How To Make Thick Thin: The Vertical Seamlessness of Swati Khurana’s Collages

by Sarita Echavez See

Originally published by Asian American Arts Centre in “Out of the Archive: Process and Progress” in September 2009

Leon was a junk inventor. Very weird stuff. An electric sink. Cookie-tin clocks. Clock lamps. An intercom hooked up to a cash register hooked up to the alarm system. When they lived together, Mah put up with it all: his screws, his odd beginnings of projects scattered all over her kitchen table, on their bedside. But the day after he shipped out on a voyage, she threw everything into the garbage. She called it his lop sop. ––Fae Ng, Bone.

Like the character Leon in Fae Ng’s working-class Chinatown novel Bone, Khurana is a “junk inventor” who assembles ordinary and extraordinary things and juxtaposes them in strange ways across a number of mediums: video, sculpture, drawing, and collage.[#1] Khurana has said of her process: “I’m a collector, so I have too much stuff, too much music, too many tear sheets, too many journals, too many plastic flowers, too many hard drives with too many images and movie files. But I keep it all because I hold onto a piece of text, a source image, or song that I want to incorporate in a piece. It often gets shelved for a while, until another text or image or song comes up that complements the first one, and then I ferociously work to complete it.”[#2] She had collected material for four years, including looking through her family’s photograph albums, before she attempted her first collage, which would develop into her Malabar Bride collage series (2005). In so many of her works Khurana creates and exploits the tension between juxtaposition (horizontality) and layering (verticality) that defines the “remixing and remashing” spirit of montage.#[3]

A history major in college, Khurana focused on experimental and documentary video when she did her master’s degree but she also went on to study fiber and textile. This trajectory from text to screen to textile must account for her intertwining of the thickness of lived experience with the thinness and translucency of her artistic modes of representation. For example, “Export Kwality” (2001) consists of a sequence of gauzy red square “quilts,” as the artist calls them, that are suspended from the ceiling all in a row just inches from the gallery wall. Casting shadows on the walls behind them, they at first look like a strange and delicate species of laundry fluttering and dangling from a clothesline. But upon closer inspection each of the eightworks turns out to be a kind of keepsake album. Measuring twenty inches square, each quilt has a dozen or so stitched rectangular pockets containing a variety of “veiled, but visible” diasporic objects, such as newspaper clippings of arranged marriage ads, video tapes, wrist bangles, teabags, and packets of spices and snacks.#[4] If the novel Bone captures the ironies of a Chinese American “paper son” like Leon whose junk inventions symbolize the fictitiousness of his legal life—paper sons and daughters memorized elaborate biographies in order to pass interrogation at San Francisco’s Angel Island during the Exclusion Era—art works like “Export Kwality” stitch together the “veiled, but visible” lives of South Asian immigrant and diasporic peoples today.#[5] Even as the video tapes, teabags, and bangles make up the ordinary stuff of diasporic life, these objects also stand in for the objectification and circulation of Asian workers—from waiters to maids to call-center operators to engineers to cab drivers—in today’s globalized economy.

But why are some of Khurana’s collages so flat? More importantly why do they look so flat? The eerie two-dimensionality of the collage series Garden State Reveries(2005) makes us ponder whether it is our lives, rather than the artist’s selected mediums and modes of representation, that are thin. In works like “Pancake Sackrace” and “Non-Halal Playground” not only do flattened objects like pancakes, ham slices, and platters of sandwiches recurrently appear, her technique of superimposition undoes rather than achieves a layered effect. For the collage series Malabar Bride, which later would become the basis for the sculpture 5 Day Wedding(2006), Khurana used glue and cut-outs before making Xerox copies and so it has something of the rough quality usually associated with collages. In contrast, Garden State Reveries was digitally produced. Khurana scanned all the source materials and manipulated them with the software program Photoshop. As a result, the Garden State Reveries series almost entirely lacks depth and erases perspective. Khurana thus achieves horizontal and vertical seamlessness. Brightly colored and sparkling clean, each of the Garden State Reveries looks like a single text despite the fact that Khurana used a number of source materials: Spanish-language IKEA catalogues, a coffee table book about barns, line drawings of her own childhood photographs, and food advertisements. There is no shadow to imply dimension. Indeed, a number of the characters await filling and coloring in, like the figures in untouched coloring books. In a marvelous parody of the relentless class and racial homogeneity of the American heartland, there is no shadow and, hence, no difference between the juxtaposed objects and characters in Garden State Reveries. All is for sale. These works purposefully have all the shallowness of a shop window and the compositional style of a catalogue. For of course to consume is to be American. A clever pun, the slices of ham in “Non-Halal Playground” perfectly symbolize the slices of life that are on display even as the presence of pork necessarily violates halal precepts.

