Anti-Asian and the Art Institution

Carlos Kong on Mai Ling's NOT YOUR ORNAMENT at Secession, Vienna

October 20, 2023

Mai Ling, NOT YOUR ORNAMENT, 2023, installation view

Anti-immigration rhetoric and policy have become defining features in Austrian politics, particularly since 2017 when the center-right Austria’s People Party (ÖVP) formed a coalition with the far-right populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Leading politicians unreservedly propagate white supremacist logic, speaking about “population displacement” that creates an environment hostile for non-white residents. Austrian politics and the environment they’ve created reflect a Europe rife with anti-immigrant sentiment.

The Viennese artist collective Mai Ling takes up the effects of this environment on Asian communities in Austria and the German-speaking world, focusing on intersections of racism, sexism, and homophobia experienced by Asian FLINT* (women*, lesbian, inter*, non-binary, trans* people). Their current exhibition at the Secession grapples directly with histories of anti-Asian racism in the region and develops infrastructure around the exhibition to foster broad community engagement. Reviewing the exhibition here, Carlos Kong—The Public Review’s cofounder and editor—considers the responsibility of art institutions in a climate of racism and antagonism. 

Mai Ling, NOT YOUR ORNAMENT, Secession, Vienna, September 15—November 12, 2023.

By now it’s a well-known reality: the Covid-19 pandemic made starkly visible how structural racism demarcates the lives considered worthy of protection from those that are not. During the first wave in the US, working-class people of color deemed “essential workers” were many of the first to succumb to the pandemic. By the summer, terrifying acts of fatal anti-Black violence galvanized widespread Black Lives Matter protests and reckonings (even if partial or performative) with anti-racist and decolonial practice. Amid a double pandemic of disease and racism, a seemingly new word entered the vernacular and was chillingly uttered with ease and frequency: “anti-Asian.” Exhuming orientalist tropes, the virus was externalized as a “Chinese virus,” legitimizing widespread assaults on Asian diasporic subjects in North America and Europe. The swift transformation of supposedly “model minorities” into human viruses made threateningly palpable the afterlives of the West’s colonial power over Asia that endure in present-day anti-Asian racism. 

Visual culture—everything from popular media to art exhibitions—has presented various incursions into the contemporary climate of anti-Asian violence. A prominent tendency was a restorative hypervisibility, embodied, for instance, by the Hollywood success of Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022). Making various Asian/Asian American “firsts” in its 2023 Oscars sweep, the film’s unanimous celebration offered, in a neoliberal logic, a cathartic “win” for Asian Americans at a moment of their intensified demonization. Nonetheless, the symbolic reversal that repositioned Asian Americans from maligned invisibility into a sudden spectacle of hypervisibility was largely divorced from broader considerations of longer histories and the ongoing material effects of racism and marginalization. 

A contrary response saw the excavation of reparative microhistories by Asian diasporic cultural practitioners. Throughout Central Europe in the past two years, for instance, Asian migrant archives have been assembled in local contexts where Asian diasporic groups remain marginalized in the self-conception of national communities. Countering absences in official memory cultures, these archival projects conjoined minor histories and present-day struggles against racism. In Leipzig, the exhibition Where is my karaoke? Still, we sing (2022)—curated by Phuong Phan and Sarnt Utamachote at D21 Kunstraum—combined artworks and archival documents regarding the contributions of contract workers and students from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam to the culture of former East Germany. Coinciding with the thirtieth anniversary of the Rostock-Lichtenhagen pogrom—in which asylum seekers and Vietnamese migrants were violently attacked by militant neo-Nazis and ordinary citizens—the exhibition unearthed the multifaceted lives of Southeast Asians in the GDR while drawing points of continuity between past and present anti-Asian racism. Like-minded projects have continued to appear. This past summer, the Vietnamese-German artist Sung Tieu initiated self-organized tours of the soon-to-be-demolished Gehrenseestraße housing complex—one of the largest housing sites for Vietnamese contract workers in East Berlin, where the artist partly grew up. By bringing the public to the abandoned buildings, Tieu localized her personal memories as part of structurally racist migration policies, acts of everyday discrimination, and the destruction of migrant memories through urban gentrification. Moreover, in a parallel context, Kunsthalle Bratislava recently staged Nhớ: Space Between One End and the Other, a historic exhibition that was the first in Slovakia to feature the art and life-worlds of its multigenerational Vietnamese diaspora from state socialist Czechoslovakia through the present.

