immigration station stand as a visual and physical document of their imprisonment through that arduous journey undertaken in pursuit of a better life.
Today, over 1.4 million immigrants have been detained and deported in the last 4 years under the bama administration. The vast majority of these people are funneled through privately funded detention centers, run like federal prisons.
This portion of wall has poetry written by Jesús Iñiguez. The subsequent woodblock prints that can be made from this carving serve as a document of the intersections between immigration stories 100 years ago and today.
My other big project right now is an SpaceBi (www.SpaceBi.org) a parasitic and unauthorized project that turns the Asian Art Museum into a lab for creation of new work; a challenge to emphasize play while implicating the museum and viewer in a dialogue with the heavier themes of institutional critique, access, creation and consumption.
To see more of Imin Yeh’s work, visit http://iminyeh.info/