In December last year, Asian-Americans were reported as the target of crimes and robberies, arguably arising from the perception of Asians as passive and incapable of resistance. This information prompted performance artist Squished Cockroach to formulate Yellow, a public performance piece. Equal parts provocative and thought-provoking, Squished Cockroach’s work proves to be a much-needed voice not only in the Arts community but in Sydney generally, as incidents of violence in Australia mount. It was only in May that a series of racist signs calling for an end to Asian immigration were posted around Sydney’s Northwest, and very recently that racist graffiti appeared around USyd. As more racially-incited events occur in America, Australia and European countries, Yellow is a timely performance piece which confirms the power of arts activism to instigate and engender critique.
Squished Cockroach paints her entire body in a garish, bright yellow paint, paired only with a bowl of rice and chopsticks. In doing so, Squished Cockroach co-opts and subverts the historical trope of ‘yellowface’, commenting on the exoticism, fetishism, ridicule and mockery of Asians in popular media and mass consciousness. By exaggerating and literally embodying these portrayals herself, she undercuts the hypocrisy of the national myth of ‘multicultural’ Australia. Squished Cockroach embarks on the mammoth task of tackling the perceived submissiveness, servility, and docility of Asians (particularly Asian women). Whilst East Asian women traditionally have been ‘on display’ for exhibitionistic gratuitous—often white and male—consumption, there has been a subversion and a reclamation of the display of her politicised body. Squished Cockroach’s piece is antithetical to such representations as she exposes the inherent power structures and biases that underlie our presumptions. Similarly, while eating a bowl of rice with chopsticks is initially ostensibly a hyperbolic caricature of ‘Asian-ness’, Squished Cockroach utilises it as a proud reclamation of Asian culture. She references the economy, ecology and culture of Asians, specifically, many Koreans who lead agrarian lifestyles to escape poverty and who rapidly built the post-war Korean economy in less than half a century.
With such accoutrements, she becomes simultaneously and paradoxically vulnerable and audacious. There are moments of intense vulnerability as she stands alone and walks, open to scrutiny and interrogation, as she forges ahead towards the camera. It is possible to see this contrast as reflective of the very existence of so many people of colour who are often forced to be suspended in the tension between pure subjugation or provocation. Postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha posited that mimicry is both resemblance and both menace, resistance and compliance. Squished Cockroach walks along this precipice of duality in a performance which refuses the stasis and permanence of other mediums. Squished Cockroach draws upon a lineage of performance artists, using her work as a catalyst and vehicle to engage immediately with the politics of identity and wider social reality.
To emphasise her point on politicised lived experiences and identities, Squished Cockroach makes her way through a train, from the first to the last carriage, stepping on printed articles which mark her path. The articles refer to the rise of hate speech against Asians, stereotypes against Asians presented by the media and increased crime rates targeting Asians.
The sheer number of these articles are striking as they are strewn over seats and along the path. As Squished Cockroach processes through the train, some train-goers look at the articles. The work then involves the public’s reactions. Some uneasily avert their gaze, others brazenly take photos, one shakes her head in disbelief and amusement. We feel the heat of their gazes as we focus on Squished Cockroach but as the audience, we are also implicated. We face in the same direction as those in the carriage, as if we ourselves are seated on the train. We are then confronted by the same questions: are we complicit in perpetuating racism? How have our perceptions of race been constructed?
By staging the performance in such a public arena, Yellow further suggests that this is an issue that does not remain confined in the ‘white cube’ of the gallery whilst highlighting the possibilities of art circumventing the institution of the gallery. It also raises further questions about the demographics of the art community itself. Inspired by the May 1968 Riots in Paris where students and workers took artworks to the streets, Squished Cockroach calls for a democratisation of art. Away from institutions that control political and social currency, Squished Cockroach actively addresses cultural power structures.
The train continues on its daily path, moving forward. Its directional advance is in opposition with Squished Cockroach, as she moves backwards, towards the end of the train. We are then left with a situation of opposing directions, which seems then to suggest inertia, perhaps even conflict and subsequent regression. We are left to wonder about the many incidents of racial harassment that do in fact occur on public transport. We are left to wonder about the ‘progress’ of humanity, just as the train trundles to its next stop. The train conductor on the overhead asks to “Please consider other passengers’ safety”, and we are left to wonder how truly considerate society is of racialised individuals, subject to entrenched systemic violence.