“My Dear, What Are You Afraid Of?” Silkworm Pupas Video-Poem in Response to Anti-Chinese Sentiments
The U.S. has a long history of bilateral trade and Chinese migration stretching back to the 19th century. Chinese students have traditionally numbered the most from any nation studying in the United States. However, the restrictive Trump-era U.S.-Sino policy has served as a deterrent for students and researchers coming from China. In an open letter, Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University in New York, calls on Joe Biden to “end paranoia” of Chinese scholars, pointing to both financial and intellectual losses, he urges revision of student policies “that have damaged American universities’ ability to attract top academic talent from around the globe.”
These escalating tensions between U.S. and China prompted United States-based Chinese artists JinJin Xu and Jiaoyang Li to creatively respond to the crisis through what they called a “sardonic break-up letter.” In the video poem, Trump-era policies flicker across the screen while they recite their fears in prose in voice-over.
Xu, born and raised in Shanghai, and Li, from Chengdu, met when they both were teaching poetry at NYU and have worked closely since. In 2020 they formed the artist-duo Silkworm Pupas to work together on experimental forms of multi-media projects centered around poetry.
Both are published poets and accomplished scholars, Xu has a degree from Amherst College is a current Lillian Vernon Fellow, and Li holds a degree from Goldsmiths University of London. During the pandemic, Xu returned to her family in Macao and has been teaching a hybrid ballet and poetry workshop through NYU Tisch’s Art of Future Imaginations Grant from afar. While Li has remained in New York maintaining her position as the director, and co-founder of ‘Accent Society’, an International Writers Center, featuring new Chinese writing. Despite holding legal status in the United States they have not been able to travel in and out of the country because of travel restrictions that deterred visa-holders to travel into the country implemented during the pandemic.
Being friends, interested in identity, dislocation, and both having worked across mediums, mainly poetry and film, Xu and Li are a dynamic artist-duo. Xu traveled across nine countries to record documentary poems with dislocated women as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow and recently won the Own Voices Chapbook Prize for her most recent chapbook. Li’s practice as a visual artist is more disparate and whimsical with influences from fashion and video games. Her recent shows in New York have investigated fluidities of identity and her video works were awarded best LGBT Awards from Phoenix Short film festival. Recently their work, as Silkworm Pupas, was included in The Immigrant Artist Biennial’s online exhibition “Mother Tongue.”
When writing in English, both are writing in their second language. Speaking to her relationship to English words Li comments, “I pluck them up like daisies and sew them together in a chain. In this case, anything can be my text and my daisy, and my daisies can be sewn onto any platforms.” Pew Research Center estimates the Chinese population in the United States was 4.9 million in 2015. Both Li and Xu have chosen to pursue their livelihoods and art practice in the United States and make work in response to their own immigrant experience. As artists, their work contributes with invaluable commentary on the everyday life of Americans.
Further alienating Chinese populations by blaming those who might pass for Chinese for the pandemic has resulted in a sharp rise in Asian-hate crime, in the U.S. and abroad. In May, following incidents of violent physical and verbal attacks aimed at Asian populations since the outbreak of COVID-19, Human Rights Watch asked governments to take urgent steps to prevent racist and xenophobic violence and discrimination against Asians and people of Asian descent and prosecute racial attacks.
It is against the backdrop of these recent acts of violence and the isolation of COVID-19 that Silkworm Pupas begs the question: “My Dear, What Are You Afraid Of?” and the answer is a complex web of governmental policy, populist racism, and uncertainty. Let us hope that the Biden administration brings change.
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Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is editor-in-chief and founder of Cultbytes. She mediates art through writing, curating, and lecturing. Her latest books are Assuming Asymmetries: Conversations on Curating Public Art Projects of the 1980s and 1990s and Curating Beyond the Mainstream. Send your inquiries, tips, and pitches to email@example.com. l igram l website l