Essay by Andrea Feeser
This is how space begins, with words only, signs traced on the blank page. To describe space: to name it, to trace it, like those portolano-makers who saturated the coastlines with the names of harbours, the names of capes, the names of inlets, until in the end the land was only separated from the sea by a continuous ribbon of text. Is the aleph, that place in Borges from which the entire world is visible simultaneously, anything other than an alphabet?
Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces
A passionate writer and wordsmith, Perec privileged the written word, using writing in Species of Spaces to organize his understanding of space itself as a kind of blank page written upon by things and events that shape and mold it. Perecs homology between space and page, and voyaging and writing is a useful point of departure for Gaye Chan’s exhibition Departure. However, Chan’s installation demonstrates the failure of written language to control and communicate, and focuses on the power of visual language to destabilize and question our usual expectations for space: specifically, the space of the gallery, the psyche, and the nation.
Chan’s exhibition tells a fragmented story of the American Dream with pictures and objects. Her narrative is not linear, although her works are arranged in the gallery along a single axis through space. The implied uni-directional flow typical of gallery installations is interrupted by two suggested dialogues: the middle component of Chan’s exhibition has two sides, each of which addresses works positioned at opposite walls.
This arrangement invites viewers to thread their way around and through the installation, and this physical in-and-out motion parallels the sewing and pinning on the central piece: a suspended American flag with a cheong-sum and embroidered text on one side, and a pin “drawing” of a windswept mother and child on the other side. The dress appears to commune with works stationed at the opposite wall: a series of small, sepia pictures from the 1960s of people watching others depart Hong Kong by ship. The pin drawing appears to engage with works situated across from it: a photograph of which the small, sepia pictures are details, and a series of old, worm-hole ridden Chinese texts sewn through with threads that seem to trace the mental journey of knowledge. Traveling thus serves as a crucial framework for the exhibition, although a sense of arrival is suspended.
Indeed, the feeling of being neither here nor there is the focal point of Chans exploration of personal space and the space of the nation: the immigrants that her work references are dislocated inside and outside. This experience is poignantly captured in the text stitched on the flag and cheongsum in which the names of ships of discovery, of immigration, and for vacation cruises alternate with the statement: “She can’t sleep. She counts ships.” Crazily, the final words of the text break down and become illegible incantations that end in hanging threads. The female presence that Chan evokes through the dress, through the pinning and sewing, and through the pronoun “she,” cannot contain through marking (whether counting or stitching) her experience of having unraveled. The named ships of discovery (read colonization) established a Place Hawai’i to which the woman came via a ship of immigration (read labor traffic), and from which she now voyages on ships for vacation cruises.
This account, which suggests having achieved the American Dream of living well where one likes and of consuming other places through packaged travel, is, however, not a story with a happy ending. Perhaps the woman immigrant that Chan evokes has arrived in the sense of having achieved the financial security that permits travel as leisure, but she has not arrived in the sense of being situated, either emotionally or culturally. This condition is arguably truer to the American Experience than the sense of security and comfort embedded in the beloved, folksy pictures of Norman Rockwell.
Although Chan’s exploration of the American Dream is diametrically opposed to that of Rockwell, her work does elicit profound feeling, although in a thin, sharp manner that differs drastically from Rockwell’s thick, soft sentimentality. Chan’s photographs of spectators watching people depart and her pin drawing of the mother and child immigrants effect a sense of family ties. However, these ties are represented as mere traces of connections rather than as living bonds. The pictures are dated, small, fuzzy, and printed on flimsy paper. The pin drawing is tenuous, slight, improvisational, and achieved through a prickly medium. Such images evoke the ephemeral and cannot suggest close and sustaining family links; instead these pictures index physical, emotional, and cultural distance.
The specifics of such distance are not spelled out, for Chan’s visual language is not as transparent as Perecs written meditation on writing and naming as the conquering of space. Although Chan’s work points toward conquering the travels that historically and currently define space as territory possessed through exploration, experienced through immigration, and consumed through vacationing her exhibition investigates the flip side of power, namely, loss. Chan’s immigrants lose something of themselves as they lose their sense of place and community. This is all we as viewers can know: we cannot read the details of Chan’s American story, for the full narrative of her tale is as obscure or unavailable as the incoherent, trailing threads that fall away from the stitched text on the flag and cheong-sum. This failure to communicate fully and clearly is echoed in the display of Chinese books sewn through and across one another, and riddled with worm pathways. We are denied the pleasure of reading from these books and of determining the relationships among them. The texts themselves are archaic, and the connections implied from one text to the next through vectors of threads and worm holes are random and disorganized. Much of the information in the books has been obliterated by the worms, who have eaten through and expelled the material once printed on the pages. Loss of knowledge is thus mapped out, just as loss of place and self is charted.
The American Dream proclaims that the pursuit of material gain guarantees any individuals happiness through purchasing power. Can money truly buy off the history of colonization, the history of immigrant labor abuses, the sacrifices for upward mobility, the loss of cultural knowledge, and the failure of assimilation? We cannot take leave of these questions during and after our encounter with Chan’s Departure. Her work encourages us to arrive at some answers to these questions. We cannot fill in the gaps in the story of her installation, but we can imagine and work for new and truly richer immigrant experiences.