Artist Wei Hsueh talks about her past, her new work and dogging it in Chico
Standing on the steps of her suburban Chico home, Wei Hsueh has just let the dogs out. Boomer, a shepherd mix, is barking loudly at the man with the microcassette recorder outside the fence. As soon as I step through the door, she runs up and bites my shin. It’s not a vicious bite, just a nip to herd me in the right direction.
A 5’6” Asian woman with piercing eyes and a few crimson shocks in her dark hair, Hsueh tells me not to worry about the barking. Once we are inside, the frisky white dog turns friendly as can be, constantly licking my hands and craving attention.
“I got my dogs from the Butte Humane Society,” she says. “They have extremely different personalities. Boomer is outgoing, always wants to play and learns well. The other one, Chi-Chi, is cowardly and a little stupid sometimes. She was probably abused by a past owner when she was a puppy; she doesn’t seem to trust males. I also think she may have ADD.”
A self-described Chinese-Taiwanese-American artist, Hsueh (pronounced Shoo-uh) teaches photography courses at Chico State University. Her dogs play a prominent role in an upcoming exhibit of her latest work—titled, appropriately, “New Work"—in the university’s Trinity Hall, Room 100 at Chico State on March 27, with a discussion held on March 28.
“I never owned dogs before,” she explains. “When I got them, I started to build a different life around the house and back yard with my dogs. The dynamic between American people and their pets is interesting to me. … In Asia, they eat dogs, you know.”
We sit down at her kitchen table as Chi-Chi, the pretty pit bull/shepherd/lab mix, watches me worriedly from her pillow in the corner, tail tucked and hind legs shivering.
Hsueh says she always knew she wanted to be an artist. She grew up somewhat isolated in a strictly controlled environment in Taiwan, where similar cultures with different political ideologies were often at odds with one another.
“Racism is a universal illusion,” she says. “Growing up, we [Taiwanese children] were not allowed to play with Chinese children because they were considered inferior by my parents.”
She further explains that the Taiwanese school system is tradition-minded, with a highly competitive academic structure. Annual exams are given in order to place students into good colleges, with progression dictated by standardized tests that often fail, she points out, within the realm of the arts.
A poor student in grade school, she became interested in performance while running a local theater group. She was supporting herself working days as a commercial actor while taking college classes at night.
In 1992, Hsueh decided to come to the United States to learn English and create greater possibilities for herself in the job market. She went to Chicago because it was a big city and relatively inexpensive compared to New York or Los Angeles.
“I didn’t plan to stay in the United States, but I became a better student when I started studying English, and I started getting scholarships,” she explains. “I was going by an American name—Jackie—partially for acceptance and also so that teachers would not hesitate to call on me because they could not pronounce my name. … One day in class I just decided to change back to my real name, and it seemed uncomfortable for people to adjust. You could almost see the switch of mentality.”
Hsueh says many Asian people who come to live in America undergo a sort of identity crisis. But part of this is their own fault, she says, a result of laziness or lack of responsibility in finding their own individual identity, whether at home or abroad.
“You see a lot of Asian women here who have jobs and are highly educated. But that doesn’t mean they are independent or individual. It’s really not what they do; it’s how they do it.”
In Chicago, she transferred to an art school because she liked the more creative atmosphere among the pierced and tattooed students. At the time, she did not know that the Chicago Institute of Art was one of the most prestigious in the country.
There she faced what many Asian women have been known to experience in a social setting: come-ons from American men looking for subservient or silent partners. Hsueh says some of the men she and others around her dated seemed enamored of romantic cultural myths about Asian women constructed in their own minds, and they would often overlook Asian women as individuals.
Starting out in costume design, she quickly grew more interested in intellectual pursuits as her English steadily improved. After spending several thousand dollars making a 16mm film, she enrolled in her first photography class at the age of 24 and immediately began to excel. By the time she graduated, she was second in her class.
After spending time in Germany at the Goethe Institute, she returned to the States in to complete an MFA in photography at Syracuse University in New York, where she began to pursue interests in sculpture and performance installation.
In a 1997 sculpture performance installation, Trapping, she suspended herself naked in a double-framed cube constructed of steel and cable tension members measuring 12x11x10 feet and stood for 30 minutes in the lobby of an art building on campus.
“For the first 10 minutes nobody moved. It was extremely quiet,” she recalls. “All of a sudden people became very self-conscious. They couldn’t stare at me frontally; they would look closer from behind … but they would all keep a distance of 20 feet or so. And they denied it! They denied that they were not comfortable. I wish they could have seen themselves on the video documentation. … Though it was open, nobody walked through the invisible wall of the frame.”
In the bare white office space in back of her house, we look through a pile of slides near a Macintosh computer that Hsueh uses with her increasingly digital work. In some of the slides, she is photographed nude. I try not to pause too long on any of these, especially the close-up one of her derriere. It seems like the polite thing to do.
Exploring the spacious room, I’m taken aback by series of dog feces photos arranged on a blank wall. Hsueh says she is interested in art that symbolizes filth yet is also part of nature—and how audiences react when confronted with these everyday images. I say something about how the photos remind me of a Bukowski reading I once heard where he slobbers, “If you can’t love a person’s farts and shits and ugly parts, then that ain’t complete love.”
Hsueh considers herself an Asian feminist, different from American feminists in that the women are more oppressed and their concerns more race centered. Her feminism is also borne from a Taiwanese atmosphere of continuous colonial oppression, historically at the hands of several different countries.
She acknowledges the stereotypical view in American popular media of Asian women as passive or polite—or what you might call the Geisha-girl syndrome.
“There is a saying in Chinese that you don’t beat someone who is smiling,” she says. “In general Asians are very direct, but they will not talk about certain things. Women are expected to be non-confrontational.”
While growing up, she learned about American culture by watching television and going to the movies. Some weeks she would pocket her lunch money in order to catch a film. Her favorites were always musicals—particularly a film called, in Chinese, “Love Eternal.”
“I was only 9 years old and had that musical on record. I would sing it every day until my parents went nuts,” she remembers. “To me it is now a metaphorical thing, because it was about a woman who is so confined by society that she had to change her identity. In the beginning when I came to the States I had to become colder and tougher. It kind of shocked some people around me … I became a workaholic.”
She characterizes her early art work as confrontational and defiantly humorous, while the newer pieces are much more merged into life—dealing with American suburban culture, nature and daily rituals. Ninety-five percent of her work features photographs of herself, though she often uses found female figurines as stand-ins to speak about issues of gender, eroticism and ethnicity. She started doing nude photos of herself when young partly as a manner of rebellion but now uses her body only for specific purpose and effect.
People look to photographs of themselves to “find identification,” she says, thumbing through some old photos. “With billboards, advertising, magazines we are given images constantly—it’s a self-assurance that you’re existing. People think of a photograph as a proof or document. [In my work] I think this came from the fact that I couldn’t find people I could identify with even from early days back home … but you keep looking at yourself and the outside world.”
As I leave, Hsueh asks me if I know the old saying that animals grow to resemble their owners. Sure, I tell her, still trying to pet the frightened Chi-Chi, who will have none of it. She says the two dogs, with their extremely opposite personalities of aggressiveness and fear, remind her of herself. One is outgoing and developed, another much more inward because of her past.
“Right now I’m very comfortable because I have worked through my identity in the past seven or eight years," she says, leaning over to assure the scared dog like a mother to her child. "But it took a long time."