What you need to know
Taiwanese artist Huang Po-Chih’s installation comes to Taipei’s Double Square Gallery as the latest contribution to the mythicization of Chinese American sex worker Song Yang.
Huang Po-Chih’s installation Heaven on Fourth is on display at Double Square Gallery in Taipei until February 6, 2021. Originally commissioned by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum and Performa and presented as a live performance piece at the Performa 19 Biennial in New York City, Heaven on Fourth’s current iteration continues a fraught conversation regarding the ethics of staging the traumas of marginalized communities from an outsider’s perspective.
Inspired by the experiences of his mother, a textile worker, Huang’s work revolves around narratives of labor and production through an idiosyncratic aesthetic lens. After exploring the agriculture and garment industries in previous works, in Heaven on Fourth Huang reflects on injustice and tragedy in the world of sex work through the story of Song Yang, a Queens-based woman who fell to her death during a police raid in 2017.
After working in the garment and restaurant industries in Saipan, a U.S Commonwealth island south of Japan, Song immigrated to the United States in 2013 and settled in Flushing, a predominantly Asian neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens. Song had a support system that included Michael Chu of the Flushing Neighborhood Watch Team, immigration attorney Mingli Chen, along with her brother Song Hai and mother Shi Yumei in China, with whom she kept in close touch over WeChat. According to those around her, Song was hardworking and family oriented, and suffered constant abuse at the hands of the New York Police Department.
Song was active at a time when the NYPD notoriously began to crack down on vice operations, especially within the Asian American and migrant community — a 2017 report from the Urban Institute and the Legal Aid Society showed “the total number of arrests of Asian-identified people charged with both unlicensed massage and prostitution increased by 2700 percent between 2012 and 2016.” These arrests are especially harmful to undocumented and migrant workers as it exposes them to ICE agents.
Following an alleged sexual assault from a police officer, Song was pressured to become an informant and repeatedly arrested off the street. Her final encounter with the police was as the target of a vice sting operation that ended in her death.
After bringing an undercover NYPD agent upstairs at her worksite, Song was cornered by a 10-member police team and fell to her death from a fourth floor balcony. The action throughout the building’s stairwell, apartment unit, and street outside were documented by security footage, but the balcony from which Song fell was not within range of the cameras. As a result, the manner by which Song left the balcony is contested — respective parties have framed it as either a suicide, an accident, or a murder by the police.
Song Yang’s death garnered much attention from activists and the media. Following her death, the group Red Canary Song formed to provide resources for Song Yang’s family and organize Asian and migrant sex workers in coalition with established organizations such as Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Worker Support Network and DecrimNY. Song was the subject of many community actions, including a rally, commemorative installation, and vigil.
The extensive media coverage Song’s story received included a high-profile New York Times interactive article. The Times piece has been criticized as sensationalist, relying on Orientalist tropes to depict Song and her environment and obscuring the systemic factors that led to her death.
Though it now appears in Taipei as a video installation combined with texts, in its original form, Heaven on Fourth stood as a site-specific performance piece installed at the Performa Hub in downtown Manhattan. Audience members imbibed drinks from a moonshine cocktail bar, ascended a staircase for massages, and listened in on readings of speculative poetry inspired by Song Yang’s story, all in the red glow of neon light installations. Performa described the piece as “socially focused” and “a requiem for Song.”
Although once listed as an inspiration for Heaven on Fourth, Red Canary Song denounced the installation in a Hyperallergic article, claiming not to have been in contact with the piece’s team until shortly before the installation’s opening. Red Canary Song’s article castigates Huang and Performa for not adequately involving sex workers in the exhibition, and questions the ethics of telling the stories of marginalized communities without inviting members of that community to participate.
In light of the current Double Square Gallery exhibition, curator Charlene K. Lau penned a Medium article reflecting on the process of Heaven on Fourth’s Performa debut and controversy in the wake of the piece’s journey to Taiwan. “We made errors in judgement, but they represented important and necessary steps in the process to making this and future works,” she writes. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Song Yang’s story is a contentious site on many levels, as a personal loss to her family and Flushing community, an object lesson in the horrors of aggressive policing in New York’s outer boroughs and cultural enclaves, and as a more abstract symbol of injustice to artists such as Huang who reflect upon and remix her story through their work. The line between honoring and co-opting marginalized communities’ pain can be blurry, and an especially sensitive issue when concerning such a recent and unjust death. Beyond the closing of this installation, artists, activists, and community members will continue to have these conversations in the pursuit of truth and justice.
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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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