The words we hear the most in the art field are “what do you really want?” or “be honest with yourself.” Generally, “being oneself” is considered the most natural and simple thing for an individual. However, it’s actually a complicated and confusing assumption—what is a self? What is in a self and what is the true state of “being one’s self”?
“Individual” means indivisible unit, which means it is the smallest and most basic element of our society. But “individual” is a tangled synthesis. It is composed of the time “now-and-then,” of the place “here-and-there.” I consider that being myself is an action of performance, my work looks back and tries to screen a “self” out of my life experience, to explore where my individuality starts and where another’s steps in. I write fictional stories about my dead sister--whom I have never met, blurring the identities between her and me. I use the writing as a dancing partner to create objects and jewelry, in order to manifest a sense of memory and narrative. Mingling fiction and reality, I dissolve the boundary between self and others, to reveal the individual as a mysterious being, and to question the simplicity of one’s identity.
I use my works as the vehicle to explore how this performance of “being one’s self” happens, and to present a fictional memory to evoke an audience’s subconscious experience of another person’s life. My works demonstrate a profound complexity of one’s sense of self, opening this question about the space between one individual and others.
1.Self and Other
When others see me, I am a mirror
When I see others, I am a container
During my life, I never stopped asking, who am I, what makes me different from other people? The exploration of space between inner self and outside world has always played a huge part in my works. To understand the individual as both absent and present is the key idea in my creative vocabulary.
I take my own experience as the material for a narrative, expressing my own understanding of an individual’s self-identity. By committing to sincerity and self-revelation in my work, I hope to peel away the shell of art language and build effective communication with an audience. In the words of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, “The self is only a threshold, a door, a becoming between two multiplicities” (1).
I transfer my own identity between myself and my dead sister. My way of doing this is to create a story container, made of various writings, to hold an account of my innermost emotions and secrets. I perform two “selves”, with the purpose of delaying absolute location of my being and identity. I open my mouth and her voice emerges, throwing viewers into confusion, but stimulating a deeper thinking about the position between two identities.
I want the work to suggest the strangeness of how we are all affected by our specific circumstances. As I consider “being the self” actually a performance, we play with a self “shield” to present our personal and social attachments.
Lithuanian Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas explained:
To become conscious of a being is then always for that being to be grasped across an ideality and on the basis of a said. Even an empirical, individual being is broached across the ideality of logos. Subjectivity qua consciousness can thus be interpreted as the articulation of an ontological event, as one of the mysterious ways in which its 'act of being' is deployed.”(2)
As Doris Salcedo puts it: “Levinas has helped us understand that the other precedes me and claims my presence before I exist” (3).
In the video “Can You Think of Me”, I try to grasp a pile of paper inscribed with intimate handwriting. I pretend my sister leaves me these sentences, I am trying so hard to keep them, but they all escape in the end. Just like how I know she is a part of me, but every time I try to capture her, she becomes invisible.
On my stage of self, she is missing, but she is here every minute. My existence started before my physical presence in this world, and her death didn't take her away from her “being.” We step into each other’s selves, and I cannot peel her out of my skin.
Being oneself is a highly uncertain condition for everyone in every moment and our identities can transition frequently.
2.Fiction and Fact
During my lifetime, I never heard any stories around the period of my sister’s death, or after—nothing particular about what happened or how long she suffered. People only talk about all happy memories as if she stayed 14 forever. The few narratives about her life play again and again in my mind in incredible detail. My whole family disposed of all the physical evidence of her lived time, photos, clothing, and every belonging, all gone, nothing to trace.
When I was 14, as if fated, I accidently found an old photo, hidden by my uncle with her figure on it. This opened the valve of my imagination: This is the girl of the stories! Oh she’s prettier than me! I could cast her in the stories I had heard.
In my mind as well as the work, I question “what is reality”, “what is the state of being”, and am curious about the notion of “experience” and “memory”. I “experienced” her experience in my mind over and over till I wasn’t able to fully regain my perspective as a unified self. As Marcia K. Johnson indicates, memories are fragmentary, eliciting completion from us:
Although it may be disconcerting to contemplate, true and false memories arise in the same way. Memories are attributions that we make about our mental experiences based on their subjective qualities, our prior knowledge and beliefs, our motives and goals, and the social context. (4)
I switch my identity between myself and my sister while creating fictional writing. I mingle fiction and fact in the works, to dissolve the boundary between reality and imagination. Mingling fiction and reality in my stories helps me know myself, it helps me accept myself. Everyone has always said how awesome she was. Through writing and making art, I want to acknowledge her part of me. Her mysterious being is shot through with fragments of reality, while my real existence is shot through with fantasy. The fictional being is a representation of an absent person, and my conserving of her “memory” brings this absent person into presence and the present time.
Without making a clear distinction between fact and fiction, the narratives signal to the reader/viewer that the stories in the works may be incomplete, or still to be continued. Some of the story fragments have a less obvious source, and intend to present less evidence. I want to manufacture physical traces of my dead sister, who was present in this world.
