The Negotiation Table: Fènghuáng and Pigeon

The Negotiation Table is the culminating body of work I have created during my time in the MFA. The following notes will walk you through the latest negotiation table I have created, which ruminates on cultural reclamation and transitions of power.

The Negotiation Table: first installation test, November 2022.

Printmaking and Diaspora: the Power of Repetition

There are layers of removal, diaspora, and displacement in my printmaking methodology. From the woodblocks, I create prints and residual wood shavings. After finishing the prints, I transform the woodblocks into tables.

Woodblocks sanded to sit flush as inlays in the table’s surface

This transformation is in response to the history of how print became indoctrinated in the fine arts, in contrast to its use in political campaigning, protest, and community activation. Historically, print as an invention made it possible to democratize information and communicate with the masses. But to compete with painting, print needed to become artificially rare. It is best practice in printmaking to destroy one’s printing plates to limit the edition. I have always been uncomfortable with this practice of destroying one’s printing plates, or destroying any evidence of the actual labor that went into creating the prints. Working through this new methodology, I am reflecting on what it means for me to challenge print in this way, as an Asian American and woman of color who has been made artificially rare in white dominant spaces.

The strength of printmaking is in its power to reproduce the same message. There is power in the multiple and in the creation of new frameworks of comprehension.

I don’t number the prints pulled from these blocks, not because I wish to endlessly mass-produce them, but rather to give them agency from a predefined limit. So the limiting factor on the population of prints isn’t an artificially set quota, but rather the metamorphosis of the woodblock into the table and a new purpose.

About Negotiation

On the topic of negotiation, all good negotiations have a walkaway point. Without a walkaway point, one party will inevitably get taken advantage of. A negotiation, in essence, is between what you can and cannot accept.

Student sit-in during protests of the highest tuition increase in Emily Carr’s history, November 24, 2022. Photo by Parumveer Walia.
Student Walkout on December 1, 2022, hours before the Board of Governors’ vote. Photo by Parumveer Walia.

Negotiations only work when the different parties each have something to gain. For the powerful, this can be as simple as a feeling of being appreciated. However, a problem arises when those with significant power must give something up, with nothing to gain in return, in order for the negotiation to be considered fair. Sometimes, the only corrective measure is to exit the negotiation.

For myself, I’ve had a public facing career for several years. Creating the negotiation tables has become a way to unfold the political to engage with the personal. It is an act of self-maintenance in the context of the institution.

Preview of the newest Negotiation Table

Similar to my previous works, there are two woodblocks. The images on these blocks are of two birds, a Homing Pigeon and Fènghuáng, also sometimes known as the Chinese Phoenix. The Fènghuáng is a mythological bird that sometimes represents the empress and the feminine, and at other times embodies both masculine and feminine power. The sighting of Fènghuáng foretells harmony following the rise of new leadership. The Homing Pigeon is a bird that I grew up raising a child, alongside my dad who first started raising them during the Cultural Revolution in China. For me, the pigeon has become a symbol of diaspora and class warfare. They are a messenger of peace in a warzone. They are highly adaptive, and yet no matter how far they go, they always know how to find their way home.

Mockup of woodblock artwork: Pigeon (on left) and Fènghuáng (on right)

The woodblocks will be printed in a light jade green with a gradient to red towards the center where the images meet.

After I finish printing the blocks, they will rest in the surface of a reclaimed table. The blocks will sit flush inside the table and resemble inlaid jade.

Cultural Reclamation

The table I’m reclaiming was made some time between 1953 and the early 1960s, so about a decade before quotas limiting Chinese immigration to the US and Canada were lifted. It is a Canadian made table, and has parts that were produced in the US, specifically Wisconsin, in a town halfway between Madison and Milwaukee, two cities where I used to live.

Table slide with a watermark for Watertown Table Slide Corporation, the manufacturers of the table’s sliding mechanism. I was able to date the table’s making based on the style of the watermark and evolution of the name of the company since their incorporation.

The design of the table is a knock-off of Rococo and Chippendale furniture styles, which gained popularity in Europe and the US colonies starting in the 1700s with the rise of Orientalism and British occupation in China. The Rococo and Chippendale styles appropriated heavily from Ming and Tang-dynasty furniture that Europeans looted during China’s Century of Humiliation.

Ming Dynasty table featuring lacquered wood and cabriole legs that end in whorl feet. These features were copied in Rococo style furniture.
Here is the 1950s / 60s table that I am reclaiming. You can see how the whorl shaped feet, cabriole legs, shape of the apron, and highly lacquered surface all echo the Ming Dynasty table in the photo above.

In essence, I am cutting into this knock-off of a knock-off table as an act of reclamation and resistance to assimilation. I am making an indelible mark to keep the history of diaspora in the public’s living memory. Accountability takes a long time to achieve. The function of oppression is to wear people down and make them forget so they cannot fight anymore. But by creating a record, remembering becomes a key function in long-term justice.

