Sunday, April 28, 2013

Creating William Luis's Palimpsest

Palimpsest defined, according to Merriam Webster:
1: writing material (as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased; 
2: something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface 

Though the exact title for William Luis's sculpture didn't come to me until after the piece was created, as soon as I began thinking about how I would visually evoke his poem "The Heterogeneity of My Two Grandfather's"/ "La heterogeneidad de mis dos abuelos" I found myself inside the theater of palimpsest. (It could easily be argued that so much of the world is precisely this: layer coiled around layer, moments revealed and concealed by overlapping bodies and scenes, desires and memories drifting through sometimes clear, but more often murky waters that evoke the nature of palimpsest and its ever-changing instants.)
The symbol of palimpsest: material upon which text is written, then erased, then written upon again brings Shakespeare to mind: "If the skin were parchment, and the blows you gave were ink." This is particularly true when thinking about cultural and national identity and movement from one place to another. What is visible in one location might disappear, be written over in another. The self (a self) articulated in English may express itself differently in Chinese or Spanish, for example. As a person moves through the world, texts of identity are written and rewritten; body, skin, is written upon, etched into, and itself becomes sign and signifier contributing to these texts. Languages, family, history, tears, all leave their blows on the traveler as the traveler's flesh produces its own ink in turn.
I used English, Chinese, and Spanish, in my example above because these are the languages and locations in which William Luis and his poem begin: his life as a Cuban Chinese man born in New York City and in relation to his two grandfathers, one Chinese, the other Cuban ("I still carry in my veins/ The pain of their bones," writes William in his poem). Of course, even these divisions are not simple as the Chinese and Cuban  identities themselves already contain other geographies, travels, and intertwinings. ("Africa of humid swamps/ Conquering Spain and Cuba mulata/ Says my grandfather Ventura./ China of imperial traditions/ Marvelous wonders/ Ancient Wisdom/ Says my grandfather Lei.")
I first met William when I was working at the Frist Center, during events planned around contemporary artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (who also has a Cuban-Chinese heritage) and her exhibition Journeys, curated by Katie Delmez. I heard William speak as part of a panel at Vanderbilt University that included Campos-Pons, and then had the chance to talk with him personally at a party held in the artist's honor. We soon discovered that we had a shared past: Binghamton University—the place I did my PhD work and where William earned his bachelor's degree and then returned to as a professor some years after. Discovering this shared world was a fabulous ice-breaker. Soon, we were talking about the various projects we were working on, the nature (necessity) of interdisciplinary work, and the fact that he had recently been weaving autobiographical approaches into his academic work, which is something I had been concerned with in my own ways as well. William was fascinated with Campos-Pons, as was I. I mention our meeting through events around Campos-Pons's time in Nashville, because it is directly relevant to the way we began our work together for the Identity Sculptures Project.
As soon as I found out that I had received the grant for the project, I immediately thought of William and hoped I would be able to convince him to participate as one of the writers. Since I was looking for people who were writing about identity, and ways that identities are created, I thought he would be perfect. Needless to say, I was thrilled when he agreed.
Part of our collaboration included email and in-person interviews and conversations about the work and concerns he was bringing to the project. As background, William provided me with a copy of the Afro-Hispanic Review, the journal he edits, in which there is an interview between him and Campos-Pons. In the interview, Campos-Pons says this about her use of water in her work Everything is Separated by Water:
" ... whatever separates us actually brings us together as well, so there are these double implications of the water and the meaning of what this kind of insularity of the island [Cuba] brings... I was thinking about separation and proximity. Everything that is near is because of those waters. Those same waters that put life on the island are the same currents that could bring us to Africa, to China, to Europe, to any point of the planet ..."
This idea of water surrounding, separating, facilitating movement from one place to another, became part of my conversations with William. We talked about his thoughts on Campos-Pons's use of water. Yes, water as a symbol that could be used to evoke the connection and separation between William's American-ness, Cuban-ness, and Chinese-ness made sense to both of us. I was also attracted to water because of the way it is so strong, but also itself always moving. There is nothing stable about it, though the boundaries it creates can also at times be impassable too. Of course, water and the oceans take on even darker meaning and the heavy weight of history when one thinks about Cuba, its sugar cane and coffee production, and the bodies, blood, and death of slaves upon which that production was built.
Water and palimpsest ultimately became the two overarching aesthetic themes that led to the assemblage I created in response to William's poem. I wanted to make a piece in which nothing was settled or stable, in which various moments and bodies and identities shifted over one another, in which the text of the poem itself, as well as William's family name written in Chinese, like the past (the shadows with which William begins his poem: "Shadows that I can only see/ My two grandfathers are with me."), drift over and between the many images of William, his family, and various places he had traveled in both Cuba and China. Essentially, I wanted the images to "float" over each other.
Palimpsest at night
The piece itself is made up of two wooden frames, each one 4 x 3 feet in size. The wooden frames were intended to evoke traditional Chinese screens. From the frames, the images, which I printed out on laser transparencies, are hung, three deep and five across. In addition to these images, there are four columns of images, also on transparencies, mounted flat against the back of each the screens. These are all images of William's writing, the Chinese character for his name, and images of his family. Two columns in the back are deliberately left empty so the work itself is interrupted by views of its current setting. In the Sarratt Center, where the piece will be through June, the view on the other side of the work that comes through during the day is of trees, buildings, and sky as seen from the third floor of the center. At night the view is completely different. The adds yet another aspect of motion and a sense of the transitory to the piece since the way it looks changes with the seasons and the time of day. As I was creating, I decided to take advantage of the space and its windows, especially with this piece, to interrogate the notion of identity even further by suggesting the way identity and one's own history is continually in conversation with the changing present as well as the past. The metal washers I use at the bottom are meant to evoke traditional Chinese coins.
You can listen to William reading his poem (in English and Spanish) at his project page:

William Luis in front of "Palimpsest"
William Luis in front of "Palimpsest"