As opposed to the intermittent and chaotic fragmentation and quotation, I use material that offers the audience a sense of a frozen moment, a moment of silence. The time, the person, the scene of occurring, all stopped at one moment, like life was played on the stage, and all the actors left. We trace the lived evidence from the prop that people left behind—like a dream, even if you will never hear the sound of their lines, it is there, was there, quiet and void. As Doris Salsedo writes:” In art, silence is already a language—a language prior to language—of the unexpressed and the inexpressible…” (5).
The aura of silence in the object provides a touch of intimacy as well as isolation. In the work “Voice Message,” I cast an old telephone into plaster, as if to freeze a moment of our communication. Combined with the written “voice message,” the work disorders the time line, mixing my and my sister’s living experiences together. The old emblem of a “phone” in 1970s China when my sister was a child stands waiting; and I receive her voice by using the modern phone in our moment. So that I bring past to the present and send present to the past.
Fingerprints and handwriting are the unique identity for an individual, and I use them as an indication that someone has been present
As we can also see from “Voice Message,” as well as “My Drawing,” a touch of gold fingerprint on the side of the broken rotary dial—the numbers are gone, the dial is frozen, only the traces of gold, fragile but shining, indicate a moment of intimacy, isolated by absence.
In the work “Can You Think of Me” I use handwriting as a material to construct the work. As the sentence is repeated again and again, the paper piles up and becomes a landscape. It is so thin and so light that it looks as if it is trying to hide its own existence. The handwriting gives the sheet of the paper some weight, as if trying to hold it, so that it won’t disappear.
I also use electroforming and casting in several pieces to transfer the life-like object into a monochrome color, as in the works “My Drawing” and “Now, Apple,” which maintain the same surface detail as well as mirror the size and scale of the source object. I take the transferred object as a replacement of the real; the “transfers” have the function of triggering a sense of redolence and déjà vu. These objects are emblems, revealing intimate moments as well. The creases from holding, a bitten-off piece of apple, the riven pencil, again revealing a dramatic trace of past life. The represented objects also suggest a hint of the unreal, to make the familiar but isolated atmosphere reverberate around the object, the writing and the stories, as if haunted.
In Pierce’s terms, in Contemporary Art and Memory, “[t]he indexical sign may involve abstraction or, indeed, maybe heavily mimetic, but it is distinguished by the fact that the signifier retains at least something of the existential ’having been thereness’ of that which is signified” (6).
The mimesis of these objects in my work try to catch a missing existence, to make a place for both life, and death.
Death seems to be an inevitable hidden term in the works. But the fictional narrative is an antidote to death-as-vanishing. I create an account both in writing and objects to break my sister’s vanishing, leaving nothing to hold— “everything that we inscribe in the living present of our relation to others already carries, always, the signature of memoirs from beyond the grave” (Derrida 2).
By mixing fiction and “truth,” it is possible to move from a site of fearfulness to peace.
The Duane Michals quotation doesn’t seem to relate, you should include a short sentence explaining why you’re using it here.
when I was a young man I assumed the illusion of reality to be true and believed the fictions of being as fact. Death was a great mystery that casts its shadow over these verities.
Now that I am an old man, I understand that life is more mysterious than death and death is more mysterious than life. There is only mystery, and I too am that mystery. It is impossible for me to conceive of the inconceivable. I assume nothing but the possibilities of amazement. How can I be sure that I am not already dead? Why are you so sure that you are not a ghost? What else can I do but wait?”---Duane Michals (7)
Pairing, is also a significant concept in my work. For example “Doppelgänger” and “Pencil box” have two parts that strongly connect to each other; however, one part is missing or broken. In “Doppelgänger”, one shoe is now incomplete— it manifests a loss. In “Pencil Box,” the vestige remains, evoking a lost entity. The incomplete and missing fragment not only implies loosening the line between fact and fiction but also creates a “room and space” for the very narrative I am recounting.
So the absence brings emptiness into the space, and the emptiness itself becomes a sign of occupation. This body of work is mine as well as hers, in compensation for the fact that the loss of my sister leaves a vacant space in my stage of “self.”
I also try to “restore” the missing part, for example in “Now, Apple.” I make art because I want to use a beautiful dream to console the bereaved for the flagrancy of real life.
We can make up our own memory.
We can shape our own story.
We can put together our own lost self.
And we continue, we cherish, we restore hope.
“…loss becomes ingrained in the space left by the absence of its inhabitants, so that the space becomes ‘a home grieving for its lost occupants’.” (8)
I also pair the objects with texts, which introduce a disembodied voice to describe my sister’s reported and imagined, powerful and vulnerable existence. I believe that I must owe her a life. I feel I can see her world though my eyes, I can gather her memories though my breath. And so I use my hand to draw my sister’s life.
The writing represents the world beyond, infusing the object with meaning. The fictions I create are lighter than air, woven out of reality, yet heavier than reality.
The writing sounds like a real story but it only lives in the mind and imagination; while the object has physical existence but contains an aura of the surreal.
In the works, I build a stage for the performance of my sister-and-I, creating a bubble to preserve this delicate relationship.
