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[ Backstage ]

1. Rendering the Invisible, Visible I

Backstage, a term that is figurative for the behind-the-scenes processes in both making art and making art public. The backstage is a space or time, which is not often shown to the public. It is a space-time, in which art world practitioners produce the objects and decide which art is made public. In contrast, I refer to the practice of exhibition making most often experienced in the form of the gallery space (as opposed to the gallery offices, storage spaces, kitchen, artist’s studio, financing, promotion etc.) as the onstage realm. In general, the outsider to the system of production (audience/user) whose purpose is to witness (use) the end-product (onstage) has been blocked from accessing the backstage decisions behind this making visible. The frontstage, in this instance, is like a fairytale that is conjured into existence. Whereas the backstage formulates the mechanisms behind the making visible in the space. In this sense, audience members are being created by the invisible mechanisms that take control to direct the audience to the frontstage aspects of production only.

Yun Ling Chen, Not Really Really (AW-20-06)
 Grape and Raisin, 2020 

In contrast, my Not Really Really series intends to activate the backstage processes of making visible. It does this through making the process behind the scenes visible and tangible to the public. This is so that the viewer can both explore the artwork and access the process of making art visible. Kim Grant states in All About Process (2017) that, ‘“Existence” (in any of its senses) cannot be abstracted from “Process”. The notions of process and existence presuppose each other.’[1] Life is a long journey, as we walk within the present continuous tense; always under process or a continual becoming. An unexpected encounter can act as a tiny glitch, but even a tiny glitch is able to twist us to discover an alternative path. We usually examine our career through the results we have achieved throughout life, often disregarding the process in favour of outputs. This overlooking of the process can become habitual in the way we see (place value on) things.

When I have walked through one of the many white cube gallery spaces and viewed the artworks mostly displayed on the walls but also on pedestals, I feel that the artworks are losing some of their presence. When looking at an artwork under these conditions, it feels like I am observing a still life or a cadaver as I cannot find the spark that resonates with my lived experience. I often feel that the artworks on stage in the museum as mausoleum are in a long-distance relationship with the artist when they are presented in such a sterile environment. This does not resonate with my assertion that an artwork is like a mirror of the artist, as it will always reflect a moment of the artist’s emotions or deep concerns that the artist may not even notice themselves (it captures a partial and subjective view). Grant quotes Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘Although it is certain that a person’s life does not explain his work, it is equally certain that the two are connected. The truth is that that work to be done called for that life.’[2]

I assert that when an artist is in the process of making, their background and attitude will affect (influence) the medium and form of the artwork. This correlates with Grant’s statement that, ‘…the artistic process is hard to separate from their personalities, which give their process uniqueness and a means of explaining the exceptional qualities of the art they produced.’[3]Although this appears to formulate a figure of the artist as genius, Grant actually goes on to highlight that through exposing their process of making artists problematize the arts canon which so relies upon the notion of individual genius: ‘A completely natural artistic expression is a fiction even for the artist who has mastered a medium. Seeing an artist’s creative process will inevitably destroy many illusions, both perceptual and emotional, on which traditional and modern art rely.’[4] Therefore, instead of displaying this notion of the complete artwork, I aim to visualize my process-oriented practice that is built with the artwork and to present this durational relationship to the audience. Through this emphasis on process, the audience is also drawn into this artistic process as the interpreters (meaning-makers) within this scenario.

The organic materials that I deployed in my recent series, Not Really Really, are important in setting up the relationshipbetween me and my practice. At certain points, this relationship felt like a shackle because of my obligation (albeit self-imposed) to keep the organic materials in the series fresh. This maintenance was required in order that the viewer questioned the authenticity and/or nature of the substance. A process in which the viewer could interpret the work in multiple and additive ways. As a result of this stipulation, I needed to repeat the regular caring of the organic materials. This caring depended on the specifications of the organic material and how long it took to deteriorate, which varied from 30 minutes to every 3 days. As a ramification of this, all of my activities and emotions on the days that the work was viewable to the public was affected by my renewal of the organic materials in the artwork. When exhibiting the series, my daily life became centred around the alarms that signaled when I should renew the organic material. This means that in my Not Really Really series, one element of the working process cannot fully abandon the other; I cannot abandon the artwork and it is also beholden to my caring for it to function within the score I have constructed. However, in the white cube environment we rarely encounter the visibility of this working process and indeed within Not Really Really series there is a chance that the viewer will miss the renewing process. Therefore, similarly to the white cube model, Not Really Really series could be experienced like a double-sided coin in which only one side can be seen at a time and often the side presented is the completed object or artefact. However, what distinguishes my practice from the normative white cube display mechanism, as described above, is that the viewer could catch the renewal process and even if the viewer misses the maintenance of the work, there is still the fresh organic material remaining as a trace of the caring process.

