Individual Collectivity: Scratching at the Moon at ICA Los Angeles

Parking my car between two abandoned Ford Econolines in a quiet street in Downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District, I made the rest of the way on foot towards the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). As I approached the exhibition, I was questioning the ICA’s motivation for putting on this show, asking myself why now

Lunar New Year celebrations fell this year on February 10, 2024, bringing around the year of the Dragon and the opening of the ICA’s new show, Scratching at the Moon, which exhibits the work of thirteen Asian American artists who have lived and worked, at various points in their careers, in Southern California. The exhibition’s title introduces the idea of paradox and incongruity. The works on display convey a sense of motion, clawing and scratching so powerfully, hoping to leave a mark on something as distant, placid, and tantalizing as the moon. 

The exhibition opened on a day of great significance for many Asian Americans, yet the works exhibited serve as a constant reminder that Asian American experiences are not homogenous, and the collective effect of the art on display highlights and celebrates this cultural, religious, and linguistic multiplicity. The ICA’s timely show, the subject of which is a first, long-overdue “survey of Asian American Artists in a major Los Angeles contemporary art museum” excites wonder in the minds of its viewers. Displaying pieces that have been produced in Los Angeles by a multigenerational group of artists, the exhibition is rooted in a local consciousness. Simultaneously, the worldview and perspective of each of these artists necessarily reaches beyond Southern California both in geographical and chronological scope. The works are at once looking forwards and backwards in time, and each artist is coupling their introspection with a transnational consciousness. 


A spacious room with sculptures, tables and chairs
Installation view of Scratching at the Moon, Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, February 10–July 28, 2024. Photo: Jeff McLane / ICA LA


Two of Michelle Lopez’s works, Ballast & Barricades (2019/2023) and Correctional Lighting (2024) are visible from the ICA’s entrance, along a clear vista that stretches all the way to the back wall of the gallery. Ambient noise emanating from four hidden video installations combines in a magnificent hum, providing the gallery with a reassuring sonic backdrop. The respective monumentality and dynamism of Lopez’s structures confronted me as I entered. Ballast & Barricades hovers in a stoic suspense. In contrast, Correctional Lighting slowly and ceaselessly rotates. The work is made from a highway lamp cast in iron and a cinderblock cast in clear resin, held together from the ceiling by rigging straps and a chain, measuring at a vast 13 feet tall. As I navigated around the spinning suspension, making sure not to get hit by it, the delicacy with which such harshly manufactured and large-scale materials were arranged was at once unsettling and deeply compelling, drawing attention to the political tensions that encourage the manner of Lopez’s practice, as though such considerations are suspended within the materiality of her constructions. Her use of industrial materials, the type that you might see at a roadside or barricading crowds in an urban area prompts a memory of protest. 


A globe.
Installation view of Scratching at the Moon, Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, February 10–July 28, 2024. Photo: Jeff McLane / ICA LA


With every revolution of the vast structure, Lopez’s lamp casts a light and shadow across three of Bruce Yonemoto’s globes, almost imitating a diurnal cycle from darkness to light and back again. The play between the light of Lopez’s Correctional Lighting and Yonemoto’s work gives the impression that the pieces are somehow communicating with one another. Though the globes are static, the shadow that casts them into darkness at regular intervals imbues Yonemoto’s work with its own sense of dynamism, rendering it in perpetual motion.  Yonemoto’s piece, Cover the Earth: Not of Skin or Color (2023), explores interactions between the East and the West through the use of artistic materials. Yonemoto literally covers antique globes with a synthetic lacquer produced in the West, before adding organic lacquers from the East, commenting on his personhood and illustrating, through layers of polychrome lacquer, how the two hemispheres are inextricably linked. As lacquerware has a long and rich tradition in east Asian art, the work draws attention to how the medium has traveled to the West. That this interaction takes place atop three antique globes draws further attention to ideas of diaspora and the transnational movement of people, goods, and ideas.


A room with sculpture hanging from the ceiling, on the wall, and on the floor.
Installation view of Scratching at the Moon, Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, February 10–July 28, 2024. Photo: Jeff McLane / ICA LA


Moving beyond the exhibition’s introductory offerings, I am asked to take my shoes off before stepping onto a carpeted expanse. The sensory experience of walking amongst the art without shoes on, feeling the soft cushion of the floor beneath my feet, makes the viewing experience all the more intimate, as though it is mirroring a domestic interior. Anna Sew Hoy’s Multitude Wall (2024) runs diagonally across this carpeted space, a web of men’s collared dress shirts held together hazardously. The piece gives the impression of a porous barrier, a work that initially obstructs, and yet invites us to peer between the gaps and walk between the holes. The hanging collars form an immense array of intricate connections. On neighboring sides of the Multitude Wall sit various sculptural pieces from Sew Hoy’s Growing Ruins series (2021–) and works by Amy Yao. Yao’s Doppelgängers (2016), a structure that combines pearls, rice, and plastic imitations of both, considers how observation alone is not always able to identify authenticity from verisimilitude. It challenges the viewer to gaze at the mound and question whether they are looking at the true object, imitations of the object, or whether that even matters to begin with. With my feet pressed keenly against the spongy floor, it felt as though I could be in somebody’s house, viewing these pieces, and being confronted by these questions, for the first time. 


