Video stolen wholesale from www.stephaniesyjuco.com. Double-click to play.
hildhood is a distant country for everyone, a place of proverbial and metaphorical nostalgia. Most of us learn in adolescence that something is not right about ourselves, and we drive those things we found it so easy to be underground.
Artists especially have to spend their apprenticeship fighting their way back to childhood insights and personality quirks merely to find an authentic voice---to ground themselves in who they actually are and to dissipate the clouds of who they are taught to be. This is why autobiography is so essential and ubiquitous among learning artists. This is not news.
So when a child starts out to be someone--starts to learn a language, a way of dressing and thinking and behaving, a way of making noise in the world--and then has to change all of those things to continue growing up in a new culture ... well, it causes a quiet cataclysm. Idiom becomes stunted, often, and the child becomes a person permanently chasing after the right language to use to say, "I am."
I spent the year most children spend collecting complete sentences speaking my own language, an idiosyncratic mixture of English and Cantonese that drew vocabulary, grammar, and tones from each in an unusual pattern. When I left off and emerged speaking English, the Cantonese faded away. Well into adulthood, whenever I heard someone speaking Cantonese in public, a ghost self emerged, a sort of presence behind my left shoulder, that understood what was being said, and was connected to me, but could only communicate to me a sense of fading rightness in the sounds of the language.
It's like a parallel universe. When your childhood in one culture is broken off, the person that child would have become in that culture is broken off. But that no-longer-possible-person remains with you as an echo of yourself you can either choose to ignore, or attempt to build a sound-box around, to see if they have something interesting to say. If you choose--as I have--to chase after that echo, you'll never be satisfied, or triumphant, in boxing that voice. You're chasing a nostalgia for an alternate universe, depicting a world that your audience will never be able to see, and perhaps never realizes is there to be seen.
And then, of course, as adults we see the exotiphilia, or fetish for tribalism, or lust for otherness, that strangers will ground in the cultures we left behind. We don't fit into these visions, but even in the most egregious expressions we see small corners of the alternate universe. And we're angry and sad and speechless that someone else could appropriate the little nests of our echoes to say something that annihilates them.
This is how I'm reading Stephanie Syjuco's Body Double pieces. She composed them before we went to Manila, but I first saw one of these on someone's laptop in The Living Room while we were there, and all our talk, and thinking, about distance and culture of origin wove itself into my reading. I got to see a display of three of these pieces at the opening of Mills Art Museum's show We Interrupt Your Program tonight.
Each piece in the video triptych shows excerpts from a Hollywood Vietnam war movie filmed in the Philippines. Stephanie muted the sound and put black boxes over the images that turned the Philippine landscape into Vietnam. What's left is small glimpse of jungle or hills or skies or rainfall--the sorts of small moments and images brought back, Proust-like, when we smell rain or foliage, or eat something we haven't eaten since we were children.
The monolithic blank forms interrupting the landscape are nothing so simple as Western brute technology or political iron-fisting, or even colonization. At the risk of interpreting one-for-one: the hard, black boxes are maybe memory loss, or maybe just the places that never got filled in. Or the big, ugly swaths of the here-and-now we have to cover up to let the echoes gain some volume. Stephanie said tonight, looking at her own work up on the wall, that it was an exercise in minimalism. I think it an attempt to contain lushness in minimalism, something resounding loudly in Woff's new piece (yes, I will blog about it).