Maria Puig De La Bellacasa highlights how a caring practice that seems out of place can actually be an intervention on the normative designs of a system or institution, ‘Potentially, matters of care can be found in every context: exhibiting them appears even more necessary when caring seems to be out of place, or not there-in technical design plans.’[5] In Not Really Really series, the care of the artworks could seem out of place, as they were being visibly maintained throughout the duration of the exhibition. Preparation of the egg yolk began in the kitchen, which (depending on the gallery architecture) is usually off-stage (not available to the public). The domestic preparation and space are then brought through the gallery space and this pollutes the ‘end-product’ of the exhibition by establishing a continuum of continual preparation and the crossing of assumed spatial thresholds. This practice of the artist repetitively crossing through the gallery’s private area to public stage, is quite unusual within a white cube context. Homi K Bhabha in The Location of Culture (2004) describes the production of this transitional third space as disrupting normative readings that often construct a binary of space, such as the backstage and front stage:

The stairwell as liminal space, in-between the designations of identity, becomes the process of symbolic interaction, the connective tissue that constructs the difference between upper and lower, black and white.
The hither and thither of the stairwell, the temporal movement and passage that it allows, prevents identities at either end of it from settling into primordial polarities.
This interstitial passage between fixed identifications opens up the possibility of a cultural hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy.[6]

My passage as the facilitator of the organic material takes place through the public and private spaces of the gallery. This links to Bhabha’s quote above, as I also see the passage as a metaphor for breaking down the polarities of space and it’s hierarchies. I was a supplementary actor to the artwork, often preparing the material in the backstage of the gallery and then walking through the liminal space towards the front stage of the gallery. This binary construction of space (frontstage and backstage) are presented as separate locations in the normative institutional architecture. However, I see them as existing on a continuum that is interactive and intertwining. As Edward Said highlights, the relation of the binary is that it connects the two terms that are constructed by it, such as coloniser and colonised, as they require each other to evidence their existence. Continuing with Said’s thoughts, I assume that the binary relation between frontstage and backstage is reliant on their mutual relationship, which can be changed through the interactions between the two terms or spaces.

Ironically, by becoming a tool for the artwork, the practice becomes a ‘broken tool’ (Heidegger’s term) in the gallery space. This is a journey of hybridity, as I am in transit through the spaces that confounds the notion of which space is the authentic one for staging art. Bhabha describes the problematising of authenticity through the shifting margins, which I liken to the thresholds that I cross within the gallery space:

Reflecting on my presence in the gallery, specifically in terms of the viewer’s interpretation of my role, a large part of my time is spent staying in a public part (on-stage) of the gallery waiting to refresh the organic materials. My transit through space is, therefore, back and forth rather than linear, which further pollutes my relation to space. I stay immobile in the front space, only to mobilise when going into the kitchen to prepare the organic material and then I move through the space(s) to where the assemblage is situated and awaiting the organic material. When immobile in the front space, I could be considered to be a gallery guard or invigilator who always keeps their eyes on the visitor in order to protect the artwork and therefore the institution’s investments. In contrast, I maintain the artwork out of the need to keep it fresh. I do not monitor the visitors or the artwork for the whole time that it is open to the public, as I have even been situated downstairs in lower galleries with the work upstairs depending on the institution’s architecture.

[1] Kim Grant, All About Process: the theory and discourse of modern artistic labor (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University, 2017), 173.

[2] Ibid., 112.

[3] Ibid., 112.

[4] Ibid., 189.

[5] Maria Puig De La Bellacasa, Matters of Care-Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds (London: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), p. 55

[6] Homi K. Bhabha, “Fanon and the postcolonial”. In The Location of Culture, (London: Routledge, 2004), 5.

[7] Ibid., 31.


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