Khurana’s deliberate cultivation of an aesthetic of thinness and vertical seamlessness indicates that Americanization requires the embracing of the consumption of endlessly reproducible goods. Contemporary mass culture by definition lacks depth, roots, specificity, or locality. So it is entirely appropriate that, when it comes to her collages, Khurana’s aesthetic of vertical seamlessness is reflected by her choice of a reproducible medium: the Xerox copy in the case of Malabar Bride and the digital c-print in the case of Garden State Reveries.

However, these two-dimensional collages clearly draw on her background in video production wherein the superimposition of images never can disrupt the two-dimensionality of the screen. In the three-minute video “Purest Magic” Khurana superimposes the sparkling movements of what looks like a whirling helix-like stream of light onto clips from Bollywood movies. Twice, in the corners of the video, images of a young girl in a school pinafore appear, jumping up and down and clapping her hands. As it turns out, this is footage that Khurana took of her cousin clad in Catholic school jumper. And the shiny, spinning helix turns out to be footage that Khurana shot of the sun’s reflection in Venetian canals in Italy. Capturing yet another kind of reverie, the video ends with the opening lyrics from Olivia Newton-John’s hit song “Magic”: “Come take my hand/ You should know me/ I’ve always been in your mind/ You know I’ll be kind/ I’ll be guiding you/ Building your dream.” These lyrics are from Newton-John’s “Xanadu” album, the soundtrack to the Australian actor-singer’s highly cheesy movie of unearthly romance and fantasy. Newton-John’s thin sweet voice perfectly suits the fantasy of “building your dreams,” which is represented by Bollywood clips in “Purest Magic” (and by barns and farmhouses in Garden State Reveries). But we realize that Khurana’s musical and visual remixing and remashing successfully invert the identificatory directions of celebrity fantasy. Rather than the ordinary schoolgirl dreaming of the movie star, “Purest Magic” makes it such that the movie star is dreaming of the young fan. The fan, it seems, has “always been in [the star's] mind.”

In other words, Khurana unmoors the fantasy object from its usual ground. So it is that the sandwich platters of “Horsey Girl” and the pineapple cakes of “Flying Pineapple Cakes” in the Garden State Reveries series hover aloft in idyllic blue skies and swoop down like flying saucers whose menace derives from their utter normality rather than their alienness. Icons of hyper-white, middle-class lifestyle are transformed into extraterrestrial objects that signify the threat and fascination posed by their oscillation between the alien and familiar. Indeed, Khurana pokes fun at the iconic regionalism of Grant Wood’s 1930 painting “American Gothic” by digitally producing a parody of Wood’s dour white Midwestern couple standing, pitchfork in hand, in front of a white farmhouse and a red barn. In Khurana’s “Pancake Sackrace,” a grinning boy and girl in a gunny sack race are bouncing before a red barn, a giant plate of pancakes lying before them on the neatly mown lawn.

By accentuating the eeriness of (idealized) Anglo-American middle-class lifestyles, the Garden State Reveries collages indict the homogeneity, conformity, materialism, and compulsory happiness of the American Dream. But they also indict the immigrant’s desire for such. The sociologist Enrique Bonus notes that newspaper advertisements targeting immigrants are “tailored to immigrant readers via their ethnic immigrant coding” and “bridge the gap between what one doesn’t have (yet) and what one needs to have in the new place.”# In Khurana’s “Hopscotch Picnic,” the all too familiar phrase “RE = REQUIRE ENSAMBLAJE,” which can plunge IKEA purchasers into despair, occupies the upper left corner of the collage. The phrase succinctly captures the material goods and materialist ideology that make up the “set of requirements [and] assemblage of needs, for immigrant success” in the United States.# Such advertisements whip up an appetite not for things that one needs but rather things that one should long for.

But Khurana’s use of Spanish makes a difference. Her use of cutouts from Spanish-language IKEA catalogues indicates that successful Americanization by the immigrant of color simultaneously involves the erasure of particularity (through assimilation to dominant Anglo American values) and the insistence on particularity (through the claiming of minority lingual, racial, or ethnic identity). Juxtaposed with images of bland “American” food that reached its apex of popularity in the 1950s, the mesas, lamparas, and mecedoras for sale in Garden State Reveries offer themselves as the means of assimilation into an unmarked, racially transparent (as opposed to racially transcendent) culture of mass consumption vis a vis a language like Spanish that is racially marked in the United States. Drawing upon his fieldwork in the Filipino American “capital” of Daly City, California, the anthropologist Benito Vergara calls this form of consumption a “paradoxical mix of both assimilation and an assertion of ethnic identity.”# What makes such a “paradoxical mix” so insidious, however, is the seamlessness of its presentation such that the paradoxes and contradictions of the juxtaposition melt away. Such seamlessness manifests itself in the ordinary lives of immigrants in the form of, once again, newspapers—specifically the front pages of ethnic newspapers. Having conducted ethnographic research at the Daly City-based Philippine News, Vergara describes and analyzes the editorial debates and politicking that precede the final layout of every front page. He concludes: “As do other ethnic newspapers, Philippine News straddles nations and borders. Headlines from both the Philippines and the United States jostle for attention on its front page, creating an almost seamless display of events.”# In other words, the front page collapses differences between homeland and U.S. politics, and the seamlessness of their presentation symptomatizes the transnational ambiguity and contradictions of immigrant life. Mimicking the seamlessness of the ethnic newspaper front page, Khurana’s Garden State Reveries series productively ironizes the seamlessness that is imposed on difference, competition, and conflict. Everything seems seamless.

