This exhibit explores queer Asian identity through the lens of China's traditional five elements

Yellow Peril; The Celestial Elements is the brainchild of Vancouver media arts collective Love Intersections.

Yellow Peril; The Celestial Elements is the brainchild of Vancouver media arts collective Love Intersections

The four artists behind Yellow Peril; The Celestial Elements. (Sean Alistair)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.

Many traditional Chinese fields use five elements — wood > fire > earth > metal > water — to explain a wide array of phenomena, from the interaction between internal organs to the succession of political regimes. At Vancouver's SUM Gallery, that same system is currently inspiring Yellow Peril; The Celestial Elements, an art exhibit that uses the elements to represent "the emotional, spiritual, and metaphysical properties of queerness within the Asian diaspora."

The exhibit features a collection of multichannel installations, visual and sculptural activations that are intended to challenge how we view the past, present and future of the queer Asian experience. It's curated by media arts collective Love Intersections, and if you're in Vancouver between now and its closing date of April 18th, it's an absolute must-see.

The exhibit was inspired by Love Intersection's 2019 experimental documentary, Yellow Peril: Queer Destiny, which follows Vancouver drag artist Maiden China in a non-linear, five-chapter narrative through the use of the Chinese Five Elements.

"[The film is] a conduit for examining race, gender, sexuality, art and cultural authenticity," Love Intersection co-creative directors Jen Sungshine and David Ng tell CBC Arts. "Encouraged by the film's success, we were given an opportunity to expand the film into a visual art exhibit to further explore what it means for us to be queer Asians of the diaspora. One of the main through-lines of both the film and the exhibit is bringing forth our ancestors and ancestry into our reimaginations of queer Asian futures."

An image from Yellow Peril: Queer Destiny. (David Ng)

Visitors to the exhibit will find four multi-disciplinary works by four different queer Asian artists: Sungshine and Ng themselves, as well as Jay Cabalu and Maiden China (a.k.a. Kendell Yen).

"Each bring forward a different subject of exploration within our own queer Asian-ness," Sungshine says. "One of the themes of the exhibit is temporality, and how we can think about queer Asian identity outside of western linearity and approach."

As noted, the exhibit is inspired by the Chinese Five Elements, specifically to explore "emotional, spiritual, and metaphysical properties of queerness within the Asian diaspora." For example, one part of the large four-channel installation that occupies two of the gallery's walls shows drag artist Maiden China performing an ancestral veneration ceremony at Larwill Park in Vancouver.

"[This] was the gathering site of the 1907 anti-Oriental riots, as a way to mark an image of the temporal relationship that this exhibit has within a history of anti-Asian sentiments in Canada," Ng explains. "That 'yellow peril' has never really gone away."

Another installation in the exhibit is "The Wall of Healing; A Race Towards a Cosmic Future," which features an altar of Traditional Chinese Medicine against a backdrop of joss paper lined floor-to-ceiling.

"Underneath the altar, a cosmic laser projection is overlaid onto a scattering of calligraphy paper in text written by Jen's father, detailing the evolving of the Chinese language in three different typefaces," Ng explains. "In a way, we think about our past as not necessarily gone but fully woven into the language of the present, and translating our living as we race toward a healing future."

Jen Sungshine (left) and David Ng. (Eric Sanderson)

The show opened earlier this month, and Ng and Sungshine said they feel "extremely lucky" to have had such an outpouring of support so far.

"Over 300 people showed up to our opening, holy moly," Sungshine says. "Beyond just coming to see the exhibit, we really want to create a sense of space within the confines of SUM Gallery. In working with — and exhibiting at — SUM, we recognize how meaningful to showcase in [a building that is] home to over 70 artists, galleries and culture workspaces dedicated to heritage, education, social justice and sustainability. There is a lot of conversation right now around Vancouver's changing Chinatown and what that means for residents navigating an increasingly challenging, and changing, landscape."

They say that hope to express to visitors the importance of showcasing in such an environment. 

"We see ourselves as one small piece of the social puzzle, each of us weaving together a larger, multidimensional narrative of Chinatown," Ng says. "We hope that visitors will confront what it means to stand up for land rights defenders, anti-racism and thoughtful cultural spaces as we continue having wholehearted conversations together."

Yellow Peril; The Celestial Elements. Curated by Love Intersections. SUM Gallery, Vancouver. Until April 18, 2020.


Peter Knegt (he/him) is a writer, producer and host for CBC Arts. He writes the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and hosts and produces the talk series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.