Revisiting Three Places
by Esther Lu
You are invited to this room. It's deserted. But not entirely. It was actually attended with enormous care by a photographer whose camera worked with the mutability, rather than coagulation, of time. The room marks the absence of someone, and the images attest to the presence of the photographer who invested a process-oriented negotiation with the space until it was haunted by stories again. These seven images of an interior space were taken from the same perspective over the course of a long period of time as the house itself was forgotten and pulled itself down. The earliest one is a blurred self-portrait, followed by a series of staged events—ceiling panels taken down, books installed on the shelves, a child playing, walls coming down, a man with fire, and the space emptied out. As a constellation of spacetime, their intense juxtaposition plots the void for imaginary projection and suspension, as you try to read the photographic phenomenon and life—behind the cracking surface. You fall into perplexity before you turn around. You see the measurement of time, not a rehearsal. Forgetting is not an option. Film has captured it, perfectly.
Three Places, Revisited
Three Places, for Marguerite Duras (2003 to 2006) is a series of Wei-li Yeh’s early work that demonstrates a full spectrum of his artistic practice and philosophy of image-making while paying homage to one of his favorite writers and referencing her short story, The Atlantic Man. It is not an exception that Yeh borrows literature references in his work. The literary quality has been imbued deeply in his aesthetic composition and narratives, and further illustrates a personal resonance for affection and psychology. But the inspiration of this particular story in Yeh’s oeuvre is particularly noteworthy. The Atlantic Man tells a story about how the protagonist limbos between living and dying after his lover’s unfathomable departure. Cleaning the entire house as if preparing his own funeral, the protagonist attempts to capture the lover’s gaze, as a camera might, but the lover was invisible and present on film at the same time, recounting all the unsettling memories. Relating himself to this story, Yeh finds a parallel strategy to work on places as well as the subject of memory.
It is quite a repetitive practice for Yeh to work on a particular site and its history through the act of cleaning, reorganizing and reinstalling, as if this were the only way to eventually justify his position and make meaning out of being there. There is never abstract. There is delineated in the abstraction of times. Yeh’s approach arguably bears a hauntological dimension as it contemplates the circulation of life, real and animated, artificial and natural. The portmanteau “hauntology” was first introduced in Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (1993) to argue that Marxism would haunt Western society from beyond the grave, and was later widely borrowed to translate “the state of temporal, historical, and ontological disjunction in which the ostensible immediacy of presence is replaced by the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive. " For years, I used to think Yeh’s persistence in memories as nostalgia or connection to the unreachable past resembles his double migration experiences, an attempt to construct the idea of homecoming and its impossibility. Therefore, the tendency of placing himself in a physical confrontation and site driven context seems to become a solution: a way to create a temporary sense of belongingness and identity. In many ways, he builds a castle out of memory bricks that he carves himself, and he labors in all kinds of activities and amongst all materials, bringing life to a discarded place and a new circulation via interventions. He is not that type of photographer who keeps an objective distance. His practice is rooted in the way he exercises in his life; every moment and every movement creates a correlation among beings. By revisiting this early piece and Duras’ story, I came to realize that it was not only about the psychological contour of the lost. Yeh’s progressive hauntology remodels the structure of photographic perception and supports his aesthetics as well as politics.
We do not know who the lover is or what could be the metaphoric lover in The Atlantic Man. We do not know who left the house next to the artist’s residency that Yeh visited and photographed. What we see is that Yeh spent four years making one place multiple, uncovering its bare beauty while testing its potential for the future. The intertextuality in the work conceives a mechanism to manifest the visibility of the most formless and precarious subject. In such a concentrated scene, time is folded and unfolded, mounted and crumbled away. Yeh’s hauntological approach releases the power of time, and transcribes his worldview accordingly, or rather, the way he perceives how his art relates to the world. His interventions on places do not count for social causes, but political ones, for he believes that lives of the unnamable stranger and of the inanimate objects should still be carried along their worldly journey in the aesthetic forms that he has been trying to achieve together with and within his surrounding milieu. Therefore, he dances and sweats, all the time, in and out of the camera, to crystalize the movement of time in his everyday life and in his dedication to the task of transforming the unwanted abandoned objects and spaces. It is the fitting position of an artist to speak to history, the present as well as the future, from a single room where all his labors and the labors of others that come out of the blue can be traced, and what he eventually makes is sculpture but not photography. The room is such an expansion of his work against the exchange formula of the capitalist world, and permits the sensible structure of time to take hold. On the other hand, Yeh chooses to present the work, years later, in various media, with each image as an independent time capsule. In Yeh’s modification, the perception of photography does not point to the singular moment of the camera’s gaze any longer, but is connected to the life of photographer and the peculiar objecthood of the image. Time is thus leaking in his work.
History finds its yesterday in tomorrow
“At the end of the journey, the camera will have decided what you will have looked at ”—says who? Seeing is certainly a political choice. The room is not empty but emptied out. Before you have no more images for it, I shall turn around.
If this camera knows a melody, does it sing tomorrow?
1. Gallix, Andrew. Hauntology: A not-so-new critical manifestation, The Guardian, 17, June, 2011. http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2011/jun/17/hauntology-critical
2. Duras, Marguerite. The Atlantic Man, Two by Duras, Trans. By Alberto Manguel. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1993, p. 51.