Mai Ling, NOT YOUR ORNAMENT, 2023, installation view

Mai Ling’s NOT YOUR ORNAMENT at the Secession in Vienna can be seen in the context of these local examinations of Asian diasporic communities in Central Europe, yet the exhibition has a sharpened focus on present-day collective action drawn from the group’s artistic activism. Founded in Vienna in 2019, Mai Ling is an art collective and association focused on intersections of racism, sexism, and homophobia experienced by Asian FLINT* (women*, lesbian, inter*, non-binary, trans*) in Austria and throughout German-speaking Europe. As an act of strategic essentialism, the group appropriated its name from the 1979 television sketch by Gerhard Polt, in which the German comedian repeats racist and sexist stereotypes about Asian women in Western societies. Pointing to continuities in anti-Asian racism, the group’s reclaimed name affords its members complete anonymity, protecting them from further discrimination while strengthening their collective voice in public statements against sexism and racism. 

NOT YOUR ORNAMENT features two multimedia installations, separated by a central room that includes multiple videos and a makeshift library. Presented in this middle room, Mai Ling’s video Beautiful Alien Girl (2019) clarifies the context of the collective’s name. It features Gerhard Polt’s original skit, intercut with handheld footage and a deadpan voiceover by the collective. The video is difficult to watch, as Polt rehearses the most insidious racist and sexist tropes against Asian women, and their blatant voicing as comedy remains shocking by today’s standards. In the fictional sketch, a television station visits Polt with his new mail-order bride “Mai Ling” at their home. Polt utters a series of crude remarks and barks at Mai Ling, who sits in silence to his right, looking despondent and dissociative, unable to speak or supposedly understand his German. He cavalierly announces that he bought Mai Ling for 2,785 deutschmarks at the Bangkok Airport but could have gotten a “little more robust” Vietnamese woman had he paid 500 marks more. In her muteness, she is depersonalized into a domestic sex object coded as vaguely “Asian”: she is from Thailand but is dressed in a Japanese kimono and cooks Chinese food that Polt “can’t stomach”; her skin is “a little yellow”; her only value is in “the bedroom. After all, that’s what they’re famous for, Asian women,” Polt announces. Although Polt was known for critiquing his fellow Bavarian bourgeoisie, in his Mai Ling sketch we glimpse the endurance of fascistic racism, inherited in West Germany from the Nazi era, that has not been overcome. In the fictional figure of Mai Ling, the art collective claims kinship with her impossible position—silent, disposable, abject, alien, unassimilated, hypersexualized, and objectified into a human ornament, a decorative appendage to the horror of whiteness. By critically appropriating her name, the collective testifies to the continuity of racism, sexism, and intersectional discrimination throughout their lived experiences as Asian diasporic cultural practitioners in Austria. 

