Massage Workers’ Collective Challenges Racism With Art

NEW YORK — Nearly three years ago, on March 16, 2021, a gunman killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women, in a series of shooting incidents in Atlanta-area spas. Amid the ongoing racial justice dialogues in the wake of COVID-19, the events of the day sparked a national conversation on Asian hate.

Portraits of these individuals appear in 8LIVES PORTRAITS, a series of paintings by Ellen, a Korean massage worker and member of Red Canary Song, a grassroots collective of Asian and migrant sex workers and massage workers. So as not to politicize their identities, the artist primarily depicted their eyes and covered their mouths with flowers used in both spas and altars. Rather than canvas, they used chopping boards, a reference to massager workers’ resourcefulness with everyday objects in their daily lives.

These works are part of Flower Spa: Solidarity Outside In, on view through this Saturday at the Storefront for Art and Architecture and featuring work by RCS. Half the installation is designed to evoke a massage parlor, with a bed and curtains and even a security door made with clear tape and curtain blinds by artist Chong Gu. A portion of a New York City Department of Building Summons Order appears on the gate with a charge of illegal occupation without a license.

Two of the portraits from the 8LIVES series hang just above an installation of “Liberation Atlas,” a map that visualizes the policing of Asian massage work through New York City. As the project statement notes, “Maps are frequently used to identify supposedly ‘illicit’ massage businesses, demanding the criminalization of racialized and gendered low wage work.” Next to these portraits are objects that might be found in a parlor, such as a mini fridge with hand towels and an electric rice cooker. As the exhibition newsprint notes, one worker named Lisa would cook up a full meal using a portable stove and rice cooker.

The other half of the installation features Fly in Power, a full-length documentary directed by Yin Q and Yoon Grace Ra that follows Charlotte, a Korean massage worker and core organizer at RCS. In one moving scene, Charlotte steps up on stage at a public gathering to commemorate those who died in Atlanta, and we see glimpses of the altars that she prepared for the event, with food, flowers, and people gathering. Alongside the documentary are photos by Red Canary Song members that show massage workers’ hands in various arrangements, sometimes interconnected, sometimes laid flat on a surface. 

Some of the most resonant work takes the form of audio poems installed throughout the show and played in the original language (most often Korean and Chinese). The newsprint for the show includes translations into English. In one poem, Linn, a Chinese massage worker in Flushing, Queens, and the Chinese outreach team leader at RCS, writes,

Hey! My friend!
If you can’t catch the first ray of sunshine in
the morning, you can still enjoy the sunset
in the evening.
No one can go back in time,
but we can start now.

I pause for a moment in front of Fly in Power to see close-ups of a massage in motion, blue light bathing the scene of hands pressing against a bare back. Charlotte’s poetry appears in English, Korean, and Chinese script. “It hurts to look when flowers fall in vain,” she writes. “Now here we are carpeting your path, felling flowers behind you / May our touch warm the heart left stilled by deep frosts.”

Flower Spa: Solidarity Outside In continues at the Storefront for Art and Architecture (97 Kenmare Street, Nolita, Manhattan) through February 17. The show is corganized by the Storefront as part of On the Ground, a yearlong research project and exhibition series about New York City’s ground floor. A closing event and fundraiser runs from 2 to 6pm on February 17.

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