Am I making Conceptual Art?

I’ve been obsessed with this lately.

Reflecting upon my latest work, “Dinosaur in the Cage”, I keep getting lost in thoughts about how to describe my piece. It’s not a garment, it’s not a full sculpture. It’s more like… a research finding, an interpretation and visualization of photographs, dinosaurs and Victorian fashion I gathered, churned and digested. I felt that my concept and idea was in the end, the essence of my work.

My thoughts drawn me to research Conceptual Art. Yes, that weird kind of art people usually frown upon.

According to Tony Godfrey’s book, Conceptual Art:

“Conceptual art is not about forms or materials, but about ideas and meanings. It cannot be defined in terms of any medium or style, but rather by the way it questions what art is.”

In other words, conceptual art can be anything and nothing. It’s paper thin between the greatest masterpieces and utter rubbish (and again beauty is in the eye of the beholder). Lawless.

Over the weeks I thought if this is it. 

I’ve been analyzing Duchamp’s much debated readymade Fountain (literally an autographed urinal showcased in a museum). Placing an everyday object (some say vulgar object) in the museum, Duchamp challenges the viewer to see the urinal as a piece of fine sculpture. But the real ‘art’ is not the object itself.

Why a urinal? How vulgar! Remove it! Housewives shrieking and covering the eyes of their young children.

Why in the museum? Why sign it with a pseudonym? Art connoisseurs circling and rubbing their heads, cleaning their glasses.

What was he thinking? Why would anyone do that? What does he want to convey? Why Why Why? Wonder I wonder.

This is his art.

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Fountain, Marcel Duchamp, French, 1917; Photo: Artstor

So, what makes good conceptual art?

Just like many attempted definitions of art, there is no one answer. Since conceptual art lies on the IDEA, such idea has to be formidable and mesmerizing enough to draw the attention of its audience and transcend all flaws in execution, mediums and perhaps even poor aesthetics.

To achieve this, I think this once again lies in creative research. Yes, the spontaneity element is crucial to jumpstart the initial ideas, but first tries may not be the strongest thoughts. One needs the extensive amount of images, references, photos, prints, maps and linkages to back up such idea.

Another element that separates the good from the bad is the level of controversy.

Is it raising commonplace questions or roiling debate? Does it instigate disgusted faces or mere nonchalance? Does it lure the audience to stare or even glare? Does it urge people to touch, understand, analyze, wonder? Or do people pass by with a mere glance? As mentioned earlier about Duchamp’s work, it is such controversy that fuels the idea, separating it from common rubbish and everyday objects.

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Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy, Man Ray, American, 1890 – 1976; Photo: Artstor

So, am I making conceptual art?

Well, simply put, I don’t know.

It is true that I am leaning towards this realm in such that I am focusing on the concept more than the used medium. It is also true that I find more joy in honing my ideas (through different mediums) than actually making my 3D piece. But according to the criteria I set on good/bad conceptual art, I am unsure.

Did my work raise controversy? Am I pressing too many, perhaps even useless and unnecessary meanings on my work? Was it mesmerizing for the audience? Did my work challenge the traditional meaning of art? Does it have to? After all, there is no restrictive framework to conceptual art.

Does that mean my other work without any research,  just mere spontaneity, equal meaningless commonplace rubbish?

I feel I’m setting up boundaries, categories and criteria for myself in one minute, and destroying them in the next.

I’ll conclude with a thought to self: need more research.


More on Conceptual Art:

http://www.theartstory.org/movement-conceptual-art.htm

https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-if-you-don-t-understand-conceptual-art-it-s-not-your-fault

More on Fountain:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3671180/Duchamps-Fountain-The-practical-joke-that-launched-an-artistic-revolution.html

More on Duchamp: 

http://www.theartstory.org/artist-duchamp-marcel.htm

https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/dada/marcel-duchamp-and-the-readymade

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As Asians

Before coming to America, I didn’t have too much thought about what it means to be ‘Asian’. Born in Hong Kong, studying in Beijing under a westernized curriculum, I was still identifying completely as Asian. I had a number of mixed races friends, who we call ‘halfies’, and they seem to be identifying themselves as they like.

My best friend, who possesses the heritage of British and Tibetan blood, has lived in Beijing since age 2. Although she embraces both cultures and in addition the American pop culture, she agrees that large parts of her are very ‘Asian’. She speaks perfect Mandarin, Spanish and American-accented English.

Now immersed in the Seattle community, I understand that such ‘Asian Identification’ can be very complicated outside our ‘international school bubble’. And that in America, identifying as Asian American/Asian/halfies, may have different connotations depending on your location.

