Francesca Wilmott on Cathy Lu

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“Interior Garden,” Cathy Lu’s exhibition here, offers a temporary respite from the empty promises of the American dream. Nestled on the third floor of the Hilton San Francisco Financial District hotel—a Brutalist monolith that borders the city’s Chinatown—Lu’s project is aptly served by the location. Four interconnected installations, all developed over the past two years, hug a corridor of floor-to-ceiling windows. The artist based each sculptural arrangement on elements commonly found in traditional Chinese gardens: rocks, waterfalls, ponds, and borrowed scenery. Together, Lu’s works demonstrate the porous boundary between interiority and exteriority.

The exhibition opens with Pile, 2022, a heap of scorched and misshapen clinker bricks Lu salvaged during a 2017 residency with San Francisco waste-management provider Recology. Visible on the exteriors of Chinatown’s oldest buildings today, such materials date from the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake and fire, when the Chinese community rapidly rebuilt the neighborhood from the rubble as developers closed in. Since 2011, Lu has cast ceramic fruit to represent cultural hybridity and resilience. Scattered among the debris, Lu’s overripe gourds, persimmons, and bitter melons appear to melt into the amorphous bricks, belying the hard reality of her inedible harvest. Born in Miami to a family of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants, Lu frequented Asian markets as a child, noticing that even though certain climates within the United States provided conditions for foreign produce to grow and thrive, mainstream grocery stores failed to carry it. Encircling the wreckage, five shiny porcelain traffic cones remind us of the insidious boundaries that continue to confine Asian American communities.

Peripheral Vision, 2022, comprises fourteen pairs of large ceramic eyes that curator Hoi Leung describes as “the artist’s eyes, Nai Nai’s eyes, Ruth Asawa’s eyes, the Yellow Power Ranger’s eyes.” The giant oculi become a constellation across the gallery’s three cobalt walls, reflecting shared experiences of hypervisibility and invisibility among Asian American women. Yellow-onion water spills from the inner corner of the eyes into food-storage containers, garbage bins, and other makeshift receptacles. Plastic piping in each repository returns the water to the outer corner of each eye, supplying an endless stream of tears. Beneath the window, benches invite visitors to experience Lu’s multisensory installation at length. Her seemingly provisional system—a reconfiguration of a Chinese garden waterfall—actually requires careful balance and autonomy. Each set of eyes and its corresponding container is self-sustaining. Not one vessel overflows.

Drain, 2022, is a more understated installation made up of a large rectangular basin propped up by concrete blocks. Water bubbles up from an interior reservoir through twelve gold drains, creating a shallow reflecting pool. Lu’s sculpture recalls Robert Gober’s drains, created during the AIDS epidemic in response to unfounded allegations of poor hygiene directed at gay communities. Roughly thirty years later, amid another global health crisis, Lu’s piece addresses the baseless fear and violence directed toward Chinese Americans during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Chinese gardens traditionally frame awe-inspiring “borrowed scenery,” such as a distant mountain. Visitors conclude their journey from the earthly to the spiritual realms of Lu’s exhibition with Nüwa, the mother goddess who mythologically molded humans from yellow clay. Lu’s sculpture of the deity, a suspended serpentine form covered in gold peach pits—a symbol of immortality and longevity—culminates in elongated, banana-like fingers that meet us just above eye level.

In contrast to Lu’s exquisite ceramic figure, cinder blocks covered with blue shipping blankets share the space next to the gallery window. At the top of each daybed, ceramic headrests from Lu’s ongoing “American Dream Pillows” series, 2020–, invite visitors to recline and imagine their own interior gardens. On one pillow, three white-porcelain cockroaches peer out from a pile of rotten bananas, a reminder of the vile stereotype used to describe Asian American people. Based on Song and Tang dynasty headrests that promised life-altering dreams, Lu’s “American Dream Pillows” forestall hopes of transcendence. We exit the exhibition as we entered: past the reflecting pond, the waterfall, and the pile of bricks; through the Hilton lobby; and back into our own disturbed and disorienting reality.

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