Stepping a Little to the East with Artist Binh Danh

Yosemite Falls, October 13, 2011, 2012, by Binh Danh. Daguerreotype. Private Collection.

Yosemite Falls, October 13, 2011, 2012, by Binh Danh. Daguerreotype. Private Collection.

On June 20 photographer Binh Danh takes over the museum for one night with his Artists Drawing Club project, Step a Little to the East. The project explores desires in the context of the museum and otherworldly desires as well. It is no coincidence that this project developed in close proximity to the Pride celebration in the Civic Center. I spoke to Danh to get a little more insight into his process, how this project developed, and the challenge of creating this event.

Marc Mayer: What were your first thoughts about participating in this program? I know we discussed the invitation over email and on the phone, but I am curious about your initial response.

Binh Danh: Well, my first thought was to say no because I often find these types of projects a challenge—the social practice part of it; it’s not really the way I work. But when you mentioned to me that I could use this opportunity to explore and challenge my studio practice, that itself sounded interesting. It took lots of brainstorming to get to the final conception.

As a photographer I often think the public is not interested in my process. I mean watching someone draw is quite an amazing experience, but watching me take a picture is pretty boring because there is really no art yet until the image is developed. And also everyone already knows how to snap a picture. Yet, as a photo educator, I often wonder does everyone really know how to photograph.

Keeping photography as part of the event was a must for me because it is the way I think as an artist. The other deterrent for me was the title itself, “The Artists Drawing Club.” I was thinking that I really don’t draw, but I do kind of draw with light and I guess that could work. It is interesting to see conceptual artists use photography in their production and how painting and sculpture departments at museums are acquiring artwork made out of photos. But I have gone off topic. Anyway, so I am interested in the practice and production of photography.

One way for me to start thinking about the project was to see if the Asian Art Museum has a photo collection, and surprisingly they do, and it’s accessible to view the images online. So I started there and arrived at this perhaps complex installation that would hopefully engage participants.

MM: Can you tell me a little bit about how Step a Little to the East developed as a project?

BD: Step a Little to the East was the title I came up with when I was thinking of making photographic backdrops with which viewers could interact. The backdrops are made from images in the museum collection. I imagine a commercial studio photographer would ask a client to move left or right to get a nice composition. But in this case with the photographic backdrop, I’m asking the viewer to consider a visit to the Asian Art Museum as a visit to the East, back in time. Especially for Asian Americans it’s a way for us to connect with our imagined past. So I had this idea for a possible event, but we spoke and realized that there had to be more here. What is it about photographing someone in front of this sort of backdrop? And you mentioned that the museum had a no-flash photo policy regarding their collections. I was thinking that we often see a lot of museum visitors photographing themselves with the artwork. I always thought that was fun to see, as if they are photographing themselves in front of a temple.

So the idea started to snowball, and all of a sudden I’m considering my own desire and sexuality for this project. So there is a lot here and a lot will be revealed on the night of the event. But in short, I hope to engage viewers about how the Asian Art Museum influences our imagination of Asia as a land and Asians as a people by looking, talking, and questioning objects of wonder from the East. I say “wonder” because the objects I used to make the backdrops were landscapes viewed through Western eyes (a painting by the American designer and artist Lockwood de Forest [1850­–1932] and an album of prints by photographers from the Collection of William K. Ehrenfeld, M.D., both currently on view).

Lockwood

One of the twenty-four ghats at Mathura, 1894, by Lockwood de Forest (American, 1850–1932). Oil on canvas. From the Collection of William K. Ehrenfeld, M.D., 2005.64.116

Considering all of this I am now thinking of the Asian Art Museum as a place for “desire.” Why do we visit the museum beyond intellectual curiosities? Are we looking for home? Are we trying to travel to the past? Do we wish to take an artwork/artifact home with us? Are we looking for a date or going on a date? Are we looking for some sort of arousal? What are we seeking by visiting this museum?

So I was thinking of these questions for myself about my own relationship to the museum. There’s a lot to discuss here but the turning point for me was when I considered one of my large-format cameras. This 1900s camera is from India. I have used it to photograph the American landscape as if I was seeing it for the first time; I objectified the land like 19-century photographers did in Asia and the Americas. I recall the day I unpacked this camera from its shipping box; there was this amazing musky smell that one could only identify as coming from Asia, the smell of maybe old wood that had rot in a way that is pleasant to the nose. This olfactory experience made me high and nostalgic for India, a place I have never visited before.

From this sense of smell, I made a leap into a sense of sexual intimacy. My own sexual awakening came at a very early age when I was a boy working in my parent’s movie rental shop. To pass the time, I would watch many movies, usually on VHS or laserdisc that the distributor sent us. As I recall, my parents never really selected any movies to display for rental; the movies usually came in bulk, although there was an X-rated section that I was not allowed to browse. One movie in particular had a big effect on me and perhaps informed my own sexual desires: My Beautiful Laundrette, a 1985 British comedy-drama written for the screen by Hanif Kureishi. It wasn’t until later in high school that I truly understood these feelings and came to the conclusion that I would never be straight. My Beautiful Laundrette was the first gay film I had ever seen. So for the Artists Drawing Club, I considered all of these elements and will be creating an installation to address some of these complexities and ask visitors to consider some of these questions for themselves.

MM: This event seems different from your other work. Is it a departure for you? How would you explain this project in the context of your art practice?

BD: Yes, in a way this project is a little different from my signature work, at least the way it looks, but conceptually it has issues and concepts I have been thinking about: what make us, us? What makes me, me? How does our experience shape our lives, both real and imagined—our hopes, fears, desires? I feel that all these “worries” do play out in my work, but this is the first time I am dealing with sexuality and in particular my own, because June is gay pride month. So, happy gay pride everyone; I hope you come to the event next Thursday, June 20.

MM: How do you want to interact with visitors/participants? What do you want people to get from this event?

BD: First and foremost, I want visitors to have fun. I’m going to suggest to them some “tasks” to perform during the night with objects in the collection. Many objects in the museum feel really serious because some of them are religious, but I imagine the stories they hold are much livelier than how they are displayed. Many of the items are functional objects like jewelry or ceramics. I think that, secretly, many of us would want to wear or use these items. “How would these beautiful earrings look on our girlfriends?” I’m sure men would want to imagine themselves wearing the samurai armor. I imagine how amazing a delicious Thai dinner served to us on Thai ceramics would taste. And those lingams, phallic Hindu sculptures—ok I’ll stop there. I’m going to have participants consider some of their own desires and seek it out in the museum.

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