Massage Near Me: Evelyn Taocheng Wang
The man arches his head backward like a dog straining against its leash to slobber on the hand of some unsuspecting passersby on the sidewalk while its owner sheepishly offers apologies. He props himself up on one meaty arm so he can take the masseuse’s hand in his mouth, suckling eagerly on the tips of her fingers. I imagine her fingers taste distinctly of shea butter and sweat. Her other hand rests firmly on the man’s buttocks, holding a gray, rectangular towel in place—the last barrier between her and the man’s unclothed body. The masseuse’s face is wrinkled and weary, frown lines bunching between her brows and sagging her cheeks. She holds her arms stiffly away from her body to avoid staining her prim, navy blouse with massage oil or touching any more of the man’s bare skin than necessary with her own. Swirling motifs of black and gray, reminiscent of feather dusters, tumble and billow across the scene, disrupting the image and giving it a dreamlike quality.
Evelyn Taocheng Wang’s unsettling watercolor drawing A Hongkong-Dutch Client Licking My Arm during the Massage Treatment (2015) documents the time Wang spent working as a masseuse at the Chinese Jade Massage Salon in Amsterdam’s Red Light district to finance her international education as a painter. Wang kept a series of diaries during her time at the salon, recording conversations between her colleagues and their clients, which she first posted to her Facebook page and later used as inspiration for a series of work titled Massage Near Me. A Hongkong-Dutch Client… and similarly titled drawings such as Excuse me! You are not a real lady! (2015) and Give Clients Tap Water, We drink Mineral Water, Fill up Empty Mineral Water Bottle with Tap Water (2015) were shown during Wang’s 2016 Dorothea von Stetten Award exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Bonn in Germany. As part of the exhibition, Wang brought massage tables into the space and offered massages to visitors behind plum-purple partition curtains as a performance. However, before visitors received a massage treatment, Wang required them to fill out a questionnaire, asking questions such as: “Do you think a massage will relax your body? If so, can it also relax your history?” or “Do you think what we are doing now, specifically inside the art museum, is a performance? If not, do you think a straightforward massage business could be run inside an art museum?”
There is a certain cleverness to Wang’s conceptual performance as she anticipates a skeptical, resistant audience and incorporates the questions that might be used to diminish her work within the performance itself. After reading Wang’s questions, I find myself thinking about German filmmaker Hito Steyerl’s 2016 essay “If You Don’t Have Bread, Eat Art!” where she writes that, “throughout history, it has been art workers and artists, more than any other actors, who have subsidized art production.” To most art workers and artists, the idea that they must take on jobs, potentially multiple, in order to pay for their artmaking or pursue their arts career feels redundantly self-evident. They are acutely aware of the vast income inequity between art institutions’ leadership and workers, as well as the growing reliance on unpaid internships, fellowships, and low-wage or freelance workers to sustain essential operations that create the conditions where art workers and artists must moonlight as coat check attendants, waiters, bartenders, retail workers, sex workers, event planners, administrators, Uber drivers, food delivery workers, et cetera. Wang’s experience working as a masseuse to afford her living costs while participating in a residency at De Ateliers in Amsterdam perfectly exemplifies this crisis, and she is keenly aware of the relationship between the hours she spends softly kneading men’s’ flesh and the privilege of exhibiting her art in galleries and museums.
With Massage Near Me, Wang invites us to see connections between the social labor of earning money (working as a masseuse) and the intellectual labor of doing art/performance (staging a museum exhibition). In an interview with Art Institute of Chicago curator Hendrik Folkerts for Mousse Magazine, she explains that she signed an agreement with the Kunstmuseum Bonn that allowed her to effectively rent the room while all of her earnings (including tips!) from giving massages to curators, friends, family, academic professors, museum worker guides, and visitors were given back to the museum. The museum becomes a massage parlor in all but name. Wang quotes Chinese writer Eileen Chang to further explain her thinking behind the performance: “To sell your beautiful intellectual thoughts to people is not so much different from those who sell their labor, and their body.” The division between bodily labor and intellectual labor disappears in Wang’s performance; she is selling both her expertise as a masseuse and her creative ideas as an artist, asking us to consider how and why these forms of labor are often considered discrete from one another.
