Flower of my secret

Cultures clash in artist Yun Bai's sexually charged work

The Bai house, apart from its neglected lawn flocked with winter weeds, is indistinguishable from the other Edward Scissorhands boxes curving around an endless street in a Lawrenceville subdivision. The red Chevrolet parked outside, decorated with "Girls Kick Ass" and "Freak" bumper stickers, gives little indication of the culture clash of Old World meets Brave New One going on in this nondescript one-story house.

Inside, a traditional Chinese couple, Nai-Zhi Bai and his wife Ruo-Qun Gu, lead a visitor past the grand piano that dominates their snug living room. There, on the glossy wood surface, stand three large framed "flower" collages. From a distance they look like curving botanical forms on lacquered black backgrounds. It's only on closer inspection that one can make out that the leaves and petals are comprised of tiny vulvas and spread vaginas, breasts and anuses culled from magazines like Oriental Slut Parade, Asian Babes, Orient Eighteen and Black Lust.

The "Porn Flowers" commanding center stage are made by the couple's 23-year-old daughter Yun Bai, a 2001 Agnes Scott graduate, whose artwork is crafted from the disreputable dregs of hardcore porn. Cans of lacquer, wood and porn fill every inch of the cramped living room, which doubles as Yun's studio.

The taunting, saucy "Porn Flowers," with their wrinkled, brown and pink vulvas, provide a lewd display in the otherwise well-behaved domestic tableaux in which Yun's mother serves a pale yellow jasmine tea.

Beyond the nipple clamps and spread legs of the "Porn Flowers" are other bodies of artwork — paintings of pastel flowers and elegant framed calligraphy created by Mr. Bai and Yun's grandmother — which recede into the background. Even Mr. Bai's lovely, bountiful still life painting of flowers crowded into the narrow hallway is upstaged by its wall-mate, a self-portrait of Yun as a fierce, goth teen. In what soon becomes a familiar pattern of adulation, Mr. Bai expresses deep pride that his daughter created this petulant, glaring self when she was only 14.

Despite the impossible-to-avoid-spectacle of all those body parts, there is something oddly shared in Mr. Bai's ethereal flower paintings and his daughter's porn posies, both of which represent romantic, natural forms in strikingly different but also strangely similar ways.

It is one of the many bizarre contradictions of the Bai home that it is the soft-spoken patriarch who paints flowers on a row of white porcelain plates hanging on one wall and the daughter who is the obsessive porn junkie, hunched with scissors over her worn copies of Nugget and Sensual Special Contact.

Yun is a feisty representative of new-millennial, cross-cultural womanhood, like a hybrid of an outspoken Courtney Love and the quiet, bowed-head Asian good girl many of us knew in school. "I am so humble" is a constant refrain of Yun's, delivered with a breathless self-awareness. But the words are like a reflex reinforcement of an Asian humility that isn't necessarily visible in Yun's confident, riot grrrl demeanor. When speaking about her "Porn Flowers" project, she is just as likely to indignantly spit, "There's a big difference between talking dirty and offensive shit."

The midday sun streams into the Bais' living room as Yun spreads another of her art projects, "Nipple Secret," on the coffee table as her parents sip tea and lean back into one of the four couches squeezed into their already franticly cluttered living room. The photographic self-portraits of her friends' nipples sprinkled with glitter or painted a fire-engine red were made, Yun says, "to be playful" and to provide a "positive contrast to the 'Porn Flowers.'"

"It really shows women and women's experiences."

Her parents are respectfully silent, watching their daughter explain these portraits of her friends' nipples.

Yun is just as quiet and intent when her parents shift the conversation to their difficult road from China to America.

"In America, you have more freedom. You can choose your career by yourself," says Mr. Bai, who clearly views that freedom in terms of how his only daughter might profit from it. "If she like to become an artist, I say OK. But she know also, art is very hard. In beginning, not easy to make money. Some very famous artists after they die are famous. ... Maybe after 10 years, she very famous in the world, who know that?"

The Bais were teenage sweethearts who, Yun says, were "kind of brainwashed" by the Communist Revolution. They had Yun in 1979 in China's capital, Beijing. Unable to choose their professions or even live in the same city, the newlyweds saw the prospect of a better life when Mr. Bai was granted permission by the Chinese government to study for a master's degree in physics at the University of Utah, where he was later joined by his wife and 5-year-old daughter. The family then moved to Tallahassee where Mr. Bai received another master's degree in chemical engineering at Florida State. Meanwhile his wife, a pediatrician in China, worked as a waitress.

