The flier announcing a new exhibition in Queens, “Home-O-Stasis,” doesn’t give an address. Instead, it has instructions: When you reach the Queens Public Library in Flushing, “go up to Kissena Boulevard till you see the Q17/Q27 stop. Go past the garage gate, enter the mini-mall on the right where scooters and bikes are parked outside.” (How you get to the library is up to you and Google maps.)
The gesture says a lot about the show, up until July 23: it pays homage to a neighborhood whose residents are almost 70 percent Asian, most from China, Korea and Taiwan. To find the art, which jostles for space with shop signs, advertising notices and handbills that plaster the walls and windows of its nondescript site, you need to experience Flushing as its residents do — as a series of everyday, visual cues that shape a sense of place rather than an address.
“Even though I grew up in Flushing my grasp of the language is not whole,” said the sculptor Anne Wu, whose work is on view. “I may not know what a place is called but I can tell you how you get there.”
The effort is worth it.
The show is in one of the disappearing fixtures of Asian urban enclaves: a one-story mini-mall housing a motley array of businesses, including a beauty shop, a butcher, a money transfer service, and a 99-cent store.
Its organizers are the husband-and-wife team Herb Tam, a curator at the Museum of Chinese in America and a painter, and Lu Zhang, an artist working in both video and ceramics. The couple, who live down the street, noticed the building during the pandemic, when its windows were covered with handwritten “rooms for rent” signs. People on the sidewalk, often new immigrants, would crowd around the notices, looking for a place to land — no easy feat in a neighborhood in the throes of gentrification.
“We thought, wouldn’t it be nice to offer something to people who are looking for places to live something else to reflect on,” Tam said. “We decided to invite other artists who had a close relationship to Flushing — who lived here, were born here, or had some intimate connection — and collectively explore what makes Flushing unique.”
Some of the artists, like Wu, grew up in Flushing. Others have visited regularly, some since childhood, with their parents, including the photographer Janice Chung, the writer Xueli Wang, and the founders of the collective Mamahuhu, Yuki He and Quianfan Gu, who produce multidisciplinary events focused on Chinese culture. For all, shopping for familiar foods in markets, picking up Chinese- and Korean-language books in the library, and eating at restaurants offering various regional specialties gave them a feeling of home and a sense of connection with people whose lives had followed similar routes from Asia to the United States.
Convincing the shop owners to let them insert artwork on the windows and walls of their business was not easy. “When I first talked to the vendors, there was skepticism,” Zhang said. “Until I brought in work, and spoke to them one by one — then they started to find it interesting. ”
Tam added: “Lu didn’t approach it in a purely transactional way, like, how much would it cost to rent this space. Instead, she explained very honestly what we were trying to do and what work we were hoping to display, so they felt very much part of it.” (The curators did in fact pay each of the businesses, but many offered them “steep discounts,” Lu said.)
The works are inserted in subtle and surprising ways, so as not to interrupt the flow of traffic or social interactions that take place at the mini-mall. A group of small-scale, delicately painted scenes of daily life by Tam are fairly easy to spot at the barbershop and vitamin shop. But finding other art requires close looking — acclimatizing oneself to the landscape of signs and posters hanging on walls and from ceilings. Slowly, you begin to recognize things slightly out of sync with their surroundings. (Some of the text-based works in the show appear in both English and Asian languages; there is also a brochure available on-site.)
Even if you don’t read Chinese script, you will find Wang’s “Mom, have you eaten?,” a photo-and-text based series pasted over the street-facing butcher shop window, and on four different stores inside the building. Certain phrases in her artworks — “Mom, have you eaten?,” a familiar way of expressing affection to a family member in some Asian cultures, and “I’m the one who loves you most,” a lyric from a 1990s Taiwanese pop song — are offerings to those who may be feeling displaced, rootless, or isolated.
Step inside the mall’s main doorway and look up: that’s a cut paper work by Xiyadi, an artist from Shaanxi, China, whose creations were recently on view at the Drawing Center. Encased in acrylic, Xiyadi’s piece depicts an unlikely monument: the clock tower atop a U-Haul center in Flushing, a fitting landmark for a neighborhood defined by immigration. Zhang’s ceramic sculpture “Calling the Dutch” honors a long-gone, nostalgic fixture of the mall’s facade: a plywood cutout of a Nokia phone advertising a mobile phone business inside. (Zhang herself signed up for a phone plan there during the pandemic to keep in touch with her elderly grandfather back home.)
Photographs by Chung from her series “Han in Town (Koreatown)” hang on the windows of a cosmetics store. They depict a shop owner, Jinglan Quan, who is ethnically Korean but of Chinese nationality. Because of this duality, Quan initially struggled to find her place in Flushing, but, like her store, became an essential part of the neighborhood.
Wu’s work, in which she excises years, months and days from a calendar, leaving a ghostly skeleton in place, addresses a similar problem of getting one’s bearings. “It’s a quite literal representation of being at two places at once, because it has the lunar calendar as well as the American calendar,” the artist said.
On a storage cabinet outside the barbershop, an interactive artwork lets visitors play a dreamed-up board game — “Flushing Polyphonous” — designed by Mamahuhu as a kind of Queens-centric version of Monopoly. Players roll dice and gain or lose money as they advance, according to cards they draw. Some instructions are biting and sly, pointing to the challenges residents face: “Tangram Mall celebrates its grand opening with exciting promotions, but unfortunately, your small business is suffering losses,” one card says, indicating a setback. Other cards refer to police crackdowns on street vendors, M.T.A. delays, and anti-gentrification protests that slow your progress.
With Zhang as translator, I asked some people who work in the building what they thought of the show. Tina Lin, owner of Tina House, which specializes in skin care, had only one complaint, delivered with a smile: “I think it’s good to have work here, but it’s not enough — I want more!” Jessie Mu, who runs the 99-cent store, said: “It felt really fresh and new — we usually only have advertising posters on the wall. It brought the building to the community.” Andy Zou, who works in the barbershop, said the board game was his favorite piece in the show, but he hasn’t had time to play it because he’s always too busy working.
Tam and Zhang chose the name “Home-O-stasis” as a nod to the delicate process of finding balance when you are trying to make a new home. For all the ways the show points to the precarity and disorientation experienced by many Flushing residents, it also demonstrates the sense of belonging offered by the community.
“It’s a love letter,” Tam said.
“Home-O-Stasis” is open during mall hours, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. Go on a Friday afternoon and you’ll find the curators interacting with visitors. And, if you’re lucky, Zhang may give you a copy of a small, limited-edition zine that shows some of her favorite local spots for bubble tea, snacks, and dinner — “things you won’t find on Google,” she said with a laugh. Just don’t be surprised if you must cut through a supermarket, and then a parking lot, to get there.
Home-O-Stasis: Life and Livelihoods in Flushing
Through July 23, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, 41-40 Kissena Blvd. Take the 7 train to Flushing Main Street, and walk two minutes along Main Street to the Queens Public Library. From there turn right on Kissena Boulevard till you see the Q17/Q27 stop. Go past the garage gate and enter the mini-mall on the right.