A couple weeks ago, I went to a university event hosted by the Asian Student Association on campus. I went light-heartedly simply because my besties are hosting and there was free food (Hong Kong style pork buns, Vietnamese Spring rolls and Cupcakes from Royal).

One guest speaker touched upon identifying themselves using percentages. 70% Chinese, 30% Orange County or 50% Vietnamese 50% Seattle. For her it is not a portion of culture. For her, it is 100% of all heritage. Such identification is not exclusively defined by the languages you speak, your blood, your environment and most certainly not the parameters of the society. But ultimately what you believe in, what you process based on your own experience. It is your take.

What if he is a 2nd generation Japanese American who doesn’t speak Japanese? Who are we to judge?

What if she is a Chinese American who was raised in Sichuan and doesn’t speak American-accented English? Who are we to call her ‘Fresh off the boat’?

It is interesting. Most of the time, people can’t guess where I am from. The most frequent guess is the U.S. since I do have a heavy American accent, but I’ve also received guesses of Japan, China, Korea, South Africa, Taiwan, U.K, and of all places, Russia. And when asked where I identify the most, I often stumble.

My introduction usually goes like this:

“Hi, I’m Coco. I’m from Hong Kong, but I was raised in Beijing. No, I wasn’t born in the States. My dad is Malaysian but I don’t speak Malay. My grandma is Taiwanese but I didn’t grow up there. I speak Japanese because I like it. And I have a Dutch ancestor, that’s why I have freckles. Yes, they are natural.”

Just kidding, I usually stop after the Beijing part.

After years of trying, I gave up on identifying to one place. Yes, judging from heritage and appearances, I am from Hong Kong, but I can’t throw away all the cultural pieces that make me who I am. So my rule of thumb is introducing where I’m born and where I studied, all details come after I have a couple glasses of wine.

Tabaimo & Portrayals of Women

There were several open bathroom stalls on the left. The doors were painted rustic orange with stains. The central panel had a tiny window overlooking the sunset while the right panel featured several sinks and bathroom mirrors. A half naked girl, predictively enrolled in primary school judging from the red rectangular backpack she has on her shoulders, was rinsing her face and hair. She was clothed in a mere pair of white ankle socks and white underpants, with hair neatly braided in two tails.

All the while, another woman was washing her hands at a nearby sink. Though the woman was quietly rinsing, her reflections started to rattle the mirror with a heavy duty hammer, smashing the glass and smearing her own blood all over the floor. The woman, though still washing her hands at the sink, started to bleed silently. She left the sink nonchalantly and wrapped herself in gauze, holding dear to her wound and disappeared into a nearby stall.

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Public conVENience, 2006, Tabaimo, Video Installation; Cred: SAAM

This is Tabaimo’s video installation piece: public conVENience. The piece had recently appeared as a part of the Japanese artist’s Utsutsushi utsushi exhibit at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

In this installation, the artist showed highly provocative and bizarre images in a seemingly public setting. The artist found it quite interesting that although public bathrooms are public spaces, each stall becomes a private space with the division of thin walls. The artist also claimed that the piece was a metaphor for “the virtual space on the internet nowadays” in which people anonymously leave awful and bizarre comments in a somewhat public setting.

For me, what provoked my senses were the portrayals of women. The naked school girl reminded me immediately of child pornography, a popular theme in the Japanese entertainment industry. Often featured in anime and movies, young girls are subjected to the eyes of male obsessors, sometimes coined as Loli-con in Japanese, as sexual goddesses. The fact that the girl in the installation was continuously washing her hair and face, was almost a ritual in hopes of rinsing the impure and the contaminated minds of people.

The injured woman led my mind to the issue of domestic violence. Though there was no men in sight, and the injury was inflicted by the woman’s own mirror reflection, the eerie sense of silence and tolerability in the situation reminds me very much of the DV nature. Most cases of DV are not reported. In some, the wives even deny the abuse and sought to protect their husbands reputation instead of seeking help for themselves. I wonder if Tabaimo was also using her piece to reference the home as a private space, in which outsiders cannot even detect the slight bit of darkness within an abusive household.

Besides the two women, there was another woman who gave birth to a baby through her nose in a bathroom stall. She then deliberately put the newborn on a turtle’s back and flushed it down the toilet, watching it disappear with the roiling waters.

Midway through the video installation, four Japanese kanji characters appeared: 公衆便女 (ko. syu. ben. jyo). Direct translation: public bathroom girls. It is all the more interesting because the final character “女” (jyo) meaning ‘girl’ has the same pronunciation as “所” (jyo), which is the original character that makes up the phrase ‘public bathroom’.

