Recess Interviews: Nikki Whang
Nikki Whang (T ’14) is in the midst of week-long public art action project for her thesis in public policy and visual art. Seven Days on Display stems from Whang’s identity as an Asian American woman and asks us to critically think about the way we perceive Asian American identity. The week began on Thursday with "Where did all the Asian food go?" However, the scope of the participatory multimedia project goes beyond the artist’s identities to explore the intersectionalities of gender, sexuality, race, body image and social norms. Recess writer Hannah Anderson-Baranger spoke with Whang about her inspirations and hopes for the project.
You can get daily updates at the event page—the week concludes this Wednesday with "Questioning Day." The project was supported by the Asian Students Association and Asian American Alliance.
The Chronicle: What was the first time you became interested in public art activism, or artivism?
Nikki Whang: It’s been developing for a while. I think it stemmed from having seen a lot of art galleries or exhibits and having an interest in the ones that made me think about myself and my place in the world—just very thought-provoking and more conceptual art pieces. So there was that background of gaining knowledge and interest in different artists. I started looking at those artists more and drawing inspiration from them. But it wasn’t until I took a class with Pedro [Lasch] my freshman year that I really started to think about ways in which my art could also enter the public sphere and involve people more—which is what I was interested in and is what he helped me realize. I think another way that I became interested in it was that I was trying to bridge my two majors; social activism and other issues I really cared about meshed well with art.
TC: Interesting. Which of your majors came first?
NW: Well I always knew I wanted to minor in visual arts. That was a requirement for me. And then I was searching around for a major and I took one class with Tony Brown called Social Entrepreneurship In Action and I decided to major in public policy.
TC: I almost took that class!
NW: Our paths were going to cross eventually! And I was deciding between an art minor and maybe a culanth minor. I took one semester without art and it was awful—I hated it. So I decided to major in it.
TC: Women’s issues and feminist politics figure prominently in your work. Do you see your work as being feminist art and as being part of that movement?
NW: I think yes and no. Yes, it definitely is feminist in the way that I’ve come to describe that term—I guess feminist or womanist. Something that my work does that other feminist art doesn’t always is think about the intersection with race. So, I think my work is feminist, but I’m not sure others would consider it feminist art.
TC: When you came to Duke, did you identify as a feminist? Or is it something that has changed as you’ve been here?
NW: I think I started realizing it more during my first year here. I went to an all-girls high school and that definitely shaped my views. But, I didn’t realize how much it had shaped them until I got to Duke and I started to try to find my place at this school. And I realized how much I missed being in a space with just women—just a more safe and comfortable space, which I didn’t find at Duke.
TC: It’s interesting you said safe and comfortable space, since some of the work has to do with creating uncomfortable spaces. Why aren’t you creating comfortable spaces, since that is what was missing for you initially at Duke?
NW: I think for all my life I’ve been in an uncomfortable space. There are definitely certain privileges that I have, and I have groups of friends and people that know where I do feel comfortable. In general, my life has centered a lot on figuring out who I am as a person and that had to do a lot with my identity as a woman and as an Asian American. So yeah, people might feel uncomfortable for a bit, but I’ve had to deal with that for a while. I think my work is trying to bring to light things that come up in those uncomfortable spaces—people are forced to challenge themselves in spaces where they feel uncomfortable rather than comfortable.
TC: You and I are both really concerned with provoking conversation and hopefully shifts in thought and actions. I think I called it “prompting social change” in my Program II proposal. Why do you think art is a good way to do this?
NW: I think art is a good way to provoke people because it is still considered art. When art gets attached as a label, people say “Okay, it’s art, I can do this for just now.” But my hope with the art is that they will continue to think about it for a long time. I also think art is a very interactive way of understanding something or questioning things. My work incorporates a lot of different mediums through which people can understand the message or question I am presenting.
TC: Last semester your work was mostly digital art with a few in-class participatory performances. How did you get from that gallery-focused work to Seven Days on Display?
NW: A lot of the digital art that I was making were things that I was thinking about. I definitely did like having that space—it really helped me work things out for myself. But when I thought about trying to put it into an exhibit, I realized that it’s not so much about my art and how aesthetically pleasing it is, it’s more about the conversations that could come from it.
TC: Let’s talk about your identity as an Asian American woman. You frequently use stereotypes and cultural tropes—such as serving tea or labeling yourself fragile—in your work. Do you ever feel concerned that your work will be misunderstood because of this? And, why do you choose to use these tropes and what is their power?
NW: Yes, I am worried that this will get misconstrued. I think that can happen a lot. It’s an unfortunate part of public art, or art in general, that you can’t control what people think. But I think that by using those tropes and contrasting it with opposing elements you can raise questions—by doing something people don’t expect. They might expect one thing from the stereotype, but then I’m doing something different. Trying to think about that juxtaposition or dichotomy is what I want people to do. The hope is that they might see an Asian person serving tea in a housewife-esque dress, but then the conversation that stems from it is much more meaningful and they don’t just stop thinking after they see the dress.
TC: On Friday you and I reinterpreted Yoko Ono’s “Cut” piece. We sat in the BC, staring at each other and not moving, for one and half hours as passersby snipped off pieces of our clothing. For me, staring into your eyes for so long was somewhere between meditative and hallucinatory—what was the experience like for you?
NW: It was definitely meditative and also kind of exhilarating to have people come up and cut my shirt off. One of my inspirations is Marina Abramovi?, so I really got to experience what sitting and staring at someone for an extended period of time would be like and feel like. I felt comfortable doing it, just sitting there. It wasn’t until someone came up and cut off the whole front part of my shirt that I really felt like, “Wow, those scissors were really close to my body!”
TC: What did you hope people got from participating in "Cut" piece or just watching?
NW: My hope is that Duke is more welcoming to art. While one performance may not do that, I hope that people will remember it in the future and say, “Oh hey, I could do something like that too!” Because why don’t we see that every day? Why is that not normal? Why aren’t we surrounded by questions and art and confrontations all the time?