Brain Storm, Single-channel video, 2009, 10 mins.
Dodo with One Hundred Meeps Walking in the Desert, Single-monitor video with audio track, 2011, 2 mins. 22 secs.
Three More Hours, Projected animation on smoke and Maori Karakia chant, 2011
Paradise Interrupted Trailer, Installation opera in one act with direction and visual design by Jennifer Wen Ma; Music composition by Huang Ruo; Featuring Qian Yi in the lead role
Jennifer Wen Ma (1973, Beijing, China) is a visual artist who moved to the United State in 1986, and received her Master of Fine Art degree in 1999 from Pratt Institute, New York. Ma works and lives between New York and Beijing. Ma’s interdisciplinary practice bridges varied media such as installation, drawing, video, public art, design, performance, and theatre; often bringing together unlikely elements in a single piece, creating sensitive, poetic and poignant works.
1) In Brain Storm, a man and horse travel through an ink-wash landscape. Sometimes quiet and atmospheric, sometimes turbulent and moody, the landscape changes while the man and horse walk on unwaveringly. In the tradition of Chinese landscape painting, it is typical for the viewer to travel through a mountain range and seasons. In this ink-wash painting-video, the travelers are a pair of silent companions that weather through a landscape that is an abstract reflection of the storms of the mind. The live-action ink-painting process creating unpredictable visual results, against the never altering movements of the travelers, renders a new artistic language of time-based landscape painting.
2) A small square format video screen in Dodo with One Hundred Meeps Walking in the Desert shows a night desert scene, the camera follows the back of a seven year-old girl in white dress, holding 100 white balloons walking in an ink-landscape, forming a haunting picture. The keyboard score is composed and played by the girl in the video.
3) On 12 March, Maori trickster-god Maui came alive as an apparition on a smoke cloud over the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in the performance piece Three More Hours. He dances and grapples at the setting sun, trying to pull it in and slow it down to give us just a few more hours in the day. This piece references the legend of the Maori in which Maui captured the sun at the request of his mother in order to grant her more working hours. This need for more time and the thought that just a few more hours are necessary to complete a days work inspired the artist summon the god herself. Maori cultural advisor Wharehoka Wano was invited to collaborate on the work by composing a Karakia, Maori chant. Wharehoka performed the Karakia live at the event, calling, pleading and taunting Maui tiki tiki a Taranga to appear in the waning light of the sun.
4) Weaving together traditional Chinese and contemporary Western idioms, Paradise Interrupted reimagines the biblical story of Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the vivid dream of Du Liniang in The Peony Pavilion. This lecture/demonstration will explore the creative process of making this collaborative work, including an interactive look at the dynamic paper sculptures which make up the garden, as well as musical excerpts with Kunqu Opera soprano Qian Yi and tenor Yi Li, and music by members of Ensemble FIRE: Steve Buck, piano; Hong Da Chin, dizi; Shelley Monroe Huang, bassoon; Zhou Yi, pipa.
For more information about the artist’s work please visit her website here.
Arthub first had the opportunity to work with Jennifer Wen Ma in 2011, during SH Contemporary and later that year at Nuit Blanche Festival’s Commercial Break in New York. For the occasion of the screening, Arthub’s Ryan Nuckolls spoke with the artist about her use and developing interest with ink over the last decade, as well as her desire to infuse traditional fables and visual references into her contemporary work in an effort to enact a sort of historical reimagining.
Ryan Nuckolls (RN): The majority of my questions today will focus specifically on the three works being screened with Arthub, but I would like to begin the interview with a general question about ink. I understand that as a classic medium for Chinese paintings and communication you are drawn to ink for its cultural significance, but furthermore, you’re interested in the fluid’s dual ability to both obscure and illuminate, to represent vitality and death. Since first using ink in your video works in 2008, could you tell us how your relationship with the medium has evolved?
