Wang Huan: To view our memory behind an invisible border- on Doreen Chan’s practice
Text/ Wang Huan
Doreen Chan is an artist from Hong Kong. Her works seem to always echo a sense of weightlessness and quietude. It is through this elusive lightness where the artist reveals the subtle pain and nuance of everyday life.
First time I met Chan was last year’s Lianzhou Photo Festival. One of the most memorable things I remember was when she crumbled up parts of her ultra-thin name card before handing it to me. When I asked, she said, “My photographs have a fragmented quality. They are not high end, but rather very ordinary and common. That’s why I made the name card to be almost like a piece of paper; the lightness makes it seem as if it is okay to be discarded, yet when we hold onto it, there exist a certain weight and power within. This is exactly the feeling of my works.”
Looking at 25.9, 26.3, 27.0, 27.4, Chan’s series are often entitled after her age. Given this linear progress, I am able to trace and analyze the subtle changes in the artist over the past few years. I will categorize Chan’s works into two parts (or phases), “Material Collection” and “Post-Arrangement”, for further discussion.
Before considering the holistic vision of the works, I would like to focus on the message conveyed by the photographic image. The snapshots taken by Chan are mostly quotidian scenes from daily life. The sources, with their omnipresence in everyone’s life, are often considered as trivial and nothing more than “amateur” matters. However, I have to say that there is indeed a difference between the “day-to-day” as captured in these photographs and the general idea of “day-to-day” when discussed by the public. I believe the critical disparity lies in a certain threshold within Chan’s image; the universality of eschewing from the focus on materiality itself (ex: the residue of a meal, broken utensils, pieces of wet hair stranded on the neck). What delights one is that this enchanting aura does not stem from the original object nor exists only in an ephemeral instant. It is not even a style produced through a specific technique, but rather simply reflects the pain generated when the poetics of life is turned into a two-dimensional image. When I first saw 25.9 and 26.3, I was immediately drawn to the lifestyle, scenery, and people inside the photographs. When viewed again, a force (fascination) gradually pulls in the viewer, placing them directly as first person into the narrative of a silent film. It seems as if these images were stolen from a mobile device, inadvertently exposing someone’s private life to the public eye and ultimately satisfying the voyeuristic cravings in us.
When discussing about photos taken in private, a question appears: Is it possible to place these photographs into the realm of private photography? This was the question I had when I first saw Chan’s work. There is a parallel in perpetually documenting fragments of daily life while retaining traces of intimacy and privacy. However, after careful deliberation I retracted this brutal thought. For to Chan and those who live in the digitized age (a general group not limited by experience in artistic practice), photography is merely a reduction of the verb “to take a photograph”, with this act seen as a banal habit. When Chan snaps a photo, there is no predetermined subjectivity to explore a certain concept or theme. Even the artist admits that it is the post-arrangement and conceptualization afterwards, rather than the act of taking an image, that constitute the main part of her artistic practice. Chan started photo-shooting every day since high school for over ten years. When looking back, these photographs are no different from the ones taken ten years ago; they are purely two-dimensional records of daily life.
From this perspective, the phase of image shooting is ever more similar to the act of collecting materials before transforming them into installations or renewed art forms. This also implies that image-quality and aesthetics are no longer priorities in artists’ photographic practice today, to the point of being dismissed. Instead, they infuse concepts during the arrangement process to achieve their own purposes. I call this act “the manipulation of image”. The focus of discussion for Chan’s works mostly stems from to this term.
Since 27.0 and 27.4, Chan has included series of interesting collages into the editing process. Just like the hasty photographs, these collages have no meaning yet fit together suitably well. Coarse images’ visuals subtly alter when placed above each other, for example when a bed sheet is oddly covered in front of the stairs, when a pair of knife and fork is placed above yellowing leaves under the traffic light, when a green door panel suddenly appears in front of a white wall next to a bare foot, or when a strawberry, banana, and paper note are somehow “pasted” to the wire fence behind. Objects from distinct places and periods swivel around under Chan’s guide. Beneath the seemingly mismatched aesthetics, these objects seem to tell us their encounters in daily life, and convince us that they could possibly happen in the logical rubric.
Another crucial component to the creation of Chan’s works is text. Her words are abrupt yet harmonious, rhythmic yet irrelevant, reminiscent of a piece of ditty, lyric, or dialogue. We do not need to over-analyze them, because these texts, like her images, do not illustrate a particular point. This probably happens to us before, our mind meanders or we experience a historical moment, when a word or phrase somehow pops up. Afraid of losing this train of thought, we jot it down in our mobile phone or notebook. Once the choice of word is confirmed, it stays the way it is.
How do we receive these fragmented images and text? First they will inevitably become the main trace in representing the story of the maker. On the other hand, influenced by subjective reading and personal experience, the viewer’s response will differ from the artist’s intent. Discrepancy is crucial because resonance does not necessarily familiarize the viewer with the original story (it is not even needed in some cases). Instead, it is personal memory triggered by dissonance that ultimately becomes a form of artistic response to these images.
Every time I see Chan’s works I could feel a sense of delicate growth. These images are clearly indistinguishable, yet when arranged and exhibited in different ways, they become new carriers of meanings. Chan said, “Whenever I select and arrange a photograph, I am also rereading it in the process. Through this, I come to understand it just a bit more each time. With an old photograph, because of the longer time period in between, I feel more and more unfamiliar. My way of reading and the feeling generated is thus different every single time. You can also say that the relationship between me and the photographs gradually change with time.” For instance, the presentation of 27.4 at Three Shadows last month is particularly interesting. The artist now comes to understand that the reading mode for these images should be fast, spontaneous, and grouped. As a result, projection and video are used. The glass panel separating the projection precisely signifies this discrepancy; the transparency brings the artist and viewer closer, yet also sets the boundary firmly in between.
The projection rhythmically presents a series of image combinations, easily provoking the many labels, memories and events from the back of our minds; they can be from yesterday or even ten years ago. Though the photographs can hardly function as a time capsule, they can indeed pinpoint and bring up mental images that have long been forgotten. “This is the same as when you suddenly remember a person or event. I feel that this presentation method (rapid flipping of projection slides) is better at echoing that feeling of remembering. I don’t need anyone to resonate with my story, as long as they are able to reflect on parts of their past, it is enough.”
Inside the glass room, there also sit a glass of water, scarf, cabbage, and a roll of plastic wrap, items that Chan pay close attention to in her daily life. This vicarious presence of the artist adeptly provides faint hints of life in the exhibition space. If one can supplant the body of memory with actual materials, it would be the amalgam of images and texts. When fragmented images are intertwined with subconsciously selected texts, they together create an anchor of memory inside the space. Once we approach and gaze at the installation, it is almost as if we are staring at each other’s memory behind an invisible border.
I believe that the artistic practice of Chan is to transform a repeated act into a performance act. It is a transition from three dimension to two dimension. After some time, the two dimensional image is once again reflected into a three dimensional space. Photography today has become much more open, with exuberant images being produced at a meteoric pace. More practitioners begin to set their vision on the manipulation of image to satisfy new interests and explorations. As the status of the image maker is no longer defined (it could be anyone), focus is instead on treating and rearranging images as source materials. Considering this group of creators who stress on the method of rearranging and manipulating as the core of their practice, issues of production, quality, and boundaries will need be further explored.