Eyes Drawn: Asian American Femininity in Tran T. Kim-Trang's operculumby Michelle Dizon
Fade in from bright white. The camera, accompanied by urgent, dissonant violins, grazes across a textured surface that we soon come to recognize as the raised bumps of Braille. The image cuts to a Caucasian woman’s face being prepared for plastic surgery. The size of this shot is smaller than the aspect ratio of the frame and surrounded by a black border. Soon a voice, processed through a filter, states:
This focus on the Asian American eye as a locus of racialization in aletheia, will set the stage for Tran's second video, operculum, which highlights how the Asian American eye is shaped by the Orientalist legacies of inscrutability on the one hand, and Blepharosplasty, a surgical procedure of which removes fat and excess skin and muscle from the upper and lower eyelids, on the other.
I think, he tried explaining, that history being trapped in people means that history is embodied in physical characteristics such as skin colors. And do you know what part of our bodies they find so mysteriously inscrutable? It’s our little eyes. They think they can’t see into these little squinty eyes.
In operculum, Tran uses herself as a subject and poses as a possible client for Blepharosplasty. She consults with plastic surgeons around Los Angeles and explains that her video camera is there to document the consultation for her parents who are going to pay for the procedure. Throughout the video, the screen is split. On one side we view Tran's consultation with the doctor and on the other side we view the discourses that surround the procedure. In what is said by the doctors, we come to understand how Asian American women are subjected to two impossibilities: an 'inscrutability' aligned with the monolid on the one hand, and assimilation aligned with the lidded Western eye on the other hand. It is the latter route of assimilation that will allow her entry into the standards of Western femininity.
From one doctor, we learn that to remove the extra fat from Tran’s eye is to make it "more feminine." This doctor claims that the procedure will allow for a little bit more of Tran's eyelid to show so that she will be able to put on makeup. From another doctor we learn that it has “been easy to make a nice improvement in Oriental people because there is a lot of fat in there and once you take away the fat it folds in pretty nicely." As is evident from the statements of both doctors, the Asian monolid is associated with something that stops short of beautiful and with a lack of femininity. The Western standards of beauty to which these doctors subject Tran's eyes are both gendered, racialized, and embedded in long histories of Orientalism.
As operculum proceeds we gradually learn the real risks that this surgical procedure can pose. There are two procedures for eyelid surgery that Tran might undergo: one by scalpel and one by laser. In either case, there is danger of temporary or permanent loss of vision from bleeding in the back of the eye. Between the desire for eyes that fit Western standards of beauty and the real risk of blindness as a result of the procedure, Tran maps a split that manifests formally in the split-screen that dominates the work. While getting the procedure might allow the Asian woman to be seen within the terms of Western femininity, at the same time what she paradoxically might sacrifice is her own ability to see. The Asian woman is thus shuttled between two impossibilities: she can keep her sight but remain in the realm of racialized inscrutability marked by her monolid. Or she can opt for Blepharosplasty, and risk her own blindness for the promise of entry into the realm of Western feminity that a lidded eye would afford.
The Blindness Series was inspired by the exhibition Memoires of the Blind organized by Jacques Derrida and it is productive to consider operculum in light of the exhibition's propositions. Derrida asserts two hypotheses for the exhibition. The first is that even though drawing might be understood as a visual practice, one in which the world is translated onto two dimensions through the hand of a draughtsman, drawing is always concerned with and compelled by blindness. The second is that at the heart of all drawings of the blind is the origin of drawing itself. These two propositions are important to consider alongside not only operculum , but alongside the larger The Blindness Series, for they suggest how Tran treats the practice of video-making as a form of drawing. By focusing on the theme of blindness and aligning it with the act of drawing, Tran dislodged herself from a work with video steeped in the 'truth' or veritability of a matter. Rather than using video to instantiate an understanding of vision lodged in Western Enlightenment assumptions about truth-value, mastery, dominance, and power, Tran works to describe a visuality at the interstice of race, gender, and history, a visuality that simultaneously situates blindness in both a poetic and political dimension.
The masterful, dominant, and violent forms of vision countered by Tran's The Blindness Series are described in a Cheyenne tale, included as a voiceover in the first tape, aletheia. The tale links the European genocide in the Americas to the politics of visuality. It shows how the desire for mastery within Western visuality is not limited to the eyes, but rather, part of a larger egotism in which the world exists only for the self. In the tale, a Cheyenne man bears the gift of sight in that he is able to send his eyes out of his head with a simple command: “eyes hang upon a branch.” When the White man sees him do this, he asks to be taught to do the same. The Cheyenne man teaches the White man but warns him, under no condition, should he send his eyes from his body more than four times in one day. The White man finds the tallest tree and sends his eyes from his body again and again and each time they return to him. One, two, three, four… the problem begins when the White man disregards the warning. "The fifth time his eyes remained fastened to the limb. All day he called, but the eyes began to swell and spoil, and flies gathered on them. White man grew tired and lay down, facing his eyes, still calling for them, though they never came; and he cried." The tale shares that the problem is not the birds-eye view that the protagonist, White man, gains by sending his eyes out of his body and onto the branch of a tall tree. In fact, it is the Cheyenne who teaches the White this feat of eagle's sight. In matters of vision, the problem is not the vision itself, but its abuse. The loss of the White man’s eyes originates not in the power of sight, but in a desire for visual mastery that, in turn, denies the location and limit of his own body.
