TV seems to be the one constant that’s seen us through a pandemic year. We’ve engaged in it deeply, or simply kept it on in the background for company while we’ve dealt with the pain of being alone while maddening things continue on in the world. We’ve begged each other for recommendations for what compelling thing to watch next. Mana Contemporary answered this earnest request with “Is It A Good Time?” a showcase of video and performance, curated by Maryam Faridani and Nicky Ni, featuring work exclusively by noncitizen artists residing in the United States, screened over the course of three days.
All the works made for excellent viewing. They stunned with imagery and sound, like in Chen Jiayi’s “4 Dances for 3 Couples,” where slow-moving shots of nature and people are paired with a beautifully mournful score that evokes earnest longing for a sense of connection to people and place impossible to achieve during lockdown. Or, like Vinay Hira’s “Threnody to the Victims of Change,” where a narrator bemoans the fact that high-end shops are closed, complemented by stark black-and-white shots of domestic spaces, stylized in the fashion of a short film made by “The Simpsons”‘ perpetually boozed-up character Barney Gumble, make you laugh. They’ll make you feel queasy or uncomfortable or angry. They’ll make you feel many of these things at once—I laughed out loud on the subway as I watched Manos Dimitrakis, in their piece “Pornographic Memory 1,” place a fried egg over their nipple and then almost had to look away as they pierced its yoke with a clothespin-tipped finger.
There is variety in the work, and yet in so many of the pieces there are suggestions of duality. It makes sense—all the artists whose work is featured are living in America and experiencing it through the perspective of a different culture—its natural and domestic spaces, its people, its politics. This perspective adds a kaleidoscope effect on how they portray their experiences in America. It injects nuance, color, angles into American experiences that are incredibly valuable and necessary.
In Cherrie Yu’s “Parent Film,” a work in progress, her parents take turns telling stories about mastering tigers, creating manifestos about labor as artistic necessities and wrestling muggers hungry for meal tickets and money. The stories, many of which take place in China, are juxtaposed with images of actions in the contemporary Midwestern urban and rural landscape, with performers and Yu’s parents reenacting some scenes. It’s a keen way to explain the twisting of the stories in the piece, how they get stretched, become untrue and yet remain genuine in their new renditions.
In Mahsa Biglow’s “A Letter from an Alien Relative,” a woman smokes and watches the clouds and her collection of rocks while she waits to be “Naturalized,” while her vegan American husband eats flowers, consuming the natural thing that symbolizes what she desires to achieve. The staging of this piece is sharp—the images of the woman smoking and waiting projected as a backdrop to a dinner table set for a wedding feast, an event we learn through text on screen—part of a letter to prove she is real, not “Alien” is staged for the government.
Sami Ismat’s “Transfixed” is a powerful presentation of two contradicting truths. On one side of a two-channel screen, Ismat makes a formal request for political asylum from Syria, using the language and explanations specifically crafted to please the court. In a second, simultaneous video, Ismat tells a more nuanced story of his experience in America, of how the U.S. health system failed his father, who died of COVID.
Ismat’s is a maddening story that calls for attention and mourning. It’s a call answered in part by Jorge Rojas’ “Dance for our Departed,” in which Native American, Polynesian, African, Asian and Aztec dancers from the United States and Mexico come together over Zoom for a dance to highlight injustices against them in America. It’s an amazing act of virtual protest and encapsulates the thesis behind the entirety of “Is It A Good Time?” It is a fantastic virtual call out and protest of injustices in America. It is exactly the type of content that deserves eyes now. (Holly Warren)