Installation view of PAO HOUA HER’s Untitled, 2020, light boxes, 132 × 165 cm each, at HmongTown Marketplace, St. Paul, 2020. All images courtesy the artist and Midway Contemporary Art, Minneapolis.

Shared Desires and Active Waiting: Pao Houa Her and Tetsuya Yamada

Midway Off-Site at HmongTown Marketplace
USA Laos Japan

HmongTown Marketplace in Mni Sota Makoce’s capital, St. Paul, mimics a typical urban market in Laos. Sprawling indoor and outdoor spaces host hundreds of stalls, offering everything from fresh produce and medicinal herbs to textiles and eyebrow threading. As part of Midway Contemporary Art’s Off-Site program, vendors and consumers alike also encountered new public art commissions by Twin Cities-based artists Pao Houa Her and Tetsuya Yamada. 

While HmongTown is open to and frequented by the general public seven days a week—my family and I are regulars—its pulse is the local Hmong community, who began immigrating to the United States in the mid-1970s as refugees of American-led wars against communism in Southeast Asia, collectively known as the Vietnam War. Born in Laos, Pao Houa Her arrived to Minnesota in the mid-1980s. The artist’s often open-ended serial practice considers photography’s colonial heritage by imbricating genres of studio portraiture, still life, and landscape to explore the coexistence of aspiration and artifice within the shared desires of Hmong diasporic communities.  

To reach Her’s installation in the east warehouse building, I meandered narrow walkways of stalls whose exteriors currently blend into a wallpaper of face masks, through the bright cafeteria into the dim, drop-ceiling, eight-table dining hall glowing with four large light-box photographs. Her is interested in the light-box as a form historically participant in advertising, and a tool implicated in arousing capitalistic settler desires for land and the ongoing imaginary of homeland for Hmong people. While I began looking closely, a four-year-old ran in to confidently volunteer a tour, criss-crossing the space and pointing: “Green one! Tall trees! Beautiful flowers!” She was reaching to the faux wood-paneled wall near a table of elders eating lunch to direct me to labels for more information just as her mother, a food vendor, chased her out.  

The lush images are printed in both color and black-and-white, all Untitled followed by parentheses naming their subject: (jungle in laos), (mount shasta)(opium behind opium backdrop)(fake flowers in restaurant). They were taken in Laos, Northern California, and Minnesota—lands that have become home to the some of the largest Hmong populations in the world. Her’s botanical studies—an indiscernible conflation of real and staged, live and plastic, natural and cultivated, or all of the above—cannot and do not intend to narrate the storied layers of her people. As usual with Her’s work, the veracity of the image and its subjects are intentionally questionable, echoing the artist’s own process of trying to understand confounding pasts, presents and futures. Hanging near the light-boxes is a commissioned text, printed in Hmong and English, by playwright and poet May Lee-Yang, which concludes: “You see a tree, but it overlooks a field of marijuana. You see poppies in a field, but they are a callback to our history of growing drugs for the French. The images are, in essence, passwords into the private Hmong world. If you pay attention, maybe they will unlock a story or a memory for you.” 

PAO HOUA HER, Untitled, (jungle in laos), 2020, light box, 132 × 165 cm. 

PAO HOUA HER, Untitled, (real opium behind opium backdrop), 2020, light box, 132 × 165 cm. 

Tetsuya Yamada’s installation of a rest stop, Waiting (2020), was also adopted into the HmongTown context—when I arrived, the security guard was sitting on its bench, and the rice vendors stationed nearby encouraged me to explore the work with ushering hand gestures. Waiting became a fixture in its performative ability to materialize another kind of shared experience: waiting for the pandemic to be over, waiting for calm and justice amid civil unrest following George Floyd’s murder, waiting for a new president to lead a divided nation. Conspicuously located outdoors along the walking route between the market’s east and west buildings, Waiting is humble and inviting, built of yakisugi (burnt-cedar wood) repurposed from the pergola at Midway’s Minneapolis gallery building, and featuring an interior covered with compressed paper. Waiting’s form and function is part machiai—a bench for respite before beginning a traditional Japanese tea ceremony—and part bus shelter, that democratic and usually anxious waiting space the artist sees as a public gallery where printed matter is often shared.   

Installation view of TETSUYA YAMADA’s Waiting, 2020, cedar, homasote, corrugated metal, paper, dimensions variable, at HmongTown Marketplace, St. Paul, 2020.
Installation view of TETSUYA YAMADA’s Waiting, 2020, cedar, homasote, corrugated metal, paper, dimensions variable, at HmongTown Marketplace, St. Paul, 2020.

Waiting exemplifies Yamada’s minimalistic and adaptable multimedia practice, which is known to embrace DIY aesthetics and non-gallery settings. During Minnesota’s restrictive Covid-19-impelled stay-at-home order, he imagined how to make a safe live performance, reflecting on how waiting can simultaneously constitute both neutral and proactive time, encompassing many actions. A professor of ceramics for over two decades, he turned to what he calls “hand-ness,” distinguishing between mechanical craft and hand work as a body movement. Revisiting the Scroll of Mudras, an ink-on-paper handscroll dated to 11–12th century Japan that depicts the Sanskritic iconographical language of hand gestures, Yamada composed and choreographed a poem of waiting mudras. He posted one drawing per week above the waiting bench along with an offering of one hundred copies for the public to take.  

While Her and Yamada were invited independently of one another to make public art, or to make art more public, without prior knowledge of eventual site-specificity, their projects meaningfully inherited distinctive relations to each other and their physical and temporal context. I think of Siah Armajani (1939–2020), another local artist who confronted precariousness and its potentials, whose immigrant and diasporic experiences also shaped philosophies of simultaneity and pluralism. Midway’s Off-Site initiative has, for its staff, its commissioned artists, and many of its publics, brought life to Armajani’s Manifesto: Public Sculpture in the Context of American Democracy, such as article (7): “Public sculpture attempts to fill the gap that comes about between art and public to make art public and artists citizens again.”  

Erin Gleeson is ArtAsiaPacific’s Phnom Penh desk editor.

Pao Houa Her and Tetsuya Yamada’s Midway Off-Site commissions are on view at HmongTown Marketplace, St. Paul, until December 19, 2020.

To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.