“Art was a big part of her life, and I wanted to memorialize her legacy as much as possible,” said the contemporary art gallery’s founder, Eli Klein, who worked with Lee from 2010 to 2014.
“She’s someone who deserves to be remembered in a larger context than this single tragedy.”
Working with the Eli Klein Gallery, Christina Yuna Lee handles a sculpture by Chinese artist Li Hongbo in 2013. She worked as an associate director at the gallery. Credit: Courtesy Phil Cai/Eli Klein Gallery
“I really felt like I couldn’t move on with my life unless I did something about her death,” they said.
Some of the exhibition’s powerful works grapple with themes of tragedy and violence.
“I’ve gone to look for America (Pistol 1)” (2021) by Haena Yoo. Credit: Courtesy David Lah/Phil Cai/Eli Klein Gallery
Six prints from Hồng-Ân Trương, meanwhile, speak to the hypersexualization of Asian women during US military operations in Asia. Sifting through archival footage filmed by US and Australian soldiers in Vietnam during the late 1960s and early ’70s, Trương finds the moments in which the soldiers’ gaze fixates on Vietnamese women and creates stills of them. The work is personal — her mother would have been in her late teens and early 20s at the time. But by divorcing the images from the context in which they were filmed, Trương attempts to give the nameless women a chance at autonomy and newfound possibility.
Hồng-Ân Trương’s piece, “00:04:48:08” (2017). Credit: Hong-An Truong/Phil Cai/Eli Klein Gallery
As visitors move through the exhibition, they eventually come to a painting by Lee, depicting the Chinese cigarette brand Golden Bridge, detailed with gold leaf. She had made the work for Klein around the time she left the gallery, a nod to her boss’ former smoking habit and to the Chinese practice of gifting cigarettes as a sign of respect. Below the painting, the show’s artists have placed objects in an altar for Lee.
“Golden Bridge for Eli Klein” (2014) by Christina Yuna Lee. Credit: Christina Yuna Lee/Phil Cai/Eli Klein Gallery
An altar of offerings is placed below Lee’s painting. Credit: Courtesy Phil Cai/Eli Klein Gallery
huang, who works as an interdisciplinary artist, created replicas of Chinese Daqianmen cigarettes — a brand that was also a favorite of their grandfather’s — out of joss paper for the altar. Joss papers, also known as ghost money, are tissue-thin sheets burned as offerings to ancestors in China and other Asian countries.
“Asian people are expected to dull their emotions in this country and be perceived as pleasant,” said huang, who opts to lowercase their name to keep the emphasis on the art. “To be pleasant all the time means that you cannot grieve all the time. And I think it’s resulted in a lot of unprocessed grieving. Reminding ourselves to return to the grieving processes that our ancestors engaged in feels right at this time.”
Christina Yuna Lee. Credit: Courtesy Phil Cai/Eli Klein Gallery
Despite the sense of loss and tragedy that continues to haunt Asian Americans, the show is also meant to celebrate Lee — her life and the power she embodies in death. Her voice continues to reverberate in the movement against AAPI hate, and huang said they hope others in the community are able to find strength, too.
“The only people that can really help us are ourselves, and we have to speak up,” huang said. “As crippling as these events and crimes have been, I wanted to channel the grievance into something that was social rather than isolated.”
The exhibition “with her voice, penetrate earth’s floor” is on view at Eli Klein Gallery in New York City until June 5.
Top image: An exhibition shot of Eli Klein Gallery’s “with her voice, penetrate earth’s floor” exhibition.