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  • Guest Editor's Introduction:Asian American Performances and a World of Differences
  • Tina Chen (bio)

Writing about the multimedia performances of Dan Kwong, a Chinese Japanese American artist, Robert Vorlicky suggests the position of centrality is one that might be reimagined through Asian American performance. Even as the Asian American body can be recentered on stage in an effort to respond to a history of exclusion and misrepresentation, when it occupies that space performatively, it has the potential to make visible the dynamics that produce centrality in the first place:

The performer soon realizes that the central position can be a deceiving one. While it reveals insights, it also demonstrates that many centers co-exist at any given moment. Stories overlap, histories collide, identities blur—no one story can capture it all. For there is no "all," after all. The best one can do is to tell his or her own story, to experience—however briefly—the centrality of that phenomenon and be aware, ever so vigilantly, that multiple stories with their fluid foci co-exist alongside one's own. In the United States, the floating centers that characterize one's multiple stories, and those of others, are among the most vivid manifestations of a living democracy.


Rather than replacing one locus of power and visibility with another, the Asian American body in performance can highlight the existence of many centers, many stories, and many possible enactments. This special issue testifies to the diversity of positions Vorlicky evokes. In so doing, it highlights variegated Asian American performances in order to suggest the richness of a field of study worthy of further attention.

In Performance in America: Contemporary U. S. Culture and the Performing Arts, David Román laments the relative lack of attention paid to drama and performance in American Studies. According to Román, notwithstanding the popularity of "performance" metaphors—borrowings that denote "little interest" in the fields themselves "except for . . . [their] language" (24)—scholarly invocations of performance tropes ironically [End Page 5] evince performance's peripherality, which often manifests as "a tradition of critical self-consciousness and anxiety" (30). Such paradoxical attentive inattention might be characterized as commonplace in the field. However, Diana Taylor suggests that perhaps the term itself, rather than devaluing the field's practices per se, makes performance so elusive that "[i]ts very undefinability and complexity . . . carries the possibilities of challenge, even self-challenge within it," precisely because it "simultaneously connot[es] a process, a praxis, an episteme, a mode of transmission, an accomplishment, and a means of intervening in the world" (15). Reading Román's assessment of the field in relation to Taylor's definitions of performance and Vorlicky's sense of the counter-intuitive possibilities of centering the Asian American body in performance, I suggest that the oscillation between centrality and peripherality, visibility and invisibility, popularity and inscrutability—a movement that constitutes the grounds of Asian American performances that always exist both within and outside of a mainstream performance tradition—generates enormous critical energy. Such critical energy manifests in a variety of ways, as the wide-ranging subjects covered in this special issue attest.

Perhaps some of the most visible Asian American performers are those who have been working in performance art, that contested, multiply defined field whose foregrounding of the conceptual in conjunction with the body-in-performance has lent itself as readily to college campus tours as to theatrical and gallery exhibition. Korean American conceptual and performance artist Michael Joo's three-decade career has been preoccupied with (re)figuring the ways Asian American bodies constitute and challenge Western narratives of national progress. Joo's provocative performances draw our attention to the material elements—salt, sweat, urine—that make up and are excreted by the body. As Terry Park argues in his essay "Eternal Return of the Saline Body: Michael Joo's Salt Transfer Cycle," "Joo's body of work—along with the work of his body—illustrates the search for an alternative language to articulate the hidden geo-historical traffic between the trauma of Cold War interventions in Asia and the trauma of growing up Asian in the US." Park focuses on the interrelation between Joo's...


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pp. 5-11
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