26 March 2020
By Sophie Risner
I’m welcomed into Delfina Foundation by Jon McCurley, one half of Life of a Craphead. Energetic and incisive, he offers me strong tea and honey. Shortly after we are joined by the collective’s second member, Amy Lam. Articulate and equally inclusive she gives each of us a bowl filled with some kind of delicious seed-filled glutinous rice dessert (the name of which, I woefully neglected to transcribe). We settle down into our positions around a long wooden dining table – the epicentre for interaction at the Foundation; a site of collective knowledge sharing, food preparation, eating and gathering. My interaction with Life of a Craphead (a collective with a wonderfully institutionally-allergic name) underscores some of the core principles of the Foundation, as a meeting place for conversation and exchange. This time spent in the duo’s company turned out not only to be an eye opening and enriching experience for me, but also an exchange permeated with laughter; an unfortunately rare combination when discussing conceptual art practice, and a subversive interplay that runs throughout their practice.
Taking place within the fourth iteration of Delfina Foundation’s thematic programme Performance as Process, the opening gambit of Life of a Craphead’s (LOAC) three-month residency was to embark on an exploration of colonial histories, specifically looking at the lived experiences and colonial trajectories of East and South-East Asia. Amy and Jon, usually based in Toronto, Canada, and of Chinese and Vietnamese-Irish heritage respectively, begin our conversation by discussing the events they have been attending in London in order to immerse themselves in the current political discourse of the city’s East and South-East Asian community.
The residency appears to have enabled the duo to reflect on their existing work as well as recontextualise the urgency of their own narrative positions as artists in a new century pregnant with political injustice. The paradox of Delfina’s locale, a townhouse within touching distance of Buckingham Palace – the symbolic centre of commonwealth power and systematic colonial oppression – is not lost on the pair. Amy and Jon discuss the current political landscape in the UK as a space still potent with colonial expression, discourse and symbolism. They have a litany of examples that not only informs them, but troubles and concerns them: from the UK’s Hostile Environment immigration policies, to the Essex 39 and Jon’s visit to the British Museum – a place they both agree feels like the ‘Body Worlds of Colonialism’.
Britain’s egregious past (and present) is definitely an apposite topic of conversation, in particular given LOAC’s experience of living and working in Canada: a commonwealth territory with its own complicated relationship to colonisation. A work of theirs that garnered much attention is, King Edward VII Statue Floating Down the Don River (2017), which involved floating a replica of a statue of Edward VII – a former King of the United Kingdom and Emperor of India – down Toronto’s Don River. This act of disruption not only created a spectacle of the popularity of immortalising colonialism through object fetishism, but it is also testament to LOAC’s ability to spark in viewers an active engagement and interrogation of the world around us.
Jon mentions that whilst based at Delfina Foundation, both himself and Amy have been researching and creating new work for their ongoing exhibition Entertaining Every Second (2019); a title lifted from the Nam June Paik quote: “I am a poor [wo]man from a poor country, so I have to be entertaining every second.” The exhibition works as a holistic look at colonialism within America and Asia. Mining personal histories, the show demonstrates how emotionally ambitious the duo can be in their ability to locate and identify colonial narratives through visual stories. In a climate in which artists are often expected to confront violent historical and ancestral legacies in the institution, it is worth noting here how the duo persist with such work despite the emotional labour involved, which often goes un/under-recognised, alongside a lack of support and resources provided to deal with the personal impact of such work.
The exhibition, which has toured the Canadian cities of Calgary, Saskatoon and Montreal, is a tour de force of LOAC’s impressive visual reach when unearthing the impacts of colonialism. Among the works involved is a piece that’s particularly illustrative of the duo’s approach, titled Until Either one Closes. This work initiated a partnership between AKA Artist Run, the centre in Saskatoon that first hosted the exhibition, and the neighbouring Chinese restaurant, Jin Jin Cuisine; in which the former to use the latter as their sole catering supplier, “until either one closes”. This, alongside the permanent placement of the restaurant’s logo on AKA’s website, has an ingenious positive-disruptive quality.
At the time of writing we face a global pandemic which has the potential to have a long-term impact on smaller independent spaces and businesses. This act works two-fold by bringing business to the local Chinese restaurant whilst creating community partnerships that unveil the importance of independent cultural exchange. It is this which locates LOAC’s capacity to reform otherness into a space of production and discourse.
This aptitude can also be felt in a new work which they have been busy editing during their residency. I am treated to an excerpt in which Jon coordinates the loan of some sound equipment for a local LGBTQ Asian community arts centre. The camera work is remarkable for its ‘scripted reality’ feel. Jon and Amy mention how someone likened it to the TV series Made in Chelsea, a comparison that only works as a way to describe the piece’s on-the-ground docu-series negotiation of real life – or what could be real people’s real lives. Aptly titled Life of Life of a Craphead, the pilot, which is scheduled for release around autumn this year, will also trace the story of Amy Lam, frustrated with her job finalising a book titled Paris in Great.
Amy and Jon’s identities as individuals in a nexus between the West, East and South-East Asia, clearly hallmarks their understanding and empathetic position, not just on current examples of oppression, but also on each other’s minds and thoughts. Artists often are the best listeners as they are well-trained in critical thinking and as such invest time in observing body language and expression as a way to open up unchartered spaces of dialogue. This is acutely the case with Life of a Craphead, who have been collaborating since 2006. You can sense their deep understanding of one another and see how they have learnt to listen in order to create and shoulder each other’s lived experiences, acting as both defence and prosecutor of each other’s critical expression: a fascinating relationship to bear witness to and one which appears to keep the criticality of Life of a Craphead on its toes.
We return to the impetus of their time at Delfina Foundation and what has been most resourceful. Both agree that the opportunity to share a home with a group of individuals from across the world has been illuminating, providing a precious and unique space of interaction. Their collective learning and dialogue with their co-residents around notions of colonialism has not only been informative to LOAC but generated further critical awareness.
Amy spins her MacBook around one last time to show me an image of their early work I’m Not What I Thought I Was (2007), in which a cake sees itself as a ham in a mirror (a piece characteristic of the duo’s particular and refreshing sense of humour, but which is simultaneously candid in its meaning). During a time in which artists are often encouraged to embrace and explore the subject of race by cultural organisations and policy makers, we desperately need practices such as Life of a Craphead to remind us to commit to questioning how best to further an empowered vision of such issues, beyond what could easily become a mirror image.
– Sophie Risner is the Arts Programmer for Arts SU (the University of the Arts London students’ union), an art writer and occasional freelance curator.