On Shells...

Something I wrote a while ago....

[…] if history did not seize upon memories in order to distort and transfer them, to mould them or turn them to stone, they would not turn into lieux de memoire, which emerge in two stages: moments of history are plucked out of the flow of history, then returned to it – no longer quite alive but not yet entirely dead, like shells left on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded. […]

Pierre Nora, Realms of Memory,1984

                  Across the creek glistening with the sharpness of cold New England air, he and I took turns strapping on ropes fastened together with nuts and bolts that resembled rigid faces simultaneously frightful and bored. Zip-lined and giddy, we landed onto wind-blown sand dunes and semi-moist moss, into a realm not entirely present but not yet past. There were old stone structures in the hills for which we built altars, then later, dilettante in our idolization and non-committal to our rituals, we would transfer our devotion to the creatures wearing vestments of sticks and leaves, hoping they would continue to sneak along a few paces behind us, like they always had. Here and there - abandoned grain elevators, exhausted quarries, shelters that don’t shelter – quiet parcels of emptiness, air-tight and alluring. Somewhere we slumbered in crumbling trailers and mice-infested rooms, elsewhere we noted and ignored fading “no trespassing” signs. We understood emptiness to be the promised possibilities of the laughter of now and the re-rendering of fates that would follow. “Here shall John always stumble; there shall Jane’s heart always break,” writes an apopheniac Nabokov, and I, mistakenly believing that my name was both John and Jane.

                  There is a house not far away from where I live in Bed-Stuy – a beautiful three-story brownstone on a tree-lined block. I find reasons to walk past it regularly – taking the dogs out, going to the slightly out-of-the-way coffee shop, or walking a longer route to the train. Some of its windows are boarded up while the others are just left gapingly open, without even broken shards of glass or window frames. The house is a shell – perhaps it is more of a shell than a house. It contains memories that live on a plane that is inaccessible, because the portals through which they communicate have been destroyed. “Emptiness,” the house whispers hissingly to me through its wide-open orifices, “emptiness will stop you in your tracks more forcefully than any barricade. It will break your heart, little girl.” Next to this house stands an almost identical house, except it has shutters, furniture, and probably towels and linens stacked neatly in a closet. I suspect that somewhere there is a wooden table with a pesky heat-stained ring etched by a hot mug. This ring would be identical to the one I left on the coffee table I grew up with, and tried, with no success, to scrub off. It would be the same heat-stained ring in homes everywhere – indices of warm fingertips-on-porcelain, of admonishments and forgetfulness, of families, habits and intuitions. So there they sit, two almost identical edifices sharing one wall – one is full of the traces and well-worn grooves of mundane everydays, the other empty and acoustic. They are like sinister mirror images of one another, and I have a hard time telling which is the original and which the simulacrum.

                  A shell is also a protection from harm, a gift of perpetual solitude. We gingerly encase our memories in shells even though we understand that tragically, this encasement only highlights a certain destitute. I walk past that shell of a house in Bed-Stuy and fantasize about its possibilities all the while lamenting its inaccessibility, like the by-gone people and places that are now only animated by electrical brain signals, their movements and colors shifting in and out of focus as neurological pathways are traced and then retraced. This indescribable homesickness marks the hazy vanishing point between a longing for musty-smelling passenger seats on orange-tinted Midwest interstates and a nostalgia for the living room with the wonky pocket doors that I grew up in, one that my mother completely refurnished once we all moved out.

                  My grandmother is a shell. Somehow I am not entirely convinced, so I conclude that this being is a shell who looks a bit like my grandmother, except my grandmother would never have let her gray hair grow out and fall flat, clinging to the side of her face, matted and greasy. Ever since a crushing heart attack almost ten years ago, she has lived in a wheelchair, experienced an existence that is somewhere between incoherent and child-like. And so there she sits, a shell of the person she was, a little girl with dying organs. Irony is the vehicle that zooms in to a moment in the distant past when my grandmother brought me a seashell from Hawaii, and told me that if I held it up next to my ear, I would be able to hear the echo of the waves. I thought it was beautiful that the seashell could record the sounds of where it came, as if humming a song about its home, memorized by heart, to those who would listen. It is as if only in its emptiness can a shell contain the potential for narrative. Thus we scavenge them from seashores, put them in our pockets, knowing that they, upon relocating to mantles and bed-side tables, stand testament to something, somewhere that was special. 

... I only fall in love with Cancers.

Family photos, Kodachrome, Americana...

 At the Beach, 1950s

At the Beach, 1950s

 a 1950s Kodak ad

a 1950s Kodak ad

 Mom and Grandma at the beach, 1950s

Mom and Grandma at the beach, 1950s

Kodachrome film had a certain poetry, a softness...

I'm paraphrasing the words  of a famous photojournalist whose name I can't remember. For the past few months, I have been studying a series of photographs taken during the time my grandparents lived in the US in the early 50s. Most of them were taken (I think) on Kodachrome slide film. The images largely depict times of leisure, birthdays, a cross-country road-trip, etc - they are the very definition of a snapshots. Yet my grandfather was there in D.C. working with the government (back then the CIA and the Taiwanese government were working together on efforts to collect intelligence from Communist China). Knowing that somehow makes the photos all the more jarring. In a way, "History" took place outside of the frames of these snapshots. Here he is, smiling with his beautiful wife and young children. And If these photos were to somehow become animated, he would have walked out of the black frames that so neatly contain relatively mundane life of a family, and into settings with much heavier backdrops. This disparity has offered me a particularly sad framework for thinking about the visual representations of History and Memory, and about what isn't represented. What happened between the frames, pages, and records? 

The Kodak ads in the 50s and 60s made a point to deliberately tap into the feelings of nostalgia. In an episode of Mad Men, Don Draper said of the carousel projector - 

"This device isn't a spaceship. It's a time machine."

 1950s kodak ad

1950s kodak ad

If there is a collective visualization of nostalgia, the palette of this image must be that of the kodachrome film. The ubiquitous smiling faces featured in the iconic American road-trip photo album are, in this case, replaced by the Chinese countenances of my family members. The unsettling feeling is manifold. For one, these photos have, in a way, made me ponder how and why notions and representations of authenticity are formed. They've prompted the questions of who produces nostalgia, and to what end? I wonder, too, between the clicks of the camera's shutter, did they encounter cruelty in a still-segregated America? Did my grandmother, a young mother whose husband was probably not home often, feel a great deal of loneliness? If so, can I look closely enough, hard enough to see it on their faces?

 Cross-country road trip, 1950s

Cross-country road trip, 1950s

Terribly Sad Men...

I'm collecting crying men... (footage only, not interested in real-life tears)

Here are two particularly beautiful examples...

Bas Jan Ader (1971)

Jacques Brel (1959)

First Post...

For a while now I've been meaning to make writing a bigger part of my practice. It is, after all, something I already do regularly - as a graduate student, a pretty avid note-taker, and a fervent (often long-winded) letter writer. I figure I'd start a blog, for fun as well as for the purpose of working some ideas through, perhaps even generate some conversation. I'd like to to steer clear of anything resembling didactic monologues, diary entries, or rants and raves. The motivation for this blog is largely in the hopes to further incorporate writing into my art practice. It seems that the formal aspects of writing - the ways in which we go about organizing sentences, finding words and syntaxes, editing and rewriting, etc - actually help the mind figure out the content of the ideas and questions we have, process them further, and maybe even resolve them. Writing in a blog (as opposed to writing in my own notebook) creates and opportunity to formalize some thoughts and present them in a coherent way that is open for readership.

So anyways, I'm blogging, and welcome ideas, suggestions, guest posts, etc.