Veteran performance artist Patty Chang is back with her most anxiety-provoking work yet
Fluidity, in the literal sense of the word, has been running through Patty Chang’s art for decades. From shaving her pubic hair with seltzer water for a 1998 performance to creating urinary tracts with plastic bottles on a trip through an aqueduct in China for her recent project Wandering lake, liquids in all their forms have found their way into the artist’s work.
“Early in my career,” she says of Zoom from her Los Angeles studio, “accessibility was a primary factor for me to use bodily or business fluids.”
The type of liquid she uses in her latest video installation, Dairy debt, which is currently playing at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, New York, stems from his confrontations with his personal anxieties. In an immersive five-channel orchestration that first premiered in Santa Monica in December, women pump breast milk while reading worry lists submitted by anonymous people in Hong Kong and the United States.
A mother herself, Chang saw a parallel between the release of her anxieties and the act of lactation, a process that is both biological and emotional. “It affects your whole body, including your mind,” she says.
The previous version of Dairy debt, based in California, was about Chang’s anxieties of living in Los Angeles for the past few years. Now the work understands the fears it has gathered from New Yorkers after the pandemic.
The project stems from a day Chang spent at the Huntington Library, San Marino Art Museum and Botanical Gardens. Apparently, she was there to research the water infrastructure in California, but over time, she noticed that she was worried about the environment. Although she was born and raised in the Bay Area, her fears about the environment intensified after returning to the West Coast a few years ago. “It can be the incredible heat, the fires or the traffic,” she says.
She began to jot down some very personal truths – those she calls “speculative and irrational” – about herself in a notepad with Huntington’s letterhead, which at first was both subversive and subversive. inspiring. First on her list of fears was the possibility of her eight-year-old son dying, which she then followed with broader concerns, such as drought and “eating maggots.” (She later realized that this fluctuation between the intimate and the universal would be a common thread among many fears.)
Chang didn’t know at the time what she would do with the list. But uncertainty is how she started most projects during her two-decade multidisciplinary career. “Having to understand the unknown when starting a project has always been a challenge,” she says.
When Chang emerged in the late 90s with endurance-based performances, she had to use her own body with a few (sometimes liquid) props in front of the audience. She once ate raw onions with her parents and had an eel crawling inside her shirt. Chinese-American, Chang interrupted the trajectory of body art, which had emerged as a subcategory of performance art with a strong emphasis on endurance, in the 1960s. While female visibility was at the heart of the movement – led by artists such as Marina Abramović and Gina Pane – Chang was inspired by Yoko Ono’s iconic Cut the part from 1964 to comment on the invisibility of Asian bodies in America, as well as to challenge the stereotypical shyness associated with Asian women.
In his video Melons (at a loss) (1998), Chang cuts off her bra with a knife while ritually discussing her aunt’s death. The shock of the apparent mayhem is lessened when the melons are revealed inside the bra rather than the flesh. As she pushes the fruit, she takes the meat out of it and places it on a plate atop her head. While subverting notions of skin color, family lineage, and the exoticization of the body, Chang appears confident and determined. But, she recalls, “I never liked performing directly in front of people.”
Acquiring a studio and a camera was therefore “a moment of relief,” she says. When she delivered her first performance for the camera in her 1999 video Fountain, she used the lens to trick the eye and photograph her own reflection in the water vertically. The artist drinks mirror-like water, sipping its reflection in a tribute to the portrayal of self-portrait art history and the myth of Narcissus. Today, the work taps into notions of self-indulgence and image obsession in the landscape dominated by social media.
Around 2004, Chang left the studio and went outside to capture various social and environmental unrest – from China to the tar sands in northern Canada to the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. The first time she hired actors for a project, it was in the Chinese province of Yunnan, in a city renamed after the legendary Shangri-La to stimulate tourism. She built an imaginary snow mountain as a tribute to James Hilton’s novel Lost horizons and shot the locals carrying the aftershock into the city.
“Humor is a strategy that makes people aware and also uncomfortable,” she says of her subversive approach to storytelling. “There are a lot of weird things that we don’t pay attention to, but I’m trying to extract them. Deep down, I’m interested in communication. “
By delegating tasks on camera to others in much of his recent work, including Dairy debtChang was able to explore aspects of it that she couldn’t see when she was in the center. For example, after hiring professional actresses for work (via a group of lactation activists in Hong Kong and an online call in Los Angeles), she realized that a woman was struggling to deliver her cues the moment she started pumping milk.
“She moved to another space when lactation caused her to release hormones,” Chang said. “There seems to be another relationship between body and mind during this process.” She then brought a teleprompter for the actresses and eventually the vertical scrolling text became part of the work as well. She hopes providing the audience with the list of concerns within the facility will help them internalize the content.
Sharing her fears in public has been both meditative and revealing, Chang says. “I started to think about the visibility of the things we usually keep below the surface.” The concerns she aroused in others during the political turmoil in Hong Kong or the early days of the pandemic in New York City reflect both the universality and the special nature of human fear. “A fear of online identity theft comes after one is faced with the death of their cat,” she says.
She chose the title of the work from a section of David Graeber’s book Debt: the first 5,000 years, on the Chinese Buddhist belief in the impossibility of repaying one’s mother for her vital fluid. A fluid tension between the spiritual and the real resonates throughout Chang’s work as she invents new ways for us to meander towards discovery, including the broad meaning of debt itself. “We can never pay for what the earth has given us,” she said, “but do we even consider it a debt?”
“Patty Chang: Milk Debt” is on view at Pioneer Works until May 23, 2021. Reservations are obligatory.
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