Jewelry has a special relationship with the human, or to be more specific, with the individual. To wear jewelry is a performative action. And if artists use jewelry as a narrative container, then the action of wearing it becomes a special performance, which could be considered to have the same significance as drama and film. If jewelry contains an artist’s personal story, the wearer is the real “storyteller,” rather than the artist herself. In this sense, the wearers use their own body as the stage to perform, while taking the artist’s voice to speak. Thus the wearer is another kind of display, moving and living--a display that can answer and look back. An artist’s personal thoughts and associations can unfold in many different layers while a piece is worn by different wearers, because narrative has this imaginative power, a capability to seduce wearers, even viewers, to step into the story, the object and the concept, to open up a sense of their intimate memories, fantasies, dreams and experiences.
By considering the action of performance, I also explore interaction in my work. Interaction in art can be divided into two parts, mental and physical. Mental interaction is about making the work be evocative and inspiring (even of negative emotions). Physical interaction gives an audience an opportunity to be a part of the work; it also gives viewers a certain gesture and movement of their body, like a special kind of dancing. Eleanor Heartney articulates the importance of physical interaction in contemporary art:
Over the past decade the participatory aspect of art has reemerged as ‘relational aesthetics,’ a term French critic Nicholas Bourriaud coined in 1997. Bourriaud identified a tendency in the work of various contemporary artists that stresses interaction, interpersonal connection, and the notion of art as a gift. Relational aesthetics describes work by artists who go beyond the idea that an artwork requires completion by the viewer. Instead, the viewers (now more accurately termed participants) and their interactions may actually become the artwork. (9)
Jewelry has a traditional meaning related to memory; I honor and represent this tradition in my work—to use the object to preserve life, to invest the object with a life that can live longer than our fragile one. I make objects in two parts—one fragment comes out of the whole. That fragment becomes jewelry while remaining part of its source. The object from which the part has been removed is a frozen image on the stage, whereas the jewelry which is worn is taken into flux, or departure. When wearing a fragment of something, the wearer will always be aware of the invisible connection to the source, or other member of the pair. Taking a broken part away performs the concept of missing, also allowing the wearer to hold an intimate touch of another, and be a part of the ineffable double.
I want to use this to seduce people to play a meaningful part in the particular stage that I create, and to insert audience into my narrative account of stories.
In “A Letter,” I make the kite string spool into a ring. A very delicate gold line coils on the ring, and we assume it should connect to the kite, but it doesn’t. The connection is suggested, but there is no real physical attachment. On the kite, there is also handwriting on both sides of the paper. I remember when I was little, my brother took me to fly a kite on our roof. The line broke while it was flying. Then I wondered.
Where did it go?
Where did it stop?
Will it come back?
In this work, I wrote a letter on the kite and pretended my sister wrote me back.
So that hope is continued.
The story is continued.
Life is continued.
Be always aware of the past, of what has been left behind.
In work “The Lost Heart,” the complete written content of the book is in the small fragment and effectively made into a brooch. Because I use incense to burn every small piece off the book, the odor of praying will always haunt the wearer, and the wearer of this jewelry is the person who makes the absence into a live play.
In addition to pairing, “The Lost Heart” exaggerates the shape of the book; similarly in “Treasure Box”, one corner is eerily distorted. The “strange” scale and shape gives some disfiguration to the familiar objects, which complicates the “truth” of the narrative presented. In “Treasure Box”, a touch of gold grows in the broken crack.
As the box was packed full of hope and pleasure,
As she hides all her secrets there,
As when you open it, you will find a life shining inside.
Artists use their personal story as background in works as a method to make statements about their understanding and perception of this world. The artist’s personal story evokes the viewer’s own memories and associations, emotionally and psychologically. Storytelling dissolves the barrier between real life and art vocabulary, softening the wall between audience and artist.
An individual’s life story also reflects his/her social condition. A twenty-year period is nearly a quarter of an individual’s life. Still, twenty years is not long enough, strong enough, to submerge these old stories in my family. My mother’s story sounds astonishing, absurd and inconceivable now. But China has changed so much in twenty-five years. No one can ever truly feel what people really went through then. In Orhan Pamuk’s book, The Innocence of Objects, we can find this observation:
We don’t need more museums that try to construct the historical narratives of a society, community, team, nation, state, tribe company, or species. We all know that the ordinary, everyday stories of individuals are richer, more humane, and more joyful. (Give the page number, or follow the system you have been using for the other quotations) (10)
( Pamuk, Orhan, and Maureen Freely. The object of Innocence.)
At this point, the personal narrative presented in my works is intended to reflect a living stage of a society, to provide a humane way for the audience to inhabit the artists’ skin and to comprehend this individual’s view of the world. The use of history provides a special site of “counter-memories.” Also, putting personal memory into a historical context introduces more complex levels (cultural, political, social, environmental, and economic) for an audience’s experience of art.
I use processes and techniques to distress my work, to break, disfigure, to etch it with time and history, albeit fake. It is impossible to represent the experience of pain, as art critic Nancy Princenthal says about Doris Salcedo’s work; sometimes “a clouding of vision is necessitated by the inherent unspeakability of trauma.
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