Ypsi Artist Yen Azzaro Brings “Altar/Alter” Installation and Happening to NYC

Ypsilanti artist Yen Azzaro presented “Altar/Alter” at the Graduate Roosevelt Island in New York City on Oct. 26. The project was made possible by Graduate Hotels’ Sweet Dreams Society Artist Residency and was also on view at the Graduate Ann Arbor.

“My piece was in the corner of a peach-pink private room filled with large windows that spilled into the rooftop bar of the Graduate Roosevelt Island,” Azzaro said. “It truly felt like the big-city experience I had dreamed of, overlooking the entire skyline of Manhattan. It was unforgettable.”

“Altar/Alter” is an art installation, happening and performance. The idea for the project came to Azzaro “all at once” to pay homage to victims of anti-Asian hate crimes throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

“As an installation, the objects refer to violent moments, but they also appear as a Buddhist altar, much like the one I grew up with in my home,”Azzaro said.

The red side signifies people who lived through violence and the white side depicts those lost to violence.

Viewer participation activates Azzaro’s art into an experience

“It becomes activated as a happening when participants remove their shoes, take a red or white incense, ‘pray’ at the altar, and write down what action they can take to inform and act in solidarity with the Asian American and Pacific Islander community,” said Azzaro.

She performed the accompanying spoken word piece, “American Dream”, at the Ann Arbor opening but not at the Roosevelt Island opening. 

“Here at home, I had the privilege of having lots of loved ones in the room cheering me on,” she said. “I was hopeful that the piece would resonate the same way in New York. Seeing strangers talking and pointing at various elements, even in its adapted form (I didn’t ship the altar itself), offered me a sense of accomplishment. One of the viewers thanked me for creating the piece and talked about how it resonated with her practicing Buddhism in the home growing up. That moment made all the effort worth it.”

While doing the research for the project, Azzaro also became more interested in the Chinese gold rush movement and the subsequent Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

“Using objects as a form of storytelling is also resonating with me right now, so I’d like to explore more object-making and the threshold between what makes something valuable, old/antique, authentic versus not,” said Azzaro.

Another highlight of the Oct. 26 event was meeting the eight other artists-in-residence from all over the country.

“We spent the afternoon installing our work and getting to know one another while we recorded videos. Each of us created vastly different new work, with everything from fiber to video to painting represented. I feel so fortunate to have this new network of talented friends and peers to lean on.”

To learn more about “Altar/Alter” and Yen Azzaro’s work visit yenazzaro.com.