Victoria Shen - Modernist Manicures @ Gardner Museum 1/16

February 16, 2014


            On a whim, a friend and I decided to go to the Gardner Museum on a Thursday for extended hours to see Sophie Calle’s “Last Seen” exhibition. This trip would be my second time seeing that exhibition but it would be my friend’s first exhibition. At the front desk, we grabbed our tickets and the woman working gave us a guide for the evening. We happened upon the Gardner’s Third Thursday event, which that evening was called “Midwinter Tropics.” She recommended the piece that was happening in the Living Room of the museum where we could get our nails done. Of course, I squealed with joy and wanted to get in right away before the rush. It felt awkward coming into this space and seeing a lot of people sitting like they’ve always been there and I was invading their living space.  Then I spotted, Victoria Shen in her very official manicure table with some floating paperwork around her. I felt a bit timid and noisy by wanting to participate in this performance, which I had initially thought of as a painting piece or installation.

            Shen was with I believe her first participant and I felt like eavesdropping but I decided against it because it seemed intimate and quasi-personal. My second thought was Shen’s Asian American identity in relation to her action and installation and my own relation to that moment. Later, I’d have an opportunity to casually converse about identity with her. Meanwhile, I needed to sign up for a slot, and I believe I signed up for the 6:35 slot, which was third on her paper list. My friend signed up after me and because we had about a half hour until our appointment, we went upstairs to see Calle. I anxiously came back several times because I wasn’t sure if my slot would get booted if I weren’t there. Actually, the contrary occurred, other women who hadn’t signed up ended up going before me. I found this pretty irritating, but I got to browse her “Modernist Paintings” book to choose a design for my nail.  Some of the artists were Piet Mondrian, Yves Klein, Jackson Pollack, Clement Greenburg, and other male modernist artists. I decided on the Mark Rothko “Untitled” 1968 to be placed on my thumb. Before I sat down, I chatted with a few women and observed a documenter ask questions and take some pictures here and there. The link below is the article published with some images of my friend and me waiting for our turn.


            By the time I sat down, I practiced in my head what I would ask her, and then I forgot it all. Actually, I just wanted to listen to Shen because she is quite friendly and charming. She was very casual and reminded me of almost any one of my friends. She started with a asking which image I wanted and began putting a clear coat of nail polish on, and then moving to a matte brownish-black color on top of that. We chatted about art school; she went to SMFA and knew some grads from the SIM department. We chatted about how this piece was a performance and my performance collective, and for a second had a casual meta-critique about the moment. And I don’t know how, but the conversation led to her asking my background. We rejoiced that we were both half-Cambodian.  She told me about how a lot of Cambodian Americans got into the donut business when they first arrived because it was one of the first jobs they could get right away. Apparently, quite a few Dunkin Donut chains are owned by a lot of Cambodian Americans. I had never heard of such a thing, but it might have to do with the fact that I was brought up in Western Massachusetts and not in Boston even though my family started there like everyone else. During that time, she got out a makeup wedge and applied a red color by the Essie brand. She blot that coat to give the nail some depth and added a fraction of a deeper brown color. Then she finished with a clear coat to seal her work. Before I knew it, we were done, and other women, who had yet to experience Shen were anxiously waiting their turn.  My time was probably a maximum of 5 minutes, which was slightly interrupted here and there to questions of those passing by and the employees of the museum. I believe it’s proper to assume that the Gardner is absolutely new to performance and see it more as entertainment considering the programing and publication of the evening.

            My friend decided on Ives Klein’s Blue and I actually left to grab a glass of wine so she could experience the piece more intimately without me leering over her shoulder. By the time I came back, quite a crowd had gathered and we thanked Shen and signed up for her email list. My friend and I critiqued our nails because of our art school training and decided the nails were definitely not rendered in likeness of the paintings. However, I thought it was interesting and reminded me of the “nail art” trend that I actually do ever once in a while. Over the summer, I spent hours on marbling my nails. My friend and I didn’t discuss the deeper concept of a Cambodian American woman setting up a mini-nail salon in a traditional museum trying really hard to be contemporary. I imagine majority of Shen’s participants are women as evident on her website.  Women were getting modernist paintings created mostly by men on their nails as if re-appropriating art for women. I also thought a lot about consumerism and how beauty products are marketed to women. After thinking it through, Shen and I have a lot in common, in the sense that we both are dealing with identity and relationships in our work with a critical commentary on politics and philosophy. Shen’s “Modernist Nails” have been exhibited in various places, but I wonder about the presentation on her website about booking her for events.