A French political cartoon from 1898, one of many racist political cartoons in the era that depict the leaders of the UK, Germany, Russia, France, and Japan fighting over how to carve up China and divide the land among the colonizers while the Chinese were powerless to stop them.
The surface of my table, which I have cut into as an act of reclamation

The Time is Ours: What Public Art Can Be

In summer 2022, I became one of four finalists for a public art commission with Madison Metro Transit. I was the only person of color who was a finalist. I centered my proposal on the perspectives of bus riders–majority BIPOC–who rely on public transit to stay connected in their communities. My final design portrays the passage of time from the perspectives of passengers, who expressed that even on long commutes, they feel independence and ownership of their time spent in transit. My years of relationship building, experience with community engagement, and approach to the proposal resulted in an outpour of community support. There are 77 pages of public comments in response to the Metro finalist proposals that almost unanimously endorse me as the artist the city should hire. Within these public testimonies are some incredible insights into the design of public spaces that city residents advocate for.

Mockup for public art proposal for 8,000 sq ft artwork, interviews with 27 bus riders (70% BIPOC) and also public transit staff

I officially won the commission in fall 2022. You can read the official press announcement at The Isthmus.

For the MFA State of Practice exhibition in September 2022, I brought my public art practice into the academic institution and turned the white box gallery into a learning space. The project made visible the often hidden labor of the arts. It presented possible answers to the questions and misgivings that current students may have about what they do after art school. It helped to close the gap I sometimes feel between the work I create for gallery and museum shows and the work I do out in the community, how each gets valued, and whom the work is perceived to be for.

What Public Art Can Be: on view as part of the MFA State of Practice exhibition September 2022. Photo by Michael Love.
What Public Art Can Be: on view as part of the MFA State of Practice exhibition September 2022. Photo by Michael Love.
What Public Art Can Be: on view as part of the MFA State of Practice exhibition September 2022. Photo by Michael Love.

The art world tends to look down on works like murals, community art, public art, and art forms that are more accessible to the general public, which conflicts with the inclusive values that the arts like to tout. I enjoy working across these different art spaces, but I often find that the audiences I’m most interested in engaging with aren’t exclusively those who visit galleries. Displaying the art of the art proposal was a way for me to bring my passion for grassroots work into an educational space that is presumably preparing students for the world beyond school.

Exhibiting this project was also a chance to connect my public facing practice with my personal motivations to do this work. Why am I concerned about the ethics of artistic practice, or how artists’ work gets used? Why am I fixated on devising methodologies to challenge, disrupt, and change the role that the arts can play in our communities? Why should I be the author of these thoughts and this research?

I further see public art can be an opportunity for community stewardship. Whose needs aren’t being met? Who stands to benefit from this work? How will this work impact the surrounding ecosystem? Who and what will we center in each negotiation?

Mockup for public art proposal for 8,000 sq ft artwork, interviews with 27 bus riders (70% BIPOC) and also public transit staff

Free Art & Racism: unpacking the role of unpaid artists’ labour in racism and exploitation

I recently published one of my essays in Occasional Press, Emily Carr University’s research publication. Read the essay online.

Front cover of my essay, Free Art & Racism
Front cover of Occasional Papers

Free Art & Racism: Beyond artists’ pay is one of three essays that breaks down the problem of unpaid artists’ labour and what it tells us about our regard for labour on a structural and cultural level.

An Ethic is a Root

An Ethic is A Root is an exhibition that summarizes my spring semester work and first year of the MFA. It navigates the question of how we arrive at our ethics. What are the potential costs of our ethics? What are the gains of upholding them?

An Ethic is a Root, final exhibition of spring semester work.

An Ethic is A Root explores questions of ethics and equity. I use personal, lived experience as an entry point to engaging with systemic and socio-political issues. From my hand-carved woodblocks, I build tables and installations that become negotiation spaces for cultural authorship.

The central image in this series is a map of my migration route, from where I was born in Kansas City to each of my homes in the Midwest of the United States to my current home in Vancouver, British Columbia. This map becomes an infrastructure for a greater story of removal, diaspora, and rootedness.

On left: My Migration Route, woodblock print (fountain roll) on canvas of my migration, 20″ x 60″. On right: Iris Roots Clean the Water, woodblock print (two-layer) on canvas of iris overlaid on migration route, 20″ x 60″.

My mother still resides in my last childhood home in rural Kansas. It is an older house attached to a few acres of land. This land was once lush and green, full of fruit trees and a vibrant ecosystem. This same land now sits mostly barren. The trees are gone. The ponds are gone. Agricultural runoff and nearby development have made the soil poor. The land around my mother’s house regularly erodes and floods when it rains. Yet the iris flower continues to consistently grow here. Irises are known for growing in places with polluted water, effectively removing toxins and holding soil.

