Arts Magazine: Rivers Merging

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Rivers Merging: Ten cross-cultural teams of Minnesota artists investigate the meanings of representation and identity

Finding one's artistic identity in our society is a complex undertaking. Many artists have occupied themselves with issues of identity, representation, and social action for decades. But only recently has the cultural "mainstream" acknowledged the tremendous diversity that has long been present in the arts. Implicit in that diversity is a given: Our artistic legacy is based on manyvalues, experiences, and points of view. It tells not one story but many.

In her book Mixed Blessings,scholar and critic Lucy Lippard provides a useful guide for examining the complexities of artistic identity. She categorizes the steps in the process thusly: Naming (self-naming/being labeled/self-representation), Telling (history/family/religion and storytelling), Landing (points of departure/taking place/being displaced), Mixing (of cultures), Turning Around (subversion/trickery/uses of humor and irony by which subjugated people survive), and Dreaming (no conclusions).

Lippard points out that the boundaries being challenged include class, gender, value and belief systems, politics, and religion. She states that "the real risk is to venture outside of imposed art contexts, both as a viewer and an artist, to live the connections with people like and unlike oneself."

The pattern might be well symbolized by the image of many rivers merging. Each separate stream flows through space and time to its intersection with other waters, which ultimately are shaped by the nature of this union.

This metaphor drawn from the natural world has inspired the title for a collaborative and intercultural exhibition and event series organized by public artist Kinji Akagawa and cosponsored by the MAEP and the Asian American Renaissance (AAR), a local Asian American grassroots organization committed to building the Asian American community through the arts. Called "Rivers Merging," it will open on May 11 and run through July 16, 1995.

The genesis of Akagawa's interest in collaboration and intercultural exchange dates to his boyhood. Born in Tokyo in 1940, he recalled the post-World War II years as a time of working together with family and friends to confront destruction and, eventually, to salvage and rebuild.

Later he worked in Tokyo at an Episcopalian "neighborhood house," which served many community functions and was an orientation site for missionaries from around the world. This experience fostered his community spirit and stimulated his global awareness. The director of the house, Professor/Reverend Richard A. Merritt, championed Akagawa's art education at the Kuwazawa Design School. There, the young student was exposed to the expansive teachings of Bauhaus-a European movement that, because it was grounded in everyday life, complemented Japanese art. Merritt, who became Akagawa's "second father," personally sponsored Akagawa's travels to the United States in 1963 and his attendance at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.

Akagawa subsequently studied at the Tamrind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree, and the University of Minnesota, where he earned a master's. The cultural community of the Upper Midwest has long recognized and respected Kinji Akagawa as a devoted teacher and a superb artist. Examples of his public commissions are installed at the Walker Sculpture Garden. Tettegouche State Park, and on the Nicollet Mall.

For Akagawa "Rivers Merging" serves to extend his work in the realm of public art and is part of a continued examination of the relationship between art and community. He views the project as a work he will create with other artists. A series of conversations between Akagawa and AAR directors Valerie Lee and David Mura, who were interested in stimulating exhibition opportunities for regional Asian American artists, marked the beginning of "Rivers Merging." Akagawa was aware of the MAEP's unique structure-one based on the perceptions and evaluations of artists-and believed such a structure could facilitate a dynamic intercultural dialogue.

On the strength of that belief, he made a formal proposal to the MAEP Artist Panel that he serve as a guest curator to organize a cross-cultural investigation of the concepts of representation and identity. Cross-cultural interdisciplinary "teams"-each consisting of two or more artists, one of whom would be Asian American-would create a series of installations, performances, and events.

Akagawa envisioned a project that would focus on art not only as a set of objects but also as a process of inquiry and on the artist as someone already engaged in collective and inclusive action. Questions posed in the proposal (and, later, in the call for proposals to the artist community) clarified Akagawa's concerns: How does the artist construct his or her identity? How does the artist approach the question of personal versus cultural identity? What role does individual or cultural identity play in a collaborative project? What perspectives help advance the search for common ground? "Pondering such questions can help us explore a fundamental paradigm shift occurring in the arts today," say Akagawa.

After MAEP's Artist Panel accepted Akagawa's initial proposal, more specific collaboration proposals were solicited, which an interdisciplinary panel of Asian American artists (Evelina Chao, Kobi Conaway, Ranee Ramaswamy, and Akagawa) eventually reviewed. The panel ultimately selected ten cross-cultural teams (32 artists in all) to participate.

