On Larry Lee’s “The (Un)Timely Death of Multiculturalism”

I landed in Chicago a few weeks ago and wanted to speak to the artist and poet Larry Lee about his mid-career retrospective. Because I am not the fastest writer, by the time this blog post is published, the show will have closed. So the post will exist as an artifact of my reflection, and hopefully as part of the archive regarding Larry’s work.

I met Larry Lee almost seven years ago in Chicago. I had been mostly working as a teaching artist in 5th grade classrooms (there’s apparently a lot of research around how this is the target year for “arts education”…) and was preparing to teach my first college course on Asian American literature. Larry had been teaching an Asian American art course and we exchanged syllabi, and discussed the quotidanness of my most recent job interview. I proposed to teach “Asian American Literature” in a fairly traditional English department and my interviewer–a professor of English literature–wanted to know if “Asian American” literature was literature written in Asia about the United States. It took all of my restraint muscles not to roll my eyes and to–as politely as possible–provide a quick overview of Asian American history without insulting the professor in charge of deciding whether or not I would adjunct for the first time.

Larry had too many similar stories. Anecdotes about the function of: starting again and again. White gatekeepers can be made really funny in memory but in the moment its devastation. Throughout the year I became more and more acquainted with Larry, first as a fellow educator, part of my support network, then as an artist.

Larry’s “The Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated” at the Beverly Art Center showcases some of his most powerful performances and objects. From the documentation of the funeral for multiculturalism titled “The (Un)Timely Death of Multiculturalism” (2011), to “Bruce” (2000) –the space encapsulated the issues and ideas Larry’s work has been most deeply grappling with.

The (Un)Timely Death of Multiculturalism” (2011) stayed with me over the years but seeing it against in the show I noticed new things.

The piece exists as object and performance. In its sculptural form the word is split, the cuts are: “Multi / cultur / alism.” These breaks are important I think, as they separate the politics (multi), from its situated terrain (culture) to the praxis of its ideology (an “ism). Usually I would crash against a division between politics, aesthetics, culture and form–but the “Multi / cultur / alism” object exists as both split and paired. At the Beverly Art Center they are staggered so one is facilitated in the reading of the word: Multiculturalism–and simultaneously reminded of its fracture.

In the documentation we see performers on rollerblades gliding down the street with the three signs. Behind them is a barrage of funeral attendees, some in black attire, others chatting happily. There are pipes being played. There is a hodgepodge of funeral signifiers and the vibe is a mixture of a school field trip and art assignment.

When the rollerbladers roll into the ceremony space, Larry reads from an obituary that states, “Multiculturalism played an important role in each of our lives.” I worry immediately that the obituary conflates the tensions between neoliberalism and social movements that were built against their exploitation. The performer Larry states that multiculturalism “fell out of favor” but does not taper in on the appropriative violence of institutions. The fervor of previous social movements and their subsequent co-optations are collapsed. Rod Ferguson has written about this institutional history and I think the distinction from political action to institutional management–these are important. Larry is speaking to a room full of artists and arts administrators, so it’s clear that the statement has the potential to be critical and also a mockery. There are translators on stage with him, though their distinctive languages and vocabularies are indistinguishable because they are speaking at the same time. A commentary perhaps, putting to practice the best of multiculturalism: a funeral performance of an obituary in which nothing but the English can be heard though we feel and see other languages being spoken.

In the document we are shown a white woman laying in the casket of “multiculturalism.” I immediately think that this is fitting, as white women were the biggest benefactors of affirmative action. She at some point, gets up and leaves the casket and the space entirely. It’s a stark metaphor, a commentary of so much. There’s a reception and people are eating. There is more chatter and laughter. We can see the white woman who was once lying in the casket move about. This gesture does not feel so symbolic.

Seeing the documentation of the performance in July of 2016 led me think a lot about the death of certain neoliberal mandates for the potential of others: an urgent, necessary task. I wanted to discuss these elements with. Here’s a snippet of our conversation:  

EK: I was struck by the performance of a “funeral” for multiculturalism especially as a way to think about the current moment we live in. Aside from the critiques of multiculturalism, there have been thorough critiques of the politics of solidarity, of neoliberalist notions of “inclusion” of neoliberalism and co-optation. These critiques speak to methodologies and strategies that have failed many, or rather–they exist to fail some and benefit others. Your performance speaks to the critiques of neoliberalism and I wanted to ask about how a funeral for multiculturalism is the ways in which groups such as “Asians for Black Lives” or a way in which a politics that centers Black Lives might be prioritized. In putting to death the rhetoric favored by administrators, are we left with more useful terminology and horizons? And if so, what else could we put to death?  

LL: Multiculturalism is a word that has been co-opted and weaponized by administrators, and the Right.  It’s a term that has roots in optimism–it isn’t supposed to be a signifier of emptiness and metrics. It should be clear for too many that by the time the Right got a hold of the term it didn’t mean anything anymore. In hindsight, I sincerely believe so since burying multiculturalism or its idea or ideal as something tainted by neoliberalism makes what remains seem more pure and hopefully less cynical. And what else I want to see put to death in relation is the stratification associated with the term “model minority” which seems an oxymoron especially imposed to promulgate such division. Hell, we might as well cremate “yellow fever/face” too. There’s potential here.

