Ben Sakoguchi, Chinatown

Ben Sakoguchi's witty combinations of commercial signage, history painting, and Pop Art comment on the American Dream and its fraught entanglement with xenophobia and racism. His exhibition Chinatown runs through 15 May at Bel Ami, Los Angeles.

Date 8 April 2021 Words SUPPLIED imagery SUPPLIED

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Ben Sakoguchi, Chinatown, 2014, acrylic on canvas, wooden frames (15 panels), 1346 x 2311 mm. Images courtesy of the artist and Bel Ami, Los Angeles.  

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“I’ve never liked where the subject matter is trying to say, ‘This is a horrible, horrible thing!’ I prefer not saying it, exactly—making them come to the conclusion, ‘Hey, this is not right.’ But you never told them: ‘this is not right.’ They figure it out by looking at your picture, or they hear your joke, or hear your music, or hear your poem.”

—Ben Sakoguchi in conversation with Bel Ami, January and February 2021.

“I take the images and I sort through them. The difference between now, and when I first started, is that I hoarded pictures—boxes and boxes and boxes, books and books and books—our house became basically a warehouse for all of that stuff. And sifting through images was really time-consuming. Today, it’s like magic—this computer is a magical instrument— because you can look up anything, about anything. I mean, it’s just an amazing gadget. The amount of visual imagery is so vast that you can’t possibly cover it.”

—Ben Sakoguchi in conversation with Bel Ami, January and February 2021.

With acrylic paint on canvas, Sakoguchi reassembles imagery from film posters, newspapers, comics, and internet searches to reveal subtexts of local discrimination, mass media exploitation, and state-sanctioned violence. A Japanese American who spent years of his childhood living in an internment camp during World War II, Sakoguchi comments on a century and a half of prejudice against diasporic Asians. Contending with overlapping histories that contribute to ideas of Asian American identity, Sakoguchi creates an ironic primer on capitalism’s treachery with an audacity that challenges and uplifts.

At the center of the exhibition, a large painting of 15 framed panels, entitled Chinatown (2014), illuminates a dark page from LA’s past; the Chinese Massacre of 1871 took place near Alameda and Los Angeles Streets, then known as Calle de Los Negros. After the Central Pacific Railroad was completed in 1869, animosity directed at the Chinese labor force got uglier. In 1871, when a police officer was killed intervening in a local feud, a mob of 500 rioters unleashed themselves onto the Chinese community. Between 18 and 20 were lynched that night. Only ten of the vigilantes stood trial. The charges were overturned on a technicality, and the defendants were never retried.

Sakoguchi’s sardonic commemorative plaque, exhibited in Los Angeles’ Chinatown one hundred and fifty years later, contrasts with the textbooks that consign the event to a sidebar or a footnote. Depicting hanging bodies in full color, Sakoguchi acquaints us with each victim by particularizing the clothing with great care. The figures are partially shielded from view by an overlaying red and gold pattern based on decorative screens, inviting a reexamination of Chinatown’s architectural signifiers. In the 1930s, Chinese residents were forced to relocate to the New Chinatown, redesigned as a theatrical simulacrum for tourists. Old Chinatown, with its vibrant culture and painful past, was then covered over by railways.

In the surrounding panels, Sakoguchi conveys how negative stereotypes of Asians have proliferated in America, from the era of westward expansion to present day. Freely introducing his own twists, he uses vintage editorial cartoons and other ephemera to shift the narrative and make up for lost accounts. One painting juxtaposes propaganda against Asian railroad workers with politically-charged critiques of affirmative action today. In another, Sakoguchi paints a portrait of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, a nuclear physicist imprisoned for spying, surrounded by traditional and non-traditional masks, a reminder of how Asian Americans are perceived as “perpetual foreigners.” In the dynamic border, two panels pay homage to the Chinese men and women who served in America’s military. Other works whimsically collage pulp media, from comic book villains to exotic Asian divas of the screen, often played by white women.

Confronted with the current rise of anti-Asian crimes and other manifestations of systemic racism, Sakoguchi’s backward glance reveals how former president Trump’s use of racist rhetoric and memes for political gain is nothing new. In an unsettling postscript to the 1871 massacre, one panel in Chinatown (2014) invokes the brutal 1982 murder of 27-year-old Vincent Chin, beaten to death by two white autoworkers in Detroit. Again, the perpetrators did no jail time and were each fined only $3780. As the panel denotes: less than the price of a cheap car. By painting a bold banner of what has gone wrong in America, Sakoguchi calls for change.

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