I’ve been working with felt, making these objects somewhere between tapestry and sculpture for six or seven years. At the beginning, I was thinking about women’s work and the idea of a modern knitting circle, a way of sharing information or stories, and how that can be passed down through generations. Then, about three years ago, I was reading and watching a lot of sci-fi, especially Philip K. Dick’s Ubik and Solaris, and thinking about religion and belief.
Meanwhile, I was also thinking about ideas of decay and degeneration, looking at bodily scans and what we pass along through our bodies, and how that translates into memory. A year and a half ago I was connected with a psychology PhD student who works in a neuroscience lab. He was doing a study about the use of functional MRIs to study memory. I became fascinated with the idea of creating, or “re-collecting” a photograph of a memory. Specifically, capturing a photograph as a type of proof, or keepsake, of a memory that I can’t fully recall, or of a family story that had been passed down through speech versus as a physical heirloom. In fact, it’s a much more complicated process than a simple photograph.
The technique of functional MRIs charts blood flow in your brain. Originally I had the idea that they could take a snapshot of the inside of my brain as I focused on a memory—say of me and my grandparents when I was living with them as a toddler. But, it turns out there’s always a two- to six-second delay in the imaging. Additionally, you can’t stop your mind from doing what it wants to do and it’s still in constant support of your body and reacting to the world and sensations. As long as you’re conscious, there is something called the dormant network that keeps your brain at work.
Autobiographical memory relies very much on the dormant network, so it’s really hard to separate what is happening in your daily life and what is happening in your memory. Our notions of self, memory, and everyday experience are completely intertwined. Those are the intricate, scientific details of the MRI process. I’m translating the images that resulted into felt.
I really loved hearing what you had to say, Pauline, especially this idea of embodied memory and your questioning of the plasticity and objectivity of memory. I can relate to these concepts through my own work.
I’ve been making films about Hong Kong and the way the city has evolved both spiritually and physically throughout my life as a filmmaker. I was born and lived there until I was 18 years old. Going back to visit over the years since I moved to New York for university 15 years ago, I noticed specific characteristics that are synonymous with Hong Kong slowly fading away.
One example of this is Hong Kong’s neon lights. Neon had so much to do with the city’s visual identity, as well as the way the city’s reality translated into science fiction. Blade Runner was based on Hong Kong, and there are many associations like this within science fiction and cyberpunk culture. But this visual signifier in large part no longer exists. In the mid-2000s they changed building regulations so that most of those fixtures were no longer up to code. Then other changes in legislation have applied to street food vendors, who have developed a food culture throughout generations, making it more difficult for them to operate.
Starting with the anti-extradition legislation and protests in 2019 and unceasing developments that have altered the city forever, it became clear that, instead of this vague idea of an expiration date to the Hong Kong as we’ve known it, this change was on our doorstep. This has created an urgency for me to reflect these intense feelings surrounding the daily experiences of this change.
I wanted to make something that had a monumental quality, something that felt like a space where all these secrets and memories that I want to share could live. This installation has six different video channels, but it’s not necessarily a barrage of images that you see all at once. They’re all laid out through the space in such a way that you navigate through it to see the multiplicity of images. The piece also relies quite heavily on the idea of phantom images, a ghostly presence. A sense there’s something happening in the distance but it’s obscured, just out of reach, impressions that might offer intense feelings or a moment of resolution but they fade away before they can be fully grasped.
I’m drawn to this idea of ghosts, of phantom presences and how they relate to the city’s history, desires for a certain future, and scars left that can no longer be addressed. Ghost Month, which takes place in August, is when the gates of hell are opened and the dead roam the streets, visiting descendants who’ve given ritualistic offerings while the forgotten spirits seek leisure and haunt the living. I keep thinking about these untended traumas—immense loss and unanswered questions accumulated from this time, and if there’ll ever be an opportunity for the people to hold space and process what has happened. Will spirits generated from this time fade from collective consciousness? Where will these energies go without a home?