Opportunities for dialogue have been scheduled throughout the project. For instance, artist dialogues will occur on the closing day of each collaboration. The MAEP will cosponsor, with the Walker Art Center, AAR, and the Center for Arts Criticism, a two-day forum titled "Dialogues: A Regional Forum on Asian Americans in Contemporary Art" (May 20-21). And an Artist Town Meeting and Roundtable Discussion will close out the show in July.

" 'Rivers Merging' will be a search for common ground, where conflict and difference are accepted, not rejected-a vast weather map containing order within chaos," predicts Akagawa. "Together we will co-create the experience."

Cynde Randall is the Program Associate for the MAEP. The MAEP is made possible by the Jerome Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Rivers Merging
Gallery Installations

May 12-July 16, 1995
Minnesota Gallery
(Opening reception on Thursday, May 11, 6-9 p.m.)

May 11-June 4, 1995 (three collaborations)
"Means of Becoming"
A mixed-media installation by Lia Rivamonte and Virginia Bradley examine the concurrent childhood responses of two girls who grew up on opposite ends of the country.

Not One Word Omitted"
A multi-media installation by Eddie Wong and Mara Zoltners examines the dichotomies of Asian representation within the dominant culture.

Gate Project
A bicultural gate designed and built by Joe Aiken and Yi Kai is a monument to cultural exchange and the metaphysical relationships of ideas. (Artists' dialogue on Sunday, June 4, 3 p.m.)

June 6-June 11, 1995 (two collaborations)
"Rivers of Memory, Pathways to Wisdom"
A mixed-media installation/performance by Vera Ming Wong, Wendy Ansley, Eva Two Crow, Sophia Wong,, Laura Wilson utilizes the metaphor of river to explore submerged, surface, and emergent identity. (Performance on Sunday, June 11; Family Day, Pillsbury Auditorium/artists'dialogue on Sunday, June 11, 3 p.m.)

Growing Beyond"
A mixed-media performance by Joyce Yamamoto, Todd Tsuchiya, and the Kogen Taiko Drum Group (Connie Tsuchiya, Brian Tsuchiya, Cheral Tsuchiya, Pam Ohno Dagoberg, Tim Dagoberg, Phyllis Ono Kimitch, and Ben Wong) presents the personal histories of Minnesotans interned between 1942 and 1946. A companion installation titled "Her Story: Joyce Yamanoto" is on view in the Minnesota Gallery, June 6- 11. (Performance on Sunday, June 11; Family Day, Pillsbury Auditorium/artists' dialogue on Sunday, June 11, 3 p.m.)

June 13-18, 1995 "Deep within Your Veins"
A mixed-media installation by Carl Di Salvo, Lily Tsong, and Chris Velasco explores the public's schizophrenic attitudes toward "otherness" and immigration. (Artists' dialogue on Sunday, June 18, 3 p.m.)

May 11 and June 15, 18, 22, and 25, 1995
"Colored Only" looking for reasons behind black memorabilia
A collaborative mixed-media performance by photographer Wing Huie and performance artist Kim Hines presents Hine's "black memorabilia" collection with projected images as a backdrop to live monologues, songs, and music. (May 11 at 7 p.m., June 15 & 22 at 6 p.m., and June 18 & 25 at 3 p.m./Artists' dialogue will follow the June 25 performance.)

June 20-25, 1995 "Swing"
A multi-media installation/performance by Lily Tsong and Me-K Ando explores issues of unknown histories, mistaken identities, and the immigrant experience through the metaphors of hair and food. (Artists'dialogue on Sunday, June 25, 3 p.m.)

June 28-July 9, 1995 (two collaborations)
"When I Was Eighty"
A cross-cultural reflecting pool by Mina Ogawa, Victoria Ralston, Judith Mabee, and Karoline Wilecaek features women's stories based on the theme "When I was eighty."

A Path toward Cultural Essence"
A multi-sensory path by Joonja Lee Mornes and Jean Strommer encourages the recollection and bicultural reintegration of emotions. (Artists' dialogue on Sunday, July 9, 3 p.m.)

July 11-16, 1995 (all ten teams)
"Visual Town Meeting"
All ten teams of artists participate in a simultaneous gallery presentation/installation that reflects the intercultural collaboration of the "Rivers Merging" experience. Related events to be announced.

Citation: Cynde Randall, "Rivers Merging: Ten cross-cultural teams of Minnesota artists investigate the meanings of representation and identity," Arts 18, no. 5 (May 1995): 6-7.