Here, Tabaimo had substitute the character with ‘girl’, making it even more convincing that the artist was referring to the many denouncing and hell-like portrayals of women in society.


More on Tabaimo:

Utsutsushi utsushi Interview, 2016: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_9eRLibjI8

Interview 2009: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WiA3fOEBVi4

Artist Bio: http://www.jamescohan.com/artists/tabaimo/

Art Talk with Curt

Looking at my wall of R + D, collage pages of crinoline, skeletons and Irving Penn’s wife in nude, we started talking.

My art professor Curt congratulated me for Friday’s showcase and asked me how I felt overall. Smiling and nodding to his applaud, I told him I was happy that lots of friends came to support and that I was somewhat satisfied by the final piece.

I expressed that my original plan was to create three pieces, but due to the time constrains, I changed course and decided to create one quality piece instead of three mediocre ones, thus causing a slight disappointment. Curt agreed.

We looked at the wall imagery.

Curt pointed to my sketches and traces of dinosaur skeletons. He expressed that “not to be mean”, but he found the imagery of such sketches to be far more interesting than the actual 3D piece. I was mildly surprised but agreed to his comment in the sculptural context. The sketch had an interconnected skeletal tail as a left arm, collaged onto the dressform, with a jewelry-wired mock up as the torso, acting almost as a tunic, completed by my muse whom I ‘discovered’ from a B&W photograph of a young Victorian-era girl. He said I had leaped out from my boundaries in the collages and sketches and wished I had done so with my 3D piece. I protested that would force me out of the realm of fashion. But again, my work wasn’t exactly a garment.

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In fact, I wasn’t sure how to label my piece. It wasn’t a garment, since it wasn’t wearable. It didn’t have zippers, the proper seam allowances or fasteners, either was it properly sew. It wasn’t a fully developed sculpture either, making me referring it to ‘my work’, shunning all labels. We dived into this identity crisis and dissected the differences between art and design.

On Artist vs. Designer

I asked whether he thinks I’m more of an artist or designer. For sure as an artist, he replied. He pointed at my loose craftsmanship: the fraying black denim ties on boning hoops, the uneven machine stitches, the carefree drapery and unfinished hemlines. I nodded and laughed at my own craftsmanship, but not a bit disgraced.

I revealed and admitted that I am by no means a meticulous crafter. And this is a concern and somewhat obstacle for me since as an aspiring designer, I need to sew and construct functional garments. I shared my experience talking with established designers and their emphasis on technical skills. Curt nodded, agreeing that at the entry level, it is indeed important to gain as many skills as possible, but how I utilize them is another issue.

Curt shared an anecdote about his dreams of becoming a guitar player growing up. Only in high school did he realize he will never become a guitar player because he simply wasn’t good enough. And that was ok. I wondered if that was a cue for me to give up. I wondered if my repeated concerns about identifying as a designer, the insecurities of garment construction and craftsmanship are indicators for me to change goals. I wondered what else will I work towards.

As my thoughts run amok, Curt added that my dilemma will absolve itself through time. And that, it is usually the experiences that change our course of action and not merely thoughts from our head.

I wonder if I can think it through and find what I truly want.

On Wants vs. reality

We highlighted the distinction between ‘what we want to become’ and ‘what we really are’. I thought about social media, arts, advising, research, psychology, fashion design, illustrating, all the disciplines I touched upon but do not master. I thought about what I am actually good at and what I love doing.

I love arts and creative research, concept building and reading references. I love fashion. I love making things that present my thoughts. My thoughts are the backbone and essence of all creations.

In reality, my professional experiences lie in advising, social media and lab research.  I thought of the clashes. I thought of improvements. About my piece, about life.

On Improvements

Critiquing on the actual piece, Curt expressed that within the contexts of fashion, my piece was by far the most interesting compared to previous years, mainly due to the creative research behind it. My heart melted to the compliment. But he also noted that in a gallery context, it is unusual and unnecessary to show sketchbook pages on the walls. It is more interesting to make the audience work through my thought processes on their own and make the piece more interpretive.

It is when the audience gather clues themselves, through their own analysis and arrive at-  the artist’s intended message, that makes an artwork ‘interesting’.

On Life

Curt asked me where I will go from here. Misunderstanding his question, I went on talking about making more pieces for my concept. He meant after graduation. With mild embarrassment, I revealed my exciting and reckless plan of moving to New York City. Curt then shared his NYC travel plans in 2 weeks and how he had already planned out all the galleries and shows to visit. We went crazily excited for a while.

