Michael Chang, a senior majoring in fine arts, became animated when he discussed the conception of Re: Manifest Destiny, his upcoming art exhibition. It focuses on the future of Los Angeles and the potential ramifications of the city’s current social tensions.
“You can drive for five minutes and you’re in Hancock Park, and the next minute you’re in Koreatown,” Chang said. “It’s like, where did all the f-cking trees go, right?”
The exhibit opens Monday at the Helen Lindhurst Fine Arts Gallery in Watt Hall. Chang collaborated with filmmaker Aaron Ashby and artist Laura Kg on portions of the show.
In Re: Manifest Destiny, Chang will present a set of paintings, collages, graphics and prints that depict a dystopian Los Angeles in the year 2037. The pieces imagine a hypersegregated Los Angeles in which physical walls separate racial neighborhoods and the infrastructure intended to bring the city together instead enforce division. A multicultural revolutionary group forms in protest of segregation and a set of pieces memorialize their efforts.
The multimedia exhibition is named after a term used to describe the aggressive expansion of United States territory into the American West during the 19th century. Chang saw parallels between the social dynamics of Los Angeles today and what played out in California during the period of westward expansion. He cited gentrification of minority neighborhoods, appropriation of native and local cultures and an education system that threatens marginalized identities as concerns that he hopes to address in his artwork.
“Looking back on my time in public education, it was really skewed toward one perspective, which is the white, heteronormative male perspective,” Chang said.
Chang told a story from his middle school California history class. The public school’s standard textbook said that the Chinese immigrants who constructed the transcontinental railroad during the 1860s were “hardworking, obedient and never complained.” At the time, Chang felt proud of his Chinese heritage, but looking back, he reflects that those sorts of classroom experiences pressured him into accepting Orientalist stereotypes that portray Chinese people as a subservient model minority.
Chang believes that the origin of the social and racial tension in Los Angeles is past racist legislation in policymaking. He named post-WWII highway construction, which disrupted minority communities in East Los Angeles, and redlining, the practice of companies denying home loans and insurance to those living in poor areas.
“[These decisions] are still affecting how all these different enclaves that we have in Los Angeles are existing,” Chang said.
He pointed that chain link fences, tall hedges and metal fencing like that surrounding the USC campus were all segregating devices created in response to racist and classist fears.
Re: Manifest Destiny is a collection of speculative work meant to interrogate all of these phenomena while maintaining a focus on the future — and the potential consequences of inaction.
Chang recognized that his art may express a perspective that not all visitors will agree with, but hopes that they will come with an open mind.
“[The project] is just a measured response to everything that’s been happening, especially this summer,” he said. Through his project, Chang hopes to overcome a polarized political climate that has affected the way people communicate about their disagreements.
In the future, Chang hopes to continue building the world of Re: Manifest Destiny and explore it using 3-D mediums such as performance art. He also mentioned an interest in cults, which he argues can take religious, sociopolitical and even racial forms. Chang expressed mixed emotions regarding his own Asian-American identity and the failure of the Asian-American community to receive South Asians, Southeast Asians and others outside the economically powerful triangle formed by China, South Korea and Japan.
Re: Manifest Destiny is a thoughtful, future-oriented project that challenges visitors to be proactive in averting the dystopia Chang presents. The exhibit will run from Sept. 12 to 22 at the Lindhurst Fine Arts Gallery in Watt Hall.