It’s a perfect square. The outermost register is composed of giant hibiscuses and diminutive skyscrapers upside down and delicately balancing on puffy clouds. There’s more to it, a bit difficult to see unless you get close: dresses and shirts blowing from a clothesline, five-pointed stars, steel cables or maybe lengths of rope, insect-size airplanes, the sun and netted rays of light, tiny humans and birds. They cascade over their frame into the next. Here water surges in ruffled waves against the central frame. The latticed window it surrounds is empty.
The view through the window is a peculiar one. There’s nothing there. The vanishing point of the horizon disappears. The affirmation of where we are and when we are disappears with it. Yet there is no sense of threat or danger. Instead, we are encouraged to look inwards by looking outwards, to move our eye over the waves to the chaotic city at the far edges, and then back. There is a peculiar interiority asked by this window in spite of––or rather, precisely because of––the mapped spaces around it, literally gridded onto the paper. Still, think of those wayward skyscrapers. The boundaries of the nested frames cannot divide the city from the ocean, and the viewer from slipping up and over, back and forth. The window asks us to connect through the natural environment and the built––and to reflect on the way that connection forges the self seen in the mind’s eye.
The artist explains that the composition of the piece is based on the morphology of the Chinese character hui 回 meaning return. She marks a return from her home in Los Angeles to a place that is made material in the way that the paper meets up with the shapes carved into it. There’s a recognition of politics: those stars are the emblem of the People’s Republic and the clouds echo the forms of auspicious clouds embroidered and woven into imperial robes. They are scattered around IM Pei’s Bank of China and the veined leaves of the hibiscus. The city is Hong Kong.
But it also, as the empty window suggests, is a return to something that isn’t quite visible. For the other aspect of the cut paper is its shadows. Through them, space (the Pacific Ocean, Hong Kong in the distance) and time (the whimsical kaleidoscope of urban life against the beat of the waves) collapse and merge. In the sense of what might be called the poetics of indeterminacy in a feminist gap, the window, it turns out, is located at the juncture of the shadows and the paper, though it may be more accurate to say that it is located somewhere between the mind and the work of art.
That pulse between seeing (casting an eye towards the external world) and seeing things at the edge of vision (prompting the turn of an eye inwards) beats through all of Lee’s work, especially in the pieces that focus closely on environmental crises. She depicts a nuclear power station emitting clouds of mist, and also, on closer examination, lightning, a parachuting astronaut, rockets, a scuba diver, a parrot, a jellyfish, the moon, a holey fishing net (or is it a butterfly net?) and a half-submerged female figure on her side, something like a Pre-Raphaelite representation of the drowning Ophelia. The entire composition is lightly spotted with cancerous wounds (see Siu 2021).
Or she shows us bumper-to-bumper traffic jams glimpsed through broad palm leaves. These are gathered into a rake in the shape of an embroidery hoop. Shifts in scale (endless traffic jams tiny against the leaves) and proximity (height above the rows of cars, against the closeness of the hand-held rake and hoop) partially transform crisis into pattern and pattern into the everyday (see Ohiozebau 2021).
Lee says that she puts into her work what the work demands.[i] “Everything that is in my work is there for a reason. I generally start with a statement or question in my mind. How can I address that in my way?”
The plain piece of paper is perfect, it is innocent. Once you start doing one thing to the paper, then the problem starts. You start interrupting the paper. And that’s when you need to start solving the problem. It’s so much like life. The work throws things at you. You want me to do this? You want me to do that? Even though the work comes from you, it is its own entity. That blank space of that piece of paper offers infinite possibilities.
In her art practice she also reflects on the question: “how can I draw the beholders in so that the work fills their scope of vision, so that they discover more and more the closer they get to it?” Take Dandelion, for instance, a web of the sturdy, articulated roots of the plant. They’re skeletal, tensile, and dense, exasperatingly so. It’s impossible to follow a root from its attachment to the upside-down clump of fluffy flowers at the bottom of the cut paper to its end. Only when making the attempt do you see the skyscraper carefully inserted into the mesh of lines, and a tiny cluster of buildings balancing on a root.
The rapid-fire urbanization suggested by the nodules of those tiny buildings on a plant that itself spreads quickly and sinks deeply into the earth speaks to Lee’s engagement with environmental crises. Her work in this arena “accelerated after I came back from a second trip to Beijing [in 2010].”
Because I just really needed to express that traumatic change I saw [since my first trip ten years earlier]. It was overwhelming. I am from Hong Kong when it was a British colony. I didn’t know much about mainland China. After that Beijing trip I looked into what China has been doing and how lives are changing, by talking with people and whatnot.
And also, the focus on environmentalism came from a creative impulse, because prior to that I was doing a lot of cultural identity work. I was just confronted with a lot of questions from Americans. I felt quite boxed in, you know, to a point, and it was tiring to always be just looked at–I felt like such a representative, right? And I thought, why do I have to do that? What else would I do if I am not examining my cultural identity and gender identity, my Hong Kong Chinese identity? So, I thought, well I am a global citizen. What else do I care about?
