I once listened to an interview with a famous artist, who when asked if she cared whether people knew something about the original influences in her work, replied: “Well, it’s nice if they know, but it doesn’t really matter. Those things were just an excuse for me to get started.”
As an artist, I feel a strong resonance with this statement. I am always looking for an excuse to get started, whether it is conscious or not. I think it’s common to want to ground yourself in something – anything – so that you feel a sense of purpose or direction with your work. Do I need my audience to know and understand this grounding? Not necessarily in its entirety. I aim for my work to impart nonverbal ideas, and for me these ideas stem from a collective knowledge of objects and spaces. To present work that does this, however, generally requires a substantive amount of research, much of which I do not expect an audience to need in order to appreciate my work. If someone decides to dig deeper, they will find themselves rewarded with a greater understanding of my thinking, a richer experience with the work, and most likely, evidence of my original excuse to get started.
Fortunately for me, it’s never been hard to find these excuses. I have an innate curiosity about the world and am constantly planning out future lives in order to pursue my ever-growing list of interests. No, the tricky part is in choosing one single project: because once I dive in, it could be months or years before I emerge. In choosing one direction, you must then forgo others, at least for the time being. Life’s big lesson that I keep learning over and over: you can’t have everything you want, at least not all at the same time.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on my Fulbright time in Taiwan and preparing final reports. It’s made me think about how my research project functioned as one big excuse to get started on something new. Fulbright gave me an opportunity to reach for those wispy clouds of ideas that always float high above my head, but that I never have time to pin down. Given ten months, it became possible to climb up there and pull some down to see where they would take me.
Late in 2015, amidst a sea of deadlines, I took a leap. For years I’d had a gut feeling that there was something in Taiwan that might mesh well with my interests about understanding places and spaces from a psychological perspective. An artist friend working in Taiwan had nudged me to visit, so I told myself I was also overdue to visit aging extended family. That allowed me an excuse to book a preliminary research trip, which was fruitful and gave me enough to build a successful proposal. In 2017 I began my Fulbright Fellowship in Taiwan.
I can see in hindsight that there was another underlying motive for my project: to shift the direction of my studio work and build a new foundation for the next phase of my practice. This is no small feat, if mainly because it is nearly impossible to see yourself as you make such a turn. It is also something that requires a long, focused period of time (difficult to find in normal life situations), a high level of trust in your own intuitive process (potentially uncomfortable and draining over long periods), and a certain amount of luck (completely unpredictable).
But turn I did, though not without a good amount of discomfort. Not without the self-doubt and insecurities that come with any such grant, the international nature of which inherently involves isolation. It may sound romantic to jet off to a foreign country for peace and quiet to follow your research wherever it takes you, but the stark reality is that you are alone with your thoughts much of the time, there is nothing to push against but yourself, and few peers you can talk with about your research. I felt lucky to get a fresh perspective, but struggled to push my way through a cluttered head as I adjusted to my new surroundings, desperately looking for something without quite knowing what I was looking for.
Ten months is an odd length of time to be away. It is both long and short: too long to be living as a temporary visitor and yet too short to really put down substantive roots. And cultural isolation is its own beast. Each person has a different experience, but I think it is safe to say that everyone deals with some form of this when they leave one country to live in another one. Each environment has its own set of unspoken rules, and regardless of whether a country is your birthplace, adopted home, or simply the place you ended up, the shift in these rules causes inevitable feelings of displacement. A different country also has different systems, putting different resources at your disposal, and isolation becomes compounded with a strange level of helplessness—not something this strong-minded, independent American woman was used to. With my former life on hold, there was a palpable loneliness from living so many time zones away from my community of friends, family, and colleagues.
Ironically, the same things that created my internal discomfort were the exact reasons I wanted to pursue a Fulbright for my artwork. I went back to a paragraph in my original proposal where I addressed this reason for choosing Taiwan as my Fulbright country:
Taiwan appeals to me as a site for research because of the rich personal background I can bring to my project. The island is both familiar and foreign at the same time in a way no other place in the world is for me. In Taiwan, I am a “quasi-foreigner.” I look like a local, but I am not; I have traveled there, but have limited experiences; I can speak Chinese, but have a heavy accent that reveals my nationality. People are unsure of how to interact with me, and I with them. These qualities make for a surreal, dream-like experience where objects and spaces might feel familiar, but their context is completely foreign. It is an ideal setting for my investigations – a place where the usual logic does not always apply, and I am free to make new sense of things.
This “quasi-foreign” status has been a fascinating thing to observe over the year, if a bit tiresome. There is almost always a quiet moment with questioning looks when I approach people, especially out in the countryside where I am living. Few can guess what my background is, and they wait for me to speak in order to know how to respond. My height and build, my wild and curly hair, and something about my body language throw people off. I think this happens a lot in Asia – there are so many different Asian nationalities and languages, and so many subtle variations in physical features and customs. Sometimes I think of how squirrels and humans react when they have an encounter in a park: both animals freeze, assessing the situation. Is there danger? the squirrel wonders. Can I get any closer? the human wonders. Eventually one of the two moves, the moment passes, and everyone adjusts and gets on with their business.
There is such potential in that suspended moment of encounter, when everything is fresh and senses are heightened. Part of the success of my research this year has been a result of this fresh perspective. Because Taiwan is quasi-foreign for me, I’m able to experience my surroundings with a certain amount of wonderment. For instance, one of the most noticeable things about Taiwan was the amount of material layering apparent everywhere. While bricks and concrete are familiar materials, the way they are used in construction here is different, as is the way they wear down in a tropical environment. This fascinated me, and I spent much of my time taking pictures of the layering as I came across it. I experimented with casting concrete in the studio, visited a former brick/tile factory in the area to learn about how they source their clay, and researched the material history of concrete. Concrete, which has been around since Roman times, became the most widely used building materials in the 20th century. In fact, we have made so much concrete that it is now one of the materials being considered as a geological marker for our current Anthropocene epoch. I have begun to examine my thinking from this perspective, relating it to my original ideas about how materials carry information, how that information accumulates over time, and what it contributes to a collective or personal a sense of place.
This is just one simple example of how my research has progressed over the year, and how it factors into my practice. It is not a direct path, but a search for a pattern of thought or a common thread between ideas. I have heard that documentary makers often use the idea of building a nest around a subject. I think I operate similarly with my investigations, slowly gathering materials around a conceptual interest, trusting that eventually it will take form.
After a recent presentation, someone asked if it mattered to me to know the full answers to the questions I posed, such as the original histories of the objects and spaces I study or the intention of the builders/makers. It was surprisingly difficult to answer. On the one hand, I am interested in the specifics because they reveal a certain amount of collective knowledge we are all a part of. On the other hand, that knowledge is not necessarily specific to my final works. I only know that I need to search for the information and sift through it as I try to understand the parts of my thinking I cannot verbalize. It is my excuse to get started – a reason to fall down the rabbit hole.