Jennifer Wen Ma (JWM):
That is a really great question. My relationship with ink has changed dramatically since the beginning; the process of actually working with ink has taught me a lot. When I first began, I approached it from an art historical perspective, but I wasn’t fully aware of the material’s layered richness and multiplicity. Additionally, as a Chinese artist living and working overseas, it gave me a way to reach back to my roots. In the beginning, it was an age-old story of finding oneself by connecting with my ancestral culture. But, I didn’t know then the meaning and significance that it would have on me. Ink has shown me its endless nuances, for example, the relationship with vitality and death you mentioned – perseverance and life – those were elements I discovered only through a number of productions and time.
When I used ink in the making of Brain Storm I felt the immediacy of the material. When you’re working with ink by hand you get it all over and yet it easily washes away with water, as if it had never been there. I knew that I wanted viewers to experience the impact of ink through more than video. That began my search, rather my exploration, of applying ink onto live objects (such as plants) and installation work.
I was in Japan when I did my first project in which I applied ink onto a landscape. I actually thought the plants would die. I thought the ink would mark a passage of time. But I created a petrified forest—with this organic material, made from charcoal and soot, the landscape became completely black, and I knew that there, time would in fact stand still. What really surprised me was that not only did the plants not die they actually thrived. After just two or three days you could see evidence of growth and life by the green that was injected throughout the installation. In that moment, I witnessed the depth and encompassing power of ink. It was as if the end of the plants’ lives was being applied to the beginning of their creation. I was constructing and witnessing a poignant expression of the circle of life: the passing of time put in stark contrast.
I worked quite obsessively on these projects for a few years, all the while continuing to draw and paint. After many years of working on live plants I eventually wanted more from the ink. I had captured the fragility of life, but the pieces are very ephemeral, so the installations could only last for a short period of time. When I would visit museums and see scrolls from ages past, the ink on paper still looked fresh. I wanted something more permanent.
This change also coincided with my research into theater. In my most recent three-dimensional piece Paradise Interrupted I’m creating a landscape—it is a meditation on ink that has advanced away from plants. I employed some of the principles of scroll paintings on stage and created a garden that grows from a folded book, and when it’s pulled out, it opens to reveal a utopian paradise. And like traditional landscape painting scrolls it can be easily turned back, shut away from audiences.
That was my long-winded answer to your question. I hadn’t thought about my use of ink in this trajectory before, so it’s interesting for me to think about where my exploration with the material has led me.
RN: Many of your projects have a site-specific element to them, especially the ink installations with plants you’ve detailed. Many of these were commissioned works and I would like to know what comes first: is it the space that gives you inspiration, the historical narrative in the places you’re working or do you have a concrete idea beforehand that you’re then implementing on-site?
It’s definitely the former. Though I already have a certain trajectory that I’m on, and as I’m working more ideas that will arise – I like to try a bit of this, a bit of that. Those new ideas become logged in the back of your mind, so you know at some point that you will be doing things differently—new concepts that you will tryout in the realization of the work.
So it’s a combination of being invited to the site, the specific nature of the location, its restrictions, as well as its strengths, the history, the people, the context—all of these components inform us. Actually, a lot of times the curatorial statement impacts my process—I am a total geek in that way. A lot of artists disregard the curator’s text, but I really love reading their statements and seeing if sparks come out of the ideas that the curator is exploring, and will intersect with my own exploration and discourse. It is a culmination of your own artistic methods and the site-specific context that creates new and impactful works.
RN: Brain Storm will be the first video in your looped compilation presented by Arthub. I understand that this work was originally commissioned as a three-channel version for the Guggenheim Bilbao in 2009 and later shown as a two-part installation (including an audio competent) for Intersections at The Phillips. Now, you are giving us an opportunity to show the work as single-channel video. What changes in each new manifestation of Brain Storm? As a stand-alone video on our site, are there elements of the work that viewers may be able to focus better on or artistic features that are deemphasized and distracted from in a gallery setting?
