Eric Firestone’s Godzilla Show Offers a Broad but Shallow Overview

By Zach Ngin
February 29, 2024

In discussions of “Asian American” as a category, it’s common to begin with a nod to the term’s storied origins, forged in the revolutionary crucible of the 1960s. But a new exhibition of the artist network Godzilla at Eric Firestone Gallery (through March 16) draws our attention to a different decade, the 1990s – a time when Asian Americans were concerned less with Third World solidarity and more with the antinomies of multiculturalism and institutionalization. What lessons can we discern from this less heroic decade?

Godzilla was founded in 1990 by the artists Ken Chu and Bing Lee and the art historian Margo Machida. Its aim was to “foster information exchange, mutual support, documentation, and networking” among Asian American artists. Its activities included gatherings, a newsletter, group exhibitions, an awards ceremony, and dogged advocacy for Asian American artists – most famously, a letter to Whitney Museum director David Ross (with dozens of other museum leaders and arts writers copied) lamenting the absence of Asians from the 1991 Whitney Biennial. Godzilla functioned as a loose network rather than a collective, and even the artists most closely tied to it espoused a range of artistic and political positions.

In 2021, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) planned to present the first-ever retrospective of the group. This attempt was a resounding failure. Many members had doubts about the museum’s relationship to the community (in particular, its complicity in a plan to build a jail in Chinatown). Most artists withdrew from the exhibition, leading to its cancellation.

Paradoxically, this failed attempt to honor Godzilla’s past has reactivated it in the present: the group is once again writing letters, taking collective action, and querying the meaning of “Asian American art” at a moment when campaigns to “stop Asian hate” knowingly endorse the anti-Black violence of prisons and police.

The present exhibition at Eric Firestone Gallery, “GODZILLA: Echoes of the 1990s Asian American Arts Network,” is decidedly not a substitute for the MOCA show. Out of the 19 artists who withdrew, 12 are also absent here, including some of the most prominent (and politically active) members of Godzilla, such as Tomie Arai, Arlan Huang, and Paul Pfeiffer. My first impression of the gallery’s main space (at 40 Great Jones Street) was of a showroom: harshly lit and full of the most salable category of art, uninspired large-scale painting.

The exhibition does not attempt to narrate the history of Godzilla, even though some works were previously included in its group exhibitions. For instance, fragments from the 1993 Artists Space show, “A New World Order III: The Curio Shop,” faintly echo throughout the exhibition, including Martin Wong’s glitzy shrine to Bruce Lee; An Pham’s rejoinder to the controversy around the musical Miss Saigon; and Garson Yu’s paper brain, complete with strands of human hair, trapped in a cage. But while the show at Artists Space had the cluttered appearance of a souvenir shop, here these works are dispersed and decontextualized. Much of the surrounding work was made in the decades since Godzilla’s dissolution in 2001, and there is but one narrow vitrine of archival material – for that, one is better served consulting Godzilla: Asian American Arts Network, an indispensable sourcebook edited by Howie Chen and published by Primary Information in 2021.

Still, there are some wonderful works and juxtapositions. For instance, Uday Dhar’s Queen of the Night (2015), a bejeweled painting of a multi-headed figure, hangs near Pacita Abad’s Weeping Woman (1985), a quilted work studded with cowrie shells. In the show’s second half, at 4 Great Jones Street, I was taken by Stefani Mar’s flow chart-like work on the wall, each circle or rectangle composed of strips of birch bark. Their patchy surfaces recall grafted skin and, in their tentative geometric arrangement, the delicate task of making a decision or constructing a lineage.

This concern with skin is echoed nearby in Athena Robles’s pair of lantern-like sculptures, a photograph by Al-An deSouza merging body and landscape, and a selection from Byron Kim’s “Synecdoche” series. The latter was included in the 1993 Whitney Biennial, perhaps in response to the group’s prior demands. The work consists of a grid of small monochromes, each painted to the exact shade of someone’s skin. Together, the canvases amount to a kind of uneven group portrait, abstract yet tightly bound to the history of what color has been made to mean.

Perhaps the exhibition functions analogously, testifying to the capaciousness of Asian American making even as it indexes the contradictions that continue to haunt the category. After all, Godzilla is a rare activist organization that, by some metrics, succeeded: according to a 2022 demographic survey, Asian Americans are no longer underrepresented among museum leaders or professionals.

Thirty years out, the group’s tactics feel dated, both for their formidable effectiveness at the time and their limited utility in the present. Godzilla’s 1991 letter to Ross included a packet of readings on Asian American artists, along with an offer to send slides and facilitate studio visits. It seems unlikely that today’s politically minded art workers would so readily volunteer their time and labor to reform elite institutions—after all, why should the onus be on them to make such improvements to these spaces, uncompensated? As the MOCA episode showed, the assimilatory politics of contemporary institutions require a different set of labors: those of disengagement, withdrawal, and noncooperation.

Zach Ngin is an art worker based in Providence, RI. They are currently the curatorial assistant at the MIT List Visual Arts Center and an art editor at n+1.

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