EK: Yes, I was thinking about your artwork and your occupation in relation to administrative and college work—where you witness the evaluation or process of “good” art on a daily basis. It made me think about your Multiculturalism project. There is a difference between politics and politicians, and in thinking about co-optation, the institutions will bury the thing that the institutions feel confronted by. It’s a terminology that exists to show us that whatever kind of politics it held–that it will not be executed. Though the word, multiculturalism will be part of so many of their objects–pamphlets, website directions, tours, meetings. The politics will not be executed because the politicians have arrived.

LL: Multiculturalism is the term the Ivory Tower feels most comfortable with, yet it doesn’t exist. In putting the ceremony together, I made it as farcical, official, and trite.  Yet in utilizing humor, not everyone will need to understand. This is very important for me. I don’t expect everyone to “get” the joke and I believe “getting” the joke is not an immediate transaction. Humor vibrates and it sits differently for different persons every time. Maybe you laugh along because everyone else does, maybe you copy my joke but without laughing, maybe you appropriate it and it’s inappropriate to do so, but who will call you out on this? Maybe the joke is everyday–in how you survive. It is imperfect, humor, but I find its instability to be a great destabilizing material, of my own materials.

EK: Thanks Larry. In thinking about this performance, I wanted to ask about your relationship to pop culture as material, as the debate seems to cycle over itself, especially works like “Ching, Chang, Chong” (1994) Asian American representation is whitewashed Asian America—so the critique of Asian American comes with the critique of yellowface, whitewashing, fake Asian, so forth (this is what pop culture gives us). Can you talk about your relationship to this material as material? I was thinking about this specifically, while watching “Portrait of the Artist as a Pip” (1998).  

LL: I’m a baby boomer who grew up during the civil rights era. For me, the movement was distilled in color. Additionally I lived in Chinatown, a xenophobic place, for sure, but forced by the powers that be to circle their wagons for survival. In relationship to my materials, I’m always thinking in terms of its power relationships.

Pop culture is fascinating for me because it’s a mirror in which I see myself but I’m often confused by the representations. And in this reflection, the only thing to do is to reject it completely, to break it all completely, but only because of how it is being portrayed which I also oddly embrace since this imagery inherently shapes who I am artistically.


"Bruce" (2000)

“Bruce” (2000) detail from the show


EK: Yes, I did think that in your work there seemed to be a fascination with Asian American tokens–or what has been tokenized–such as the “Bruce” (2000) which is a fascinating sculpture, an endless immortal loop of nunchucks. I loved how the nunchucks were unusable yet visualized. A weaponizing of both the weapon and the stereotype.

LL: While growing up in Chinatown and as the son of parents who cooked for a living, I learned what was authentic and what was made for commercial consumption and I liked both of them. It’s part of who my parents were, catering to, and also a masquerade of–in terms of addressing customers who did not know about the food, let alone the culture. Asian American studies discusses the historical forces that drove this behavior–the ways in which we are taught to speak to some in one way, or how the menu might change for someone else. I’ve always thought about it as science fiction, there is what you see on the page and the screen–the narrative of white people saving other white people, or the narrative of conquer and travel and certain kinds of bodies–and then there are the layers below and above. Not everyone will be able to see it all–and this is precisely the point of the token that it has become. For me, the fascination is not outside of the critique, not outside the disgust, not outside the care for the layers that I’ve been taught to read.

EK: I also wanted to ask you about your job as an educator as the sole instructor of “Asian American” art—“Asian American” has been continuously situated as emergent and emerging. Can you discuss this?

LL: My own work has been moving more and more towards the hyperbolic, but in my fantasy the opposite of what you just stated happens. I realize that what you just stated is the state of education for Asian American art, but when I’m teaching these courses, I think of my position as  filling the gaps. It’s important for me that the younger generation have a quicker jump start, that they have earlier access to their historical and communal legacies, politics and materials for a greater vantage point. As a student, I had to piecemeal stuff together and draw up my own education which was always a kind of self-education. It doesn’t have to be this way: it should not be this way.  

EK: This is great to think about, especially in relation to your usage of ceremony and the death of terms. Okay and lastly, can you tell us about what you’re thinking of, in terms of next steps? Do you have a new horizon in mind? Other projects?

LL:  My newer body of work conflates two major influences from childhood that seem at odds as genre: science fiction that seeks to create or explore new worlds and the martial arts. Or the future reinvented as modern and modernist societies scrubbed white and sterilized clean that I marry with the past as ancient traditions of philosophy as self-defense. A dumb and bad reinterpretation of East meets West but indiscriminately rewound and fast-forwarded so that what results is scrambled as if beamed up in a transporter. I’m going to rework all this material. It will be used in an impossible way.

EK: Thank you Larry! I hope lots of people were able to see your show. And I look forward to seeing your new work!


Larry Lee grew up in Chinatown on 23rd Place off Wentworth in Chicago and later Andersonville before moving to South Carolina. In 1980, he returned to Chicago to earn his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Illinois at Chicago and his Master of Fine Arts in Sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His work has been exhibited in Chicago at the Chicago Cultural Center, Gallery 400 and Evanston Arts Center as well as in New York City, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, Cleveland and Glasgow, Scotland. Lee is currently the Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he also teaches Asian American Art History and also serves as the curator for the Foundation for Asian American Independent Media.