Stanford students taking Barbara Voss’ anthropology classes have been sifting through San Jose’s 19th century Market Street Chinatown remains for years, but the thousands of artifacts that have been excavated have never been on view to the public, until now.
A selection of 60 artifacts has been assembled to create City Beneath The City at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in downtown San Jose. The exhibition will remain on view through Sept. 16 and is included in the ZERO1 Biennial , North America’s most significant showcase of contemporary work at the nexus of art and technology.
Among the objects of everyday life are a favorite pipe, a hair comb and the leg from a love-worn china doll.
Ten years ago Voss, an associate professor of anthropology, was approached by History San José and the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project to help make the artifacts from the Market Street Chinatown dig accessible to the public.
The product of three years of excavation work done under Fairmont Hotel from 1985-1988 was sitting in boxes gathering new dust and waiting to be unearthed, yet again. So, in 2002 Voss and her students dug into the boxes and over the years have cataloged more than 4,000 objects.
City Beneath The City is the first public display of objects excavated from San Jose’s historic Market Street Chinatown site and is one way that the artifacts are getting out of the boxes and into the spotlight.
A hybrid exhibition
The Stanford University-ICA collaboration came about because the 2012 ZERO1 Biennial theme is "Seeking Silicon Valley." Organizers state that the biennial proposes that contemporary art practice can re-imagine the idea, the place and the experience of Silicon Valley. Using Silicon Valley as a physical and virtual backdrop, the ZERO1 Biennial will transform a region synonymous with technology into a publicly accessible network of activity, exploration and provocation.
Last fall the ZERO1 organizers connected Voss, who was offering Anthro 112/212 "Public Archaeology: Market Street Chinatown Archaeology Project," with ICA curator Susan O’Malley, a Stanford grad. Voss and O’Malley started talking about a joint project and commissioned artist Rene Yung , another Stanford alum, to create an archaeology/contemporary-art hybrid exhibition for the ICA. "Rene is able to see and visually interpret stories of everyday, mundane objects that archaeologists and anthropologists might not see," said Voss.
An immigrant from Hong Kong, Yung brings a deep understanding of cross-cultural dynamics to her national work with diverse communities. As an installation artist and interdisciplinary systems thinker, Yung was able to edit the Chinatown collection down to its essence and with a few simple objects suggest home, family, tradition and loss.
"I want this installation to speak of the multiple realities that coexist in this fragile collection: cultural, historical, political, geographic, personal," said Yung. "Each of these simple, humble objects of daily life is a nexus of these layered connections. As visitors navigate through the installation, I hope they will make their personal connections – refracted through their own sets of realities – between these different spaces, and come to an insight or two that link the forgotten lives of Market Street Chinatown to their present lives and our present time."
"In response to the ZERO1 art and technology biennial thematic Seeking Silicon Valley, City Beneath The City exposes a history of the valley before it was dubbed Silicon Valley," explained O’Malley. "Whereas Silicon Valley is obsessed with the next technology that will revolutionize our lives, this project will look to the past in order to understand the significance of Silicon Valley today."