16" x 20"
© Diane Tani, 1989
Crashing the Gate
Interview with Diane Tani by Moira Roth,
Trefethen Professor of Art History, Mills College.
"But in the land of promise, he felt more
rather than less of a foreigner; it made him
feel like a gatecrasher who had stayed too
long and been identified."
MR: Why did you choose the title "Crashing the Gate" for this retrospective exhibition?
DT: In 1989 I made a print, "Gatecrasher." The image is of shoes and a garbage can on a city street. The text reads, "But in the land of promise he felt more rather than less a foreigner; it made him feel like a gatecrasher who had stayed too long and been identified" - a quote from Timothy Mo, a British Asian writer. As an Asian American I never really felt accepted as an American.
MR: "Crashing" is active language.
DT: It's my active self trying to make things better.
MR: And you are an activist. You have a leadership role in the Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA) and have done a major public art piece on domestic violence. You' re on the board of directors of San Francisco Camerawork, and you and I created Visibility Press. Do you consider all your work to be part of "crashing the gate"?
DT: It seems to be a common thread because it is a concern in my life as well as in my art. It's one reason I don't title my series - I see all my work as a continuation of certain ideas.
MR: Let's begin by discussing your earliest pieces - the twelve or so small plexiglass boxes created between 1981 and 1988. Each of them is made up of three sets of upright plexiglass plates which "sandwich" texts and photographic transparencies - they require back and bottom lighting to be seen.
DT: For me the boxes were a way to get beyond the single photograph which I thought was inadequate for what I wanted to say. The early boxes had no text and their images were really just playing with negative and positive space - they had titles like "Looking," "Window," and "Ascent." Then I started putting windows and doors on the boxes to suggest the idea of home. The problem was that these were made for doll houses and are quite fragile - most of them broke.
MR: And then you began to add short texts?
DT: At the time, I was at San Francisco State and taking Asian American Studies courses and art classes at the same time, and I never meshed the two. The later works with texts were finally that meshing. "Paternal" was the first work where I really focused on content - after I felt I had the format under control. It's made with doors, and the images are of my father and his family, a picture of me and a picture of an ear. The next one was "Illusion" which was about the popularity of plastic surgery that Asians get on their eyes - this was the first piece that contained text. These were created in San Francisco and then I moved to New Mexico in 1988 and made "442nd/Loyalty," "Internment," and "Immigration."
MR: The three layers of "Immigration" are made up by the front text - "We are living on borrowed land" - and behind that a picture of your mother's mother. In the back is a map of Canton (which is where she was brought up) with arrow marks showing immigration directions - to Southeast Asia, Australia and the United States.
DT: The phrase comes from my grandmother, who came over in the 1900s but never felt comfortable here. She reared eight kids and became a citizen, yet she always felt that China was really her home.
MR: Immigration is generally a very key component of this country' s history, but internment refers here to a painful specific aspect of Japanese American history, that of the internment camps in World War II. Your box with that title has three images - barbed wire in front, a map in the middle (showing the location of internment camps between California and North Dakota) and in the back are a series of snapshots. So one looks, literally, through layers of barbed wire, to the map, and finally to your family.
DT: Yes. My grandparents - on my father's side - had come over from Japan. When Pearl Harbor happened tensions against Japanese Americans increased and my grandmother became very nervous, and burned almost all the family snapshots - these are the last surviving ones and include pictures of my father as a child and some snapshots of relatives. My father was born here in Mountain View and has only once been to Japan. But when my father was five, the war broke out, and he and his family were uprooted from San Francisco and shipped off to the Tanforan race track and later Tule Lake internment camps.
MR: What were the responses to these plexiglass boxes when they began to be shown in the late 1980s?
DT: I think the format was so strong and interesting - it was neither sculpture nor photography - people only wanted to talk about how the boxes were constructed. No one seemed really to look at the content.