He shook my hand really tightly and wished me luck. I reciprocated the handshake with as much might as I could. He told me that he really enjoyed talking with me in our critiques and really challenged him to think. He said I have a lot of potential and passion and thinks that I will do great in whichever path I chose. Of course, being my usual self, I wonder if he was just being a nice teacher. But, regardless, it will be a lie if I was not feeling pleased.

And with that, I departed from the gallery.

I’m Feelin 22

With a gallery showcase on Friday + Job applications and the usual work + school + research schedule, I didn’t have much time to think about my actual birthday.

Nevertheless, I managed to gather up a small celebration in the very last minute at my favorite Ding Tai Feng. Merging tables with another friend who happens to have the exact bday as me, we indulged in Xiao Long Bao, Pork chop friend rice and a glutinous amount of dessert: a large glass bowl of shave ice topped with tapioca, taro, pudding amount other lovely things and a large red velvet cake, which my sweet gal friend offered with a quick run to QFC.

Everything was lovely. We caught up with each other’s dreams and ridiculousness, laughing like 2 year olds, forgetting all our troubles.

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Bday ootd

The night before my birthday, approximately 20 minutes before midnight, I was scribbling frantically into my diary the goals and aspirations for my new year. Things had turned out better than I hoped for my 21 yr old self, I got my 1st job, 1st internship, 1st study abroad at CSM and many other memorable events. Comparing to the beginning of Junior year, I am a much happier person.

Of course, there is much to learn, much more to reflect upon, more goals to accomplish. But I want my number one goal for this year to be happiness, just pure happiness.

This year will be a critical year for me. I’ll be graduating, moving to NYC, hopefully starting a new job/internship/something. I’ll be discovering and learning what I really want, or what I really don’t want. But despite all, I am just really thankful and reassured with all the good friends and family I have in my life. I know that what happens, they are with me. I hope this doesn’t sound too cheesy.

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From left to right: Future Creative Director, Fashion Designer, Stylist, Journalist
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This Red Velvet Cake is AMAZINGG

The Truth Behind that 10 Dollars Dress

For some reason, the issue of sustainability in fashion has been popping up everywhere in my life lately. Not that I was completely unaware or unconscientious about the issue previously, but for some unseen force of attraction, I have been gravitating towards the topic through multiple informational interviews and fashion podcasts.

Sustainability: To keep a ecosystem or an industry working in such a way that the environment is not depleted in natural resources for the long run.

The conversation sparked in a coffee chat between me and an Art school grad, Peter, who went to NYC to pursue fashion design. My lovely art adviser connected us via email, and the click was almost instant. Peter shared his intern experience in NYC and touched upon the amount of waste produced in the fashion industry and how it has been corrupting the entire ecosystem. He reflected that although clearly he is passionate about fashion, merely designing for the sake of producing collections to sell is not his calling. He suggested me to listen to the American Fashion Podcast during my downtime to learn more.

Listening to his advice, I tuned in the podcast while working over night alone in my studio. An episode featuring Simon Collins, the former Dean of Fashion Design at Parsons, pointed arrows at the vicious cycle of fast fashion.

While Collins is a fan of H&M and a consultant for their sustainability strategies, he reflected that the brand is in no means a savior to the problem. He also mentioned the undeniable convenience of fast fashion for people with lower income (aka. college students).

Fast fashion and cheap clothes has been so ingrained in our daily lives that it is extremely difficult to change our shopping habits at once. Being constantly broke college students, most of us can only fuel our passion for fashion and style through shopping at H&M, Forever 21, Zara and maybe occasionally sale at Aritzia and Nordstrom Rack. We are glad that these stores exist to offer that $10 party dress when we are in need, while we throw the issue of sustainability behind the back of our heads.

So we can’t just blame it on the factories or the designers. We as customers hold responsibility. Bloggers and Influencers who encourage a completely different outfit every 3 hours hold responsibility. We as millennials shopping online excessively just because shipping was free hold responsibility.

So, what can we do?

  1. Well, first thing is the dilemma between NEED vs. WANT.

Ask yourself candidly do you really need a new $20 dress for this party tonight? Or can you move your creative juices and assemble an outfit. Are there at least 3 occasions you can think of wearing this particular garment? Are you impulse buying after work because you spilled coffee all over your MacBook? Are you blindly following trends?

2. Then, while trying the dress at the fitting, ask yourself again.

Does this satin navy mid-calf dress really look that much different from the midnight blue velvet skater dress you bought 2 weeks ago? How is the fit? Are you lying to yourself that maybe after losing 10 pounds, it will fit just right? Does the material even feel nice or does it just look nice and won’t even last 2 machine washes?

