Echoed Memories, Silent Exploitations, and Fractured Terrain

In the expanse of existence, shadows bear silent witness to the untold stories that play out at the periphery of our consciousness. What if these shadows could shine, giving a voice to this neglected narrative and repairing the fractured landscapes within the folds of our shared human experience? The exhibition If Shadows Could Shine summons the redemptive power of identity, delving into traumas, histories, and memories that saturate the lives of marginalized communities, residing in a shadowless void.

Listening to the Ancestral Echoes
In If Shadows Could Shine, Queens-born artist Sa’dia Rehman’s large-scale wall drawing Looking Out (the mobile mosque) depicts a dystopian landscape where history and the present become inextricably entangled, seamlessly blending our contemporary reality with utopian futures.

Sa’dia Rehman, and now we must roam..., 2023 Chalk, paint, Dimensions variable

The artwork serves as a poignant exploration of ancestral displacement in 1974, a haunting consequence of the construction of the Tarbela Dam in Pakistan. This colossal earth-filled dam stood at a towering 143 meters above the riverbed, covering a vast surface area of approximately 250 square kilometers. Its construction in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province led to the acquisition of 260 square kilometers of land and the subsequent displacement of about 100,000 people who resettled in townships surrounding the Tarbela Reservoir or adjacent higher valleys.

Sa’dia Rehman, Khalabat Township Reservoir, 2022, Digital photograph

Rehman’s recent journey to the region in March 2022 became both a conceptual and material departure point. During a boat ride, they observed a mobile mosque, which for them symbolizes the afterlife of the colonial project represented by the dam rising above the rocky banks of the Indus River. Crafted from painted and reflective rusted metal, this mosque showcased the self-governed temporary structure created by nomadic people to adapt to changing water levels. To Rehman, it becomes “an artifact from the future, embodying an index of place and signaling the memory of geological time.”

Sa’dia Rehman, Untitled (Mobile Mosque Maquette), 2023, Plaster gauze, ink, and found ceramic piece

Rehman employs chalk, rope covered in white plaster gauze, and intricate stenciling of mango trees and poppy fields to create a visual narrative that speaks the language of dystopian whispers and utopian shadows. Looking Out (the mobile mosque) captures the essence of a mobile mosque along the Indus River. The large-scale mobile mosque serves as a spectral relic—a symbol of defiance and the afterlife, testifying to vanished places, displaced communities, and ecological transformations cast in the shadows of relentless development.

Another element within Rehman’s installation is the maquettes of architectural forms reminiscent of kitschy trinkets in Rehman’s childhood home. Unlike the colorful and flamboyant souvenirs, these small- scale sculptures, crafted from collected cardboard and paper and meticulously wrapped in white plaster gauze, evoke a subtle yet potent presence. As shadows affirm their presence, Rehman constructs a beacon—an artistic testament to loss and resilience, highlighting the indomitable human spirit that persists despite the erasure it confronts. The installation transcends its specific context, traversing global narratives of disappeared places, forced community movements, and ecological shifts resulting from climate devastation and the unrelenting creep of capitalism.

Seeing through the Night
As we approach the rear end of the gallery, lambent lights emanate from obscure moving images, casting slender light through a narrow window in the dark. This captivating sight arouses curiosity, inviting us to peer into Nayeon Yang’s immersive installation behind the black wall.

Nayeon Yang, A Night Visible to the Naked Eye, 2022/2024, Dimensions/duration variable

In this New York City location, a live stream video like a digital umbilical cord links to a distinct setting in Chicago; staggered monitors on produce boxes and images projected on the back wall form the core of the installation. In Chicago, unsuspecting shoppers engage with thrift store-found T-shirts, unwittingly becoming participants in Yang’s surveillance narrative. These T-shirts are manufactured in “third countries” where migrant workers and women endure exploitation in their labor to produce goods for the benefit of countries like South Korea.. The live broadcast from Chicago to the New York City gallery unveils the cyclical mist of our mechanical meta- economies, shrouding the true cost paid by the blood and sweat of the exploited laborer. Simultaneously, in the New York City gallery, multi-channel screens showcase the hands of migrant farm workers in South Korea toiling—a silent commentary on the obscured struggles of Southeast Asian labor.

Yang embarked on this project upon learning of the tragic death of Cambodian migrant farmworker Nuon Sokkheng amidst sub-zero temperatures. “While we applaud internationally successful Korean products and culture, we also display hate toward ‘foreigners’ and ‘immigrants’ who may come to S. Korea with the Korean Dream.”, Yang states, poignantly underscoring the complexities and contradictions inherent in Korean society. In challenging notions of identity, Yang’s installation explores the paradox where Koreans become foreigners outside Korea while foreign alphabets, arts, cultural objects, and foods in the US are reduced to exotic novelties. The intricate relationships of nations, labor, capital, and art are laid bare, exposing the exploitation woven into the fabric of our globalized existence.

