“Can I Leave You?” at the RISD Museum

With Triple Canopy with CFGNY RISD Museum
20 N. Main Street
Providence, RI 02903

Trailer for Triple Canopy’s If the Limbs Grow Too Large for the Body, 2019.

For “Raid the Icebox Now,” an exhibition at the RISD Museum in Providence, Rhode Island, Triple Canopy created a multimedia installation that considers the role of early American decorative arts in the formation of a common identity. How do artworks and decor—as well as fictions and fashions—give rise to nations and nationalities? What do they tell viewers about how to look and act, what and whom to value? How has the United States been shaped through the consumption and display of such goods, as well as the subjugation of the people whose labor or likenesses mark them? Triple Canopy also commissioned a capsule collection and campaign video by the collective and fashion label CFGNY (Concept Foreign Garments New York), which are included in the installation.

Each of the installations in “Raid the Icebox Now”—which is organized on the fiftieth anniversary of the exhibition “Raid the Icebox I with Andy Warhol,” in which the artist put the museum’s storage on display in the galleries—engages with one collection. Can I Leave You? responds to Pendleton House, which was built in 1906 to exhibit the bequest (and resemble the nearby home) of the collector Charles Pendleton and established the first museum wing devoted to American decorative arts. Pendleton fixated on furniture from the colonial era, as he believed that work from the period demonstrated American technical prowess and aesthetic refinement; however, the galleries now display a range of items from the museum’s collection, including many from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. An impression of the country is formed by everything from portraits of prominent patricians and a Pequot chief to made-to-order Chinese export ceramics and English teapots to landscapes showing a New York waterfall and a Brazilian jungle.

Can I Leave You? centers on the efforts of Americans to define themselves through products and portrayals of China, whether via porcelain bowls or travelogues, whether out of admiration or animus. The installation is divided between the Pendleton House and a nearby gallery. Multiple works are linked by an epistolary narrative that scrutinizes facile fictions of China and Chinese people from the Colonial era to the present, as well as expressions of dissonance and harmony in early American rituals and music.

The installation is named after a song from the Sacred Harp tradition, a variety of participatory choral music that originated in New England in the late 1700s. Can I Leave You? is about the anxieties of pilgrimage to a foreign land, but the lyrics also speak to the possibility of abandoning nationality as the source of belonging. (The installation incorporates a recording of the song created by Triple Canopy with the vocal ensemble Ekmeles.) In the spirit of the song—and in response to the recent rise of nationalist and populist movements—Triple Canopy troubles the definition of the objects on display in Pendleton House as “American,” and proposes that they serve the invention of truer fictions and alternative realities.

CFGNY’s contribution, Synthetic Blend V, is prompted by the combination of American and Chinese objects in Pendleton House. The capsule collection and campaign video consider how Asian American identity is forged and perceived, especially through the global circulation of styles (and the materials used to craft them). For Synthetic Blend V, CFGNY worked with tailors in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam—Nguyệt Huế Nguyệt, Bùi Thị Mỹ Linh, Bùi Thị Lan Anh, Da Trần Văn Tân, and Namsilk Tailor—to develop designs and elaborate on the label’s notion of “vaguely Asian” aesthetics. The garments are installed throughout Pendleton House and the video is projected in the nearby gallery. (Click here to view the video and photographs of the garments, along with CFGNY’s reflections on the project.)

Can I Leave You? is accompanied by “To Make New Bodies Out of Old Shapes,” Triple Canopy's contribution to the online catalogue for “Raid the Icebox Now.” The publication revises the lavish catalogue produced by the museum in 1906 to mark the debut of Pendleton’s collection. The writing in the catalogue is largely devoted to seemingly anodyne descriptions of the styles and techniques of furniture makers and artisans. But Triple Canopy’s intervention reveals the language to be a manifestation of the rhetoric around taste, distinction, and progress—especially in industry and art—that has fueled the formation of American identity and abetted the exercise of American power. “To Make New Bodies Out of Old Shapes” augments the catalogue with nationalistic speeches, nostalgic stories, messianic sermons, and other materials that reflect the underlying agenda, ideologies, and biases. Dutiful assessment of the collection is interrupted by a time traveler who meddles with the rebellion against the British, an enslaved person harvesting mahogany to furnish the homes of New England aristocrats, and a Chinese philosopher disturbed by the patrician penchant for dragons and pagodas. Eventually, “To Make New Bodies Out of Old Shapes” is taken over by these accounts.

Can I Leave You? is the foundation of the forthcoming twenty-seventh issue of Triple Canopy, which will include works by additional artists, writers, and researchers. The issue will address the fictions that give rise to nations and nationalities, whether they come to be understood as real and fundamental to a common identity or are discredited, dismissed, but nonetheless persist as artifacts of thwarted desires, unrealized polities or peoples. These fictions might not be understood as such by those who author or read them, but they involve fabrications, fantasies, plotlines, and heroics that persuade people to consider themselves first and foremost as subjects of a nation-state (and as opposed to those who are not). The issue will ask how these fictions work and for whom, and how they might be dissected and rewritten.