Two elongated tables stand at the center of this installation, framed on one side by an altar to my deceased father and on the other by a table of artist’s books addressed to my mother. Each table is its own structure, yet bears a cut edge that matches the other. One table is made from the two-sided woodblock that produced the prints. The other table bears no image of its own, but provides a surface for the residual wood shavings forming the characters of my name in Chinese. Repetition, reflection, and rumination are prominent in this work.

Prints reflected in mirrors.

Working through this methodology, I reflect on what it means to challenge cultural assimilation, in print, and as an Asian American and woman of colour who has also been made artificially rare in white dominant spaces. In printmaking, the strength of the technology is in its power to reproduce the same message. Yet this is seen as a weakness in the fine arts, a redundancy that makes prints lose value and exclusivity. How often are marginalized people made to feel like broken records, asking for the same, basic rights? How often are we made to feel that we have to compete against the few other BIPOC and femmes in institutions, as if we can’t be valuable if there’s more than one of us? Is what we are saying it truly redundant if we are still waiting for action and reconciliation?

Mirrors reveal woodblock of migration route on bottom of table.

There is power in the multiple and in the creation of new frameworks of comprehension. There is strength in our reflections and in pursuing legibility of lived experience. This work is for anyone who has ever doubted their strength against the odds that they face, yet has held on anyway, and found their conviction in the process.

Altar for my father.

Altar for my father, close-up.
Table of artist’s books, Dear Ma | Ethic.

Dear Ma | Ethic: an artist’s book

Front covers of artist’s book, Dear Ma | Ethic.

“Holding is not easy. Holding requires tension in one’s fingers, joints, body, and emotions. Every strain creates weakness.

“Water does not hold. It is held. Free from withholding, water’s power overcomes rock, fire, and most elements.

“Yet water cannot play its role without vessels and channels. Even this essential ingredient of life needs to be held.

“Water is a necessary life infrastructure. But when polluted with toxins, that which sustains us simultaneously poisons us.

“Colonization is like poison in the water.

“Is it possible to cleanse these currents?

“It is not easy to be a root. Roots hold earth together, resisting erosion. Roots channel sustenance into the body of the plant.

“A root is not as powerful as water. Nor does it need to be. It is a remarkable quality to be breakable, yet choose to hold ground.

“To be weaker than the dominant infrastructure and still hold on, to remove harm while providing nourishment.

“This is an ethic.”

­-poem from the artist’s book, Dear Ma | Ethic

Interior pages of Dear Ma, the side of the book that features a letter to my mother.
Interior pages of Dear Ma, the side of the book that features a letter to my mother.
Interior pages of Dear Ma, the side of the book that features a letter to my mother.
Interior pages of Ethic, the side of the book that features a poem on ethics.
Book coming unfolded, Ethic side.
Book coming unfolded, Dear Ma side.
Front and back cover of Dear Ma.

On diaspora

米 (mǐ) uncooked rice: symbol, woodcut print on muslin canvas on stretcher bars, 39.5 x 39.5 inches. Limited edition printed Dec 2021.

On diaspora.

When my Ma saw this woodcut, she said, “I can tell you were raised in the US. No one taught you how to write Chinese.” This print is a metaphor for diaspora, but even so her comment stung. It hearkened to times in my childhood when over something seemingly small, my parents would say, “You’re not Chinese.”

My mother was commenting on the style of my writing. Too straight. Too even. Ignorant of the fact that we should write our words from the perspective of the heavens. I *am* ignorant of the heavens–between having a dad who survived the Cultural Revolution and my own American assimilation, I am far removed from tradition.

I’ve heard other comments in [white] academia. That using Chinese made it inaccessible and not “universal” because they couldn’t read it. That my perfect lines couldn’t possibly be drawn by hand (they are). That my precision somehow makes information less believable, less human. Except precision is the tool of those who grow up in chaos, to steady an unstable environment. Precision is the tool of women, who cannot get away with sloppy craft like men can. Precision is an extraordinarily human trauma response.

When I showed this work to other Chinese Americans and diasporic Asians, we shared an immediate, cathartic understanding. As for my Ma, for the first time, she said, “Your dad and I thought it was better for you to assimilate. I’m thinking now we created a barrier for you to know an important part of yourself, a part that you need as an artist.” My handwriting created a bridge for my Ma and me to relate to each other.

There’s something refreshing about being wrong, in a system that demands women of color to be better in order to be equal. To be illegible to western society. Impious to filial duty. And from this, as a daughter of the diaspora, the chance to create a cultural perspective of the world that is my own.

Close-up of installation, It Takes Three Generations, from the 米 (mǐ) uncooked rice series.

