Christopher K. Ho Tackles Social and Political Amnesia

First Black President, 2012. Digital print of President Clinton manipulated with early ’90s version of Photoshop.

A few months ago during a radio interview, I was asked whether or not I think all artists should be political in their work. Turns out it was a trick question because those who are not straight white males in American society were never offered the option of being apolitical. If you were not born as part of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy[1] your entire lived experience is automatically political.

Artists of any marginalized group have probably experienced walking the line between being true to your own lived experience and becoming “tokenized” within the art world for sharing that experience. In the past decade, liberal institutions have struggled rapidly towards superficially diversifying their audience and collaborators. Those on the receiving end of these diversity initiatives have been given the burden of constantly calling for those in power to do better, or formalizing institutional critique as their main topic of art practice, at the intersections of identity politics.

When I visited Christopher K. Ho’s studio for the first time a couple weeks ago, he was working on a site-specific installation for the Hotchkiss School, his high school alma mater. I hopscotched to the other side of his studio, stepping through a precise grid of slanted hearts cut out of carpet that had been sprayed with a calming rainbow gradient. Through further conversation, I learned that this in-progress carpet was one sixth of the final installation titled Dear John (2016). The installation is a physical manifestation comparing the energy of teenage first-love and subsequent heartbreak, to that of the energy of the current political awakening. According to Ho, his personal experience of growing up on the West Coast and the culture shock when attending the East Coast boarding school inspired him to investigate oppressive systems and social sites in his work.

Alongside producing objects and images, Ho writes often for arts publications and creates performative lectures. Reading and writing are an important part of his artistic practice, a method to organize and formulate ideas that might eventually become a piece. A lot of his writing during the Obama presidency was a call to action for those in power to be more political, purposeful, and inclusive with their positions.

In Trout College (2013), Ho creates a thinly veiled metaphor of the art world through a pilot screenplay similar to the genre of early 2000 teen soaps such as The OC, Gilmore Girls, and Gossip Girl. A cast of privileged international-student twin-sisters, waspy bros, and the tired narrative of mysterious, underdog male townie are placed on a campus inspired by Hotchkiss School. The screenplay is then printed out on pastel-colored xerox paper and set upon a heavy marble resin plinth, simply marked with a carved heart containing two initials decorated in gold-leaf . The excessive nature of the stacked pages on the playfully adorned plinth works to veil the institutional critiques that are posed within the script.

Trout College, initially proposed by the curator, was shown alongside two photographs in the exhibition Privileged White People at Forever & Today (New York). The two photographs, sometimes hung diagonally, are manipulated framed portraits of famous white men: First Black President (2012) depicts former American president Bill Clinton, and Young White Person (2012) features actor James Van der Beek as Dawson from the television series Dawson’s Creek. A visual portrayal similar to the cast of fictional characters in his screenplay. These works were made in a time when much of the trending artwork focused on corporate aesthetics and the notion of “artist as brand,” which in hindsight is now only a superficial critique of the extreme capitalism of the art world. In comparison, Ho’s works refer to the previous generation’s “leading men” of both policy and culture, and in the case of Clinton the ripple effects of his contributions to American life today. Ho asks viewers to recall recent history through this work and make connections to the systems and structures of power and representation, reminding us that race and identity in the United States is a product of a complex history. Created and exhibited during the comfort and liberal progress of the Obama administration, the meaning of these photographs continue to evolve against the political landscape of 2017, where regressive policies are the priority of the current administration.

The Syllabus, 2016. Lecture performance, 15-minute loop.

Ho’s writing has become more obviously incorporated into his art practice within the past few years situated in performance and sound. In his performative lecture The Syllabus, presented on November 8th 2016, Ho reacts to both the opportunity of creating a lecture for Asia Contemporary Art Week, and the fresh results of electing Donald Trump as our 45th president. Comparing the energy of disappointment and political awakening to the energy of “our inner fifteen-year-old—say, of first heartbreak,” he asks us to harness that fervor into “seven open ended questions that might be generative for future political art.” In the seven questions, the standouts were the suggestions of turning to a Chinese state of paternal capitalism, later contrasted by the ideas of love from Taylor Swift’s lyrics of “Fifteen.” Once again, Ho’s juxtaposition of policy with culture within one piece draws attention to concurrent influencers in social sites. In many of his works, he effectively provides institutional critique while also presenting steps towards making radical change. The Syllabus is recontextualized as a looped video installation with various narrative voices for the exhibition Sensible Disobedience at La Esquina gallery.

In contrast, Ho’s sound installation I Endorse Patriarchy (2016) feels a bit more murky and subliminal. Each phrase, spoken by a pleasant Sino-British accented female voice, falls somewhere between a statement and question. The soothing voice asks us to consider some serious ideologies on power structures, if they are working and how they could be reconsidered. The fourth segment of the audio loop recites:

Patriarchy is what contemporary art needs to counter pervasive indeterminacy.
Because leaving a legacy is more generous and generative than maintaining community.
Because instrumentalizing art toward good is more productive than using art to self-actualize.
Because power may be good.
Because locating oneself at the tail end is as arrogant as presuming none will follow.
Because the opposite of the school of resentment is not the school of respect, but rather the building of new schools.

I Endorse Patriarchy lays out a complex set of contradictions. If patriarchy has been in charge all along, why should we embrace it if it hasn’t been working? If we are building new schools and new communities, how do we, as marginalized communities, want to see them? How do we anticipate and resist against the siphoning of these new communities and cultures for superficial moves towards diversity or financial gains solely for those who are already in power? How are we, or any marginalized community, to survive while engaging in radical change when those who are comfortably in power doesn’t listen or react enough?

As the news cycle frantically churns and funnels into our respective social media feeds, the 2016 election results and subsequent presidency of Donald Trump has rung out a call to arms to those who self-identify as liberal. Perhaps we are seeing the political movement that Ho’s work has been asking for all along. The phrase now more than ever has become frequent in institutional press releases asking for donations while pulling on liberal heartstrings. Reactive empathy is being utilized for crowd funded political measures, phone calls, and letters sent directly to our legislators. It is inspiring to see the crowds and support at protests, but are we also allowed to ask: where was this massive movement for performative altruism when we felt coddled by the Obama administration? And finally, with the naiveté and hope of a fifteen year old, where does the (art) world go from here?

This essay is published in partnership with Temporary Art Review for the exhibition Sensible Disobedience: Disrupting Cultural Signifiers in a Neoliberal Age curated by Lynnette Miranda at Charlotte Street Foundation in Kansas City, MO.

[1]  A term often used by bell hooks

Kathy Cho
Kathy Cho is an artist and curator whose practice focuses on affect theory and labor, feminisms and archiving lived experience and alternative histories. Her work manifests in loose narratives created with objects, images, writings and events. She received a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and recently co-curated shows for ACRE Projects in Chicago, High Tide Gallery in Philadelphia and Denny Gallery in New York City. She currently lives and works in Philadelphia.