I am accustomed to a certain sinking kind of defeat after my art goes up in an exhibition. A colleague of mine who has exhibited far and wide told me that after every show he cries a little, then gets back to the studio to make more.
There is, of course, always the sense of falling short of art’s potential, always. But there are the inevitable dysfunctions of gallery spaces and the people surrounding them. Work returned damaged. Being forced to use a gallery’s caterer who egregiously upcharged for cheese and wine.
In this case, several instances coalesced into an impending collapse. I had travelled so far and so expensively, leaving my new baby boy at home for several days. The young and frenetic museum installers botched the frame around my piece. My installation room was in an unintuitively-accessed corner of the building. During the media presentation, I almost tripped over the cardboard box from my piece, abandoned on the floor of the hallway like a turd.
It could have been the jetlag, the nagging pumping of breastmilk, or the moment when my hometown curator hung her head and expressed regret that I didn’t push for more of my work to be included. It also could have been that the first greeting I received at the media opening was from a “famous” artist who didn’t pause to convey her surprise at how I didn’t look Chinese because my nose was so big. I was sent back to a six-year old self in the face of “What are you?”‘s from adult strangers trying to piece together my fair mother and my dark appearance.
(The Realm of the Heart no. 1, by Zhu Yiyong. Oil on Canvas. 2013)
The weight of failure contributed to me being a few minutes late to what was a spectacularly surreal, over-funded opening ceremony. Apparently, in this area of the world, it is commonplace at museum openings to hold an event where a gorgeously coiffed talk-show host emcee’s a number of speeches and trophy awards (trophies and cash awards for best art in show!) with video acceptance speeches, complete with music to fill in the pauses like I’ve only seen on the Academy Awards. Lots of speeches are made (in my ignorance of Mandarin, I understood nothing), dignitaries are noted, ribbons are cut, pictures are taken, and then more pictures are taken — then everyone watches a very serious, too-long performance-art piece of young people in tights wrapping themselves in string — all before entering the otherwise beautiful museum space.
Like the one to be picked last for a dodge ball team at recess, I stayed behind.
As my friends and I posed for our own photos on the deserted stage, my curator found me and said a journalist wanted to interview me. She advised me to grant the interview since it was for the area’s biggest paper, and the curator would help interpret into English. After the journalist’s initial questions of whys and whats and my half-hearted responses, I finally admitted that artists should not talk about their work. That my job is to set the initial conditions for the art to enter, but the more I talk about it, the more I destroy those conditions. She seemed to agree. But her assistant still asked, did I mean for the lantern to reference the historical Chinese lantern? This time, I turned the question back to her, and she said, yes, very much it does. I said, good. Sensing her initial exuberance fading into dissatisfaction, I then asked the journalist to tell me what she made of the art piece, why she wanted to ask me about it in the first place. She paused. Then spoke as if thinking aloud. My curator slowed down her interpretation, it felt in order to represent her sentiment with an impossible exactitude. She uttered, “When I held up the light to the piece and discovered that I was participating in the picture’s disappearance, I felt something miraculous occur.”
(The Realm of the Heart no. 12, by Zhu Yiyong. Oil on Canvas. 2013)
Her words fell out so elegantly like a poem and I began to weep. I still weep when I think about her earnestness, her gift. I apologized for my helpless tears, and told her it had been a very long day. She said her day had been very long too, traveling to the museum from Guangzhou, but that my piece had made it worthwhile. I then saw that the curator’s eyes were full of tears, too. Fumbling and raw, I explained to her that after a hard day, she had very simply reminded me that this is about art. That she had in some way restored my faith in art.
I turned away, now embarrassed that I would have to let the rawness drain out in order for it to dry up. And I let my curator friend continue a discussion with her in their language. Eventually, she asked for some photos of the work, so we walked towards the museum where we were denied entrance because of the yet to be finished performance piece. We took a detour through the mezzanine of the museum yard, when suddenly an egret floated by, crossing over us so strangely. And to my friend, I quietly said, hi Grandma.
“It’s better to be neglected.” — Xu Tan (One of China’s most famous artists), to me, as we left the museum opening.