Works included in Can I Leave You?

Triple Canopy
If the Limbs Grow Too Large for the Body, 2019
Three-channel color video with four-channel sound, 25 m 34 s

A Portal, of the Light Reflected by the Sea, of Notes Never Before Sung, for Traversing, 2019
Four-channel sound installation, 11 m 32 s

These video and audio works hinge on a narrative composed of letters from Chinese characters invented by American and European authors from the Colonial era to the present. After awakening in a strange land that resembles eighteenth-century New England, the characters are enlisted to work for Oceanus Slater, who is intent on fabricating American goods that surpass those imported from China. In the letters, the characters reckon with their fictionality and reflect on the attitudes and ambitions of Oceanus and his compatriots. Ultimately, they join forces to ransack his house; they transform the fragments of ceramics, furnishings, portraits, and ornaments in accordance with their own resentments, desires, and partial biographies—into a home that is provisional, disordered.

To scrutinize the facile fictions about China and Chinese people, If the Limbs Grow Too Large for the Body makes use of conventions of epistolary narratives that purport to capture the perspectives of foreigners, such as Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World, or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher (1762). Such works were popular in the United States and Europe when exchange between China and the West was limited. They served to satisfy the curiosity of readers, who heard much but knew little about China; deride or praise Chinese culture, politics, and industry; and even satirize the society of the writer. The video also employs tropes of period dramas to dissect the relationship between nationalism and the artful representation of historical—and characteristically American—environments. Footage made in Pendleton House revels in details of artifacts and establishes historical fidelity, while shots of glass-plate negatives of the same environment, created by the museum in 1906 to document Pendleton’s collection, emphasize the fragility of the narrative, and the nation.

Throughout the video, the characters hear voices joining in song, synthetic versions of the same voices, and the ominous sounds of crude instruments being scraped and beaten. The narrative concludes with an approximation of a “house attack,” a Colonial-era ritual, accompanied by boisterous singing and noisemaking, that targeted elites who pursued wealth and power at the expense of the commonwealth—and who were seen as shaping the nation in accordance with their own interests. The audio installation forefronts the relationship between expressions of dissonance and harmony. Speakers mounted in four corners of the main hallway in Pendleton House shift between the simulation of a house attack, the recording of “Can I Leave You?,” and a synthetic rendering of the melody in which human voices are mirrored by sine waves, the emotional force of an exuberant chorus traded for the psychoacoustic effects of intermingling tones. The work performs the fundamental tension—in early American rituals and music as well as in political life—between the merging of voices and the preservation of difference, the achievement of union and the manifestation of discord.

If you’d like to see a version of the video or hear a version of the audio installation, send us an email.

Concept and direction by Alexander Provan, Matthew Shen Goodman, and C. Spencer Yeh, with Hannah Whitaker and Meredith Morran
Narrative by Matthew Shen Goodman and Alexander Provan
Video editing by Meredith Morran with C. Spencer Yeh and Micaela Durand
Videography by Jess Y Lee with Carson Evans, Carolyn Gennari, Erik Gould, and Jeremy Radtke
Audio production and editing by Alexander Provan and C. Spencer Yeh
Performance of “Can You Leave Me?” by Ekmeles
Sound design by Daniel Neumann
Voice-overs by Neil Rogers, Alex Beck, Gibson Frazier, C. Spencer Yeh, and Prem Krishnamurthy
Titles by Bo-Won Keum

CFGNY with Nguyệt Huế Nguyệt, Bùi Thị Mỹ Linh, Bùi Thị Lan Anh, Da Trần Văn Tân, and Namsilk Tailor
Synthetic Blend V, 2019
Capsule collection with nine looks

Synthetic Blend V, 2019
Single-channel video with sound, 4 m 7 s

To view the video and garments and read about the collection, navigate to the online publication of Synthetic Blend V. For additional information about each garment, see the exhibition checklist.

Videography by Jess Y Lee with Carson Evans, Carolyn Gennari, Erik Gould, and Jeremy Radtke
Models: Stine An, Mary-Kim Arnold, Thoa DiChiara, Aayushi Khowala, Carlos Kong, Cole Lu, Lucy Qiu, Richard C. Whitten, Wen Zhuang

Can I Leave You? is made possible through support from a Craft Research Fund grant from the Center for Craft, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Jacques Louis Vidal Charitable Fund, the Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation, and the Opaline Fund of the Jewish Community Endowment Federation and Endowment Fund.

  • Triple Canopy is a magazine based in New York.
  • CFGNY (Concept Foreign Garments New York) is a New York-based collective and fashion label founded in 2016. CFGNY began as a dialogue between Tin Nguyen and Daniel Chew on the intersection of fashion, race, identity, and sexuality. CFGNY continually returns to the term “vaguely Asian”: an understanding of racial identity as a specific cultural experience, combined with the experience of being perceived as other. Rather than represent what it means to be “Asian” in the singular, CFGNY encourages the visualization of the countless ways of being in the plural.