Three Generations, artist’s book

Images of my artist’s book accompanying the installation, It Takes Three Generations, in the 米 mǐ | uncooked rice series.

Front cover of tri-fold menu
Back cover of tri-fold menu
Interior of menu, partially opened to reveal a dissection of the symbolic / systemic and the meaning of diaspora
Interior of menu, fully unfolded, to reveal a timeline of my family history told in food

It Takes Three Generations

米 mǐ | uncooked rice: It Takes Three Generations; artist’s portrait by Stefan Gibson

It Takes Three Generations is the second iteration of my 米 mǐ | uncooked rice series.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice is an installation based on representational disparities in the US arts industry. mǐ is about unfolding the emotional and personal core for why this data matters, to reveal that underneath the numbers are people’s lives.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, art installation full view of tables, wood shavings on floor, and woodblock prints

米 (mǐ) is the Chinese word for uncooked rice and other grains, a metaphor for that which could sustain us, but in its unprocessed form is indigestible.

I am a second generation Taiwanese and Chinese American and the benefactor of two generations of my family’s immigration to the United States. My family owned a takeout retaurant in Kansas City in the 1990s, and this restaurant became the economic vehicle by which we pulled ourselves out of poverty. The takeout table, specifically, was a space of formative learning for me: where I learned to draw, read, observe people, and engage with the public. My first job was counting change to empty the cash register at closing time. My first business was selling 50 cent tins of tiger balm to customers waiting for their orders.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, close-up of the bowls / rice, which correspond with US population / US arts representation

There are layers of removal, of diaspora, that take place within 米 mǐ.

A drawing of a rice plant evolves into a pictograph before it becomes the modern Chinese character 米. Prints fade and language changes as we move farther from the source. Wood shavings form the English words, uncooked rice, the residue leftover from the carving and printing process.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, woodblock print of rice plant on muslin canvas, 39.5 x 39.5 inches
米 mǐ | uncooked rice, woodblock print of 米 Chinese character for rice on muslin canvas, 39.5 x 39.5 inches

A woodblock creates the print on canvas and the refuse on the floor, and is itself destroyed in its original purpose as a printing tool when transformed into a functional table.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, close-up of wood shavings spelling the words, uncooked rice

Data about who has representation in the art world unfolds to reveal personal stories that constitute the whole. A laminated placemat / menu displays US population percentages side-by-side with representation in US museums, galleries, and private art collections. Bowls on on table are either overflowing or under-filled, based on each population’s representation in the arts. For instance, while white men are 31% of the US (as represented by a 31 ounce bowl), their bowl overflows with 77% of the rice served on the table. Meanwhile, women of color collectively are less than half of one percent of US arts representation; their bowls contain only a couple grains of rice each.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, close-up of the bowls / rice, which correspond with US population / US arts representation
Bar graph of US Population versus representation in US museums, gallery, & private art collections: This was printed as a laminated placemat / menu on the table and on the wall by the waiting area

A final, tri-fold menu unfolds to reveal a personal timeline, my family story told via food as a political and socioeconomic indicator.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, close-up of wall installation of graphs and artist’s books (takeout menus) accompanying the exhibition

The table is a place for gathering, and is also an altar to memory and grief. It feels necessary to have made space to remember and grieve what’s lost. For it is only after reckoning with how we got here that we can ask, what’s next for our future selves?

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, art installation full view of tables, wood shavings on floor, and woodblock prints
米 mǐ | uncooked rice, installation view in Michael O’Brien Exhibition Commons at Emily Carr University
米 mǐ | uncooked rice, front view of art installation
米 mǐ | uncooked rice, artist Jenie Gao sitting in the waiting area of the restaurant installation / exhibition
Photo credit Stefan Gibson

米 (mǐ) | uncooked rice | US population vs US arts representation

Photos of the finished installation for 米 (mǐ) / uncooked rice. The Chinese symbol carved on the woodblock table top is 米 (mǐ) / uncooked rice. The size of the bowls correlate with the size of different demographics of the US population according to the US Census. The rice correlates with each demographic’s representation in the US arts industry. A set of stacked, empty bowls represents data that has not been collected by the US Census or another comparable study.

米 (mǐ) / uncooked rice, 39.5″ x 39.5″ carved woodblock table, Baltic birch plywood, ink, bowls, rice. Full shot, 3/4 view.
米 (mǐ) / uncooked rice, 39.5″ x 39.5″ carved woodblock table, Baltic birch plywood, ink, bowls, rice. Full shot, 3/4 view.
Close-up of 米 (mǐ)
Close-up of 米 (mǐ)
Close-up of 米 (mǐ)
Close-up of 米 (mǐ)
Close-up of 米 (mǐ)
Close-up of 米 (mǐ)
Full shot of 米 (mǐ), front view.

Photos by Sidi Chen