Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 16, 2021
After Hope: Videos of Resistance
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, February 1–December 31, 2021
After Hope: Videos of Resistance, installation view, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, 2021 (photograph by Kevin Candland, provided by Asian Art Museum)

After Hope is a groundbreaking exhibition that rethinks not only the importance of contemporary video art in Asia but also the premises and goals of its exhibition site, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, whose main focus is traditional Asian art. The physical installation of the show comprises a six-and-a-half-hour loop of fifty-four videos and an “ephemera wall” of texts and images contributed by the artists. While the physical installation of the exhibit runs through December 31, 2021, a thought-provoking program of working groups, workshops and events, and a continually updated digital platform,, have been organized since July 2020 by the cocurators of the show, Abby Chen, head of contemporary art and senior associate curator at the Asian Art Museum; Viv Liu, research assistant for contemporary art at the Asian Art Museum; and Padma Maitland, assistant professor of architectural history and theory at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. The curation of these videos has many strengths. It is diverse: there are videos at various stages of development, from cell phone footage that captures the raw power of events in real time, to aestheticized videos that are lush and cinematic. It is inclusive: there are videos from Asian countries less represented in the art world, such as Bangladesh, Burma, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. And it is contemporary: most of the fifty-four videos are from the last few years.

The title of the show reminds us that we live in an age of afterologies (a word from Marshall Sahlins, Culture in Practice, Zone Books, 2000). From terms that lament the current state of affairs, such as post-truth, to concepts that put us on the threshold of a not-so-brave new world, such as posthuman, the third decade of the twenty-first century is awash in the ends of things. After Hope throws itself into the ring of afterologies with a significant caveat. If one speaks of “after” as an end, then one must acknowledge that “after” also connotes pursuit. Going after hope is as important as considering what comes when hope ends. This collapsing of past, present, and future is also key to the theme of resistance, which is the overarching theme connecting these disparate videos. Resistance is never giving up hope. Resistance is time stretched to infinity and the body pushed to its limits. Indeed, the importance of time and the body is exploited by both the medium of video and the emotion of hope.

Using time and the body to understand the videos in After Hope also raises the questions: Can we speak of Asian views of the body and time as different from those of the West? Can one even propose that there is something as unique as an Asian body or Asian time, given not only the diversity of Asia and the Asian diaspora but also the flattening effects of globalization that blurs the local and global? This reviewer answers yes to both questions. The deep historical roots found throughout the videos mark them as unique, while offering tropes of resonance that link them together into smaller categories. It is the goal of this review to explore some of these categories, which are not imposed by the curators, but come forth as the viewer tries to make sense of the videos. In any case, given that moving images permeate our lives, it is precious when videos from another culture make us pause, reassess, and disturb the familiar. As Rita Raley puts it in her description of activist media, “In its most expansive articulation, tactical media signifies the intervention and disruption of a dominant semiotic regime, the temporary creation of a situation in which signs, messages, and narratives are set into play and critical thinking becomes possible.” (Tactical Media, University of Minnesota Press, 2009, 6). If manipulated time, the performed body, and cultural disturbance are the elements connecting the fifty-four videos, what are the smaller categories that set them apart? Three major themes emerge: hope as a journey, hope as intervention, and hope as desire.

The two videos I have selected to represent hope as journey are Peony (Isa Ho, 2017, 7:36 min., United States/Asian Diaspora) and The Last Memory (Nyein Chan Su, 2011, 9:35 min., Myanmar). Peony refers to The Peony Pavilion, a traditional Chinese Kunqu opera written by Tang Xianzu in 1598. In the video, two women share a split screen. Back-to-back, they silently perform the movements of K-pop choreography on the left and traditional Chinese opera on the right. Despite the differences in historical context, the body movements of the two women overlap in surprising ways, making the traditional uncannily contemporary and the contemporary oddly traditional. The video rhetorically asks, does K-pop construct femininity in any less stylized a way as Kunqu opera? Hope is a journey to self-awareness. In The Last Memory, a camera follows a man who is searching for something. Voices repeatedly ask him “what are you looking for?” The man does not answer . . . perhaps he doesn’t know. The artist’s statement implies that the man is looking for his religion—that is, Buddhism—and that his confusion depicts a questioning of faith. Hope is a journey to truth.

The two videos chosen to represent hope as intervention are And yet my mask is powerful Part 1 (Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, 2016, 8:25 min., Palestine) and Spring (Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev, 2009, 12:32 min., Kyrgyzstan). In And yet my mask is powerful Part 1, a group of Palestinian youths travel to their now destroyed ancestral village in Israel. The group wears masks that are based on Neolithic examples excavated from the West Bank, walking the fine line between current anonymity and historical identity. The video asks, can one reclaim one’s past even if all markers to this past are destroyed? Hope is an intervention between past and future. In Spring, four musicians in formal dress play string instruments on the city garbage dump of Bishkek. In the background, the constantly burning and smoking pile of waste is underscored by the humble clay dwellings of migrants who have moved to the dump to escape rural poverty. The jarring juxtaposition of high culture with urban squalor puts a spotlight on the poor. Hope is an intervention into power. 

The two videos picked to represent hope as desire are Looking for Jiro (Tina Takemoto, 2011, 5:45 min., United States/Asian Diaspora) and Underage (Ohm Phanphiroj, 2011, 7:07 min., Thailand). In Looking for Jiro, the artist takes on the identity of Jiro Onuma in a drag king performance. Little is known of Jiro Onuma, but based on archival evidence, the artist queers this dandy bachelor who collected images of muscular men and was held at the Topaz internment camp during World War II. Using Jiro’s labor in the mess hall of Topaz as a starting point, the artist tries to reclaim the inner life of a person who must have been alienated from his fellow internees yet found joy in men’s health magazines that showed off muscular physiques. In the video, Tina/Jiro bakes bread in the form of muscles, fisting holes in an act of homoeroticism. The seriousness of the archival research is framed by the campy use of an ABBA/Madonna mashup in the background. Hope is the desire to remember. Underage is a powerful documentary film on underage male prostitution in Thailand. Each of the boys are interviewed and the viewer gets a sense of their experiences and the dreams that get them through their lives. The conversations are frank and bring to light the ages of the boys, the number of partners they have had, and their rationale for making the choice to sell their bodies. The power of the video comes from watching the naivete of the boys, who trade present suffering for imagined future pleasures. Hope is the desire for happiness.

For an exhibit as ambitious and competently executed as After Hope, it is difficult to find fault. But one critique could be aimed at the use of an ephemera wall. One cannot help but feel that the wall distracts from the immersion of the projection, implying that without photographic documentation the videos cannot stand alone. On the ephemera wall the images are still, seemingly more permanent, giving the wall a kind of monumentality that highlights the tension between film and photography. As David Campany has asked, “Is film really a medium of the present while photography is always oriented to the past? Is a film, now that you can buy it and do as you wish with it, any less of an object than a photograph?” (The Cinematic, Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, 2007, 15). The rhetorical answer is no. The ephemera wall would seem to speak to an earlier era when photographs were considered more historical and archival than film. But this is a mere quibble in the face of a landmark exhibition on contemporary Asian video art.

Winston Kyan
Associate Professor of Art History, University of Utah