Over the course of the narrative, we see his desire for mastery played out again and again, not only over what the eyes see, but also over the other creatures that the White man encounters. When his eyes, bound to the branch of the tree, begin to swell and rot, he captures a mouse. The relation he has to the mouse is not one of dignity and respect, but instead of power and capture. When the mouse offers to retrieve White man's eyes for him, White man, rather than trust the word of the mouse, opts instead to exert his domination over the small creature. He tells the mouse that he will only let it go if it gives him one of its eyes. His conquest over the mouse reaps one small eye that he places in his large human socket. It rolls and rattles and turns in on itself. But despite his possession of the mouse's eye, White man still cannot see. He continues to search for a way to make good on his lost sight. When he happens upon a buffalo, he also requests its eye. The buffalo gives one to him, but it is too large for the human socket. It protrudes far ahead of White-man's face and he can only see far into the distance. Between the eye too small and the eye too large, there is no real vision-- only the illusion of vision as seen through the skewed perspective of disembodied eyes that have been replaced through conquest.
The tale is not only one of a relation between men, the White and the Native American, but instead, its frame is much more expansive and considers the relation between the White man and the living world. White man is shown to hold a negative relation to the living world and his own sense of humanity, hinges upon this negative relation to others. The more he draws distinctions between himself and the other living things he encounters, the more he is able to consolidate his sense of vision, in spite of his primary state of blindness with the loss of his eyes. Over the course of the narrative, we find that what is lost is not only his literal vision but a relation to all living things that is not founded on domination. What is revealed is that in his domination is a fundamental loss of himself, a loss that is continually repeated with each attempt to reconcile his disembodied sight, his mastery, through violence.
As the Western gaze is more often than not, transcendentalized and transparent, the perspective that this tale offers is that of the minority as they see the White man, seeing. The mouse eye turns in on itself, a solipsistic gaze, unable to see the relation of itself to the rest of the world. The buffalo eye protrudes from the head, a transcendental gaze that can only see far into the distance. In both cases, the eye occupies a space at a vast remove from the body. It floats, between one vision and the other, and makes every desperate attempt to reconcile the disparity. The disembodiment of White man's vision in this Cheyenne tale can be juxtaposed with the way Tran's Blindness Series dislodged itself from a work of seeing that might forward the visibility of a matter. Rather than instantiating sight, Tran works to unravel a complex visuality at the interstice of race, gender, and history-- an interstice where it is not possible to explore what is unseen or invisible, but where it is necessary to engage with the politics of visibility and all of the relations of power that produce what can and cannot be seen, who sees and who doesn't see, and what one sees from where.
In operculum, Tran offers a specific analysis of the relation between visualization and objectification, one that explores the layers of history that are housed in the racialized and gendered body and the discourses that come to write it. By exposing the Orientalist logics embedded in Blepharosplasty, Tran draws the Asian American women's eye away from those who would want to alter its contours and offers a critical reflection on how power determines the field of vision. Importantly, Tran does not only stay in the realm of representation but does this work within the visual itself, questioning the deep Eurocentric assumptions that underscore vision. operculum creates an important space to interrogate Asian American subjectivity and desire while reclaiming the possibility for history to not only be trapped in the Asian American woman's body, but to be unleashed. By contending with the racism that is deeply embedded in Western discourse, Tran opens the door for new, liberatory, and self-determined possibilities in Asian American gender and sexuality.
Michelle Dizon is an artist, filmmaker, writer, theorist, and educator based in Los Angeles, California. Born in the United States as part of the Philippine diaspora, Dizon’s life experience has been shaped by the politics of migration across the Pacific Rim. The violence of imperialism and the intimate spaces of resistance within globalization form central pivots in her work which take the form of multi-channel video installations, expanded cinema performances, essay films, photographs, discursive events, pedagogical platforms, and writing. Dizon is the founder of at land’s edge, an experimental platform for visual research and catalyst for decolonial thought and action. She has taught courses on documentary, visuality, postcoloniality, globalization, war, feminism, and ecology at the California Institute of the Arts and served as co-chair and core faculty in the Visual Art program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She earned an MFA in Art with specialization in Interdisciplinary Studio at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Ph.D. in Rhetoric with designated emphases in Film and Women, Gender, and Sexuality from the University of California, Berkeley.