A room with a screen on the left illuminating white and pink lights. A transmitter sits on the floor at the right.
Installation view of Scratching at the Moon, Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, February 10–July 28, 2024. Photo: Jeff McLane / ICA LA


Traversing the spongy, plush expanse, I reached one extremity of the exhibition, where the carpet ends and the concrete returns. Five inkjet prints from Dean Sameshima’s being alone series (2022) face towards Na Mira’s Hotel (2024), a two-channel film installation that incorporates mirrors and radio transmitters. As there is no other way of getting to this part of the gallery except for across the carpet, I step on to the concrete floor, experiencing a cool and hard rush in the balls of my feet. The film depicts a figure running in a spiral around the perimeter of the Bonaventure Hotel, a 1970s postmodern structure in Downtown Los Angeles. Hotel belongs in this room, where the chilling sensations of the exhibit’s floor pulse against my exposed feet, mirroring perfectly the dystopian and eschatological impulse of the video installation. 


 A room with tables and a TV on the wall.
Installation view of Scratching at the Moon, Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, February 10–July 28, 2024. Photo: Jeff McLane / ICA LA


Mira’s Hotel is one of five video installations in the exhibition, offering a moment to sit and pause. Three others, Vishal Jugdeo and Miljohn Ruperto’s Cut Line (2024), Bruce Yonemoto’s Hanabi Fireworks (1999), and Simon Leung’s Act 2: An Opera by Luke Stoneham and Simon Leung (2024) are exhibited in their own, walled-off rooms, giving each video the space and attention that it deserves. Sitting on a wooden bench before Leung’s Act 2, I let the operatic performance wash over me, slowly closing my eyes and reopening them: each time I am met with a domestic scene shot from R.M Schindler’s 1936 Fitzpatrick-Leland House as the unrelenting light pours in from beyond the floor-ceiling windows. Patty Chang’s work, We Are All Mothers (2022), combines a twenty-minute video with objects and snapshots that are arranged across five tables, exhibited in the central space of the gallery. 


A table full with things. An image of a man is behind the table.
Installation view of Scratching at the Moon, Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, February 10–July 28, 2024. Photo: Jeff McLane / ICA LA


Contrasting with the video art, a table displays an array of domestic objects which are arranged in an orderly cluster, documenting the subjects of a plethora of images that Amanda Ross-Ho found in her father’s own photography portfolio. The work, Untitled Prop Archive (THE PORTFOLIO) (2024) combines found objects with fabricated ones, placed on a table that imitates that which she remembers from her childhood home. Beyond the sculptural work is a large lightbox containing a water-damaged image of Ross-Ho’s father, who practiced as a photographer in a commercial photography studio, standing behind an arrangement of boxes containing laundry detergent and trash bags, at work. The striking image is framed in such a way that it looks almost as if he is sitting at the table, presiding over all the domestic goods that he once photographed. Ross-Ho’s work, much like the rest of the exhibition, evokes a sense of vulnerability, domesticity, and intimacy. It feels as though I am being invited to sit at the table with Ross-Ho’s father and experience his work with him.


A white wall with images. A stack of paper on the floor.
Installation view of Scratching at the Moon, Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, February 10–July 28, 2024. Photo: Jeff McLane / ICA LA


Passing from one part of the exhibition to the next, the sense of intimacy and vulnerability that is held within the ICA’s walls is inescapable; Young Chung’s portraiture series accentuates this feeling further. That Chung studied under Yong Soon Min at the University of California, Irvine, is evident through the comparable visual effect of their powerful images. On walls perpendicular to one another Chung’s pigment prints from the Not By Birth series (1996/2023) and Soon Min’s six prints with text etched on glass, entitled Defining Moments (1992), surround the viewer. The works of these two artists are visually complimentary, being monochrome and figurative alike. As my eyes danced from one series to the other and back again, the personal vulnerability of those photographed grew increasingly evident, as though they were conversing with one another and I, the viewer, was invited to partake in the discussion. 


Rice and pearls.
Installation view of Scratching at the Moon, Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, February 10–July 28, 2024. Photo: Jeff McLane / ICA LA


Though the contrasting use of media and scale of the art on display in Scratching at the Moon may at first seem incongruous, the interconnectedness of the pieces is not lost: they are inextricably linked, much like Sew Hoy’s Multitude Wall, where each individual piece connects to another, to form an irregular and varied whole. The artists are looking back in time, within themselves and their own familial history, yet also considering the immediate context of where they are producing their art. A seemingly paradoxical duality is also occurring within the objects, which become animated through their display; each piece is able to speak for itself, yet the show exhibits a series of objects in conversation, working in a collective harmony to illuminate the multitudinous and dynamic nature of the Asian American experience. The show raises further questions too: how much are these experiences informed by the time that each artist has spent in Southern California? It is clear to me that when displayed together, these works are contributing to something greater, reaching powerfully towards the intangible, and encouraging others to continue scratching at the moon. Upon exiting the show, avoiding the glare emitted by Lopez’s Correctional Lighting one last time, I was left in no doubt: this exhibition succeeded in demonstrating how the Asian American experience ought to be understood as a collectivity made from individual experiences. It struck me that the answer to my question, why now, was that California has been, for generations, shaped and influenced by migration from Asia, and the art being produced by people of these diasporas is too great to be overlooked any longer. 



Scratching at the Moon, curated by Anne Ellegood and Anna Sew Hoy, on view from February 10 through May 12, 2024, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1717 E 7th St, Los Angeles, CA, 90021; @theicala

Excerpt from No Good Very Bad Asian

“My dad is pretty nuts too,” I said. “He thinks I’m going to be a C-E-O. He thinks that See-Eo is a word in the dictionary that means: ‘guy who funds his gambling addiction.’”