Former punk musician Wendy Yao is the founder of Ooga Booga, an indie store in L.A.’s Chinatown that carries everything ranging from artist’s books to crochet platform sandals. Since Ooga Booga was founded in 2004, it has been a nexus of creativity in the Los Angeles area and beyond. Asia Art Achive’s Chantal Wong sat down with Wendy to discuss her most recent project, “Another Cats Show” at her art space 365 Mission.
CHANTAL WONG Let’s start with you— I’ve read that you are a self-professed “cat obsessive.” Can you describe what that means?
WENDY YAO I’ve been a cat lover since I was a little kid. My store [Ooga Booga] has always woven cats into what we do; they show up in our announcements and graphics, and we have a number of items in the store that reference our favorite animal. And a couple years back I did a project at the ICA Philadelphia and made a cat-themed vitrine out of their archival collection. I co-run 365 Mission Road in partnership with artist Laura Owens and art gallerist Gavin Brown. We were brainstorming for the summer show and we thought a cat show would be both fun and inclusive, in keeping with the spirit of our space. In the end, we were able to bring in over 300 artworks, mostly from Los Angeles-based artists. It was a nice way to involve artists working in different styles and mediums, as well as people who weren’t even professional artists.
CW How did you connect with over 300 artists working with cats?
WY We started with people we know who had made works involving cats, and we had other cat-oriented artists in mind who we thought might want to make something, focusing on local artists. While it wasn’t exactly an open call— it was mostly a chain-letter invitation— we wanted inclusivity to be the guiding criteria. For this particular show, we thought, “the more the merrier.” We ended up using every single room in the space.
CW Let’s discuss some of the works. You have someone performing as a cat, there are cat portraits, found footage of cats… What are some of the associations you make between the artworks— how would you categorize them?
WY It’s funny that you said “cat-egorize.” In a way, you can’t limit the show to any finite group of categories. Some of the works are very personal in nature. For example, for Lena Wolek’s 100 Cats, she created ninety-nine bowls, the missing one commemorating her cat that died. Others might be more distanced commentaries on Internet cats, like Cory Arcangel’s Drei Klavierstucke op. 11, which compiles clips of cats on Youtube to play Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces. There’s also Todd Pleasants, who made heart-shaped balloons of heart-eyed-cat emojis that people could take home from the opening.
There’s a large range within the show. There were artists who contributed artworks that were just a part of their general body of work, while others specifically made new work. Some took the project very seriously, and some saw it as an opportunity to be more playful and do something they wouldn’t necessarily do in a gallery or institution I like that kind of range because it reflects the way I think. There is “proper artwork,” so to speak, and there are casual things that aren’t supposed to be taken so seriously. But I like that the show isn’t so hierarchical, that everything is all mixed together.
CW Do you think artists have a particular affinity or relationship to cats?
WY There are a lot of artists I’m friends with who definitely have a special relationship with the cats in their lives. In the show, there’s a very early Frances Stark video of her cats hanging out in her apartment, set to different soundtracks. I think the passing of time and observance of cat behavior reflects on the way she thinks about an artist’s studio practice and its sense of interiority. Then again, Ricky Swallow’s contribution to the show is a display of his collection of cat-oriented ceramics and Zuni jewelry made by other artists, and it is titled Not a Cat Person. Needless to say, he has a dog.
CW Did you notice a difference in the audience for the cat show?
WY In addition to the broad local audience who usually comes to our openings, there was also a new crowd. We definitely had a lot of visitors who were straight-up cat lovers— All different ages, including a lot of children and senior citizens.
CW Taking this show and the hugely popular internet cat video festival at The Walker Art Center as examples, do you think cats are a vehicle for democracy in art in terms of both what art is and who the audiences engaging with the art institution are? Do you think cats are changing the the notion of the “art audience?”
WY It can be a vehicle for democracy in that cats form a super accessible and broad subject that is both polarizing and universal. And the proliferation of amateur cat photography and cat art on the Internet perhaps attaches a DIY vernacular spirit to the idea of cat art exhibitions, and that might feel democratizing. I don’t know if this subject matter really changes what art is, but it seems like a good entry point for audiences who might be otherwise intimidated by the art world, to be able to engage with or participate in an art show. It’s very relatable.
CW In Hong Kong, the most popular recent art exhibitions include a 54-foott high rubber ducky docked in the harbor, 1600 papier mache pandas and “INFLATION,” an exhibition of large-scale inflatables organized by the new major art museum being set up in Hong Kong which included Paul McCarthy’s Complex Pile (which was a piece of poop) and Cao Fei’s House of Treasures (Chinese style roast pork that you could walk into). There is a discussion that this is part of a new and dominating aesthetic regime of cuteness— would you agree, and do you see cats as part of this changing aesthetic regime?
WY I think cuteness has been big for a fairly long time now, so I’m not sure if I agree that it is a new thing. Asians have been dominating the cute game for as long as I can remember. But it seems like with the examples you gave, there’s a push to show public art that engages the audience in an unintimidating way, and in many instances this large scale “cute” factor makes sense— it creates a pop aesthetic that also meshes well with a corporate theme park vibe. Like Jeff Koons. Not that it’s all benign, a lot of it can be aggressive or weird, maybe even perverse. But it seems like it would be easier for the civic figures of power to sign off on a large-scale public work that is “cute” than some other stuff out there I guess. I think the digital era has made the image so dominant that different extremes of visual impact—often things that used to be more niche—might be rising into the mainstream, whether it’s cuteness, or pornography, or hipster design aesthetics. So in my opinion cuteness has always been around, but it’s hit a new level of pervasiveness for these reasons perhaps. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of cute things! I mean, how can I resist?
CW That was my next question. More than once I’ve read the show described as whimsical, cheeky, humorous. Is this the nature of the subject matter, or was the show intended this way?
WY Cats evoke a lot of different reactions from different people. People can portray a cat as beautiful or abject. I think the playfulness of the exhibition also comes from allowing that kind of range to exist within it. You can project a whole gamut of reactions, emotions and feelings onto this subject.
CW What is your next project?
WY This winter, we’re going to have a second iteration of Rhonda Lieberman’s “Cats in Residence” that was at White Columns in 2013. It’s a large-scale cat cage in which shelter cats hang out and are offered up for adoption. The interiority of the cage will be filled with functional sculptures that various artists have made for the environment. We wanted to maintain this continuum between these two cat projects, so we were happy to have Rhonda participate. It’s not exactly a part two, but it’s a continuation.