And I thought about our relationship with nature, which we romanticize. Nature is so rare now, it’s literally associated with special activities, romantic activities or occasions, like going on a honeymoon to Bali or to Africa on safari for your fiftieth wedding anniversary. We’re so detached from nature in our day-to-day lives. So then I started doing works about that romanticized idea of nature.
“But I also connected this new focus with my earlier work,” she adds. “Environmental crises and immigration. What’s the personal connection? What I finally realized: it was the idea of departure. And arrival.” This thought is visible in Return (hui), when the built and natural environments of Hong Kong and the ocean merge and part through the process of going back. “The environmental work is about our departure from nature. Our detachment from the homeland, the motherland, which is nature. And I also departed my native land, Hong Kong, to build a new life. It’s not a one-way street, we go back and forth, there is a lot of storytelling with those trips of departure and arrival and in all there’s construction and destruction. There’s so much to explore. I think I have carved out a new space where I can combine the two.”
A recent work further illuminates that expansive new space, which holds within it the nuanced tensions about the departure and arrival within its cut edges, the edges of the feminist gap. The bulbous and thorny barrels of bunny-ear cactus curve into shapes that are replicated in three arched windows through which the crescent moon, sun, or stars can be glimpsed (as if it were daytime and nighttime simultaneously). Trailing lines of mist thread to distant cities, and thread between the cities as if they were highways instead. There are barrier fences newly familiar from pandemic-era protests, laundry clotheslines, and more buildings. They seem strangely fragile in contrast to the angular lines of the oversize blossoms sprouting from the cacti. Shadows on the green paper mounting are dark in tone and mirror the cut-away shapes with the paradoxical effect that the mist-road in shadow begins to look like a plant leaf and the prickly thorns of the cactus like barbed-wire.
When asked about the sculptural dimension to her work, Lee returns to a discussion of its medial space. She works in “two and a half dimensions,” she says, though she is “through and through an image maker. I come from a Chinese calligraphy and painting background.”
I have an eternal affinity for two-dimensional work. I feel that two dimensional is a very unnatural state. Because things in life don’t stay still. By freezing that moment, it provides more opportunities for the imagination. In order to really do sculptural work where we have to spin it around 360––I feel it is an impossible task to do, to make every single angle in every degree meaningful, striking, beautiful. And it’s too close to reality. I am more interested in that unnatural state.
In the paper-cut cacti Lee makes reference to Georgia O’Keefe’s jewel-toned flowers and to the handscrolls and album paintings of often anonymous Chinese women artists during the imperial era who rendered the delicate plants in their gardens with inks and light pigments. That reference, outside of the subject matter, might not be immediately obvious. After all, her medium is white mulberry-bark xuan paper. Yet there is a colouristic effect created by shadow, “depending on the lighting condition or the time of day, the work constantly changes, all the light play is continuous.” The roots of the cactus that might sink into such a genealogy of women artists are replaced by the tiny yogini below in “tree pose,” the artist herself. It is as if she is thinking herself or better, dreaming herself (those lines of the clouds often used in funnel shapes in imperial print culture to denote dreaming) into her own art and art history.
Like Return, there is a through passage from the edges of exteriority to interiority and back. If the cactus evokes the arid desert, the flowers suggest the early rains that bring them into colour, and beyond that, a recentering and rebalance of life. For what the water, beyond the edges of the cut paper but present nonetheless, does “to our senses, to our bodies, to our dry and waiting minds,” as an artist collective based in Delhi, writing of the monsoons there, puts it, “is the sly undertaking of a quiet shift, a barely perceptible re-calibration of our appetite for life.” The first rain “invokes something latent, something unformed, something hidden in us, and coaxes us to give those musty, locked-in aspects of ourselves an airing.” (Raqs 2010, 77).
The solitary figure at the centre, from which the bunny ears cactus springs, is the artist, then, but also is each of us.
[i] All quotes are from a conversation with Lisa Claypool on July 6, 2021.
Ohiozebau, Diana. 2021. “Rake 耙—高速公路的秋叶.” In ecoArt China 境善境美. Ed. Lisa Claypool, 132-35. Edmonton, AB: The University of Alberta Department of Art & Design.
Raqs Media Collective. 2010. “Wonderful Uncertainty.” In Curating and the Educational Turn. Eds. Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson, 76-82. Amsterdam: De Appel.
Siu, Yoyo. 2021. “Powerplant–The Butterfly Dream 核电厂—梦蝶.” In ecoArt China 境善境美. Ed. Lisa Claypool, 136-39. Edmonton, AB: The University of Alberta Department of Art & Design.
Bovey Lee will be in conversation with Lisa Claypool on Thursday, December 2, at 7 pm MDT.
Webinar registration link