3. Lastly as you approach the cashier, think about your depleting savings and poor children.

Your bank account is bleeding. How much you will save by refraining to buy a $20 dress in a year (say, twice a month, then it’s $480! That’s enough for enrolling in a online course at Parsons). Then think one last time about all the crying children in Bangladesh trying to sew up this dress late at night…

Thinking about our shopping habits is just as important as spreading the knowledge about sustainability. After all, every social change start with ourselves. Not everyone is an outspoken activist, not everyone has the platform to express our views, but the littlest thing like not buying a dress can spark unexpected ripple effects in your community and beyond.

Bookstore Nostalgia

As an avid reader, I’m always guilty of buying too many books and not finishing them in years. I think I definitely got this trait from my mom. We will browse bookstores and just get lost in between the shelves while my dad and brother sit nearby playing iPads.

In honor of rectifying my love of books, I wish to introduce some of my favorite bookstores on Earth!

1.Eslite Bookstore —– Taiwan, Hong Kong, Suzhou

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Taipei Dunan Store. Photo: GuidetoTaipei.com
This store is probably my ultimate favorite. The Eslite Bookstores feature books mainly in traditional Chinese but also some sections of English. Besides the large volumes, these stores are famous for supporting emerging brands and young innovators in Taiwan. All stores have stalls of emerging fashion designers, accessories, stationaries and sometimes gallery auctions. The bookstore also include a large array of restaurants and cafes, well designed to contemplate the modern aesthetic.

Every time my mom and I fly over to Taiwan, Eslite is always our must-go destination. We will easily spend an entire day in the store, shopping from clothes to books to music.

Eslite has also opened stores in Hong Kong and Suzhou China. I’ve been to all three locations and still prefer the ones in Taiwan since they feature more emerging designer products along with books.

2. PageOne —– Hong Kong

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Harbour City HK store. Photo: Hongkonghustle.com
Pageone is my childhood. As a English as a second language learner, this is where it sparked my initial love for reading English! Living in Beijing during middle school (2007), there were not as many English books available in the city. Even if there were, the selection were limited and expensive. And mind that online shopping wasn’t that big of a hit yet.

So on holidays back in Hong Kong, I will always go to Pageone and shop for English books. I will roam around the Young adult section, this 3 aisles in the very back of the store, and pick up anything I find remotely interesting. I will choose at least 12 books and narrow them down to about 5 -6 since I simply don’t have the physical means to carry so many back to Beijing. All the while I tend to this extremely important book selecting ritual, my dad will be browsing hifi magazines in a nearby corner.

I remember first buying my copy of Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli at this very store. And also buying my entire set of A Series of Unfortunate Events trip by trip. Every time I will be so excited to read the next volume that I will start reading on the bus ride back to my grandmother’s house for dinner.

Those were memorable times.

Besides the Young adult novel section, I also indulged in the array of design book collections in the store. Pageone is a very strong advocate of design in every aspect and featured some original published books of their own. So it is fair to say that my love for fashion was partly instigated by fashion brand volumes and photography books I flipped through during my formative years.

Unfortunately, the particular Pageone store that served my childhood has recently closed down. But the chain is still active in Beijing and its original location in Singapore.

3. Kinokuniya —– Seattle

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Photo: raketsuban.wordpress.com
Since moving to college, my reading time has significantly truncated. Nevertheless, I still try to indulge in a novel every so often and always go and buy my monthly need of ViVi magazine, my ultimate favorite Japanese fashion magazine on the planet.

Kinokuniya is a Japanese chain bookstore with many locations in the US, Japan and around the world. The Seattle store features a good selection of Japanese, Chinese and English novels as well as a fascinating array of anime products and manga, a much much needed form of relaxation in college. Kinokuniya also has the best Japanese magazine selection in Seattle thus far (well, actually I have not seen any other locations), featuring Vivi, Nylon, Popteen, Seventeen among others.

This is definitely one of my favorite spot in Seattle.

4. Elliot Bay Bookstore —– Seattle

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Photo: Joe Mabel, Wikipedia
Located in Capitol Hill, Elliot Bay Bookstore is filled with the most relaxed and friendliest atmosphere. Usually roaming with sunlight due to the window panes, the wood-decor store is a to-go place for many college students, art enthusiasts and tinder dates.

I always love to wonder around the fashion and photography sections and pick a seat at the nearby wooden tables. After some browsing, I might order a refillable lemonade at the Oddfellows Cafe + Bar and work on creative research.

So tell me, where are your favorite bookstores?