Nayeon Yang, A Night Visible to the Naked Eye, 2022/2024, Dimensions/duration variable

This double-helix conceit unfolds a parallel reality amid a booming global economy while the sub-narrative of exploited migrant workers—etched into T-shirts—lingers as a reminder of the silent exploitations that persist in our interconnected world. Yang’s installation A Night Visible to the Naked Eye challenges viewers to reflect on their roles as consumers, workers, citizens, and foreigners, questioning the layers of frameworks that define our collective identity within the intricate contemporary existence.

Floating in the Suspended Moments
As we gaze upon the majestic mountains hanging upside down, a profound stillness emanates from the large-scale wallpaper by Dan Jian on the south wall of the gallery—an invitation to contemplate suspended moments extracted from ancient stories and personal narratives.

Jian explores the essence of home and belonging by contemplating the intersection of spaces and self. With the agency to mold landscapes that encapsulate personal memories, Jian, a Chinese immigrant in Texas, blends dream-like recollections of Chinese cultural symbols, like the hand tree of fingered citron fruits, known as Fo Shou, the Buddha’s Hand in Chinese, with Texan topography. Jian invents new landscapes filled with imagination and mystery, occupying a liminal space where no shadow is meant to exist.

Nayeon Yang, A Night Visible to the Naked Eye, 2022/2024, Dimensions/duration variable

The unfolding landscape, reminiscent of traditional Chinese scrolls, embraces both tradition and abstraction in its sparse symbolism and field cut-outs. By design, this intentional fragmentation freezes historical meanings and cultural references in their most exquisite form, interwoven with the artist’s reconciliation of the past’s firm yet tenuous connective tissue speaking to the present and immediate needs of adaptation and assimilation.

Comprising large sheets of watercolor paper, Jian’s work pays homage to the Chinese “blue-green shan shui” painting tradition’s palette of blues and greens, while also acknowledging the influence of Henry Matisse’s cut-out series, a representative of a renewed commitment of form and color. Each cut- out and nuanced wash becomes a deliberate act of Walter Benjamin’s “Stillstellung,” an objective process capturing the “zero hour” transcending the linear flow of time. In doing this, Jian invites viewers into a world where moments from the past and present are arrested and held in perpetual contemplation.

Dan Jian, Zero Hour, 2024, Watercolor-stained sumi paper cut-out on rag paper, Dimensions variable

In the realm of Chinese landscape paintings, Dan Jian’s Zero Hour becomes a meditation on the interconnectedness of humanity and nature. She embraces the concept of “scattered perspective,” a departure from the Western “focus perspective.” In Chinese painting, there is no fixed perspective; artists move their viewpoints in creation. Jian moves both within and against this tradition, carefully selecting moments to arrest and encapsulate the eternal dialogue between the temporal and the eternal. Seasons change, and rivers flow, yet within the frame of her collages, time stands still.

Jian’s colorful watercolor works extend the black and white cut-out drawing series from 2020, To Return. The well-like object featured in these works symbolizes the Chinese character 回 (to return). Its appearance, resembling two interlocked boxes, serves as a linguistic sign indicating circular motion. However, Jian transforms it into a pictorial architecture that conveys an introverted mindspace within her visual world.

In this series, Jian’s creative process involves an incremental approach, employing a cut-out technique on fixed-size paper to craft these vivid landscapes teeming with imaginary narratives and symbols. Starting with a blank page of parchment paper, Jian delicately sprinkles charcoal dust and ashes to form a gravitational wash. Through the nuanced interplay of erasing the surface, introducing sharp edges, and applying imagery with stencils, Jian constructs a new space. In this space, depth and breadth, light and shadow run parallel, creating a visual narrative that resonates against the backdrop of the passing of time. Dan Jian’s artistic reveries, articulated through the translucent dimensions of natural objects and fractured landscapes, weave together a visual narrative that draws viewers into a realm where imagination and symbolism intertwine. In doing so, she challenges and expands the dominant Western-centric narrative in history, aesthetics, and contemporary discourse, inviting a profound contemplation of time, cultural identity, and interconnectedness.

As we stand on the threshold of introspection within this exhibition, shadows accompany our thoughts. The artists guide us into their worlds and encourage us to consider shadows as emissaries of the unseen, carriers of untold stories. The exhibition assumes a transient interplay, urging us to question the nature of reality, the permanence of memory, and the elusive relationship between presence and absence.

Yi Cao
Open Call Exhibition
© apexart 2023

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