In “Christmas Hindu,” the slogan “¡Encuentre su estil en su tienda IKEA!” occupies the same position of the upper left corner of the collage and exhorts consumers to express themselves through their “style.” Immigrant fantasies about America’s heartland are consumed by a devotion to consumption and a desire for comfort and respectability. What price, Khurana asks, are you willing to pay to fulfill this desire to belong to white America? The answer to this question lies at least partially in the eeriness of the picturesque, idyllic landscapes of Garden State Reveries. The beauty or blandness—this is up to the viewer—of these landscapes necessarily was preceded by the genocidal clearing of land. We thus begin to see the colonial implications of Khurana’s selection of objects, characters, and landscapes, and her work allows us to gain insights into the colonial underpinnings of American culture and its kinship with other white settler colonies. For example, early on in his epic novel Voss, the Australian writer Patrick White cannily introduces his reader to the brutality of white settler colonial culture in nineteenth-century Australia not with accounts of graphic violence (though those will come) but with a precise description of bourgeois goods, fashion, and mores. An upper-class white Englishwoman recently settled in Sydney, Aunt Emmy “had upholstered all hardnesses till she could sit on them in comfort.”# Aunt Emmy’s devotion to material, moral, and ideological cushioning casts into even greater relief the novel’s depiction of settler racism and violence: Is it all in the name of “comfort” that peoples are exterminated and land ruined? Similarly, Khurana’s depiction of the food, furniture, and comforts of mass consumer life makes all the more unsettling the vision of idyllic blue skies and green landscapes that are, after all, the product of settler colonial violence and the object of immigrant desire.

If IKEA attaches price tags to the various commodities that make up properly bourgeois American life, Khurana documents the price of such acquisitiveness. In the photographic portrait Most Reluctant Housekeeper: Meenakshi Thirokode by Khurana’s collaborator Anjali Bhargava, part of Khurana’s and Bhargava’s UnSuitable Girls sculpture-cum-photography series, the Asian woman at the center of the portrait resignedly clutches the trophy that bears the same title. She looks exhausted, overwhelmed by the clothes, household goods, and shoes that she needs to sort and either pack or unpack. They press in on her. In fact, upon closer inspection, the Housekeeper looks miniaturized in relation to all the things around her that have been magnified by the distortions of the camera. Her shoes in the foreground are grotesquely giant, almost alarming in their disruption of the ordinariness of this ordinary woman. In the context of Khurana’s other works, one wonders for a moment whether Most Reluctant Housekeeper is a photograph or a collage. Are the vacuum cleaner, boots, and high-heel sandals actually cutouts that were inserted seamlessly into the portrait? The photographer thus turns the staged realism of the photograph into surrealist collage, and even as the portrait and the entire series obviously has comic elements, the viewer is left with a frisson of fear that the price of acquisition and accumulation is much too high, especially for women.

Finally, however, it is the critic’s desire for depth that must be interrogated. In a generally positive review of Khurana’s 2007 solo exhibition “Engendered” in Miami, a critic complained that Khurana lacked mystery. The critic reasserts Orientalist and sexual stereotypes of Asian women with breathtaking frankness: “Overall, Khurana’s creative fecundity, coupled with the easy accessibility of the works, contributes to a lack of mystique. The potential for allure and sophistication would increase exponentially if the artwork would make use of the feminine wiles employed by Bollywood’s heroines – and play harder to get.”# Basically, Khurana needs to be more exotic. In this stunning collapse of aesthetics with sex, the artist is too easy. The aesthetic is sex and art is trade. This critic’s specious presumptions impelled me—a feminist Asian American critic—to turn away temporarily in this essay from an explicit analysis of gender and sexuality in Khurana’s works. For it is precisely Khurana’s “easiness,” her vertical seamlessness, that fascinates. It is precisely what is on the surface that the critic fails to see.

Sarita Echavez See is the author of The Decolonized Eye: Filipino American Art and Performance and she is at work on a book-length project called “Essays against Accumulation.” She teaches Asian American Studies at the University of California Davis. With the filmmaker Angel Velasco Shaw, she is co-founder of a new non-profit organization and website called the Center for Art and Thought.