When Yun left Florida to attend Agnes Scott, her parents eventually followed for better job prospects and the chance to be closer to their daughter in Atlanta. Both wound up selling cars at a Chamblee Toyota dealership and became U.S. citizens this past year.

But life in America has not been easy for her parents, or for Yun. As a teenager she often clashed with her parents, who she felt placed impossible demands on her.

"I went through severe depression," says Yun. "I was in counseling. I was screaming at my mother. I had low confidence, I was suicidal, I was on medication. I was really depressed from like 10 to 17."

Part of the problem, and a theme underlying almost every conflict between Yun and her parents, was an essential feature of their cultural heritage — the one family/one child policy that was a harsh reality of life when Yun was born. Though China's one-child laws were officially instituted in 1980, Yun's mother says that as early as 1975 the stricture was in place "all over the country in the cities and the villages."

The one-child laws were instituted to limit the wildfire Chinese population growth, which led many families to infanticide or selective abortion to make sure their one child would be male. Yun's growing recognition that her gender made her the less desirable kind of child perhaps intensified her restlessness.

"My dad used to joke about it 'You're lucky we kept you' when I was a little kid," remembers Yun. "And it hurt, but I was like, OK, they love me, whatever. But you can see how that really forms me."

Because childbirth was so strictly curtailed, Chinese parents sometimes invest the hope of two, three, even four children into one, resulting in enormous expectations.

Yun's mother places a pile of bulging photo albums on the coffee table: There's Yun as a plump, healthy Beijing baby; Yun at a Tallahassee spelling bee; Yun in her synchronized swimming outfit; Yun as a toddler dressed as a doctor examining one of her dolls; Yun — her tiny forehead level with the keys — playing the piano.

"In China, one family/one child, so a lot of hope," her mother offers. "The parents don't know what they should learn ..." she says, explaining the photos of their daughter in various extracurricular poses of what Yun calls "that Asian filial piety."

"At one time I was doing jazz, tap, ballet, Chinese school on Saturday, piano and swimming!" Yun confesses with an amused disbelief.

Her father begins to laugh, "It's true."

"And that's a lot for a little kid," stresses Yun.

Talented in many realms, Yun showed a special gift for the piano. When the family settled in Tallahassee in 1985, she received instruction from a Juilliard professor, but she eventually stopped playing.

"This makes me worried and sad," her mother laments. "I thought maybe I pushed too much. With art I never push her."

Yun is sitting in a dark corner of Cafe Intermezzo talking about how that whirl of influences — demanding immigrant parents, a sense of guilt and anger at her second-class gender, her desire to carve her own path — led to a crucial crossroads that made her "Porn Flowers" possible.

Despite a crushing sense of obligation and her mother's insistence that she study business, Yun knew she had to follow her own dream. At Agnes Scott her financial aid debts mounted, but she plugged away, taking on more and more internships and work-study jobs, falling asleep in class so often she thought she might have narcolepsy.

During her senior year, the enormity of life came crashing in. In the span of one disastrous year, her mother was diagnosed with cancer, she broke up with her boyfriend of two years and she watched her financial aid debt grow and grow. Yun couldn't imagine how she would ever be able to take care of her sick mother if that day ever came, or help cushion her parents' retirement years. Her decision to switch from a business major to a painting major at Agnes Scott also made the prospect of one day supporting her parents with her work seem nearly impossible.

"That's when I discovered about women and desperation," Yun confides of a decision that went against every fiber of her obedient daughter's training. "I was like, what can I do about this money thing? What can I do to make money legally? So I just did some things that I wasn't supposed to do. ..."

Without money and hopelessly in debt, this devoted daughter began working as a dancer in Atlanta's thriving adult entertainment industry. That time spent on the dark side of life changed her perceptions forever.

"I was so naive and innocent until I discovered this world," she sighs.

Yun incorporated her new secret profession into her rigorous, goal-oriented lifestyle and began working 60 hours a week on top of going to school full time for eight months.

"I worked from 7 at night until 4 in the morning four days a week and then did work study and then did an internship, got about three or four hours of sleep."

But it was more than just the long hours that took a toll on Yun.

"After coming home from work at 4 a.m., being called a whore, I would take a shower, bawling and crying in the shower, and that's when I vowed that I wouldn't let myself fail as an artist. I'd be damned if I did. The anger and hurt drove me to succeed, complete and finish."

