Kevin B. Chen, the director of Intersection for the Arts, admits he hesitated when offered the chance to curate a show based around Chinese identity for the Chinese Culture Center's first-ever biennial (copresented by Kearny Street Workshop). The topic — "What is China/Chinese today?" — was a huge one, but at the same time, as he says, "It seemed a little limiting."
The result, however, put together by Chen and cocurators Abby Chen and Ellen Oh, is an energetic survey of 31 mostly young artists that manages to be approachable and mind-expanding. Artist Lucy Kalyani Lin's shin-high squiggle of light-blue neon is the first piece that hits the eye. The work represents the beleaguered Yangtze River, with a gap standing in for the giant Three Gorges Dam; the gas flickers inside the neon tube, fragile but persistent. Four photographs from Shanghai artist Maleonn's "Nostalgia" series depict surreal dramas, including a young man looking down at a tiny Tiananmen Square made of paper. In the next room, a video by Sergio de la Torre shows Chinese-Mexican kids living in Tijuana. Inside a furniture store, they pile chairs and tables against the windows, blocking out the light and barricading themselves inside in a metaphor for their feelings of isolation.
Chen smartly expands the gallery space out into the surrounding neighborhood, co-opting empty storefronts for window displays. In one, Imin Yeh covers a variety of household objects in the same patterned fabric that decorates boxes from the neighborhood's tourist shops. The objects, which include a laptop and coffeemaker, are thus "branded" as products of Chinatown, while at the same time becoming more anonymous. The piece is an adept commentary on the consumer love of brands, real or counterfeit.
If "Present Tense" hardly narrows definitions, the show offers at least one answer to its underlying question: what it means to be China/Chinese is engagingly diverse.