Valery Jung Estabrook's hand-sewn exhibit at U-M's LSA Humanities Gallery re-creates an uncomfortable snapshot of a rural American interior


Hometown Hero installation element

Installation components, *Hometown Hero (Chink): An American Interior by Valery Jung Estabrook at U-M's LSA Humanities Gallery. 

The LSA Humanities Gallery is known for exhibits that raise uncomfortable questions and featuring provocative artworks that cut to the heart of American culture. With its most recent exhibit, *Hometown Hero (Chink): An American Interior, viewers are invited to explore an installation designed by multidisciplinary artist and Paula and Edwin Sidman Fellow in the Arts recipient Valery Jung Estabrook

Estabrook’s installation is comprised of a life-sized, hand-sewn re-creation of an American interior, which casually anchors iconography of America’s racist past and present against a backdrop of brown, dreary dimness. Jung bases the recreation on her experiences growing up in rural Southwestern Virginia, though the low-wattage lightbulbs and centrally-placed television are instantly recognizable to me as a person who grew up in the rural Midwest, suggesting that Estabrook’s experiences are not unique to the American South. *Hometown Hero (Chink): An American Interior casually and precisely captures rural American life, from the guns mounted on the wall to the La-Z-Boy-style chair upholstered with a Confederate flag. This familiarity is unsettling.

Before entering the gallery space in the LSA Humanities Building, visitors first encounter a standing sign: “Please be advised:/The artist uses a racial slur to invoke her experiences./Similarly, a confederate flag makes visible racist attitudes in the community where she grew up./This language and imagery may be offensive to some viewers.”

Estabrook explains her reasoning for the title:

The second part of the title, Chink, is a word that is fundamentally linked to my lifelong experience as an Asian American. Yes, it’s offensive -- an incredibly painful slur. But that same pain is something that I, unfortunately, think of when I think of home. I include it because I must in order to have an honest discussion about the America that I know.

Another method Estabrook employs to facilitate dialogue about racism in America is a guestbook that invites visitors to share their experiences. Vinyl text above the yellow podium reads: “Progress starts with honest dialogue and empathy. You are invited to share your reflections about the artwork, as well as any thoughts regarding racial and cultural identity, alienation, assimilation, or any other topic you feel is relevant.”

Next to the pedestal with the guest book, a small black chair sits adjacent to a small table with further reading materials, including two laminated copies of the painfully relevant New York Times article “An Open Letter to the Woman Who Told My Family to Go Back to China." 

LSA Humanities Gallery notes that “the exhibition challenges the notions of heritage, Southern nationalism and ‘traditional’ American culture, providing a window into the tensions of being a perpetual foreigner in one’s own hometown.” Estabrook accomplishes this not just through the recreated interior, but also through the three-part video on the television screen.

In the video, Twinkies / WASPs / Avatars, three segments use advertisements from previous decades to interrogate the artists’ experience of race and ask audiences to question representation and appropriation, exploring the concepts of identity through the lens of popular culture.

Curator Amanda Krugliak’s wall text states, “Chenille envelops the space, like a bedspread that’s somehow gone awry, conjured up, now with a life of its own. It overloads our senses, too close for any comfort.” This conjured space contains elements that are both commonplace and surreal.

Familiarly, the La-Z-Boy faces the television, the altar of the American home. Beside the Confederate-flag La-Z-Boy stands a small table with crumpled cans of cheap beer illuminated under a shaded lamp. The dim light casts a pallor on the walls, which are bare panels aside from a large, kitschy painting of Lexington, Virginia’s main strip, plush and droopy guns, and two portraits of Confederate sympathizers. Krugliak suggests these “upholstered beer cans” and “pillow-like rifles allude to our national past-time of holding our worn-out stories close and our cloying nostalgia closer.” 

Krugliak also notes that the Confederate La-Z-Boy “embodies the flabbiness of racism in America -- so imbedded, pervasive, and casual in America’s history that it has literally become part of the shabby furniture, so familiar we don’t always notice it.” Estabrook’s exhibit asks viewers to notice it. 

Estabrook’s constructed atmosphere gives viewers a choice on whether or not to interact with the installation at a closer range. A small sign hangs on the wall at the entrance to the gallery, which invites visitors to step into the plush, fabricated room, but only if their shoes are first removed. 

When I visited the space, a young man stepped into the living room with his shoes on, while I stood on the tiled floor peering in. I realized that I did not want to step into the living space, almost like I’d be betraying something by taking my shoes off and entering. Krugliak summarizes this feeling that I, and probably many viewers, had: “For those of us who are Other, like Estabrook, we sit outside of the living room, peering in.”

Hometown Hero installation element

Installation component, *Hometown Hero (Chink): An American Interior, Main Street, Lexington, Virginia, 36" x 60" upholstery fabric and polyester batting, 2016

Though I do not claim to be “Other,” I did not feel comfortable removing my shoes and stepping into the space. It felt too complicit. If we are not the “Other,” then we must ask ourselves: Are we complicit? Are we comfortable enough in this space to remove our shoes and sit in front of the television, or are we willing to participate in dialogue? 

These questions are important, but Krugliak summarizes the essential component of the work, which is “its true embrace of Otherness, what the artist describes as ‘a state of psychological exile, of in-between, of longing yet never belonging.’”

Through her use of nostalgic imagery via video footage and constructed spaces, Estabrook is able to convey her specific personal experiences in a way that speaks to broader American cultural issues. With her inclusion of a guestbook, she gives visitors a chance to speak on their experiences relevant to the themes addressed in the exhibit, ideally to facilitate empathy and discourse. 

Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.

Valery Jung Estabrook's "*Hometown Hero (Chink): An American Interior" is at U-M Institute for the Humanities Gallery, 202 South Thayer St, Ann Arbor, through March 12.