What most surprised Yun about her work as a stripper was the camaraderie she shared with the other dancers. "The girls were sweet," remembers Yun. "They were very supportive of each other." But it was the men, she says, who affected her the most.

"Previously, I thought of men as these sweet boys," Yun says. "And then I saw them as uncontrollable sexual beasts. They could not keep their dicks in their pants. If you got them alone, they would try to buy you off, and if you refused, they would call you a whore. It just completely changed me. It was crazy."

Unlike some Asian Hardcore where a good girl plunges into the sex industry and never returns, Yun not only made it out on the other side, a little less innocent, a lot wiser, she found a profitable new awareness that fed directly into her artwork.

Inspired by her growing intimacy with fellow students at the Atlanta College of Art, which encourages a conceptual approach to art, Yun began applying what she gleaned from her experience in strip clubs to her artwork. Soon she was putting aside the watercolors and abstract paintings she was doing at Agnes Scott and began developing highly conceptual, feminist work.

Suddenly, Yun saw a harmonious convergence, where the essential valuelessness of being female in a Chinese gender economy collided with a revelation Yun discovered working as a stripper: that men in America can also see women as valueless.

"The background of my experiences is completely relevant to the work. It was weird because I saw it as research. I wrote everything down as documentation because I knew that my experience there was going to lead me to make art about it," she says. "I want people to understand that women are flowers, whether they're in the sex industry or not. Life is about perspective."

While the sensuous, lovely floral facade of the "Porn Flowers" speaks to the reverence Yun feels for women and their sexuality, the close-up images and caustic language sampled from porn tramples such loveliness in smut and loathing. Curving around the leaves and petals of her "Porn Flowers" are words sampled from that industry's unimaginative lexicon. Phrases like "It's a Man's Heaven," "Forced to Suck," "Asian Whore," and "Wife Hunting in the Orient" turn the delicacy of the flowers on their head and give the work yet another edgy jolt.

"The way that I've cut up the porn is a mockery of objectification itself," exclaims Yun.

Yun's other current project is a series of photographs of her friends she calls "The Nipple Secret Project," which juxtapose close-up photos of a Rainbow Coalition of aureoles with "secrets" these women confided in Yun, encompassing everything from rape and masturbation to first orgasms and strange encounters with the family pet.

The "Porn Flowers" and "Nipple Secret Project" are oddly complementary endeavors, the first using porn to examine how women have been falsely represented in the sex industry, the second using the voices and bodies of real women to talk about the true complexity of their sexual identity. Both projects have already ignited some interest on the Atlanta arts scene.

The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center will spotlight Yun's "Porn Flowers" in an exhibition this summer called Secrets and Lies. The Contemporary's curator Helena Reckitt, who selected the "Porn Flowers" for the two-person show, remembers being flabbergasted by the work and by the extreme circumstances of Yun's domestic arrangement.

"By the end of the day my head was bursting!" recalls Reckitt of her first foray into Yun's Lawrenceville digs. "I thought it was so cool and so hybrid and contemporary, it just really blew this whole cliched idea that I had. It made me realize here is a thoroughly contemporary feminist Chinese-American living this real in-between existence."

Yun's parents came to America to give their daughter choices where they had been given none. And Yun has exercised the privilege of her new country. She has chosen. What Yun has chosen is the life of an artist and work that confronts not only her new country's ugly stereotypes of Asian female sexuality, but also creates a challenge to her birth country's insistence on overvaluing male children. While the one-child policy isn't an overt issue in any of Yun's work, it is a covert one. It is undeniable that what Reckitt calls Yun's "hybrid" culture — both her Chinese and American sides — have imprinted her work.

When Yun is not in the presence of her parents, all of her art world dreams seem to center on New York. But Yun's parents want her to return to China, to connect to her heritage and to study at Peking University's prestigious art school. In their company, she expresses excitement about returning to China and the possibility of one day meeting some of the conceptual Chinese artists currently so hot on the international art scene.

"The plan this week is that I will wait until my show at the Contemporary is done and then in August go back for a year. I want to just reclaim myself and travel a little bit.

"I have a 20-year plan. I would like to be represented by a gallery in five major cities. I don't care if my parents live with me for the rest of my life."

While her parents worry about her, she worries about them.

"I don't want them to hurt, I don't want them to go through heartbreak because of me. I want to be their good little girl, their little daughter."