Why We Still Need the Godzilla Network

Two museums bookend Godzilla: Asian American Arts Network, a 2021 archival anthology edited by Howie Chen about the eponymous and influential activist network from New York City. The first museum is a fantasy, a vision of an institution with equity and representation at its core. 

On July 26, 1990, at the formative meeting for Godzilla at Margo Machida’s studio in Brooklyn, artists Ken Chu and Bing Lee and art historian Machida discussed, according to the minutes captured in the anthology, “ideas for forming an Asian American arts institution that would begin to address the emerging needs of contemporary Asian American visual artists.” Both Chu and Lee outlined a vision for an Asian-American art museum, “a place we could ‘call our own’ as other ethnic minorities have formed their own institutions. [Machida] thought this was a good idea, however an extremely long-term one requiring full-time effort … She questioned whether as artists, anyone would be willing to give up their careers to pursue this goal — considering the amount of effort required to start an institution.”

At the opposite end of the book is a real brick-and-mortar museum about one segment of Asian-American life, operating amid the realities of New York City in 2021. In a reprinted statement originally published in Hyperallergic in 2021 to the leadership of the Museum of Chinese in America, members of Godzilla withdrew from a planned retrospective after accusing the museum of benefiting from mass incarceration.

Machida’s prescient thoughts in 1990 still ring true today — building institutions requires time and care, and we should expect tension, dissent, negotiation, and renegotiation.

Reading through Godzilla is like viewing a snapshot of Asian-American life in the 1990s, a decade that saw a significant rise in immigration from Asia and, consequently, questions about representation and access in the art world. The Godzilla network emerged as an important forum to engage in these discussions, through community meetings, exhibitions, and the group’s newsletter. As I wrote in a blurb in February, this monumental anthology captures the group’s history in a year-by-year chronology with art, photos, typewritten letters, meeting minutes, exhibition records, and other archival materials that bring the dynamic period to life. 

In so doing, the book gives us insight into the group’s debates and discussions, which remain deeply resonant in today’s climate of police harassment and anti-Asian violence. In 1991, for example, the Chinese artist Lin Lin faced verbal and physical harassment by a young man while making paintings in Times Square. That person then shot and killed him. In Godzilla’s winter 1991 newsletter, author Karen Chinn contextualized the shooting amid the harassment that sidewalk artists often faced in the city from different sources. Chinn interviewed Mini Liu, co-chair of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, who pointed out that many of Lin Lin’s compatriots “feel strongly that [his] death was directly related to artists being forced to work in remote, unsafe areas to avoid police harassment and assault.” 

The book was published in 2021, but a recent exhibition at Eric Firestone Gallery, Godzilla: Echoes of the 1990s Asian American Arts Network (curated by Hyperallergic contributor Jennifer Samet), has brought it back into the spotlight. The sprawling, two-gallery show brought together some 70 works, including a number from important exhibitions organized by Godzilla — some tackling the AIDS crisis, Asian-American identity, and Orientalism. 

If there was one thing missing from the Godzilla anthology, it was a deeper look at the actual artworks featured by the network. As the anthology is already over 500 pages long, this would likely require a second volume, and so I was glad to have the gallery show to relive some of the works. One of the visually outstanding pieces was Ik-Joong Kang’s “Happy World” (1998), featuring a decaying gold Buddha against a backdrop of tchotchkes and mini paintings. A corkscrew, a toy dinosaur, a souvenir spoon bearing an image of the Statue of Liberty, and a souvenir license plate with the phrase “China Town” in English and Mandarin are just some of the many objects capturing the spirit of a curio shop. If the Buddha statue feels like a sacred riposte to the profane objects behind it, it’s worth remembering that these statues, too, can be picked up in curio stalls. 

The broad selection of the Eric Firestone Gallery show brought to life the topics discussed in the Godzilla anthology, namely how Asian-American identity has spanned a broad range of experiences, from how we relate to the city around us to our families and our own mental health. But I also appreciated the quieter pieces, like Rumiko Tsuda’s circular painting “Mandala of New Yorkers” (2004), depicting a panoply of figures one might see crossing Union Square. And Nina Kuo’s drawing, “Pigtail Family Boombox, Color Chart” (1999–2006), showed a figure apparently stepping away from family, but they all remain tied together by their hair. Pacita Abad’s “Weeping Woman” (1985), made of cowrie shells, buttons, and glass beads, among other objects, felt like a blanket I want to wrap around myself in difficult, weepy moments.  

My colleague Elaine Velie’s overview earlier this year captures the spirit and range of the show and the book. As Godzilla co-founder Bing Lee told her, “I think [the network] grew so fast because we were hungry to understand. We tried to share something common in our cultures, in our religions, and through the difference we tried to understand the difference, too. Through the network we could understand each other more.”

What most struck me when I saw the show in person was the sheer variety of work on display. The Godzilla anthology adds context to this range, and Alice Yang’s essay “Why Asia?” in particular points out, in crisp prose, the tensions that engender such a range: 

At the same time that Asian American artists try to articulate their own position within this society, they run the risk of reducing it into a formulaic set of generalities. Trying to open up a space of critical discussion within their community, they run the risk of isolation and segregation. But if they do not do all of this, then they also lose the possibility of articulating the distinctiveness of their experience and culture, and they run the risk of invisibility and incomprehension. Whatever they do, their position in relation to the mainstream remains highly ambivalent.

If there’s a lesson from the anthology, as well as the show, it’s perhaps that Asian-American art is deeply complex, much like the many manifestations of Godzilla the monster. Godzilla the fictional lizard is a metaphor that has come to represent nuclear weapons, US military aggression, natural disasters, and many other aspects of the 21st-century human condition. Godzilla is at times a hero, but has also been a villain, a topic of serious inquiry, and an entertaining subplot.

And in that regard, Godzilla the network has done its best to reflect and challenge the many ways of living life as an Asian-American person. The demographic has the largest wealth gap in the country. We live in a world where some Asian Americans vie for the highest seats of power, where caste discrimination persists, and where some 50 ethnic groups have vastly different experiences.   

All of these aspects shape the art, and the institutions created to promote and house that art, from indie collectives to museums with endowments. The Godzilla anthology is an important historic record that shows us why and how the Godzilla network needed to exist in the 1990s. And like any good archive, it also points to where the conversation needs to go today, some 30 years later.

Godzilla: Asian American Arts Network (2021), edited by Howie Chen, is published by Primary Information and is available online and in bookstores.

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