Two Chinese Artists Search for Identity in Rural Massachusetts
Fresh out of monthlong residencies in Miller’s Falls, Massachusetts, two rising female Chinese artists, Geng Xue and Ying Zhu, have filled Klein Sun Gallery in Chelsea with site-specific, multimedia installations. Xue looks back toward her roots, mining inspiration from traditional philosophy and folklore, while Zhu examines her surroundings from an alien perspective, evoking the contemporary Chinese immigrant’s experience. Artsy recently walked through the exhibitions with the artists to talk about their creative processes, what they took away from their residencies, and their relationships to their homeland.
Entering Xue’s “Borrowing an Easterly Wind” in the south gallery space, visitors follow a hand-painted line of blue paint guiding toward artworks that take the teachings of 4th-century-BC philosopher Zhuangzi as a point of departure. “This whole show is about the three components of Zhuangzi’s philosophy, which are influential in Asian culture: heaven, earth, and human,” Geng explained. “Each of these components has lai, a concept that refers to the harmonious relationship between sound and space.” The artist sees Zhuangzi as especially relevant today, where political factions and borders overshadow concepts of cooperation and connectedness.
The blue painted trail is Xue’s tangible representation of lai, pointing visitors through a series of photographs of Miller’s Falls—marked by the artist’s hands or overlaid with lettering from the pages of Zhuangzi—as well as sculptures influenced by traditional Chinese ceramics, and two large video projections. Each of these works depicts natural, man-made, or empty spaces that tie into Zhuangzi’s philosophy.
Passing into the north gallery space, the mood shifts, from a meditation on harmony to a presentation of sci-fi souvenirs in Ying Zhu’s exhibition, “Live Like An Astronaut.” Ying has lived in Nebraska since graduating from high school, when her family moved there—an unsettling experience. Here she compares the feeling of being Chinese while living like an American to that of being in outer space. “In a sense I am the astronaut, but really I am trying to show people how to look,” Ying explained. “If I show people how I see or what I see, maybe they will see it from a different perspective.”
Beyond a gigantic neon of the word “Souvenirs,” visitors take off their shoes, put on blue booties, and step into Ying’s world. Visitors find themselves in an immersive environment that may throw them off balance. A foamy floor is covered with illusory, geometric patterns, and flanked by mirrors that enhance the dizzying effect. The wall is covered with strange wires and gold-plated rocks, and in the back hallway, symbols of eyes crying are like futuristic hieroglyphics.
The artist offers an approximation of her own experience of being an immigrant, but rejects a clichéd, downtrodden narrative, instead finding value in being able to see the world from a perspective of detached wonderment. “I’m encouraging people to take a look and investigate a little more. Be yourself, think outside the box, and understand that it’s okay for things to be murky,” she explained. “For me, it comes from living between two cultures. I can’t really call either one home, but it’s a nice, objective perspective, like one from space, far away and looking at earth.”