MR: In 1989 in graduate school at the University of New Mexico you produced your next series of works. Those were approximately fifteen large (16" x 20") chromogenic photographs, again using juxtapositions of images and texts, and sometimes combining two photographs. Some were shot by you, and other images were appropriated - for example, the print, "Duel" which is of a small Asian American boy in cowboy dress which you captioned, "My move or yours?"
DT: The image came out of a book of Chinatown photographs. The title and the text were to suggest just that - duality of identity as well as a duel, a confrontation.
MR: To crash the gates or not...? Then there is "Communique" with its appropriated image of a woman in a kimono.
DT: It' s from a Japanese film, and I gave it the caption, "The only ones I knew were from television." What I was trying to communicate was that those images don' t exist in my past, because my past is an American past. That was a Japanese past, a foreign past. The only people I knew that would dress like that are on television.
MR: Where does the image of "Self Identity" come from?
DT: It is of my grandmother' s bureau. You can see the family photographs she kept there.
MR: In the series there' s a sense of a mixing of history and the present, as well as the questioning of representation. In "Boiled" you have a segment of a 19th century print showing an angry anti-Asian riot juxtaposed with a clutching hand, with the comment, "Boiled in the Melting Pot." "Ancestors" combines a photograph of yourself as a baby being held by young cousins with an appropriated 19th century portrait - with the words, "ancestors a part of my past, strange names whispered and lost."
DT: Because of immigration, there are ancestors in China that I don' t know anything about. They exist as in "you have a cousin," but no name or picture.
MR: Again in "Alienation," there is another old photograph of women seated in two rows, facing one another, as they wait at the immigration station at Angel Island. Where does the accompanying text come from?
DT: My sister. The text reads, "She fell off the curve and cut her yellow teeth on the skin of alienation."
MR: "Alienation" and other images in this 1989 series were first shown outside graduate school in 1990 in a traveling exhibition, Disputed Identities, originated by San Francisco Camerawork, which presented both North American and English photography. Your "Duel" was on the cover of the exhibition's publication, and you, James Luna, Lyle Ashton Harris, Sutapa Biswas and myself made up a panel called, "Your move or mine? Perspectives on Multicultural Photography U.S./U.K." How did that positioning feel to you?
DT: That I was in a show where I was part of a larger movement was very comforting. It was the beginning of multicultural realizations and the acknowledging of different histories. The exhibition happened at the same time that I became involved with AAWAA. I wasn' t isolated any longer, yelling at myself. I realized that other people were addressing the same issues.
MR: And also you were beginning to be shown widely. For example, you were in the 1991 Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a year later in San Francisco you were part of Liz Claiborne's Women' s Work.
DT: Artists were commissioned to work in conjunction with organizers concerned with domestic violence. I was chosen together with local artists Carrie Mae Weems, Margaret Crane and June Winet - and Susan Meiselas and Barbara Krueger, who were brought in from New York. Our work was to be shown in San Francisco and Oakland bus shelters and billboards. The whole project took about a year. The actual public art spectacle was for a month. I did a lot of research before I started contacting organizations. I met with several including Men Overcoming Violence and the Marin Battered Women's Shelter, but I ended up associated most closely with the Asian Women's Shelter. I still do volunteer work for them. The staff suggested that I work with texts in Chinese and Korean as well as English for the bus shelter images. The text came out of discussions with them as well as from my readings. When I was working on the project, the organizers would say, "You have too much text. We have to cut some out." And then I would go back to the shelter and they would protest, "No! You have to keep it all in."
MR: How did it affect you - this shift to such large scale and overtly public work?
DT: I really separate this from my other work because it was commissioned and specifically about domestic violence although it was linked to Asian American issues.
MR: And your current work?
DT: I am doing a series of color prints. One is of a torn poster I found in Chinatown. The text that runs around it reads, "Self understanding cannot be achieved if self discovery is approached with the assumption and perception other than our own." The quote came out of the 1968 student strike at San Francisco State. It' s obviously on the same theme that we have been discussing here - of recognizing our own history. You can' t be told you history from the outside. It has to be told from within.
All text © Moira Roth.
All photographs © Diane Tani.