The sensory rich world building of Robin David, how they use ‘play’ to understand the world around us
The first piece of Robin’s work I saw was a cabbage . . . floating in space.
It's a short film, where a cabbage turns into this morphing blob, moving around as the viewer gets further and further away from Earth. There’s no narration, just space sounds swelling around us.
In this experimental film, Locating Cabbage, Robin gives us the feeling of being small through the use of sci-fi imagery and sound. Robin is trying to make a larger point about how we get our food, how we relate to it, and how we rarely see the work behind it.
Robin, who uses the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘they’, grew up in Vallejo. For many years, they didn’t have much access to art. This changed in high school, when their older cousins started bringing them to community art shows.
I met, like folks, like people of color folks who were artists, musicians, writers, and poets, Filipino punks, who are just making work that was for them, and had a supportive network community. And they were all like, super cool, just doing their own thing. And I think that was super important for like, my development as a young person, young artists, to like, feel confident in wanting to make work that represented me, like people that look like me, from my perspective.
Robin brings that desire to represent Asian American experiences to work that’s been at SFMOMA this spring. With her art collective called Macrowaves, Robin made a commissioned piece, an interactive mural for an exhibit called Representing Chinatown.
SFMOMA’s Director of Public Engagement, Tomoko Kanamitsu, walks me through how the mural works.
There's these red circles and if you touch it, a kind of background sound from one of the films will play so I'm gonna go ahead and touch it, and then there's also—it kind of lights up a certain area of the mural.
Robin and Macrowaves sourced these sounds from iconic Asian American films such as The Fall of I-Hotel and Chinatown Rising, which depict Asian Americans mobilizing against the gentrification of Chinatown. The mixture of visuals and sound help to engage our senses, something that Robin often does in their personal work.
Robin doesn’t only work with films. When I visit her Emeryville studio, she shows me a sculpture, titled Water, a Sensation.
When you think of water, water is like a basic source, a natural resource that we all need to survive. But through marketing, and through consumerism, it's kind of been sold to us . . . Fountains usually are like this upscale, like, you usually see them in front fancy buildings, or like government buildings.
But Robin made this fountain out of brightly-colored strainers, wash tubs, and other plastic objects.
So I kind of wanted to play around with like, these basic objects that are usually used in like labor, when you wash dishes, you hand wash clothes, and like, elevate that.
Water was originally a free, natural resource, but now it is purchased in bottles and displayed in man-made fountains--it’s become an object. That’s a running theme in Robin’s work – our relationship to objects.
Robin explores that relationship in their work to make sense of personal experiences with much larger contexts. One of her pieces is inspired by something she saw growing up--a strange coffee mug her father had--and the feelings she had around it. She says her father was a ‘boob guy’.
It's this weird story of like, you know, male fetishism. But he liked Little Kim growing up, like, he just would talk about it openly . . . And so he owned this, like boob mug that were like—there was a hole in the nipple, and like, liquid could fall out . . . Like growing up as like a teenager, I was confused about like, breasts and like, you know, puberty.
This experience became the inspiration for what Robin says is one of their most memorable installations and performances, titled, Boobies of Christ.
It’s a religious ceremony about breasts. The performers wear pink shirts with different-colored breasts sewn onto them. They pray in front of an altar, made up of a mix of Catholic imagery and candles, fake money used for Asian cultural practices, and breast-shaped plushies. After praying the performers continue their ritual--they’re fed liquid from a bowl, hold hands, and shake and grab their bodies.
Creating this performance, like Boobies of Christ's ritual, growing up Filipino and Catholic, I'm really confused about like, body image. But like kind of making fun of the whole experience, because it is very weird, very traumatizing, but also really, like dysfunctional, and like silly in like, the way that Catholic rituals are so old-timey and like taken too serious, but when you think about it out of context, it's really bizarre.
So Robin’s taking those rituals, and subverting them.
And like, playing with it as a way to like process, my own trauma, but also process like colonialism, and rituals, and like how you know, through religion, has influenced the way like my dad talks about women, for example.
Robin is interested in the relationship we have to the way we spend our money, how we practice our religions, and how we feel about our bodies. The interactive and playful aspects of Robin’s work allow for the viewer to be lighthearted when thinking through big themes.
Representing Chinatown will be available for viewing at SFMOMA until June 30th, 2022. This exhibit is a collaboration between SFMOMA and CAAM and features a collection of photos, archival film, and graphics as well as an interactive mural that depicts Chinatown’s history and cultural impact.