Being Asian -American is a ‘mixed blessing’. Despite my rich heritage, I’ve encountered cultural taboos, missteps, and struggles with language throughout my life. My nationality is American, my ethnicity is Cambodian (Khmer), yet I speak a dialect of Thai, but I can’t read or write Khmer or Thai. English is the only language that I can comfortably utilize, but I still don’t feel accepted as an American. Learning English was one of the hardest things for me growing up. Silent letters, homonyms, idioms, slang, SMS text-talk, and other facets of the contemporary youth vernacular are so complex. As a result, I turned to images instead of words to communicate.
I went to the Hartford Art School to be an illustrator and pursue a career in editorial cartooning, but one art history survey course later, that idea diminished from my mind. I experienced what may only be described as a type of religious enlightenment upon viewing a slide of Marcel Duchamp’s infamous “Fountain”. Cartooning at this point seemed too distant, too irrelevant to the everyday. Seeing someone take a commonplace object and to put it into a different context and then to challenge its authorship and justification as art, to me was and is the most powerful means of communicating. I recognized the opportunity to take linguistics, the art object, and the role of the artist and then throw them into the wind. Duchamp’s perpetually embattled presence in the art historical canon created a remaining discourse that has affected me greatly.
I use my own adversary relationship with a foreign tongue to inspire my work through methods of word play and objectifying language. Each day brings along a discovery of which influences my art making. I explore how words, letters, sounds can be translated into installations, sculptural and conceptual works. There’s just conflict; an ongoing conflict that I wish to showcase. Hopefully in time I’ll come to a resolution where the final result is a presentation of my trials and tribulations of ironically verbalizing my life as an Asian American. - Joe Bun Keo