In Fall 2020, Margo Machida and Marci Kwon began corresponding about Martin Wong (1946–1999) in preparation for the artist’s forthcoming catalogue raisonné. What began as a straightforward exchange of sources soon metamorphosed into a rich dialogue about the multifaceted nature of Wong’s practice. As we puzzled over Wong’s iconography, sources, and aesthetic choices, the conceptual depth of his practice began to reveal itself to us. In Wong’s work, nothing is ever a single thing, and the same can be said of Asian American art. Throughout our conversations, we glimpsed the possibility of an Asian American art from the bottom up, guided by the irreducible specificities of works of art, artists, and the histories in which they are enmeshed, rather than a predetermined theoretical frame.
Although the following excerpt only skims the surface of our extended dialogue, these exchanges encouraged us to consider the generative possibilities of object-centered inquiry and collaborative cross-interpretation in advancing fresh critical analysis of Asian American art.
Edited excerpts from emails between MK and MM, Fall 2020–Spring 2022
Margo Machida: Fascinating re the twins motif [in Martin’s work.] Meantime [here’s] the painting I mentioned with the two Buddhas/Hoteis in tuxedos holding the 8-ball. It’s “Chop Suey Sundae” (1992). The motif seems to be related to the two dragons and the pearl [in Chinese mythology], and the cintimani in Tibetan Buddhism … And of course twinning is a prominent motif in Chinese art and visual/popular culture.
Marci Kwon: Whatʻs most compelling is the importance of metamorphosis to Martinʻs work … [E]very motif has so many layers and identities. I think malleability and change … are crucial to his practice. I only began to realize this as I started tracing different motifs across bodies of work. Clearly your interview/essay has helped my thinking about this!
Machida: … Interesting how that prefigures current discourses about ‘queerness’ that encompass but also extend well beyond sexuality.
Kwon: Also re twinning, I forgot to mention [Martin’s] 1985 Artist Statement, Semaphore: “ … [I]t is only when we go down for the final count that the … twin firemen (Hypnos and Thanatos) come to reclaim their own, for only in sleep are we all equal.”
The Martin Wong Digital Catalogue Raisonné will be published in October 2022 by Stanford University Libraries & Special Collections, in collaboration with the Asian American Art Initiative (AAAI) and the Martin Wong Foundation.