Simon, what you just said feels so truthful to me. I grew up between the US and Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore. But then, there was a 10-year period where I didn’t go to Asia at all, but I went back recently and had that feeling you’re talking about. I had to question everything I remembered or see it in a new light because I was older and understood these sociopolitical dynamics that were happening. It was as if I were encountering completely new cities, especially in Taiwan, where I hadn’t been since I was nine or 10. I didn’t recognize anything. All the colors were different. Every single sensory input that you could think of was completely different. In that way, I think that memory has this ability to morph into a myth, a story that you believe in as a child. A story you have to hold in place, though you know it’s a little bit fake. That’s how I’m thinking about memory. I haven’t made up my mind yet about how I feel about the question of nostalgia that this raises, because I’m a sucker for it, but I think that it can also be harmful in a lot of ways.
I do feel such a sense of nostalgia for the way the city was and for a certain level of everything being okay, but I also feel such guilt in that because it really wasn’t okay before. That’s something I’ve been really, really struggling with, actually.
Nostalgia for a time before the current crisis runs counter to the idea of progress or moving forward. Nostalgia can be dangerous, like ideology. It can drive you away from your true intentions and the objective truth because you’re so wrapped up in these very specific feelings. For me, I think memory is very tricky. How do you make memory physical? How do you manifest time into something that is tangible, that can be shown, or filmed, or heard? I’ve been working with these questions in a number of ways, particularly through the use of sound. We all share the experience of hearing music that our families played when we were growing up I wanted to work with the Cantopop music that is synonymous with the global Chinese diaspora, extrapolating these little tones from those songs, translating details from the music into longer forms to capture the essence of it but not necessarily reveal it.
I’m also interested in manipulating sounds that we hear every day in the city: the subway doors opening and closing, the chime that accompanies them, the clicking of pedestrian walk signals. We hear these sounds every day, and though we often overlook them, they are embedded in our memories of space. I want to take these concrete, physical characteristics of a space and call attention to them in a different way than one might expect, as a kind of physical manifestation of memory.
Pauline, what are the material choices you’re making to turn memory into a material form?
I’m thinking of the role of tapestry or quilt making in carrying stories, myths, or legends. From the history of the Gee’s bend quilts, or the abstracted worlds Rosie Lee Tompkins created in her quilts, to medieval tapestries like the “unicorn tapestries” up at the Cloisters. I think of this translation I’m creating—from this cutting-edge, scientific technique of brain scanning into a time-consuming, hand-made craft of embedding a story—to be significant.
The objects that weigh down the tapestry I’m making for Open Call serve as my attempt to make the meaning of the work more concrete and more obvious in its translation into materials. They include glass bags and “buoys” made in collaboration with artists at Urban Glass and Wheaton Glass, filled with fruits that I’ve cast in sugar, burnt joss paper, incense ash, and little constructed scenes made of silver jewelry. I have many memories of going to temple with my grandparents or spending time at their home altar. The fruits in my installation stand in for the fruit bowls that I would see on their altar. The sugar that they’re cast in isn’t sealed, so they will slowly calcify, turning white and cloudy. Visually, I’m thinking of them as if filling up with ghosts and slowly disintegrating, changing over time. I’m also carving miniature animals taken from the Zodiac signs to stand in for people and scenes from my memory.
Pauline, I really appreciate all of the ways in which you’re layering your material together and how you relate objective processes to very specific personal memories.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how sociopolitical change happens on a personal, day-to-day basis, out of the public eye or spectacular news reports in an in-between space. In the events that aren’t newsworthy but are so meaningful to people’s experiences. News reports of the protests in Hong Kong conveyed the spectacular image, but the personal, lyrical aspects of change, the poetry of it, is found in everyday life. Journalism is given an elevated stature in this context but I think there’s often more truth in creative or alternate methods for documenting and chronicling change.
It relates to what we were describing as a wariness of nostalgia or of feeling an emotion that is difficult to separate from “truth” or “objectivity,” which is supposedly the domain of journalism. But, there’s a tense relationship between these terms.
Totally. There’s only so much space in a 500-word news article, right? So much is left in the margins, including people’s direct experiences. When this massive news story was happening in Hong Kong, in the places where I grew up, it became more and more apparent to me that information has to be simplified in order for it to be shared at a mass scale. What are the experiences that are left out of the paragraphs? What are the hidden stories between frames and headlines that might seem relatively mundane but are essential?