Mai Ling, NOT YOUR ORNAMENT, 2023, installation view

At the start of the exhibition, “NOT YOUR ORNAMENT” is lettered on the wall in relief and covered with a mucousy slime that sticks to one’s hands upon touching it. The phrase evokes the exhibition’s subject matter of ornamentation, which capaciously connects various thematic concerns: orientalism, Secessionist aesthetics, and the transformation of humans and plants into ornaments. The ornament firstly offers a direct engagement with the history of the exhibition’s site, the Secession in Vienna, named after the art movement closely associated with Art Nouveau. A modernist temple and an artist-run institution, the Secession is renowned for Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze (1902) and the gilded vegetal ornamentation on its exterior. Since its inception, the ornamental aesthetics of Art Nouveau and its offshoots throughout Europe have been linked to imperial dynamics. Deborah L. Silverman characterized the emergence of Art Nouveau in Belgium as an “art of darkness” through its use of visual motifs and artistic materials from the colonization of the Congo.1 Adolf Loos criticized the Vienna Secession in his canonical polemic “Ornament and Crime” (1908) by aligning modern decorative ornamentation with the primitive. In Loos’s developmentalist narrative, “the evolution of culture comes to the same thing as the removal of ornament from functional objects.”2 Loos grounds his argument by comparing “modern man” with an imaginary Papuan, who appears out of time (when in fact, at the time of Loos’s writing, Papuans were modern-day subjects of German colonialism) and whose primitive backwardness is supposedly evidenced by the ornamental tattoos on his body. In Loos’s account, modernity’s overcoming of the ornament, in modernist architecture for instance, was a sign of intellectual and moral superiority over the undeveloped ornamental practices in peasant, indigenous, and non-Western societies. Having excised his former primitive with the passing of history, modern man no longer needed to produce new ornaments, according to Loos, and was free to “use the ornaments of his former and foreign cultures on a whim, as he sees fit.”3

Much ink has been spilled attempting to defend or qualify Loos’s modernism as not racist, but such a judgment fails to dwell on the disturbing ramifications of his infamous argument.4 In the context of NOT YOUR ORNAMENT, the intense colonial, primitivist, racialized, and culturally appropriative implications undergirding the modernist critique of the ornament justify Mai Ling’s stark refusal of it. The exhibition project instead takes inspiration from Asian American scholar Anne Anlin Cheng’s Ornamentalism (2018), a theorization derived from a neologism of “ornament” and “orientalism.” The conception of the ornament as primitivist and oriental coincides with the aesthetic dehumanization of the Asiatic as ornamental, as glimpsed in the fictional character of Mai Ling, who serves as a racialized and sexualized accessory of a white owner. For Cheng, ornamentalism “names the perihumanity of Asiatic femininity […] a condition of subjective coercion, reduction, and discipline,” but it can also serve as a mode of defiant embodiment “for subjects who have not been considered subjects, or subjects who have come to know themselves through objects.”5 Throughout the exhibition, Mai Ling explores the ornamentalism of humans and plants as a means of resisting the objectification ascribed to them by dominant cultural histories. 

Mai Ling, Becoming Stickiness, 2023, film still

Mai Ling, Becoming Stickiness, 2023, film still

Mai Ling’s two multimedia installations focus on the resistance of supposedly “exotic” humans and plants to their ornamental reduction while challenging the exclusionary rhetoric of plant and migration discourses, which considers certain groups to be “invasive” to bordered ecosystems and nations. The video installation, Becoming Stickiness (2023), emerged from the collective’s research into the kudzu plant (Pueraria montana). Originating in East and Southeast Asia, kudzu is a traditional ingredient in Asian cuisines and medicines. First brought to the US and Europe as an ornamental plant, it was later imported to reduce soil erosion, before being widely banned due to its powerful, uncontrollable growth. Mai Ling saw parallels between migrants and the kudzu plant, both of which have become illegalized and eradicated for their supposed threat to monocultural norms. 

Becoming Stickiness first documents a pedagogical workshop in which the collective made a sticky gel from powdered kudzu root, before using it in traditional recipes and coating objects in it as an act of communal play and mess-making. For Mai Ling, stickiness recalls the Western disgust with certain sticky textures in Asian cuisines —a sensory pleasure that the collective seeks to reclaim. It moreover conjures the collective power of “sticking together,” as well as Sara Ahmed’s notion of how emotions “stick” to certain bodies, such as how the negative affects of racism stick to the racialized subject.6 These metaphoric aspects of stickiness are emphasized in latter section of the video, where the collective members appear outside in nature. With their faces obscured by plant matter, they take pleasure in the outdoor setting while choreographing their bodies into floral and wave-like forms. There is an inherent power in witnessing Asian diasporic subjects collectively learning ancestral knowledges, such as the culinary preparations of kudzu, that have been lost due to migration, assimilation, and the racialized control of plants and people. At the same time, might there be a possible voyeurism or objectification inherent in a (predominantly white) art world’s uncritical consumption of Mai Ling’s vision of collectivity, especially in their impressive choreography of ornamental forms? This is a tension that the collective is nonetheless aware of, announcing: “I don’t want to do this for the art world. I want to do this for the community, for the society we live in.”7

