No more chopstick art,” says 26-year-old multimedia artist One Danny Yoon with a laugh. “I’m sick of it. That and Bruce Lee.” Other Asian-American artists have turned to incorporating hanbok, or traditional Korean dress, and other cultural symbols to sum up the experience of growing up Asian in America. But Yoon’s current work focuses on the Asian face itself, the inescapable brand of difference.
Yoon’s Turning Japanese and Heritage center on 20 morphed Asian male visages, including the artist’s own. In Turning Japanese, named after the Vapors’ hit song, faces slowly roll across the screen of a junky black-and-white TV set laid sideways on the floor–so slowly that at first it appears only one person is being shown. Forming a spiral on the floor around the TV are the song’s lyrics. The song, like Gedde Watanabe’s portrayal of foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong in the movie Sixteen Candles, was a painful reminder of what it was like for Asian-Americans growing up in the 80s–that the very youth culture they immersed themselves in could betray them. In Yoon’s piece, the alienation resonates anew– “Everyone around me is a total stranger,” say the lyrics.
Heritage places framed photos of the 20 mugs atop head-high pedestals that form a circle, the faces looking inward. The work also plays on the idea that all Asians look alike–to many the 20 faces could be 20,000, and might as well be just one. The continuum itself embodies the conflicts Asian-Americans experience trying to reconcile their Asian heritage with their American culture. It also evokes the unity or singularity implied by Yoon’s unusual moniker. “That’s from Emerson’s universal one,” he explains. “My dad’s idea. He’s big into transcendentalism.”
Raised in California, Yoon always had an interest in computers (“You know, I read software manuals for fun,” he jokes), though he went to Harvard and majored in Visual Environmental Studies, or studio art. He worked at a Hollywood postproduction house, assisting on effects-laden blockbusters like Speed and True Lies before coming to the School of the Art Institute for his MFA. While there he was a teaching assistant for computer graphics classes and lent technical assistance to artist Inigo Manglano-Ovalle. Yoon now works at Cutters, a postproduction house that serves ad agencies.
Yoon’s technical background has helped shape his art. In Seine Line the computer-generated image of an Asian male face is traced onto a lattice of twine. The string continues through a door, which has words taken from the twine’s label stenciled over its frame: “Crafted in the U.S.A. Exclusive color formula increases visibility significantly over white nylon.” Yoon says, “The advent of digital imaging and the translation of human existence into various information streams skews how we view ourselves as individuals. And even how the literal human body is conceptualized.” Yoon’s work shows that digitizing reduces us (in this case, the face) to pure data. In a process like assimilation we join the flow–just a bunch of numbers like everyone else–but our “code” is still different. That becomes clear when the data is downloaded (or the face is printed out). While Seine Line deals with race, it’s also a portrait of a friend’s experiences, looking at identity issues independent of race. “There are a lot of veins running through my work,” he says. “Sometimes when you do a work about Asians, it sort of weakens it–you want to say, ‘Can’t you just see this piece isn’t all about Asian issues?’ Race and culture are slippery terms–people have to determine for themselves where they stand and what it means for them.”
Yoon’s Turning Japanese and Seine Line are on display in a group show through November 6 at the School of the Art Institute’s Betty Rymer Gallery, Columbus and Jackson; call 443-3703. Heritage is featured in “Young Americans of Asian Ancestry” through October 16 at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5307 S. Hyde Park; call 324-5520.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): One Danny Yoon photo by Chip Williams/ Turning Japanese by One Danny Yoon.