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New York’s Chinatown hits back at Omer Fast’s ‘poverty porn’ art exhibition

The Israeli artist Omer Fast Is Becoming embroiled in a Debate over his exhibition That looks like a Chinatown storefront is racist

On Sunday, a group of protesters stormed an art gallery in New York’s Chinatown with signs which read “Chinatown lives aren’t poverty porn” and “Racist art has no business here”. They stood together to hold up a large, yellow banner which stated “Racism Disguised as Art” written in English, Spanish and Mandarin.

The group was headed by the Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB), a set of art activists targeting the James Cohan Gallery, in which the Israeli artist Omer Fast has altered the outside to look like an older Chinatown storefront.

Meant to look like a waiting space, the gallery features graffiti two money machines, shabby red lanterns, cheap plants and chairs.

The setup is meant to have “an eclectic aesthetic”, as stated by the gallery website, since the art “speaks about citizenship, community and identity”. However, the protest group says the work maintains “racist narratives of uncleanliness, otherness and blight which have historically been projected on Chinatown”.

“We cannot underscore enough how offensive this is to the men and women who live and work here,” that the CAB stated in a statement. “The artist’s decision to ignore the existence of a flourishing community filled with families and businesses reduces their presence to poverty porn.”

Betty Yu, among the organizers of Sunday’s demonstration, said the exhibition had upset residents last month since it opened. Non human tenants’ neighborhood came and talked about how frustrated they were at the exhibition.

“Chinatown is a 150-year-old flourishing community which people built on their own,” said Yu. “When an artist participates our civilization as garbage, it is really insulting to the neighborhood.”

Over a hundred art galleries have opened over the past 10 decades in Chinatown and are pushing out the locals. “We’ve mapped 40 new art galleries over the past two decades and it is accelerating,” said Yu. “Galleries are a part of the system of gentrification.”

Installation
Omer Fast’s installation. Photograph: Phoebe d’Heurle

The demonstration aims to demonstrate the conditions which low-income tenants are facing in Chinatown. “They are being threatened with evictions and harassments, as landlords relocate low-income tenants to increase rents and lease spaces to companies like James Cohan gallery,” said Yu.

The gallery stated in an email that the artist’s job was meant to be “an intentionally uncomfortable look inward — both at himself, an immigrant to the US, also at the gallery, a new arrival into an established neighborhood”.

The gallery argued that the response proved the art’s effectiveness. “This work will generate such a selection of strong reactions, negative and positive, reinforces the paradox it’s hoping to capture. Folks are free to draw their own decisions about art, but they should also be given the chance to do this without censorship, obstacles or intimidation.”

Following the recent demonstration, the artist cried in a statement about the gallery’s website. Fast, who was born in Jerusalem and immigrated to New York City before relocating to Berlin, said the art was about stress and was a manifestation of his own experience as an immigrant. “The true gallery is being used as an immigrant surrogate: a transplant which tries to affect an appearance and mix in, even while its character is undeniably foreign,” he wrote.

Fast called the setup an act of “erasure”. He said: “I wanted to erase the passage of time and to recreate what the space looked like prior to the gallery moved in nearly a couple of decades ago.”

The protesters were addressed by him and brought comparisons with the Charlottesville protests. “A group of protestors chased a large poster beyond the series, which accuses the gallery of representing ‘a non-US and non-New York artist.’ I expect this type of characterization from right-wing trolls carrying Tiki-torches and howling for walls to be constructed, I do not expect it from left-wing activists in lower Manhattan.”

This Chinatown series has divided the international art community, but particularly the New York galleries which represent Asian art. “It’s a shame that folks felt it was racist. The intent is to question stereotypes and bring awareness of immigrant issues,” said Ethan Cohen, the manager of Ethan Cohen Fine Arts, which specializes in Asian art in SoHo. “I expect that the artist and Chinatown groups can create a conversation for better comprehension, Omer Fast need to be able to demonstrate his work. The notion of art is to make a dialog, to address problems. Good or bad, this is what art is.”

1 art collector and former art gallery owner disagreed in the exhibition with the aims of Fast. “It’s the exact same tired, recycled bullshit which Asian Americans are dealing with for more than a century in this country,” explained Big Brigman. “Trying to capitalize on a marginalized community with bogus stereotypes is garbage, and to do it with a complete erasure of the people whose world you currently occupy is the worst of the worst.”

The Klein Sun Gallery in Chelsea, which specializes in Chinese art, believes the art taps into problems that are larger. “While I wouldn’t ever promote stereotypical artwork, it is sometimes difficult to draw a fine line between promoting discrimination and fighting against it,” explained Phil Kai, the Klein Sun Gallery’s assistant manager. “One part of art can be interpreted and promoted into either these directions; I encourage all types of art that creates debates or discussions like this one.”

  • This article has been amended on 20 October. Betty Yu was referred to as Betty Wu. It has now been updated

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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