The second multimedia installation, Dirt Nouveau (2023), consists of five mounds of soil topped with ornamental houseplants and a set of headphones, presented in a room bathed in pink light. Each mound contains a different audio work focused on a particular ornamental houseplant, all of which have origins, colonial histories, or cultural uses in Asia—the coconut, zebra plant, taro, rubber plant, pineapple, and lucky bamboo. Voiced in English and multiple Asian languages, the audio works montage scientific knowledge, plant histories, personal associations, and quotes by Anne Anlin Cheng and Sara Ahmed. In its multilingual soundscape, Dirt Nouveau narrates the long histories of horticultural colonialism responsible for the plunder of plants from their indigenous ecosystems and their transformation into ornaments, as glimpsed in both the aesthetics of Art Nouveau and in our ordinary ownership of houseplants. 

Mai Ling, NOT YOUR ORNAMENT, 2023, installation view

In its titular refusal of embodying the ornament, the exhibition raises questions of access and exclusion, of how Asian diasporic groups are delimited from claims of belonging, participation in the cultural realm, and, at times, from their own cultural traditions. Access and community are thematized in the exhibition’s central room. In addition to Beautiful Alien Girl, the room also contains a reading room with publications of Asian/Asian diasporic artist groups (Perilla, Mutating Kinship Lab, ruangrupa) as well as academic books of Asian diasporic, queer of color, and decolonial scholarship. Moreover, two monitors display Mai Ling Speaks #02 and #05 (both 2020), two selections from an online interview series that the collective conducted with Asian diasporic artists and organizers during the pandemic, discussing the present climate of Anti-Asian racism while showcasing various cultural and activist practices. 

Access extends outwards to the experience of the exhibition itself. Comfortable seating is available in all rooms, and public tours will be given over the course of the exhibition in Cantonese Mandarin, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Korean, Thai, Tagalog, Bisaya, Arabic, German, and English. Mai Ling’s incisive artworks on the ornament’s long history of dehumanization for both Asian bodies and plants, as well as their welcome measures of accessibility, raise vital questions with regards to the responsibility of art institutions like the Secession in a cultural climate of racism and antagonism. Who is the audience of an artist-run institution? Will Secession’s unique artist-run board continue to program unconventional exhibitions by marginalized practitioners? Will the current visibility of Mai Ling contribute to a sustained engagement with Vienna’s migrant voices in its own art institutions, or will it merely be enough anti-racism and diversity for now? And how will art institutions move forward in confronting Austria’s histories of colonialism and racism as well as the notorious conservatism of Austrian politics, with anti-immigration sentiments as a central and fervent tenet? Mai Ling’s NOT YOUR ORNAMENT offers a compelling example of ethical exhibition-making in response to contemporary urgencies, melding artistic and activist collectivity in an intersectional framework while directly confronting the histories of institutions and their challenges in the present. 

1 Deborah L. Silverman, “Art Nouveau, Art of Darkness: African Lineages of Belgian Modernism, Part I,” West 86th 18, no. 2 (2011): 139-181.

2 Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime (1908),” in Ornament and Crime (London: Penguin Classics, 2019), 188.

3 Ibid., 202. 

4 See Joseph Maschek, “Epilogue: Critique of Ornament,” in ibid., 269-343. 

5 Anne Anlin Cheng, “Ornamentalism,” in Mai Ling. NOT YOUR ORNAMENT (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2023), 21.

6 Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 4.

7 Perilla and Mai Ling, “Hacking the Institution: A Conversation Between Perilla and Mai Ling,” in Mai Ling. NOT YOUR ORNAMENT (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2023), 37.

All images © Mai Ling. Installation images: Iris Ranzinger, courtesy Secession, Vienna.

Carlos Kong is an art historian and critic, and a cofounder and editor of The Public Review.

This review was produced in the context of the residency program Visiting Critics Vienna organized by Verein K.