Each one of the installations you mentioned was done very specifically for their unique exhibitions. When I was invited to work in Bilbao, I was given an extremely particular space: the gallery is a not your typical white box, it is very tall, with a wall of windows that are two stories high, and another expansive wall clad in metal plates. I knew making a readable projection there would be very hard.
was shown on a flat screen monitor on one side of the space, and on the opposite side there was a projection of ink washing down the metal plates, down the full scale of the wall. I was really playing with that specific site. Also, because it is so tall, I had to stack three projectors on top of one another to allow the ink to run down all the way from the top to the bottom, as if the ink was melting the metal plates. The video was really responding to that specific space and I knew that it would be unlikely that this work could be shown in the same way in other venues, unless it happened to replicate some similar architectural properties.
Later that year, I presented the work with The Phillips Collection. The museum is very focused on how their collection – which includes very prominent modernist paintings as well as classical works – inspires contemporary works, and intersects with them. Keeping Phillips’ interests in mind, the idea of landscape became very important in this project, so I chose several works from their collection that used landscape as a vehicle, such as Paul Cezanne and Arthur Dove. Brain Storm
was shown on a large-scale scroll that extended all the way down and across the floor. In this way it became a contemporary iteration of the classic Chinese vertical hanging scroll. With these juxtaposed works a conversation between Eastern and Western traditions, contemporary vs. classic, color vs. black and white, was commenced at Phillips.
I was happy to have shown these pieces in very rich, interesting, specific settings, but I’m also excited to show the work on its own with Arthub. I think through the online platform the artist’s hand becomes the predominant and singular focus of viewers. When people are watching from their private screens, when they choose to engage, hopefully, they will see all the nuances I put into the painting: how the landscape morphs from scene to scene, how the compositions speak to each other from the beginning to the end, and how the work varies when the artist’s hand enters the screen. I hope that viewers can hone in on the way in which I play with scale and the meaning behind these two travelers—seemingly walking on together in thick and thin, through reoccurring storms in silence. I’m hoping that in this format the work will lead the audience in a more intimate and direct experience.
RN: You partook in a short interview with David Shing during your residency at Performa 13, during which you said, “art sometimes happens inside us, if we don’t allow experiments and mistakes to happen then transcendent opportunities won’t be possible.” I thought this line was particularly poignant in reference to Dodo with One Hundred Meeps Walking in the Desert, because I understand that the process for this work was quite involved. You shot a video of your niece walking, which you then layered with ink and wash paintings, but ultimately you deemed the work unwatchable, so you had to go back and isolate the frames, at which point it became a process of rearrangement and retouching. Are most of your works like this? Do you find this process of reconstruction frustrating or stimulating?
That piece was unique in that way, but you always have to respond to what the material and work is telling you it needs to do. You come with some preconceived ideas—an image in your head during conceptualization of what you want the work to be before production begins. But things have a different way of working out. How I’m going to realize a certain feeling in the work, all the technical stuff in how to achieve a look, I usually don’t worry about too much. I let the piece lead me; I let it become whatever it needs to be, I just kind of embrace the process of creation. So Dodo with One Hundred Meeps Walking in the Desert
is a moving video, but in the end it was made from a series of stagnant images.
The production for that work was a long and laborious process. The whole piece was experimental, because I was merely responding to a spontaneous idea I had, when I heard my niece Dodo playing this very whimsical piano composition that she had made up. The idea that I started with was very vague, but I really loved editing and constructing the work through a time based process. So yeah, it was certainly tedious and painstaking to paint frame by frame, but it was a lot of fun too.
RN: What does your niece think about the piece?
Dodo was very Meta about it. She was seven when we made it and she’s now thirteen so it has been a few years. She never said it was her in the video, it was really funny because she referred to it as, “that piece with my back in it.” I haven’t talked to her about it recently, but I think she likes it.
You know for kids this is just something that they do, there’s nothing unusual about it. They process creation and creativity differently. We used to do a lot of projects together, every time I visited her. No matter what I suggested she seemed to understand it immediately. I wouldn’t have to elaborate on anything, be it performance or installation, any idea I had she would respond: “oh great, we can also do this, this, and this.” There is almost no boundary to their imaginations. It’s great.
