Photos: Leanna Yip for the Appeal

Four nights in a hotel. 72 consecutive waking hours. Talking to herself.

This was Stella Zhang’s process while installing her latest work, “0-Viewpoint” at the Chinese Culture Center in Chinatown — conveniently located within the Hilton.

Zhang, of Palo Alto (current residence), Shanghai (hometown and where she earned her BFA) and Tokyo (where she earned her MFA and then lived for a dozen years) has primarily worked as a painter, and is making her sculptural debut this month. “0-Viewpoint” is the third work in the Xian Rui (“fresh and sharp”) series, and it’s an exploration of self — what it means to be a woman, an immigrant, Asian, Chinese, an artist.

I spoke to Zhang and the Culture Center’s program director, Abby Chen, who had received Zhang’s portfolio about two years ago.

“I knew she was very well trained,” said Chen, who added she was also hoping to see a transformation. The Xian Rui series is not meant to shock, but it is meant to challenge both those who live in the surrounding and those who have perceptions of what art “should” be shown in Chinatown.

“For a community like Chinatown which can be patriarchal and phallic — at times — they can find this uncomfortable,” she said.

Indeed, it nearly hits you on your way in. The first work is intentionally big and bold and, well, phallic — with giant white, fabric-covered forms of varying heights, most taller than a grown adult. Zhang said it’s meant to get your attention.

“If you start with little things,” she said, “You still feel loose.” Zhang’s accent is a mix of Chinese and Japanese, and she speaks English a bit haltingly, but with a lot of passion.

And the next cluster of forms — are those rambutans? Hedgehogs? Cacti? Rear ends? Giant fabric vaginas impaled with toothpicks? All of the above or none of the above?

Zhang tries to keep the interpretation open, but added that they are intended to be a contradiction. “Pretty cute, maybe, but hard to touch,” she said.

At the opening reception, many of the comments Chen and Zhang heard alluded to, well, “ass” (Zhang grabbed her own derriere when she mentioned it), but no one wanted to say it.

“Everyone knows, they want to say,” she said, “but they want to close their eyes.”

To install the work, Zhang was put up for four nights at the Hilton with her young daughter. Her studio is in Oakland, and there’s only room at her Palo Alto home to work on the small pieces. At the Culture Center, she stayed awake for those 72 hours putting up “0-Viewpoint.” (With help.)

“If I break a couple times, I lose interest,” she said. “I just want to continue.”

Representing the woman’s 12-month cycle are 12 paintings against the wall, for nearly the whole length of the exhibit. There’s no ink used as in traditional Chinese brush paintings, though — this is glue and sand.

“No color — nothing is fancy,” said Zhang. Sand and glue are accessible textures, as is fabric. Surrounding the entire exhibit is a taut, twisted tent of white fabric, which ends in a sort of chute on the floor at the end of the hall. It’s shaped like a 0. No coincidence.

“0 is a nothing,” said Zhang. “You can see everything inside.”

One of Chen’s overarching goals with Xian Rui is to “show the versatility of what it means to be in the Chinese community,” and she hopes the audience is not just made of tourists or locals, but both.

“I hope Chinatown is not the only audience,” she said.

What: 0 – Viewpoint
Where: The Chinese Culture Center, 750 Kearny Street (3rd floor of the Hilton Hotel)
When: April 23 – September 5
Cost: free admission

Word of advice for those who might be in the hotel in the evening after the Culture Center has closed up: don’t go outside on the bridge to make a call or take a smoke break. You might get locked out and have to call the concierge to come rescue you. I may know this from first-hand experience.

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