Sunday, April 16, 2006

Wendy Cheng

Cemetery monument - site of Japanese American internment camp at Manzanar, California, 2004

Wendy Cheng is an artist and geographer living in Los Angeles. She is also currently a doctoral student in the Program in American Studies & Ethnicity at University of Southern California. She is working on a dual photographic and academic project on Japanese American internment camp sites. More generally she is interested in the dialectic of assignation and assertion that shapes the content of racial categories (to quote Susan Koshy), and in parsing popular discourses about race and ethnicity.

From 1998-1999 she traveled to Taiwan and Japan on a George Peabody Gardner Fellowship, completing a photography project focused on ideas of urban landscape. In 2002 she received the Dorothea Lange Fellowship in documentary photography and had her first solo show at the Taiwanese American Community Center in San Diego. In San Francisco, her work has been included in shows at Southern Exposure and SomArts Gallery, and as part of Kearny Street Workshop’s APAture 2003.

I first became interested in “landscape” not in its conventional sense of beautiful scenery, but as a concept encompassing the way in which people and the spaces they occupy create each other: a landscape of the everyday. I’ve come to see that through photography, which is a stopping of time and the framing of a moment in space, everyday life can be gifted with metaphor. My everyday life is filled with wonder and dismay — and I think I’m not alone. To try to be faithful to that ambivalence, I work at the intersections of fascination and repulsion, beauty and grotesquerie, the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Tract Homes Project

Tract-home communities are largely ignored by architects, spurned by educated urbanites, and overlooked and taken for granted in general. Yet, while the official tastemakers have been averting their eyes from the suburban mess, new tract communities have proliferated and morphed into fantastic forms. In fact, they now dominate the suburban landscapes of most major metropolitan areas from San Diego to Boston.

In the summer of 2002, supported by a Dorothea Lange Fellowship, I started from San Diego and went on to the Phoenix-Scottsdale-Tempe metropolitan area in Arizona; Denver, Colorado; Cleveland, Ohio; New Jersey and New York; Boston, Massachusetts; and Atlanta, Georgia. Traveling mostly by car, I found recently built and in-progress communities through official means (websites, new homes brochures, and advertisements), word of mouth (recommendations by locals), common sense (poking around freeway exits), and chance (just driving around). Visually and mentally, I compared flashy Tuscan-style “McMansions” in San Diego with the quirky, evolved forms of classic post-World War II suburbs like Levittown, New York.

Are the “new” tract-home communities (built in the last ten years) significantly different from the “old” tract-home communities (starting with the post-WWII Levittown- and Lakewood- style suburbs, and up to the ranch-style houses of the 1970s and ‘80s)? After exploring diverse metropolitan areas across the country, I feel the answer is yes. Developers and builders—the majority of whom are not trained architects—are filling the American landscape with mass housing on a larger scale than ever before, at local, regional, and national levels. The styles of the houses refer to a particular regional past—or several pasts at once. Facades mix Mediterranean with Georgian with Colonial Revival. Aluminum siding simulates New England clapboard.

The new suburbs, by their omnipresence and sheer number, offer us a lens into the tastes of middle- and upper-class income lives in America—and by their near complete absence in them, the lives of lower-income Americans. They manifest both racial integration and new forms of segregation, both economic inclusiveness and increasing stratification. Taken as a whole, the new tract homes are populated with a more racially diverse population than ever before—though the most interesting aspect of this is not harmonious integration but the creation of well-to-do ethnic suburbs. Similarly, tract homes are built for a wider range of incomes, from simple townhomes pitched to young couples to “luxury estate” enclaves that sell units for upwards of $1 million. But for the most part, each community is planned and pitched for only one income level, fostering increasing economic spatial stratification.

One glaring consistency with the “old” suburbs remains: the new ones are ridden with contradiction, bolstered by the rhetoric of democracy but weighted down with inherently exclusive impulses, representing both the achievement of the individualistic, utopian suburban dream and the ultimate commodification of the landscape.

Tract Homes @ Atlas(t)

Taiwan/Japan 1999

From 1998 to 1999, I spent nine months in Taiwan and Japan. The focus of my project was the urban landscape of these rapidly industrialized nations, especially the cities of Taipei and Tokyo. Up to that point, photography had always been a source of pleasure for me, but during the five months I lived in Taipei, I often felt depressed and lonely. I was oppressed by the dense crowds, polluted air, and pervasive consumerism. I would have remembered many of my wanderings through the congested streets as dreams if not for the photographs I was taking. In that mindset, my original objectives began to seem remote and too academic. I challenged myself instead to try to capture in photographs what I felt to be a collective spiritual malaise. These photographs, and more optimistic ones made the following spring in Japan, comprise part of a continuing project.

Postcards from Northeast Los Angeles / The October Surprise

Postcards as souvenirs of the vernacular landscape of Northeast Los Angeles. Participants are encouraged to complicate the postcard-as-souvenir genre. For instance, the majority of postcards depict ideal, elite, or extraordinary landscapes. What would postcards of ordinary, common, or troubled landscapes depict? What is your personal favorite place in Northeast LA? Your favorite thing to eat? The ugliest building on your block? If you were to sketch a tourist map of Northeast LA what would it look like? What would the antithesis of tourist map look like? Let's play with these ideas and have some fun!