RN: Moving on to the final work in the online grouping: with the production of Three More Hours in New Zealand we can really see how you embrace the unknown in your artistic process. Tricksters are reoccurring figures in your work; with this particular performance you were inspired by the story of Maori. Are these duplicitous characters – which of course are breaking the rules, whilst helping viewers see things we wouldn’t normally see – allegorical representations of artists?
I definitely think the trickster persona is one role that artists play. The best artworks help bring a change of perspective. Every culture and civilization has these archetypes, sometimes multiple expressions of this archetype. Artists—tricksters, help us to evolve, something I believe to be absolutely necessary; we need subversiveness in order to stir up our gene pool a little bit. So if nothing else, at least in that aspect, artists are an essential agent in society.
RN: The use of smoke and the three-dimensionality of works like, Three More Hours is reminiscent of Cai Guo-Qiang, whose space you worked in as Studio Director for eight years. Though it has been several years since then, do you think your past experiences with him have continued to influence your current practice or has it prepared you more logistically with matters of art production?
I think both, because those were very formative years for me as a young artist. Seeing the practice of another artist (and a wonderful artist at that) so close and in-depth was a very intimate experience. The productions that he worked on were often very complex and overreaching, so of course I developed a lot of helpful practical experience, but I also think that artistically, he had a lasting influence on me as well.
Cai always talked about how one’s attitude and approach towards art was the most important thing in the work. He was talking about methodology, which informs your voice and your artistic language. I think understanding that attitude early on – in whatever form that might take for each artist – was very helpful for me. So it’s less about the specific aesthetic similarities between our practices and more about the overall approach towards ones work.
RN: You’ve described your art as ephemeral—an attribute that can be prescribed to many of your works, whether you’re using ink, smoke or silk; an interesting manifestation of this quality was your collaboration with Melissa Kirgan and Xing-Zhen Chung-Hilyard of Eko-Lab at Ekovaruhuset’s New York Fashion Week show. Can we view these smoke-hued beautifully hand painted garments as another way in which you were giving life to inanimate objects? Furthermore, have you done similar projects since then, or would you consider doing something in that vein again?
I think ultimately it’s about being open to the opportunities presented to you. I love fashion; I love the idea of art on your body, as an expression of your identity. After that first collaboration, Eko-Lab and I did several seasons of cloth lines together. Once a year, they approached me with a new idea and their inspiration board and invited me to make one or more pieces for a new line. They of course produced multiple collections a year, but when they saw that it’s appropriate for us to work on something together, then they’d reach out.
That first show was such a great way to see the movement of the pieces on the body. The Eko-Lab team is really skillful and the way they drape clothing is just another way of thinking about sculpture—the works we create together became interactive sculptural performances. I tried to embrace the whole process as much as possible.
They are also wonderful people. When I work with people I like and then they become my friends, or I am already friends with someone and if I respect their work then I try to find a way to collaborate with them. This latter interaction fortifies your friendship and you get to work (i.e. have fun) with people you really like; it’s all a very symbiotic, beautiful process. For example, when I was developing Paradise Interrupted, I asked the ladies from Eko-Lab to design the costumes and headdresses the opera. They are credited as individual artists, so their names are listed rather than their company, but it’s the same women from that previous collaboration.
RN: Is there anything else you would like to add—anything that you think is relevant to the works we’ve discussed or your artistic process? Any new works in the making that we should know about?
There are so many new projects happening, but I think these videos are a great start to give the audience a little bit of context of where I come from. My ink series really started with Brain Storm and have continued to evolve from there.
Arthub would like to thank Jennifer for taking the time to speak with us and for the opportunity to show her compilation online. We look forward to seeing her back in Shanghai – hopefully sooner rather than later – for a new project and collaboration. Because like her, Arthub works with those we respect and she is certainly an artist to be respected.