Beyond just interrogating this division of intellectual and bodily labor, both Wang’s performance and drawings highlight her and her colleagues' precarious working conditions as their clients persistently make sexual advances. As I continue to admire A Hongkong-Dutch Client Licking My Arm during the Massage Treatment, my focus drifts from the central figures toward the second pair in the right corner of the image. The man trails his tongue along the masseuse’s arm. His body is faint, unfinished and fades into the wash of peach-pink rice paper. I cannot tell if he has a towel to cover up his nakedness. The woman in the golden blouse holds her arm intimately against the man’s body, gingerly resting her elbow on his broad bicep, and I notice that her index finger teases the man’s nipple. Yet, her face is expressionless, and her eyes appear red and bloodshot.
The Chinese Jade Massage salon employs primarily Chinese migrant women, unsurprising in an industry that relies heavily on the labor of Asian women sourced from the “global care chain,” who do their best to provide intimacy, although not sex, for their (mostly) male clients. In A Hongkong-Dutch Client… the first masseuse wears her displeasure openly, betraying her task to appear benevolent and agreeable. She allows her stoic, appeasing persona to slip away, potentially jeopardizing her wages rather than allowing the man to suckle on her fingers unremarked, while the second acquiesces to her client’s animalistic behavior—as though she is a salt lick, and he is a deer stupidly lapping at her chalky exterior. The diaries that Wang kept and used as inspiration for Massage Near Me capture the deep tenderness shared between Wang and her colleagues, which offers some protection against the brutal emotional labor of making these men feel good.
During the run of her Kunstmuseum Bonn exhibition, Wang records her conversations with “clients” and copies them onto rice paper, gluing them to the backs of the paintings shown in the recreated massage salon. We are unable to read these conversations, but Wang reveals that clients in the museum ask the same questions as clients in Amsterdam’s Red Light District: where she comes from, if she will provide sexual services for them, if she loves receiving tips, why she does art, et cetera. By concealing these conversations, Wang pulls the curtain closed on our ambivalent voyeurism. We are no longer able to strain our necks to peek around the curtain’s edge to watch private moments of transaction where the women repress their emotions, presence or history to appease their clients’ desires in hopes of earning generous tips. The emotional labor expended by Wang and her colleagues to care for museum visitors and their bodies is hidden; Wang literally embeds testaments to their bodily and affective labor within her artwork. For Evelyn Taocheng Wang, the hours spent toiling to pleasure the men’s bodies in the Chinese Jade Massage salon are little different than the intellectual labor of producing art and sharing her thoughts for consumption by strangers. However, Wang does not shy away from her audience: she invites us to climb up onto the massage table, to feel our skin sweat and stick to the burgundy leather, to stretch out our limbs and let her nimbly work to relax our aching muscles, yet—in her own words—she cannot relax our histories.
Evelyn Taocheng Wang (1981, Chengdu, China) lives and works in Rotterdam. She studied classical painting in China, continued her education at the Städelschule, Frankfurt and was resident artist at De Ateliers, Amsterdam (2012-2014). In 2016 she received De Volkskrant Beeldende Kunst Prijs as well as the Dorothea von Stetten Art Award. Recent solo exhibitions include: Frans Hals Museum | De Hallen Haarlem, Carlos|Ishikawa, London, Chateau Shatto, Los Angeles, Tale of a Tub, Rotterdam, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (performance). Selection of group exhibitions: ICA, London; Kunstmuseum Bonn; Manifesta 11, Zurich; The Kitchen, New York; Greene Naftali, New York; De Hallen Haarlem; The 9th Shanghai Biennale, Shanghai; Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam. Wangs work is part of collections of: ABN AMRO; Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht; Stedelijk Museum Schiedam; Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.