After drawing the gold curtain closed, the psychic asks her client's name, birth date, and wish. Ripple Fang. August 2, 1992. "I want," Ripple says, "a visa."
Pause. The psychic searches Ripple's face and says, "You are in the darkness."
Yes, that's why Ripple went to the psychic in the first place. Her student visa runs out in August, but she wants to stay here and keep making the photographs, installations, and live-cam performances that have earned her the respect of peers and elders in Seattle. Back home in China, she says, "I—just wouldn't be able to work and think like this." A sundae of green-tea ice cream melts on the table in front of her. She's just finished her psychic appointment. The psychic, a tough, stringy-haired woman with a faint Eastern European accent, did not say whether she would get a visa.
Though the visa question is a major concern, Ripple wasn't asking out of simple curiosity. As part of what she called a "recuperative" local artist residency (it's just a regular artist residency to its organizers), she's been surveying the hoodoo world to see if it has any useful advice about her predicament. Accompanied by invited guests, she has visited two psychics and a palm reader, and had her tarot cards done twice. The project also involves a sock-puppet show performed live on YouTube (designed to help her become "better and happier") and an upcoming installation and performance at the residency house Andralamusya. The title of it all is Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy (A Contemporary Recuperative Artist Residency).
The fakeness in Ripple's work is funny, but funny like a fox. It sends your mind wandering about things like what you're wearing, whether you fit into your hometown, global economics. She makes semiabstract street photographs shot in an ungodly, early-hour gray light that makes Seattle look like a fake of itself, draped in scrim. Silly yet enchanting installations like Paradise Straight Ahead offer a stage set of crystals, bright colors, and healing lights. In the video But There Is No Google Map Street View in My Hometown, her novelistic voice-over accompanies images of her computer's arrow icon touring Jinhua from above, never touching down.
"I love fake so much," Ripple explains. "There is this factory in China that fakes this very important part in Swiss watches, the essential part that makes the watch work. So they fake that and assemble it themselves to make a fake Swiss watch to sell, and then the Swiss company realizes this is actually so good and so cheap, they start buying this fake little essential part to put in their real watches. So it's like the real watch is actually the fake watch."
Ripple is part of the wave of Chinese students pouring into US universities since the dollar tanked in 2008. In the last three years, their number has jumped 75 percent to almost 275,000 out of 886,052 total foreign students. According to a study by the nonprofit group Institute of International Education, there are more students from China than from any other foreign country. In 2013–14, about 5 percent of them majored in fine and applied arts. The UW School of Art estimates it has graduated 125 undergrads from China and 29 from Taiwan in the last five years.
Though China's reputation for punishing dissident artists makes it tempting to impose a romantic fugitive narrative on the growing number of Chinese art students in American universities, it's also worth remembering that not all artists are radical. The bigger problem might have to do with geographical isolation. Artists confined to one place in today's highly international art world are at a disadvantage wherever they are. A more basic problem: Chinese art education is extremely traditional, providing hopeful students with only a sliver of what they need to know if they want to be contemporary artists.
Ripple grew up in Jinhua, a small city by Chinese standards (known, incidentally, for its ham). When she came to the United States, she explains, her "complete understanding of Western art was impressionism. Only impressionism."
Rodrigo Valenzuela was one of Ripple's teachers at UW. He works in the studio 15 hours a day, he said, but Ripple was always there before he arrived and after he left. "She is one of my best students," he said, "and a real artist." He originally entered the United States illegally and wants to start the process of becoming a citizen in 2018, when his current green card expires. At the moment, his future is less precarious than Ripple's because he's represented by a commercial gallery and has had multiple prestigious residencies. But being suspended between countries is a central facet of his subject matter.
He believes we should encourage the influx of foreign artists, because "USA has a very fragile memory. Norms and parameters that we live by are dictated by a small group. So I think it is important for the arts to have artists from the outside, artists like Ripple that can reflect on their own culture from within another one. To remind us that common things are not so normal."
Valenzuela's praise may end up mattering. Ripple plans to apply for an O artist visa, which means she has to prove "extraordinary ability." According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, "Extraordinary ability in the field of arts means distinction. Distinction means a high level of achievement... to the extent that a person described... is renowned, leading, or well-known in the field of arts."
In other words, Ripple doesn't have to prove that her art is good. She may not even need to submit pictures of it. She just needs a good résumé and a promise from somebody who'll show her work in the next three years. In addition to the residency she's finishing this weekend, her application will include the fact that she earned a bachelor of fine arts in photomedia at UW in 2014, and won the 2014 UW Dean's Medal in the Arts. Seattle Art Museum curator Catharina Manchanda chose her for a group exhibition at Gallery 110 that same year. She won several other small solo shows and a two-person exhibition at Veronica gallery between 2014 and 2015.
It may not be enough.
Ripple says she's heard about lawyers who connect artists with fly-by-night galleries that take the artists' money, make promises to the government, and may or may not follow through. A quick Google search turns up several law firms bragging about their experience helping artists get O visas. One includes client bios, including "a speciality [sic] pet portrait photographer" from Australia, an Estonian fashion and child portrait photographer, a makeup artist, and, inexplicably, a veterinarian, a real-estate broker, and an "executive."
The process of demonstrating extraordinary ability "was not particularly hard but very, very annoying," said Wenxin Zhang, a San Francisco–based artist who makes "nonlinear photographic stories." She graduated from California College of the Arts and then got her O visa in 2014. It took two tries. The total bill?
"A lot of money," Zhang said, then paused. "Well, less than $10,000."
Now she wonders whether it was worth it. She has plans to visit China in August but can't be sure she'll get back into the United States, because the O visa for Chinese nationals guarantees only a single entry, which she already used. Were she to obtain a traveler visa, she'd be able to visit the United States for up to half of each year for the next 10 years—as long as she didn't work. She could exhibit her work for money only outside the United States.
No wonder Ripple's UW contemporary Hesheng Chen chose to leave the US rather than endure the process. Despite his enthusiastic desire "to create more and more pieces to represent our thoughts about art and culture," Chen said, "the strict O visa application requirements severely beat our confidence."
When he says "our," he's including Ripple, but she hasn't given up—though her attorney Bridge Joyce said he can't comment on her chances.
From up close, we'd all like to be partisans of the noble artist's quest for righteous expression. But talking about art feels paltry when you consider the people who are literally dying in the struggle to cross the American border to escape poverty, violence, hunger, tyranny, persecution. The point is not to pity the poor artist. The point is to consider art as a field, like science. The United States admits scientists to study with their peers in order to enhance the human endeavor of science, and the American contribution to it. The same standard applies to artists. Though Ripple Fang's résumé might not be empirically extraordinary—at least not yet—her extraordinary perspective, and the respect of her renowned mentors, makes her more than just worthy.