As I stepped with socked feet onto the fabric-covered flooring of installation piece Hometown Hero (Chink), I was struck with an eerie and unshakable sense of familiarity. No, not from the hand-upholstered, Confederate flag recliner, or the country karaoke sounding from the plush TV – save for the artist’s face in the video recording, the 3-part installation itself was essentially free of any immediately recognizable, East-Asian motifs. So why did my experience feel closer to a revisit rather than a shocking introduction? I told myself that it must have been the culturally ingrained, practiced motion of taking one’s shoes off before entering a living space, or maybe the intimately homey experience of padding around a carpeted floor with the TV streaming white noise.
The fact that the entire space is hand-sewn jumps out at me; under artist Valery Jung Estabrook’s skillful hands, everyday “soft” objects turn steely, while “hard” objects are revealed to have soft and sagging underbellies. The “lazy boy” recliner decorated with the image of a Confederate flag displays these juxtapositions most prominently; though the surface is composed of velvety chenille, soft-to-touch and associated with comfort, the repellent flag imagery strongly dissuades the viewer from touching the furniture.
Even so, the recliner dominates the space, sending chilly tones throughout the warmly lit interior. Other striking plush components include the ‘pillow guns’, a set of three flaccid rifles mounted to the wall, and the ‘Born & Bred Beer’ beer cans casually littered on the recliner’s side-table. Chenille fabric, what the majority of the installation consists of, is immediately distinguishable through its tufted, caterpillar-like texture and iridescent appearance. These characteristics make the textile a popular choice for sofas, baby blankets, and other items that make direct contact with the skin. Needless to say, I was fascinated with the artist’s approach to materiality and her manipulation of sensory elements with chenille that served to contradict and even amplify the viewer’s psychological responses to derogatory imagery.
In a reflection about the title, Hometown Hero (Chink), Estabrook refers to the painful addition of the racial slur as a necessary component “… in order to have an honest discussion about the America that I know.” Her statement propelled me towards a question that I, and likely many others, have faced constantly while navigating ‘the Asian-American experience’: why the America that we know appears so dependent on the home that we say we know. I do not share Estabrook’s experience growing up in rural southwestern Virginia; what I do share are similar feelings of alienation upon being subjected to the white gaze – even at home, we are foreign spectacles singing along to the jaunty tunes of assimilation, while America reclines in a chenille chair, crushing ‘Born & Bred Beer’ beer cans in silent assent.