The door to the Great Hall of the James B. Duke House on the Upper East Side is heavy as deadweight and I must lean with my entire body to push open the ornate metalwork frame and glass. Doormen in gloves nod as I pass into the cold, marble foyer. Inside, a security guard plays an unwitting tour guide, gesturing toward Amy Yao’s installation, Authorized Personnel (2019), which sits at the bottom of a grand staircase crested with intricate iron work along its banister. Yao’s installation, which is a series of panels of chain link fence latticed with orange and red netting, sets a glowering and contradictory presence. “That’s it, that’s the whole art show,” explained the guard, whose job requires that he sit adjacent to the artwork for hours at a time. “She wants it to look like a construction site or something you’d see outside.” He wasn’t wrong. Set on a marble platform, Authorized Personnel appears like an industrial dressing screen that conceals a construction zone, but closer inspection betrays its facade. What looks like ubiquitous, plastic, orange netting is actually laser-cut faux silk fabrics printed with traditional Chinese motifs in glittering brocade.
Originally, the house was built for the man for whom the building is named: James Buchanan Duke, a tobacco, railroad, electricity, and academic magnate who made big money during the Industrial era. He and his wife donated the house to New York University’s Institute for the Arts, whose programming at the Great Hall is currently dedicated to showcasing mid-career women artists like Yao. The traditions of the era that saw the conception of the Great Hall are certainly old, but the world it stole from is older. Chinese patterns, fabrics, and styles like Cheongsams were highly coveted and heavily imported to Europe and the United States during and after the Gilded Age. Chinoiserie, for example, is the European (read: whitewashed) interpretation of these traditional motifs. On principle, cultural appropriation and Orientalism work to alienate a culture’s meaning from its origin; they reduce an entire heritage, history, and way of life to a set of guiding aesthetic principles which can be borrowed and rearranged at will. Yao’s metaphor focuses on the role of ornamentation, specifically linking it to her heritage as a Chinese American woman living and working in Los Angeles. The faux silk fabric is delicate but symbolizes a fierce stance for Yao, who positions the synthetic sheath over the chain link fence as an intersection between her gender and cultural identity. She’s directly challenging the Western stereotype that Asian women are decorative objects in the world of patriarchy, in addition to making an indictment on redevelopment’s denigration of marginalized Asian American communities. In the last thirty years or so, artists have favored Chinatowns in both Los Angeles and Manhattan as kitschy cultural hubs and nifty places to embed their art galleries and skate shops.
Visitors are allowed to walk up to Yao’s installation, to stand inside it and look out into the stately foyer from behind its chain link fence. Still, the Duke House had a way of affecting a sense of trespass; I felt I had no business being in this building. Rarely do I find myself tootling around the Upper East Side, unless I’ve made a specific pilgrimage to an art institution typically endowed by wealthy East Coasters. With that said, I felt better on the inside of Yao’s fence, buffered from a clear view of the chandeliers and oil portraits of barons and industrialists on the other side. I was enclosed neatly like the interloper I felt I was. I wondered who sees this art and how does it confront the people who need to be confronted? Who swans in and out of this building on a regular basis and who bumps into Yao’s installation on their way down the winding and majestic staircase?
Bringing the outside world inside or rather, mucking up class distinctions is a regular fixture in Yao’s work, which often focuses on land use and environmental issues like gentrification and pollution. Yao applies issues of artifice and authenticity to issues of identity. “As a Chinese-American, I think about myself differently than how I’m perceived,” says Yao. She explores liminal space through material choices, often through combinations of faux and real versions of fabrics, like her use of silk in Authorized Personnel. Similarly, combining the soft patterned fabric with the grit of a chain link fence creates a visual tension that’s often so arresting it distracts from her point. The orange and red strips blended together in the diffused light and created an illusion of a radioactive sunset, an ephemeral room-inside-a-room. An in-between corner, a nowhere place.
In Authorized Personnel, Yao uses the structural signifiers of neighborhood change which sing— silently—the siren song of gentrification. In New York, scaffolding tends to mask a building’s renovation from people at street level (I still have no idea what portions of Chelsea looks like because of this) while in Yao’s Los Angeles, where public life is less visible, certain tweaks like lateral fencing serve as shorthand for gentrification. The more insidious effects of displacement (like eviction) are hidden in plain sight with cosmetic changes. Neighborhoods are blanketed in tarps and emerge homogenized, devoid of their earlier character and priced to eject the people who gave the block its vigor.
In an era when homelessness continues to be a serious public health issue, legacy buildings like the James B. Duke House read more as mausoleums to bygone wealth rather than sites of cultural engagement. When you think of homelessness as a spatial issue—when you consider the nooks and crannies people tuck themselves into throughout the city, the subway stairwells, the alleys, the skid rows— the vacant but sprawling interior of a Gilded Age mansion lobby on the Upper East Side feels violent in its reservation, if only because it draws its own use into question. With Authorized Personnel, Yao positions the issue of who is blocked from certain spaces and whose culture is used as the currency to promote that space’s artistic value. The answer is usually one and the same. Yao attempts to wrangle a broad swath of issues and pull them into a cohesive bundle with Authorized Personnel, the title of which alludes to both the social and prohibitive aspects of redevelopment, housing, and gentrification–issues which are further complicated by the installation’s location. All these ideas are tied gingerly to a fence meant for the outdoors that has been dragged inside, and are less apparent than Yao proposes. But maybe that’s the point.
Despite being friendly, the security guard, like all security guards, is tasked to assess all incomers. In this luxurious mansion, his presence and the provenance along with the heavy door and the day-to-day of a neighborhood named “Millionaire’s Row” where vintage Rolls-Royces idle casually in the street while gloved doormen pace the sidewalks sets a proprietary tone for an already proprietary space. Meanwhile, Yao’s symbolic fence sits under a beautiful skylight in an ornate room where the people it is meant to represent will likely never see it, and the people it’s meant to confront continue building all around it.
Amy Yao: Authorized Personnel continues through September 15, 2019 at the Institute of Arts, New York University at the James B. Duke House, 1 East 78th Street.
Angella d’Avignon is a writer in New York.