As we already announced, artist Ellen Jong has flown in from New York to set up a mixed-media exhibition in the bomb shelter-turned-experimental space at Basement 6 Collective in Shanghai. We attended the opening reception of the exhibition and were able to do a bit of meditating over our mere existence before having a chat with the artist about her latest works and influences.
Ellen Jong is an American born artist who lives and works in New York City and Upstate NY. Jong’s practice is rooted in conceptual performance and autobiographical themes. Recent mixed media works are shaped by questions about self-awareness and relationships in a world of dualities, desire, isolation, technology, survival and love. New insight into her Asian-American and Chinese roots inform a pseudo-folk language that seeks to bridge old culture with current times. Using photography, text, artist books, sculpture and methods/tools/objects of the vernacular, she has developed a syntax that is driven by a personal narrative.
“Sea Bounds” is Ellen Jong’s first site-specific installation in Shanghai. Using rope and video, the artist uses a confined underground bomb shelter space to engage with and confront several themes that her recent post-photographic work has explored: mortality, her American-born Chinese experience and self-discovery. “Four Foot Eleven and a Half” uses a rope to connect two walls and divide the vertical space at the artist’s height. The rope becomes an obstruction to the space and invites visitors to interact with it. Water basins occupy the space to reflect the water vessels that we too are. A video projection of Jong walking along the parameters of the bomb shelter while marking her height leaves a “waterline” that is both poignant and hopeful. Together, the parts form a work that presents Jong’s desire to be present and empowered yet vulnerable to the water element.
“The understanding that you are here then you’re not here should give you ease.” says Jong. “Water is something that gives me life and is also my death — this line marks my drowning point. These basins are holding water. It’s the smaller ones, the ones that are carrying water that are holding the bigger ones up. It’s the expression of my small body with this pressure and water being the element that keeps it together.” she continues explaining. “It’s very new; I want to explore this more. This is the first installation of this kind.”
We were also curious to hear about her photography. While she is mainly known as a photographer, you won’t see her images showcased in Shanghai. “I’m still shooting and all of my work in mixed media involves photography. I first start shooting and then I start making things, then I write and it all comes together. I always make photography. It’s the way I see — I don’t really understand something until I shoot it. It’s like an extension of my eyes.”
Her next book is called “Serpent on the Mount”: “I already took photos, I collaborated with a performance artist and another writer and I did the rope sculptures and I took photos. And it’s about how to be a good person, how to be happy and how to perform life; it’s a secular and non-secular book about happiness.” Serpent on the Mount is a play based on the longest piece of moral teaching from Jesus in the New Testament. The serpent, one of the oldest mythological symbols with dual expressions of good and evil, is used here to challenge the bible’s codes of ethics. There is life, and all the good and bad that comes with it. Conflict is inevitable, the most valuable conflicts possibly being the ones that exist within your self.
Jong has been frequently visiting Shanghai for the past decade, and we asked her how she sees Shanghai as a host for her exhibition. “I think it’s very intimidating because it’s a very fast city and it’s growing very rapidly and there’s a lot of work here, a lot of talent and also a lot of money and business; and you think you’re good, but there’s always someone better. I think at one time, as a foreigner you had some advantage, but now, as a local you have more advantage. There’s more power and strength to artists who work from here, they have more chances to explore and to express themselves — to really be artists. It’s very competitive and I think this a very good thing! It’s very exciting to be here! I’d love to be here more.”
Jong’s parents had a strong influence on her career path, so we asked about her Asian/Chinese heritage revealed in her works.
“My first art classes were Chinese painting, my father’s first love is Chinese calligraphy, so me and my sisters all went to painting classes and by the time I was three years old I had a Chinese brush in my hands and I was painting. I always thought of myself as an American artist, but just until recently I started realizing that I’m not just an American artist. My first influence was at home: we spoke Chinese, we study Chinese art, we eat Chinese food. I’m definitely Chinese so I wanted to tap into that. Maybe I took all these pictures of me peeing everywhere [http://www.ellenjong.com/] because I was trying to find who I am, find some kind of identity in this place, because you don’t always fit in, especially not in New York, where everyone is different. I think at that time I thought: I’m not American, I’m not Chinese, all my sisters are different, my parents are from different countries, (my father is Indonesian, my mother is Taiwanese). Since my work is so personal, I think it’s important that I discuss my culture and explore it. I know that my experience is not the same as another Chinese-American. It’s very interesting for me because I love to tell stories so this is a story. Some of it is really based on fact and some of it is what it means for me. “
“Sea Bounds” is still on at Basement 6 Collective until Tuesday, March 25th. You can meet Ellen today, from 12 – 7 p.m. at the exhibition and on Monday or Tuesday by appointment only.
Basement6: Building 6 basement, 1643 Huashan Lu, near HuaiHai Zhong Lu
By Andreea Dragut
[Images by Andreea Dragut]